Health & Medicine

He lost 400 pounds; now Richmond man inspires others to reach their goals

Rick Brewer moves to Neil Burns' new aerobic workout called Beastmode, at First Step Fitness in Richmond, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013.  
Photo by Tim Webb
Rick Brewer moves to Neil Burns' new aerobic workout called Beastmode, at First Step Fitness in Richmond, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013. Photo by Tim Webb LEXINGTON HERALD-LEADER

RICHMOND — When Jon Rawlins shuffled into First Step Fitness a week and a half ago, Neil Burns flashed back to what his own life was once like.

Rawlins, 26, uses a walker to get around.

Friends call and ask about getting together, but he turns them down; he's exhausted after taking a shower and getting ready to go out.

"Since about 2009, I've been basically a hermit," he said.

Rawlins weighs 686 pounds, and that's why he sought help from Burns, who once weighed 680 pounds.

It was about three years ago that Burns stepped onto a scale and decided he had to make some changes. Burns has since lost 400 pounds.

The 6-foot-4 man who once had to rest for 20 minutes after just two minutes of pedaling a recumbent bike now plans to run a 5K. He also has become a personal trainer.

Burns made such progress through sheer determination, a gym membership and a plan to cut calories and eat better. Now, he is trying to use his experience to help Rawlins and anyone else who wants his help.

"It was like looking into a mirror three years ago," Burns said of his first meeting with Rawlins.

Rawlins is among Burns' 33 clients with long weight-loss journeys ahead. Several of Burns' clients have much more than 100 pounds to lose.

For Butch and Janie Kirby, the weight complicates their diabetes management. For Jared Webb, it means he gets worn out just carrying in the groceries. Theresa Anderson's weight, combined with arthritis, put her in a wheelchair.

Burns, 45, says his clients find in him someone who knows their struggle. He once had to drive around the gym parking lot, waiting for the spot closest to the door to open so that he would have enough energy to get inside.

Burns now weighs 275 pounds and has bulked up his muscles through daily weight-lifting sessions.

"I've been through it," he said. "They don't feel embarrassed or pressured."

Burns is not certified as a trainer, but he said he does have insurance.

He charges $30 a person for each training session, or $20 a person if two or more people participate.

In addition to individual training sessions, he leads multiple group Beastmode classes each week. That's Burns' own brand of cardiovascular exercise, set to music.

The hardest workers go home with a heavyweight belt and an oversize sheriff's badge. Winners have been known to taunt their exercise partners on Facebook.

It's "a bragging-rights type thing," Burns said.

And everybody gets a nickname.


Rawlins, who is 6 feet tall, was always big, but he was athletic. He loved playing pickup basketball with friends.

"I had a social life," he said.

By the time Rawlins, who is from Irvine, graduated from high school in 2005, he weighed 500 pounds.

He attended Bluegrass Community and Technical College in hopes of becoming a radiologist.

But then he hurt his back, and a series of setbacks ensued that caused his weight to balloon.

"It just kept getting worse and worse 'til I couldn't sit," he said of the back pain.

There also were knee problems that stemmed from a leg that has been crooked for as long as he can remember.

Rawlins left school after three semesters and began staying home with his mother, who was ill at the time.

"I didn't leave the house," he said. "I would go two or three weeks without ever walking outside."

The pounds continued to accumulate.

Rawlins spent months in hospitals and nursing homes last year after knee surgery complications developed that almost caused him to lose his leg.

"I was bedridden for about 95 days," he said.

One day, a therapist at the Irvine nursing home where he last stayed brought in a newspaper article about Burns.

"I read it and thought it was amazing," Rawlins said.

He began talking to his parents about finding a way to work with Burns.

On Jan. 19, the day he left the nursing home to move back home, Rawlins said, his parents picked him up from the nursing home and drove him straight to First Step Fitness, 2187 Lexington Road, suite 17, in Richmond.

He and Burns talked for hours. Rawlins and his parents returned last Saturday.

Rawlins' father, Kenny Rawlins, waited in the lobby at the gym as his son did a group workout while sitting on a bench, a five-pound weight in each hand.

"Go, Transformer," Burns cheered, invoking Rawlins' new nickname as members of the group lifted their arms and twisted their torsos to Raise the Roof. "Keep going! Keep going!"

"I'm hoping he can get the weight down," Kenny Rawlins said. "He wants to lose the weight."

He said that when the family goes out to eat, they eat in the car. "It's miserable," he said.

Jon Rawlins said he's cutting his caloric intake and has ditched diet sodas in favor of flavored water. He's started to track what he eats in a food journal.

After just a week of eating better and exercising, he said can tell a difference already.

His arms are sore after a workout.

"I feel my stomach's gone down a little bit," he said.

Looking across the room at Burns, Rawlins said, "I want to lose as much as he did."

