RICHMOND — Twenty-one months ago, Neil Burns bought a couple of scales.
It had been about 10 years since he had last weighed himself, because most scales didn't go high enough. These did.
Burns weighed 680 pounds.
"I was in denial," he said. "A feather could've knocked me over."
That day in April 2010 marked a turning point for Burns.
Since then, he's lost 358 pounds — all through exercise and dietary changes.
Burns, 44, said he was determined to lose the weight his way — without using pills, surgery or related aids.
"Obviously, it works," he said. "Just working hard and eating right."
He weighs 322 pounds now.
Burns has given himself three months to lose 42 more pounds to reach his goal of losing 400 pounds in two years.
At 6-foot-4 and with a broad, muscular build, Burns said he isn't sure he's "got 42 pounds of fat left, but I'm going to try."
Burns said he was always the "chunky kid" in school.
"When you're a little kid, everybody makes fun of you," he said. "Kids would say bad things."
That led to fights that frequently landed him in the principal's office and earned him a nickname that has stuck: Bruiser.
Burns played football during middle and high school, and for one year of college.
But in his early 20s, Burns said he started packing on the pounds, and the problem escalated after a divorce.
For 10 years, he said, he weighed more than 600 pounds.
"I was so bad, just brushing my teeth I'd be out of breath," he said.
Walking 15 feet was a challenge. He said "all the fat inside me, pushing against my lungs" made it hard to breath.
"People stare at you," he said. "You can be tough all you want to, but it kind of gives you a ... complex."
When he decided to start working out nearly two years ago, Burns said he had to circle the parking lot at the gym and go back later if the spot closest to the door wasn't open — simply walking from his truck to the exercise machines got him winded.
Those memories still haunt him.
On a recent trip to Wal-Mart, he said he found himself thinking that if he got too tired from walking around the store, he could always sit down on the benches in front of the pharmacy.
Of course, he didn't need to.
"I've still got that phobia about walking," Burns said. "It's a struggle. The mental part is so hard."
But those memories are the motivation he uses to keep working.
"When I look in the mirror, I still see the same guy" who weighed 680 pounds, he said.
But he no longer eats like that guy.
Before he changed his habits, Burns said he ate an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 calories a day.
A typical breakfast at Dairy Queen would consist of biscuits and gravy, bacon, scrambled eggs and an order of "ultimate hash browns."
For lunch, Burns said he would occasionally go to McDonald's and order a 20-piece order of chicken McNuggets, a Double Quarter Pounder meal and a few double cheeseburgers.
For dinner, Burns said he might eat an entire 18-inch meat-lover's pizza "and still be hungry."
Burns still eats out many of his meals, but he's more selective.
He eats 1,600 to 2,000 calories a day, depending on how active he'll be. And he's eating healthier.
A typical day's meals and snacks might include two protein shakes, a protein bar, a Quaker Oat bar, a V-8 drink; for lunch a six-inch turkey sub with baby spinach and lettuce, and three pieces of grilled chicken with baby spinach for dinner.
Saturdays are his "cheat days," when he might allow himself a cheeseburger or some barbecue sauce with his grilled chicken.
"The guilt gets to me," he said.
His exercise routine is strict too.
Burns works out two or three times a day, six days a week.
He said his initial workouts at the Richmond Athletic Club were painfully short.
All he could do was ride the stationary bike, and after about two minutes on it, "I was hurting. I mean big time pain," he said.
So for the first week, Burns said he would ride for two minutes, then spend about 20 minutes recovering, only to be able to ride for about 30 seconds more afterward.
But gradually, his stamina improved.
Because he was embarrassed for people to see him exercising, Burns said he started going to the gym at 5:30 each morning to lift weights, a routine he has continued.
"I love it," he said. "It gets my metabolism going."
Last May, when he still weighed 500 pounds, Burns said he decided to try Zumba.
"I hated it," he said. "My body hurt so bad."
But he kept going, and he said Zumba has played a "huge" role in his weight loss.
The calorie counter on his watch showed that he had burned 948 calories during a 57-minute Zumba class on Monday night.
"I love it," he said. "Everything else I do now cardio-wise is boring."
Burns recently earned a Zumba trainer's certificate, allowing him to instruct classes.
"It is amazing to me that he started out in the back of the room hiding, and now he's advanced all the way up to the stage," said Onieta Stewart, who teaches Zumba and co-owns the Richmond Athletic Club where Burns works out. "I'm so proud of him."
Stewart said Burns' range of motion has noticeably improved since joining Zumba, and he has become more outgoing.
And she said he is touching others' lives as well.
"His story reaches people that really, really need it," she said. "It's a life or death thing for them."
Burns has made his livelihood in the construction industry as a backhoe operator, but he's hoping his story can become a springboard to a new career in motivational speaking.
He recently started a Web site, Burnsweightloss.com, set up a YouTube channel where he posts motivational videos and is using Facebook and Twitter to spread his message. He's even working on a line of merchandise under the name Bruiserwear.
His 16-year-old son, Taylor, said he's enjoying being able to go out and do things with his dad that they weren't able to do before.
"He used to just kind of sit around a lot," Taylor said. "He's more active."
"I was just trying to save my life," Burns said. "I'll never go back."