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Helen Costa-Giles starts her days like a race car getting off the starting line. By 5:30 a.m., she’s in full throttle, doing wind sprints in her driveway and barking exercise orders to her neighbors.

While a nearby park or bar might be the usual meetup spot for a neighborhood community, for this San Antonio suburb, the spot to be is Costa-Giles’ garage at 5 a.m. This is where Costa-Giles, for the past four years, has hosted free workout gatherings. Sometimes, as few as two people show up, sometimes more than 20. On this day in mid-January, almost 20 arrive.

“People are working on their New Year’s resolutions.” Costa-Giles explains.

There’s no secret sauce that makes her workouts special. She just happened to be the one to put out the invitation.

“It doesn’t need to be a fancy gym. It doesn’t need to be a special program. It just needs to be people.”

Helen Costa-Giles weighed 220 pounds at her heaviest.
Helen Costa-Giles weighed 220 pounds at her heaviest.
PHOTO: Courtesy Helen Costa-Giles

A dire warning

But before Costa-Giles was rounding up her workout warriors for predawn planks, she was in a much different place and weight.

Standing at 5 feet tall, Costa-Giles weighed 220 pounds in 2014, when her doctor delivered a dire warning.

“He had showed me all of my blood work with my LDL, my cholesterol, my sugar, everything was off the charts. And when I asked the doctor, ‘Is this just hereditary?’ And he’s like, ‘No, honey, this is all food related.’”

Her doctor said she was heading for a life of chronic illness if she didn’t change her diet and health. That’s when the “fear set in.”

The mother of two began re-evaluating her eating habits and worrying about the lifestyles she and her husband were passing down to their sons.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta introduces you to people who have overcome medical challenges and, by following their passions, have made bold changes in their lives.
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“I worked two jobs and just started to live a life of convenience. I was starting to put a lot of junk in my body. I would come home from work and ask my two boys to sit on the couch with me and watch a movie. There was zero activity in my life at that point.”

When she got home from the doctor’s appointment, the first thing she did was purge the house of all processed foods. When she was finished, they were left with almost nothing. “I couldn’t believe how much processed food we had and the stuff I thought was healthy. That was a huge awakening for me.”

Eager to get started on new eating habits, the family began spending Sundays prepping meals for the week with fresh ingredients. Omelets, smoothies and vegetables started replacing all the processed food that used to make up most of their meals.

Within six months, Costa-Giles says she lost 60 pounds just by changing her diet.

But she wasn’t satisfied.

During her weight loss journey, Costa-Giles began taking weekly photos to monitor her progress. By the time she dropped 60 pounds, she started to think that maybe she was a little too lean.

“I didn’t exercise my first six months. I didn’t have the confidence. But once I lost the weight, I was like, ‘Oh, I kind of look like Gumby. I probably should start working out.’ “

That’s when she decided to reach out for a little neighborly motivation.

Helen Costa-Giles and her husband before and after getting fit.
Helen Costa-Giles and her husband before and after getting fit.
PHOTO: Courtesy Helen Costa-Giles

Sweat squad

“I put a post on my neighborhood Facebook and said ‘Hey, anybody want to work out with me at 4 a.m.?’ And people said yes! I had a few people come, and then the next day they came again. I started to realize they need me as much as I need them.”

Word spread, and more and more people showed up for the early workouts. For Costa-Giles and her neighbors, it added an element of accountability and community.

“Having somebody there next to you and having somebody on the same journey with you is really powerful. I think once you help somebody else in their own health journey, it does a lot for you.”

Now 40 years old, Costa-Giles says she is the fittest and healthiest she’s ever been and has lost a total of 90 pounds. It’s a journey that she hopes will continue for a long time to come.

“It doesn’t matter what I look like in a bikini. When I get my results back from my doctor every year, that’s the most exciting thing because I know that I’m going to live longer and I’m going to be around for my kids.”