Facebook is a Chicago restaurateur’s special ingredient to lose 120 pounds. Now he uses the platform to help others. “We all deserve a healthy life.”

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The origin from Robert Magiet’s life-changing Facebook group kicks off 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 lack of exercise had put him at 410 pounds — so heavy it was difficult to walk, let alone keep up with his 1-year-old.

The worst moment came towards the end of the trip, when he accidentally broke the metal frame of a guest bed. When he offered to pay, his host, Cindy Maguire, waved him off.

“I said, ‘I’ve been thinking about it and I don’t want you to pay me back in dollars,'” she recalls. “I want you to pay me back in pounds. The cost is £50.’ ”

That inspired Magiet to pursue a new way of life. He dropped a soda habit that had led him to consume the equivalent of 30 to 40 cans a day. He ate less, chewed more and swam countless yards on his home rowing machine.

As his weight dropped and his health improved, he began to think about how to keep up the momentum and perhaps encourage others to join him. The vehicle he settled on was Facebook.

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“Just knowing how I was starting to feel, if I could help someone in my community or anywhere else, 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 “Taking Control of Our Health One Day at a Time” group has grown to more than 1,000 members. Some are friends or acquaintances of Magiet, but most are complete strangers who report on their efforts and are greeted with a torrent of confirmation.

“It’s really great to have the local support,” said Clare Longfellow, 38, who lives in the Logan Square neighborhood, where many of the participants come from. “It’s also nice that I can just let people know, ‘You’re doing great and I’m in your corner.’ ”

Dangers of restaurant life

Magiet grew up in the food industry. His parents owned a deli and restaurant in the suburbs of Chicago, and after college he was drawn to work himself. Today he is a partner at The StopAlong, a pizza and burger joint in Wicker Park.

But the industry may not be the ideal career for weight management. While youthful exercise initially offset his sweet tooth, restaurant life gave him unlimited access to a soda fountain. Gradually, his ambition led him to neglect his own well-being.

“It was definitely not stress related because I really enjoy what I do,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed of creating a huge, great concept. I always worked extra hard to prove to the owners I worked for that I was capable of so much more. So I’ve probably put my personal life and my health on the back seat a lot.”

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He tried to boost his fitness by going to the gym, but it never lasted. Meanwhile, his weight continued to increase. He became so heavy that he could not play basketball with his children or tie his shoes without the help of his wife. When it snowed, he needed the neighbors’ help to get his car out.

That unfortunate trip to Louisville, cut off by the broken bed frame, prompted him to make changes. He stopped eating at night, concentrated on chewing his food slowly, and cut back far on sweet treats and drinks.

“Every now and then I’ll grab a can (soda), take a sip, and think, ‘What the hell am I doing?’ before I throw the can in the trash,” he said.

He also persevered on his rowing machine, despite being so out of shape at first that he couldn’t lock himself into the footpegs. Today, he routinely does 30-minute sessions.

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Magiet is a Chicago community man who, among other good deeds, has bought the inventory of tamale sellers 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 when 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 every month and say, ‘I’m going to do 23 rows this month,’ and if I don’t, I hope other people will say, ‘Well, Robert, why don’t you have that? done? do it?’ ”

The buddy system

dr. Diana Plata, an obesity physician at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights, said Magiet’s Facebook page is the modern version of the buddy system, which has proven effective in producing weight loss for decades.

“Shared goals are usually more attainable than individual goals,” she said.

But she cautioned that people need to make sure that camaraderie doesn’t become an unproductive equation. That’s a particular danger online, she said, where people who don’t know each other may not understand the circumstances that make some lose weight faster than others.

(Antonio Perez / TSWT)

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, she felt he was the motivator she needed to help her lose weight. She went to a gym and became a frequent poster, uploading selfies from the treadmill or elliptical machine.

“Good morning, I’m back,” she wrote in a recent emoji-laden entry. “I missed you guys!!! How are you? I’ve been following the progress on this page, you’ve all been spying 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 her stay on her feet.

“Being in that gym isn’t just for me,” she said. “We encourage each other because Robert brought this page together.”

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Magiet said his weight is now below 290 pounds and is getting closer to his goal of 230 pounds. He can play basketball, shovel snow and go down a waterslide, and he can almost buy clothes in stores that are not for the big and small.

His stamina has improved to such an extent that he spends weekends with Lollapalooza swinging burgers at a food stall in Grant Park. Then he wants to run a mile in under 8 minutes.

“We all deserve to live healthy, active and long lives and spend time with our family and our friends,” he said. “That’s the whole point of the group in the end.”

As for his debt about the broken bed, it’s been paid in full and then some.

“I’m just amazed and so proud of him,” Maguire said. “He had the drive. He always says I’ve helped him so much, but he’s it all.”

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Twitter @JohnKeilman

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