In my adolescence I was the chubby girl. In my teen years I suppose I was average. In my 20’s I became a mother, and fitness dropped low on the priority list. In my early 30’s I had gone through divorce, depression, anxiety, and some trauma that I coped with by going to the gym and turned into a fit, confident woman. Over the last year or two (with a global pandemic thrown in the mix) I’ve struggled with balancing a sustainable healthy lifestyle and put on more weight than I want to admit.
But here is what I’ve learned:
There is no quick fix, finish line, or one right answer. There is no number on a scale that will ever make you feel happy or complete. Women are made to feel like their smallest waist size is the ultimate goal and are bombarded with misinformation about dieting and exercise that can lead to lifelong struggles.
And most recently I’ve learned:
Strong is better than skinny. Eating less is not always the answer. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable to meet your goals. And consistency is key.
I know you’re not here for a generic motivational speech because you can find that anywhere on the internet, so I’m going to share my story about health and fitness in the hope that a) someone out there feels less alone and more understood and b) it may help someone who is currently struggling.
Here is my story…
Throughout my entire life, I cannot think of a single moment when I didn’t feel like I needed to be on a “diet”. The goal was always less calories, less fat, smaller pants size, the skinnier the better. I didn’t necessarily have a horrible relationship with my body or any kind of disordered eating, but I just wanted to be comfortable in my skin and fit into my clothes. So naturally, I chased weight loss the majority of my life.
I can remember the first time my girlfriend and I joined a gym. I was in my late teens, maybe just out of high school. I felt like I didn’t belong in a gym, and only dudes and really fit, athletic people had gym memberships. We would show up, spend as much time as we could stand on an elliptical machine trying to sweat and burn calories. Occasionally we would do a few of the weight machines, but only the ones on the outer perimeter of the weight area where we felt comfortable and always as an afterthought after we got our “cardio burn” in.
Fast forward to getting ready for my wedding, and I bought the P90X program to do at home to get into shape. It was SO HARD to commit to consistently working out daily and following some form of a meal plan. But because I had a date on the calendar to work towards, it felt easier to push myself knowing the end was in sight. I trained my muscles in ways I never had before and felt amazing by the time my wedding day arrived.
Over the next few years I continued to eat healthy-ish and sometimes workout, but going from a high level of intensity and consistency to a mediocre one is obviously not going to maintain the body I had on my wedding day.
One day I got an advertisement in the mail from a local gym with a great deal on a membership. Money was tight, but I remember feeling like I needed this outlet for myself. I made a promise that I wouldn’t be one of those people who pay for a gym membership for years but never go, and I took my first step inside, this time without a friend or anyone to ease the anxiety and uncomfortableness I felt.
I didn’t know it then, but this was the starting point of long journey towards not only better health and fitness, but towards finding my inner strength, healing some deep wounds, and getting me through some pretty traumatic things that would play out in the years to come. I say this because I want to emphasize how important health and fitness has become to my mental health and overall ability to thrive in my life. It’s not just a shallow desire to have your dream body; it’s about taking control of the quality of your life and the way you feel about yourself.
I started back in the gym the same way I started the first time: strictly on cardio equipment. I tried convincing myself I would train to run a 5K because surely that would get me in really good shape. Have I mentioned how much I hate running? While I was huffing and puffing away on the treadmill each day, I would overhear the group fitness room behind me with with instructors yelling out moves over the music. I was curious what they were doing and if it was better than suffering through another running session. But did I have the courage to go take a peek in the room? Or ask the front desk for a class schedule? Or leave the comfort of the cardio equipment? That was a big, fat no.
At this time, my little sister had gotten really into fitness and took all kinds of group classes, sometimes doing two a day. One weekend while I visited her, she forced me to go to a Body Pump class, which is a barbell workout using light to moderate weights and high repetitions. I was positive all my muscles were going to just give up on me during that workout, and I felt SO uncomfortable trying to quickly pick up the movements. Have I mentioned I’m a perfectionist who likes to be good at everything she does? I left with a strained bicep muscle and absolute awe at how strong my sister was. And also… a little bit of wonder if I could maybe get that strong too. It felt good to workout with more intention and purpose than just burning calories. I already felt just a tiny bit stronger, even if it was only mentally at that point.
