Slim for most of her life, Peggy Pullen put on weight due to medical complications during her first pregnancy.
“I had five infections and I was bedridden for the last three months of my pregnancy, so I started gaining weight,” Pullen, 48, tells PEOPLE. “With my second child, I gained even more weight and went up to 240 lbs. I guess I just stopped caring because I was in survival mode, trying to take care of my children and recover from my sickness.”
After having two more kids, Pullen could not seem to lose the baby weight, no matter how hard she tried.
“I would hear infomercials about different diets and other solutions, and I tried everything that I saw on TV,” says the 5’3″ mom. “I felt lost because I wasn’t losing weight. Now that I know what I know through bodybuilding, I know that diets don’t work because they make you skinny fat — you don’t gain muscle. The more muscle you have, the more fat you burn. I would lose 10 to 15 lbs. with a diet, and then gain that back and more.”
In 2014, Pullen — then 200 lbs. — was at a pool with her family when another child called her a hippopotamus. Although the comment was humiliating, it sparked a renewed desire in Pullen to lose weight for good.
“It was in front of my children,” she says of why the comment was so hurtful. “They all have been bullied, and I always talk about believing in themselves, and here I was being bullied in front of them. It was horrible. I went home and cried a lot, but I realized kids learn from what you do, not what you say — and that’s what kept me pushing.”
After limited success through dieting, Pullen changed her focus to exercise and began bodybuilding. Not knowing where to start, she turned to Arnold Schwarzenegger for inspiration.
“I was trying to build muscle and Arnold Schwarzenegger is the king of bodybuilding,” she says. “I started watching some of his motivational videos and using his workout videos. Arnold talks so much about the mind, and he says that if you can’t convince yourself, don’t expect anyone else to convince you that you can do it. It really helped me because there were so many times that I thought, I can’t do this, it’s too hard.”
Schwarzenegger even helped her get past the bullying she experienced from other gym goers when she first started weight lifting.
RELATED VIDEO: Mom-of-Two Loses 125 Lbs., Goes from Obese to a Competitive Bodybuilder
“Here’s a mom that’s really fat and getting in their space, and they didn’t like it,” she says of her gym bullies. “They would laugh at me. It was pretty awful, but I had Arnold right there with me, and I got inspired to kick harder and challenge myself. I continued to lift heavier and heavier.”
Pullen also stayed motivated by the support she found in Bodybuilding.com’s BodySpace online community, and says seeing her body change inspired her to keep challenging herself more and more.
“I got hooked on bodybuilding, and it’s been a wonderful experience to know that I can actually do it,” she says. “I’ll be 49 this year, and I feel like I look a lot younger. It’s the secret of youth!”
Now down to 120 lbs., bodybuilding has become an integral part of Pullen’s life.
“I work out six days a week and rest on Sunday,” she says. “Life is hectic being a mom — there’s always drama, and sometimes I sleep two hours, but I don’t care. If I have to go at 2 in the morning or if I’m working out at midnight, I’m going to get it done. It’s become a part of my life. It’s a way to take out stress, it makes you stronger, it makes you think better. After I’m done with a workout, I’m on cloud nine, and I can handle life better. ”
FROM COINAGE: 4 Ways to Work Out Without Killing Your Wallet
While Pullen looks and feels better than ever, she says the best part of her transformation has been being able to inspire others.
“The best part is giving hope to others, and being a role model to my own family, especially my kids,” she says. “I homeschool my kids and I always tell them to be the best they can be, and here I was failing at that. I’ve seen a change in them since they’ve seen their mom become stronger.”
And she finally feels totally comfortable in her own skin.
“I no longer care what people think about me on the outside, because I’m so much stronger on the inside,” she says. “I’ve become a better person, better mom and a better human being.”