As a musical theater major in college, Nicole Pagnotta found herself being cast as the stereotypical chubby comedic sidekick. Although she’d always been a little insecure about her weight, the role was easy and safe. “I was comfortable being the smart, funny one—it’s what I had always been and known,” Pagnotta, now 27, says. Life was busy and school was stressful, so she thought nothing of eating the unlimited pizza and sides in the dining hall almost every night. The freshman 15 quickly became the freshman 35—weight she still carried when she accepted her diploma.

DietBet Weight Loss Story

During graduate school, the effects of the extra pounds became undeniable. “I was really unhappy when I looked in the mirror,” she recalls. “I wasn’t having a lot of luck dating, and I actively tried to stay behind the camera whenever pictures were being taken.” She toyed with different diets, but nothing quite stuck—there were too many small losses and not enough big gains.

Then Pagnotta landed her first “real world” job as a preschool teacher, where spending eight hours a day chasing four-year-olds left her completely drained. Nearly 60 pounds overweight and growing increasingly unhappy with her appearance and lack of energy, she finally decided it was time to change—for good. “I was uncomfortable in my clothes, constantly exhausted, and having trouble keeping up with day-to-day stuff,” Pagnotta says.

Taking a Bet On Herself

In March 2013, Pagnotta started a new diet program. After calorie counting, tracking her weight, and trying endless combinations of eating times and types, she chose something super simple. The only decision she had to make was picking five pre-packaged meals each day. And rather than some crazy fitness routine, she went with the exercise she enjoyed most and that was convenient: walking. “I love being outdoors as much as possible and would walk around three to five miles before dinner every night,” she says.

Although the weight was coming off, Pagnotta soon realized something was missing from her new lifestyle. “I wasn’t losing weight with anyone, and while I could do it on my own, it was kind of depressing,” she says. “I felt like I was screaming into an abyss. I craved a community to bounce things off of or get feedback from.”

She’d been following a few weight-loss journeys on YouTube and saw some of the people mentioned a site called DietBet. Rather than being full of rah-rah “hoopla” she saw on many blogs and forums, this site provided the support she was looking for by turning weight loss into a competition, something that appealed to her never-lose personality. “Each time I would join a DietBet, it was a chance for me to win,” she says. And if she did win, she’d also win some money, another incentive.

“Now I had a weight to hit every four to six weeks, plus a group of people with the same goal,” Pagnotta says. She wasn’t too active on the discussion boards herself, but she visited them to find motivation and inspiration. She also became fueled by an internal competitive desire to never lose her money, which meant hitting her target weight no matter what.

To make that possible, Pagnotta kicked it into gear, joining a gym in June. “The gym was a place I’d always feared, but I knew just changing my diet and walking wasn’t enough,” she says. Her gym offered introductory personal training sessions to help her get acquainted with the equipment and obtain a workout plan for the summer. She also researched online to find the type of fitness routine that would work for her in the long run. She knew a CrossFit-like regime wasn’t really her thing and she’d never liked running, but weight lifting sounded interesting. “I bought two books and just started by squatting with the bar,” Pagnotta says. She would also get on the rowing machine about once a week and hit up her gym’s Zumba classes on Monday and Tuesday nights.

Seven months and six DietBet challenges later, Pagnotta stood 60 pounds lighter. “As a young woman who’s always struggled with my weight, finding a diet and workout that actually works for me has been extremely powerful,” she says.

Living the Healthy Way, Her Way

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After years of too-strict diets, Pagnotta has finally found what healthy living means to her—and it doesn’t involve a specific size. “I’m not so worried about the number on the scale anymore,” she says. “I’m more worried about how I feel when I look in the mirror.”

She’s figured out that her body thrives on lean meats and vegetables, and snacking at work is totally overrated for her. She now cooks her own meals and is a regular at the gym. “I can lift there without feeling judged and feel comfortable going to all different types of workout classes,” she says.

I’m not so worried about the number on the scale anymore. I’m more worried about how I feel.

Even vacations (formerly focused on food) now always include activities. On her last beach trip, rather than hopping in a car to go to a fancy dinner, she’d lace up her sneakers and get on her bike to reach the restaurant. She also signed up for her first 5K after some prodding from her new boyfriend, battling her hatred of running with some external motivation and a Couch to 5K Program.

Being active and living healthier has transformed Pagnotta’s life. Today, she enjoys getting dressed in the morning and isn’t afraid to step in front of the camera and smile. “I’m absolutely happier,” she says. “I’m still funny—I’m really funny—but my humor is not the only thing I have to offer.”

Ready to put your money where your mouth is? If you’re trying to lose weight so you can live a happier, healthier life like Pagnotta, join our DietBet challenge! You’ll find a community of people to support you and keep you accountable. Plus, the fear of losing money adds some extra fuel to keep you committed, and we’ll be there with you along the way. The game starts February 18—sign up now!