When I got back home to my gym, it took several more weeks for me to work up the courage to join Body Pump class. I walked in extremely intimidated, but to my surprise there were a few really sweet women who could obviously tell I had no idea what I was doing and helped me gather a few light weights to get started. I survived that first class and went to another. Eventually I tried other fun classes like Pound, boot camp style classes, and even a hip hop dance class. I got more and more comfortable as the weeks and eventually years went on, and I realized I never let myself become that girl with a gym membership who never actually stepped foot in the gym. I became this stronger, happier, more confident version of myself who made fitness a priority and part of my daily routine. Money was still tight, and it felt like a treat having that gym membership, which made the experience even more enjoyable for me. I didn’t HAVE to go workout. I was fortunate to be ABLE to go workout. To keep my body healthy. To have an hour to myself each day before the craziness of motherhood and running my own business began. Already there was a huge shift in my perspective.
Some of the best people I’ve ever met in my life have come from inside that group fitness classroom. One in particular became somewhat of a mentor to me and would end up being a pivotal part of healing from the trauma surrounding my divorce. One day she invited me to join a yoga class she taught, and while it was something I really never had an interest in doing, I wanted to give it a try for her. Again, I felt uncomfortable twisting and trying to balance my body like all the graceful women around me. But in that quiet, dimly lit room with soft, soothing music playing, I felt a peace that was so desperately needed in my life at that time. During many classes as we would meditate at the end, silent tears would well up in my eyes and stream down my face. There was so much turmoil and chaos at home and in my personal life, and this was the only place that brought me back to center. I always left feeling a little lighter, a little more okay.
One early Saturday morning after a particularly traumatic night, I stood outside the fitness room door waiting for the previous class to end. I felt like a shell of myself, like I was barely there, but still putting on a smile like I always do. Patty walked up behind me, put her hands on my shoulders, and said something simple like, good morning, friend in her kind, gentle voice. I broke. I broke down into tears and had to run to the the bathroom because I was equally shocked by my own outburst and embarrassed at what the other women standing there had just witnessed. I couldn’t hold it in, and it clearly needed to bubble up to the surface and come out. I eventually pulled myself together enough to walk back to the room and breathe through a yoga class.
Sometimes when the weather was nice, she would have class outdoors at a local park where we could look up at the clouds and the trees and hear the birds sing while we stretched and moved. This woman and yoga got me through some of my very darkest days, and I never would have met her or gone into that group fitness room if I hadn’t taken all those small steps before.
As I fought to maintain my mental health, I put a large focus on taking care of myself mind, body, and spirit. I ate nourishing foods and learned to really track my food intake. I made sleep more of a priority than I ever had before, getting 7-8 hours every night. I drank tons of water and very rarely ever had alcohol.
On nights when my boys were with their dad and I started to feel myself spiral into sadness and loneliness, I would go back to the gym for the second time that day to get some cardio in. If I was going to cope with depression and anxiety in some way, I figured working out was one of the healthiest ways to do it. I was probably the lowest weight I had ever been, and my body felt amazing, even if my mind definitely did not at the time.
Fast forward to the global pandemic, and everything shut down. I couldn’t leave my house, couldn’t go to the gym, had kids doing school from home… if there was ever a recipe for stress and weight gain, this was it. The additional evening cardio went out the window and I put minimal effort into my home workouts because they felt tedious and boring after years of being in the gym atmosphere and around other people. When we were finally able to get back in the gym, group fitness was still pretty restricted, and I had to find an alternative for my workouts. I started shifting towards trying a more “traditional” weight lifting program, which meant lifting heavier weight than I ever had before and less cardio-based movements.
