I Drank Kombucha Every Day For Two Weeks—Here’s What My Gut Had To Say

I’ll just come right out and say it: My stomach has always been trouble. Fried food usually leaves me curled up on the couch for hours. Anything loaded with carbs or sugar? Cramp city. The older I get, the more sensitive my stomach becomes.

Over the years I’ve tried just about every gut remedy out there. My desk at work is well-stocked with ginger tea, I faithfully take a probiotic every day, I guzzle water, and I eat a lot of fiber. Still, though, my stomach doesn’t always cooperate. (I’ll spare you the details, but you know what I mean.)

The latest gut-friendly trend to make its way onto my to-do list: kombucha. The fizzy fermented drink—made by adding sugar, yeast, and bacteria to tea—has invaded the refrigerated section of even the most basic grocery store after winning over my fellow health nuts with its funky flavors and promise of probiotics. (These good bacteria live in our gut and help us digest food, destroy harmful microorganism, and produce vitamins, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.)

A sucker for trendy health foods, I was already a fan of other probiotic-packed fermented foods like kimchi, and I’d splurged on a bottle of kombucha here and there—but it wasn’t until after a belly-decimating, cheese and pastry-filled trip to Europe that I was ready to really commit to drinking it regularly. My gut needed some serious TLC.

Since I’d recently cut out dairy (yep, even my morning Greek yogurt got the boot), I wondered if it was time I find myself another fermented food to replace it with—and kombucha seemed like an easy way to bump up my daily probiotic intake. I mean, I wasn’t about to commit to eating kimchi every day, but I was already used to drinking lots of water, so why not throw some kombucha into my daily sips? Easy peasy.

So I stopped by the East Rutherford, New Jersey, The Vitamin Shoppe to stock up on kombucha. (Complete with eight kegs of Aqua ViTea kombucha and refillable glass bottles and growlers, this place is like a Health Enthusiast heaven.) I filled a growler with a mix of the ginger and turmeric flavors and headed home, ready to rock my gut’s world.

Related: 8 Foods And Drinks For When You Just Can’t Go To The Bathroom

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The Experiment

To find out if drinking this effervescent beverage on the reg would really make a difference, I decided to have a glass every morning for the next two weeks. (Aqua ViTea’s website recommended starting with four to six ounces a day, so I stuck with a small glassful.)

My first morning of the experiment, as I sipped my way through a glass of the bubbly tea while checking my email, I noticed that I felt super-full—but not in a heavy, just-ate-a-cheeseburger kind of way. Simply sated.

And I had a second realization: Kombucha could really get things moving. Not in a frightening Bridesmaids-movie-scene kind of way, but whoa.

The same pattern continued through the rest of the work week. I drank my glass of kombucha about a half-hour or so after breakfast, hit the bathroom sometime around mid-morning, and felt awake and satisfied until lunch. After a few days, I also noticed that I felt more awake and alert as I went about my morning routine. Placebo effect or not, I didn’t mind. (My kombucha was made from a blend of black and green tea—but I learned that very little of the caffeine in those teas survives the fermentation process. Kombucha does contain some B vitamins, which we associate with energy, though.)

I rationed out my 64-ounce growler so it’d last me the full week, and refilled it with my turmeric-ginger mix for week two. By then, I looked forward to my fizzy sips each morning, especially because my stomach felt so great.

As my gut got used to the daily bubbles, I didn’t feel quite as full after drinking them. Somewhere in the middle of week two, I started drinking a second glass around mid-afternoon, when an itch for something sweet and a dip in energy hit. I felt revitalized—and you know that slightly groggy, sloth-like feeling of a meal lingering in your stomach? (I call this the ‘after-lunch blahs’.) Gone.

I was becoming a kombucha-holic—with less than a third of my second growler left with four more days to go in my kombucha streak—so I started diluting my bubbly beverage in a little sparkling water to avoid yet another growler refill. My growler lasted through the end of week two, though just barely.

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The Verdict

After two full weeks of kombucha-drinking, my toilet time was more regular than it’d been in a while and I felt like my stomach was moving and grooving—no gas, no bloating. A major win in my book, considering I was used to feeling like there was a balloon in my stomach at any point of the day.

I also no longer felt the need to brew up a double mug of green tea for a caffeine boost around lunchtime; my mind was clear and my focus steady. A splash of kombucha in plain bubbly water kept my taste buds happy (and made it much easier to stay hydrated) all day long.

I’ll definitely continue to hit up the kombucha bar at The Vitamin Shoppe for my weekly growler fill-up, and may even get myself a second growler to stash at home. Yeah, I love it that much.

Related: Shop a variety of drinks, from sparkling waters to teas to energy-boosters.

The Weird Thing I Do For Stress Relief—That Works Every Time

I can vividly remember the first time I realized that I could attain a sensation of calm by totally natural (albeit totally weird) means. I was sitting in my high school science class waiting silently to take a final; our teacher was quietly passing out the test packets, one by one. We were all in the zone, anxiously hoping we’d do well (hello: the periodic table isn’t exactly riveting subject matter).

And as she passed out the tests, the sounds of the paper—gently swooshing against the others, being written on by pencils—made me sort of feel, well, calm and tingly. Totally at ease. (Yes, you heard me correctly: The sound of the paper made me feel at-ease. What!)

You know when you suddenly shudder out of nowhere? It was like that—all along my scalp and back. The paper sounds made me feel sleepy, while also sort of ticklish. It was intoxicating, euphoric, and, clearly, tremendously strange.

