“I wanted to be here for my husband and my daughter,” says Brianna Oyewo, who worried that her weight put her at a higher risk for a severe case of COVID-19

By Julie Mazziotta
May 28, 2021 08:00 AM
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A few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, when health experts started warning that people at higher weights were dying from the virus at higher rates, Brianna Oyewo began to worry.

The new mom, 33, had recently hit 281 lbs., her heaviest weight ever, qualifying her as morbidly obese.

"You're hearing all this stuff on the news about COVID and how if you're obese, it sets you at greater risk for serious illness," Oyewo tells PEOPLE. "I was concerned about my life and the life of my daughter. I didn't want to die an early death because I couldn't put the pizza down. I wanted to be here for my husband and my daughter."

Based in Buffalo, New York, the employment counselor is a self-described "emotional eater" who struggled with her weight for most of her life. Oyewo was "overweight for as long as I can remember," and used to get bullied in school for her size, hitting 224 lbs. by her senior year of high school.

brianna oyewo
Brianna Oyewo
| Credit: Courtesy brianna oyewo

Through the years, her mom and grandmother had tried putting Oyewo on different diets, which would work for a short time. But she would always gain back the weight.

Her highest weight, though, came after giving birth to her daughter Olivia in Dec. 2019. Oyewo had a difficult pregnancy — she suffered from hyperemesis, an extreme form of nausea, and could barely eat or drink for her entire first trimester and part of her second.

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Brianna Oyewo
Credit: Courtesy Brianna Oyewo

"I went from 264 lbs. to 230, and made several trips to the hospital," she says. "I had to get a bunch of fluids because I would be so dehydrated from not being able to hold any food or liquids down."

After those scary first months of pregnancy, the hyperemesis went away, and Oyewo was finally able to eat again.

"I ate like food owed me something. I ate a lot," she says. "I went from the 230 pounds to 281 pounds by the time it was all over."

After Olivia was born, Oyewo focused on keeping her happy and healthy, while juggling her job and life with her husband. But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and she started to worry. Oyewo also realized that she had a new motivation that wasn't there the other times she tried to lose weight.

"I wasn't just thinking about myself this time," she says. "I was thinking about my daughter, I was thinking about my husband, and how I wanted to be around for them."

Oyewo started with prayer and self-care, two things that she had more time for during the pandemic.

"Life slowed down a bit for me," she says. "I was working remotely and I didn't have to worry about that commute. I had a lot more time to just practice self-care, so I would take my daughter for strolls around the neighborhood and spend time journaling and listening to motivational podcasts."

"That really encouraged me and uplifted me. I felt like as my mind was being renewed, as I was taking better care of myself in those ways, then it was easier to start eating healthier and exercising."

Oyewo cut out the fast food meals that had become a staple, and worked on staying away from processed foods and added sugars, instead trying to eat as plant-based as possible. Her mornings would start with plain Greek yogurt with berries and walnuts, then Oyewo would go for a "huge" salad at lunch and a hearty dinner of chili with lots of beans and vegetables.

"I learned to be an intuitive eater," she says. "I don't count calories and I don't deprive myself. I eat when I'm hungry and try to stick to the basics, and keep it as simple as possible."

Oyewo also started working out with 20 minute dance cardio classes that she found on YouTube. "I liked that they were fun and didn't feel like I was working out," she says. Over the next few months, she found her way to HIIT workouts and 45-minute weightlifting sessions, and the "weight came off pretty consistently."

In six months, Oyewo had lost 100 lbs. and has since dropped another 27.

"There were points where I gained a little bit of weight, but I learned not to get discouraged by that," she says. "In the past, if I saw the scale moving up, I would've become so discouraged and stopped. But this time I just wanted to be healthy and have more energy and have less anxiety in the middle of the pandemic."

Now 127 lbs. down, Oyewo feels "much freer," and has developed such a love for working out that she became a certified trainer with her own clients.

"I'm more confident in my skin, and I have so much more energy for my daughter," she says. "She's super active, and I could not imaging at 281 lbs. running around chasing and dancing with her."

Oyewo isn't sure if she would've been able to lose the weight if not for the pandemic, which she recognizes is a hard thing to say during a time when thousands lost their lives and their jobs.

"It has been a difficult, challenging year for so many people, but then one of the most transformative years of my life," she says.