I signed up for a workout program app called Moves by Madeline, and each week new workouts were loaded into the app, so all I had to do was show up, follow the plan, and record my data (weight used, number of reps, etc.). I already had some foundational knowledge from my years doing BodyPump, so things like proper form and muscle activation came easy to me. I worked hard, never missed a workout, and felt like I should be seeing more changes in my body. Feeling frustrated, I decided to join a one month challenge to see if maybe I was REALLY dedicated and strict and perfect with my diet, I would finally see some progress being made.
I took pictures in a bikini before and after the challenge. I weighed myself daily. I got a custom macro calculation and tracked every single gram of food that went in my mouth, making sure they were to perfect percentage of protein, carbs, and fat. I only missed one workout out of twenty-four that month. I felt like I was doing everything about as perfectly as it could be executed. And do you know what my results were?
I lost zero pounds. I lost zero inches. And my before and after pictures held side-by-side looked exactly the same. I have never felt more defeated. I know I didn’t have a ton of weight to lose, but I at least thought I would look a little more “toned” or see the scale move a tiny bit. What was I doing wrong? I can’t imagine doing much more than six 1-hour long workouts a week and eating fewer calories than I already was. I’ve worked out for years and years and didn’t even really “look” like it. Where the hell do I go from here?
Someone suggested doing a month of strictly cardio, no weight training, and chugging as much water as humanly possible. That wasn’t the answer either. I burned away what little muscle I did have, and still the scale did not budge. Lost and frustrated, I dove into research and tried to learn as much as possible. Just in the last year, after a decade of living a “fit, healthy lifestyle” did I hear of the terms reverse diet or maintenance calories. Or that some women who have an amazing lean physique are eating upwards of 2200-2400+ calories a day and maintaining their weight with little to no cardio in their routine. How is that even possible?!?
It started with listening to a few podcasts of highly educated trainers, nutritionists, and macro consultants, and I soaked up all the knowledge I could about calorie deficit, maintenance, and surplus. How lifting weights and building muscle impacts not only your physique, but also your metabolism. What NEAT activity meant and how that played into weight loss. Why all my life did I not hear about these things? Or maybe the more accurate question is: why are restrictive diets and endless hours of sweaty, “feel the burn” workouts and the goal of “skinny” what women are conditioned to believe?
I made a promise to myself that for at least 6 months I was going to focus on fueling my body with food, eating more than the 1300-1400 calories I had been allowing myself for so many years, and train for strength in the gym rather than weight loss. I knew my body and metabolism needed some time to adapt to higher calories, and I might as well use this time to build muscle and adjust my mindset from chasing skinny to chasing strong.
I allowed myself to enjoy carbs again and watched my strength skyrocket. I was sleeping better than ever, getting a solid 7-8 hours every night. I lifted weights four days a week, got a minimum of 8K steps in daily, and had two consecutive rest days on the weekend. This was the first time my diet and fitness felt balanced and attainable long term, and I loved the energy and strength I felt.
But with more calories and less cardio than my body has had in years, muscle gain also meant some fat gain as well. I know you probably won’t believe me, but eating more food and working out less was FAR HARDER mentally than all the years of dieting. Feeling full and fluffy, watching my clothes fit more snugly, and losing any amount of leanness I had left was a huge mental struggle. But I knew it was part of the process working towards my long term goal and that a quick diet fix wasn’t the answer anymore. I made a promise to myself, and I was going to keep it.
As of a few weeks ago, my promise had been fulfilled, and I reduced my calories slightly, instead of the drastic calorie cutting I used to do. I bumped my daily step goal up to 10K, which forced me to consciously take breaks from work and sitting at the computer throughout the day to get a little movement in. And eventually I strategically added a couple cardio sessions because I would rather reduce my calorie intake through cardio than reduce the amount of fuel (food) my body was getting.
Am I seeing a huge drop in the scale instantly? No, not really. But I am tracking it daily and now understand that weight fluctuations are completely normal and that you should be looking at overall trends over time. And I’m so much more at peace with whatever the scale says because my goals are not solely based on my weight now.
