The idea was simple: Hear from regular people — not celebrities with personal trainers or private chefs — about how they had lost a transformative amount of weight through lifestyle changes.
Back in 2002, PEOPLE reporters reached out to gyms, diet companies and to a national registry that studied long-term weight loss to find the first (brave) group of seven people to show off their before and after photos.
The idea quickly proved to be a hit, and a new Half Their Size class has appeared in the magazine's pages every year since for two decades. Now PEOPLE is celebrating the milestone with a 20th anniversary special edition, Half Their Size: 20 Years of Real Life Stories, Inspiration & Tips.
After that first group showed what was possible, "eventually people started contacting us," says Elizabeth Sporkin, the former executive editor who long oversaw those issues. "Over time the emphasis shifted from looking better to feeling better," she notes. In that spirit, this new, expanded edition of Half Their Size features the latest inspirational stories, plus practical tips from two decades of wellness wisdom as well as new workouts from our partners at Health, recipes from EatingWell, and some specific guidance to come out of the past two stressful years.
Kat Borchart Shelli Johnson, before and in HTS.
South Carolina writer Shelli Johnson, a member of the HTS 2020 class, had maintained her 174 lbs. weight loss for more than a decade. Then came the pandemic. "I ended up gaining 13 lbs. during quarantine because I was looking for food to fix something — namely, a trapped feeling I had," Johnson shared when PEOPLE checked back in with her. "I lost the weight again easily once I identified the actual problem and stopped using food to try to fix it."
Lexlee Hudson, who appeared in the latest Half Their Size issue, had a similar experience. "As 2020 taught us, there aren't many things we can control," says Hudson, now a health coach in San Antonio, who lost 187 lbs. "But we can control what we put in our body and what we tell ourselves. It's important to protect that."
The new special edition also catches up with some early Half Their Size participants, including first cover subject Karen Brown, a hairstylist from Centennial, Colo.
Now 56, Brown has maintained the weight loss that made her something of a local celebrity. When the 2002 issue went on sale, she was on the checkout line at her grocery store. "I was being looked at like, 'Are you on the cover of PEOPLE magazine? Are you important? Should I get your autograph?'" Brown recalls now. "I had to laugh; it was such an honor."
Karen Brown (right) on the first PEOPLE "Half Their Size" cover, 2002.
The message she first shared with readers remains the same today. "It inspired so many people that a regular Joe could do it without magic pills or any type of hocus-pocus, just naturally through exercise and eating right," Brown says. "I have always been humble about my story but very secure in my methods. If you truly take your health into your own hands, keep it positive — have a healthy heart, mind and soul — you can do it for life."
PEOPLE's special edition Half Their Size: 20 Years of Real Life Stories, Inspiration & Tips is available now wherever magazines are sold.