But he'd be happy just to lose the walker he uses to get around most of the time.

"I'd love to be able to lose enough to take some pressure off my leg," he said.

"I'd love to walk around the house with a cane."

'Butch Cassidy' and 'Speedy'

Butch and Janie Kirby have been married nearly 37 years, which Butch Kirby says is how long he's been on his weight-gaining journey.

Both of them have a sweet tooth, and over the years the pounds crept up gradually.

Butch Kirby, 58, is a retired fire-prevention educator with the Madison County Fire Department. He weighed 456 pounds when, at the encouragement of his family, he decided to begin working out at the start of this year.

Janie, 56, works in the accounting department at the local hospital and had gotten up to 215.

Both have developed diabetes.

The couple went to Burns to lose weight together. They have been doing Beastmode three nights a week and working out with Burns three other nights.

"It's a lot of fun," Butch Kirby, or "Butch Cassidy," as Burns calls him, said of the Beastmode workouts.

For now, he sits on a bench at the back of the room, energetically moving his arms and legs to the music during the group sessions.

He's down 31 pounds after his first three weeks of exercising, and he's able to walk nearly half a mile on a treadmill.

Janie Kirby, aka "Speedy" thanks to Burns, is burning up the carpet.

Last Saturday, she took home the giant foil sheriff's badge and heavyweight belt after a Beastmode workout in which Burns had promised to reward whoever could beat him in burning the most calories. Speedy burned 1,215 calories compared to Burns' 1,176.

Janie Kirby's biggest motivation: getting off the insulin shot she takes each night.

She'd also like to drop about 50 pounds.

"I just need to get back healthy again," she said.


Jared Webb, 43, said the pounds began to creep up on him when he switched to a more sedentary job as a water company field supervisor. He also really likes cheese.

"I put cheese on cheese," he joked.

Webb says he loves mayonnaise and Mountain Dew and Ale 8 — enough to drink a case a day. And, to make matters worse, "My wife's an excellent cook," he said.

Webb, who got the nickname "Duke" from his father when he was a boy, has known Burns since he was in fifth grade and Burns was in sixth.

He said he turned to Burns for weight-loss assistance when he realized his health was endangered by the 437 pounds he was carrying.

"It got to the point where I started feeling bad," Webb said. "I need to take care of my wife."

Webb is trying to change his bad habits. For example, he has cut his soda intake to three Mountain Dews and one Sprite a day. He has replaced sliced bread with pita pockets, eliminated cheese and mayo from his diet, and is reading the calorie counts on his breakfast burritos.

It's not easy.

"I miss pizza and cheeseburgers," Webb said recently. But he lost seven pounds his first week and 11 the next.

"I feel better than I did, but I've got a long way to go," Webb said. "I just pray that I stay in it."


Theresa Anderson said her weight began to balloon after she had children.

"I let myself go," she said.

Then came debilitating arthritis in her hips and troublesome sleep apnea.

For years, Anderson said, her routine was pretty much the same.

"I'd get up, come down the steps, sit in one spot just about all day," she said. "All this weight was just keeping me down."

Anderson said that at 330 pounds, everyday tasks such as cleaning and shopping were difficult.

Last year, she heard about Burns.

"I thought, 'The same things he's going through, I'm going through,'" she said.

When she finally visited the gym to meet him in November, she came in a wheelchair.

In addition to exercising at home, she started attending Beastmode classes three times a week and doing workouts with Burns on Mondays and Wednesdays.

At first, she was always seated. Now, Anderson has progressed to standing for some of the Beastmode workouts.

She has replaced her wheelchair with canes, which she's been known to throw to the floor in a show of determination.

By the end of summer, Anderson wants to be rid of the canes.

"She works so hard," Burns said of the woman he calls Taz.

She has lost 63 pounds in two months and hopes to lose 100.

"I'm beginning to feel a lot better," Anderson said.

Her self-confidence has soared.

"I always was shy about going to a gym. I was afraid everybody was going to look at me," she said. "You know what? I think I've got enough confidence now to walk into any gym I want to."

She already has tested that.

Recently, she began going to the pool at the YMCA for exercises to help her arthritis. The first few times, she said, staff members strapped her to a lift and lowered her into the pool.

Anderson wasn't satisfied.

"I said, 'I'm going to walk down these steps.'"

And she did.

"I'm going to be all right," Anderson said. "I'm going to climb this mountain."


We're a month into 2013, so tell us how you're doing with your New Year's resolutions. Was your goal was to quit smoking, lose weight, save more money or a personal goal unique to you? Are you keeping your promises? And if you are, what's keeping you motivated? We want to hear from you. Contact Herald-Leader reporter Karla Ward at

Editor's note: This is the first part of a series that will follow people's efforts to stick with their 2013 goals or New Year's resolutions. The stories will run throughout the year.

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