Am I seeing a huge change in my body in just a few weeks? No, but I do know now that the 4 week challenge I did set unrealistic expectations for some huge “transformation” and that body recomposition takes time. A LOT of time.
Here is where I stand today:
For the first time in a long time, I’m actually seeing sustainable progress in my body because I did the work prioritizing strong over skinny and eating to fuel my body instead of starve it. That means: lifting heavy weights and doing workouts I used to think were only meant for men and bodybuilders, eating in a surplus compared to what I was used to, and getting comfortable being uncomfortable sitting at a higher weight than I ever had been before.
The number I have in my head as my “goal weight” is far different now than a few years ago. I promise that the dream body you picture in your mind weighs more and requires more muscle building than you most likely expect.
I have a more healthy relationship with food and know that I can live a full, enjoyable life with birthday cake and pizza deliveries and Christmas cookies AND still have a fit, healthy lifestyle. Macro counting is a beautiful thing and a tool I highly recommend.
I sleep well, my digestion is normal, my hormones are regulated, and I’m less anxious/irritable. I’m stronger, both mentally and physically. Taking care of my body has become a non-negotiable for me, whether that is lifting weights in the gym, taking my dogs for a walk outside, or getting plenty of sleep.
And while my body isn’t exactly the way I want it to look today, I know that I’m making smart, sustainable steps that will keep me healthy and active for a lifetime so I can watch my babies and their babies and maybe even their babies grow up.
I know that this topic is outside of the normal home decor and interior decorating I share here, but I’m willing to bet that there are a few of you who have or are currently struggling with body image, weight loss, or your relationship with food. Or maybe you’re a woman or a mom who has seen your body change as the years go by and don’t know what advice to listen to or if the miracle diet your girlfriend swears by is the right thing for you…
I want to encourage you wherever you are on your own health and fitness journey, whether you’ve been at it for years or just starting. I want you to know that life isn’t about saying no to your favorite treats or spending hours sweating on the treadmill to try to be your smallest self. Be your STRONGEST self, both mentally and physically. You don’t need a quick fix fad diet or some miracle weight loss pill or product. You would be shocked how much the basics you already know about will impact the quality of your health and life…
Prioritize sleep. Drink tons of water. Focus on getting an adequate amount of protein in every meal (I aim for around 30 grams). Move your body throughout the day. Don’t underestimate the importance of walking and daily step counts. Lift weights, and I’m talking about the heavy ones. I promise your muscles can do way more than you think.
But above all, the message I want to share with you is that I didn’t start this journey with counting macros and feeling comfortable in the weights area of the gym or having even a fraction of the knowledge and understanding of my body that I do today. I started wanting to feel good in my skin and be able to wear cute clothes and run around with my kids. And it took a lot of years and missteps along the way, but they were all stepping stones to the woman I am today. And the best part is that the journey isn’t over… I can’t wait to see the woman I will be in another decade.
It’s never too late to start, no matter how old you are. Your kids will watch and learn the habits you show them, both good and bad. And yes, it feels great to fit into those skinny jeans you once wore, but I promise you the strength, confidence, and inner peace you will feel taking care of your body feels so much greater.
I hope my story was helpful or maybe made you feel a little less alone. I am not an expert or certified in any of this, but I am happy to answer questions you might have or provide any of the resources that have helped me. Thank you for letting me share a piece of my story today.
Couch to 5K Runner app
LesMills BodyPump class
Moves by Madeline fitness app
Macros 101 online course for macro counting
Biceps After Babies podcast
Build Your Workouts program
INSTAGRAM ACCOUNTS I FOLLOW:
@jordanlipsfitness | @wondwellness | @laurensimpson
@coachmarkcarroll | @liftinglindsay | @jillchristinefit
@thegymnurse | @jorryfitt | @danyelewilson
@mamelefit | @butteryourmacros | @whitneyysimmons
@lillieeatsandtells | @madeline_moves | @elyseaellis