September 26, 2022

Liam, 2, watches his father Robert Magiet as he puts himself through 30 minutes of strenuous exercise on his rowing machine at their Chicago home on July 29, 2022. The Chicago restaurateur’s unhealthy lifestyle caused his weight to soar over 400 pounds but since last year he has lost over 100 pounds through healthier eating and exercise. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
The origin of Robert Magiet’s life-changing Facebook group starts with an undeniable moment of clarity.
The 45-year-old Chicago restaurateur was visiting friends in Louisville last October when his obesity turned what should have been a fun family outing into a nightmare. Poor eating habits and a lack of exercise had taken him to 410 pounds — so heavy it was hard to walk, let alone keep up with his 1-year-old child.
The worst moment came toward the end of the trip, when he accidentally cracked the metal frame of a guest bed. When he offered to pay, his host, Cindy Maguire, waved him off.
“I said, ‘I thought about it and I don’t want you to repay me in dollars,’ ” she recalled. ‘“I want you to repay me in pounds. The cost is 50 pounds.’ ”
That inspired Magiet to pursue a new way of living. He dropped a soda habit that had led him to consume the equivalent of 30 to 40 cans daily. He ate less, chewed more and cranked off countless meters on his home rowing machine.
As his weight dropped and his health improved, he started to think about how he could keep his momentum going and maybe encourage others to join him. The vehicle he settled on was Facebook.
“Just knowing how I started to feel, if I could possibly help anyone at all in my community or anywhere, I wanted to do it,” he said. “So I started a group and, you know, I think it’s been pretty successful.”
In just over four months, the group, “Taking Control of our Health One Day at a Time,” has grown to more than 1,000 members. Some are Magiet’s friends or acquaintances, but most are total strangers who post about their efforts and are greeted with a shower of affirmation.
“It’s really great to have the local support,” said Clare Longfellow, 38, who lives in the Logan Square neighborhood from which many participants hail. “It’s also nice that I’m able to just let people know, ‘You’re doing great and I’m in your corner.’ ”
Perils of restaurant life
Magiet grew up around the food business. His parents owned a deli and a restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, and he gravitated to the work himself after college. Today he’s a partner in The StopAlong, a pizza and burger spot in Wicker Park.
But the industry might not be the ideal career for weight management. Though youthful exercise initially compensated for his sweet tooth, restaurant life gave him unlimited access to a soda fountain. Gradually, his ambition prompted him to disregard his own well-being.
Chicago restaurateur Robert Magiet helps run the Epic Burger stand at Lollapalooza on July 28, 2022. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)
“It definitely wasn’t stress-related because I truly enjoy what I do,” he said. “I always dreamed about creating some huge, amazing concept. I’ve always worked extra hours to try to prove to the owners I was working for that I was capable of doing so much more. So I probably did put my personal life and my health in the back seat a lot of times.”
He attempted to jump-start his fitness through visits to the gym, but that never lasted. Meanwhile, his weight continued to climb. He became so heavy he couldn’t play basketball with his kids or tie his shoes without his wife’s assistance. When it snowed, he needed neighbors’ help to shovel out his car.
That unhappy trip to Louisville, capped off by the broken bed frame, prompted him to make changes. He stopped eating at night, focused on slowly chewing his food and cut way back on sugary treats and beverages.
“Every now and then I grab a can (of soda), take a sip and think, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ before I throw the can in the garbage,” he said.
He also persevered on his rowing machine despite being so out of shape at the start that he couldn’t strap into the foot rests. Today, he routinely puts in 30-minute sessions.
Magiet is a community-minded Chicagoan who, among other good deeds, has bought out the inventory of tamale vendors so they can go home early and he can distribute the food to the homeless. But while he started the Facebook group to encourage others, he said, he also wanted to hold himself accountable.
“I know that if I say I’m going to do something, I don’t want to let people down,” he said. “It’s easy for me to start off each month and say, ‘I’m going to do 23 rows this month,’ and if I don’t do it hope other people will say, ‘Well, Robert, why didn’t you do it?’ ”
The buddy system
Dr. Diana Plata, an obesity medicine physician at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, said Magiet’s Facebook page is the modern version of the buddy system, which for decades has proven effective in producing weight loss.
“Shared goals tend to be more attainable than individual goals,” she said.
But she cautioned that people should make sure camaraderie does not turn into unproductive comparison. That’s a particular danger online, she said, where people who don’t know each other might not have insight into the circumstances that allow some to lose weight faster than others.
Robert Magiet on his rowing machine at home in Chicago on July 29, 2022. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)
Group member Sonia Latrice Brown, 50, has kept the right perspective. She knew Magiet from his work in the neighborhoods, and when she came across his Facebook page, felt he was the motivator she needed to help her lose weight. She joined a gym and became a frequent poster, uploading selfies from the treadmill or elliptical machine.
“Good morning I’m back,” she wrote in one recent, emoji-laden entry. “I’ve missed you guys!!! How’s everyone doing? I’ve been watching the progress on this page, you all have been sizzling on me. Well, your girl is back and better!”
The post got 20 likes and hearts. In an interview, she said the positive reinforcement has helped keep her going.
“Being in that gym is not just for me,” she said. “We encourage each other because Robert brought this page together.”
Paid in full
Magiet said his weight is now below 290 pounds, growing ever-nearer to his goal of 230 pounds. He can play basketball, shovel snow and go down a waterslide, and he’s getting close to being able to shop for clothes in stores that aren’t dedicated to the big and tall.
His endurance has improved enough that he spent Lollapalooza weekend slinging hamburgers at a Grant Park food stand. Next, he wants to run a mile in less than 8 minutes.
“We all deserve to live a healthy, active, long life and spend time with our family and our friends,” he said. “That’s ultimately the whole point of the group.”
As for his debt over the broken bed, it has been paid in full and then some.
“I am just astonished and so proud of him,” Maguire said. “He had the drive. He always says I helped him so much, but it’s all him.”
jkeilman@chicagotribune.com
Twitter @JohnKeilman
Copyright © 2022, Chicago Tribune
Copyright © 2022, Chicago Tribune

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