Related: What Happened When I Drank Golden Milk For 30 Days Straight

I would come to experience this phenomenon for years, but I had absolutely no context or language for it. I told one friend about it (she was one of the only people who wouldn’t be convinced that I was a serial killer or total maniac). Years later, that same friend asked me if I’d heard about something called ASMR. It sounded like an abbreviation for a nerdy science conference or a sexual kink. Naturally, I needed to know.

“ASMR is this weird phenomenon where people have all sorts of pleasurable reactions to noises,” she said—which didn’t exactly sound not creepy—“and it sounds like what you’ve experienced before. Being relaxed by sounds and stuff,” she said.

Yes, you heard me correctly: The sound of the paper made me feel at-ease. What!

Sure enough, ASMR had me pegged.

Defined as Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, ASMR is an experience characterized by a static-like or tingling sensation (in response to slow movements, whispers, soft sounds, or even personal attention) on the skin around the head, back, and neck. But it’s also very internal; it’s a feeling, a mind-state.

While there remains a need for more in-depth studies, science hasn’t junked the phenomenon either. According to Peer J, ASMR is experienced by thousands of people. It causes euphoria, relaxation, and feelings of general wellness.

I took to the Internet for further investigation, and sure enough, I got more information than I could have imagined. YouTube was filled with ASMR videos—actually, it was a fully-formed community. Thousands of videos (viewed millions of times) offered up ASMR “triggers” created by ASMR artists, or ASMRtists; these videos showcased people whispering, or doing smalls tasks or talking with mindful movements and making deliberate, soft noises.

Related: Shop products to promote stress relief and mood support.

I have to admit this: At first, I was deeply put off by these videos; they seemed completely foreign and bizarre. A few of them were blatantly sexualized (though this was not the majority at all), and the rest were just overwhelming: forty-five minutes of watching someone whisper or tap? What sort of strange kink is this, I wondered?

Half of the videos were focused on role-playing videos, like one ASMRtist who pretended to be a hotel receptionist. She’d click her keyboard lightly, and tap her pen against paper, and whisper to the viewer, who was supposed to be “checking in to a hotel.” I’d never, ever seen anything like it.

Forty-five minutes of watching someone whisper or tap their fingers? What sort of strange kink is this, I wondered?

It was a community-created corner of the Internet and once I got over the confusion, I actually felt grateful to have found it. I found the videos soothing, sleep-inducing, and peaceful. Some of them are actually really funny or educational, so they’re sort of like stress-reducing tools that offer up other benefits, to boot.

Related: Shop yoga accessories to get your de-stress on.

It wasn’t just me. Thousands of commenters consistently thank the artists (many of whom make a living by creating YouTube ASMR content) for helping them sleep, easing their stress, reducing their symptoms of PTSD, or giving them (not x-rated) tingles at the end of the day.

81 percent of ASMR enthusiasts engage with it before bed, using headphones, and 80 percent of participants said it had a positive effect on their mood.

Suddenly, ASMR stopped being “that weird thing that happens to me sometimes” and started becoming a legitimate tool for stress relief. It wasn’t weird. It was real.

Now that my secret phenomenon had a name (and one that apparently even celebrities celebrated), I wanted to know if there was some real science behind it. What actually caused the tingles? After all, millions of people weren’t just making it up!

I found that some researchers, like in this piece published by IOSR Journal of Research & Method in Education, argued for the use of ASMR as a tool for stress relief, despite their own understanding that ASMR necessitates additional research. It was a start—and I dug for more.

The International Journal of School & Educational Psychology likened it to the notion of Frisson, which is a sensation somewhat like the shivering caused by emotional stimuli. And according to one study done by Peer J, 81 percent of ASMR enthusiasts engage with it before bed, using headphones, and 80 percent of participants said it had a positive effect on their mood, especially immediately after listening. Interestingly enough, people with depression benefited the most.

While I’ve tried to figure out the exact science behind the sensation, there are no hard answers. I know others are trying to figure it out, too. I recognize that there are loads of people who probably think ASMR enthusiasts or artists are freaks, but the budding conversation around the phenomenon comforts me a bit.

Until I understand it better, I’ll be over here, listening to people whisper into a binaural microphone, as I fall asleep happier and less anxious than I was before.

How Bodybuilding Transformed My Life At Age 42

In 2013, at the age of 42, I found myself at a crossroads. I had been separated from my now ex-husband for two years, I was struggling with feelings of depression and anxiety, and I was sitting at home drinking too much wine—only to wake up the next morning feeling guilty and even more depressed.

I was sick of the cycle. I knew I needed to find who I really was, where I was meant to be, and most of all—I needed to find passion for life again. I was raising two girls (then six and 10), and I was desperate to set an example of confidence, healthiness, and happiness for them.

And then something clicked. I was perusing Facebook one day when I saw that a friend from college (who was also raising her kids alone, as her husband was in the military) had started bodybuilding. As I looked at their pictures I thought, I could do that. I wanted that sort of power and energy. I didn’t want to sit on my couch feeling lost, alone, and purposeless.

Finding Purpose

That fall, I went to the gym for the first time in almost a decade. (If you looked at me in clothes you would think I was in good health, but I wasn’t fit at all.) It was easy enough, because my daughters’ dance studio was renting out an aerobics studio, so I truly had no excuse for not showing up.

Related: Shop protein powder for all your muscle-building needs.

ca1I had a few training sessions with the owner, and tried to eat right, but I was quickly getting discouraged because I still looked the same. Naively, I had expected immediate results.

Despite my disappointment, one thing that kept me going back was the feeling of power I had each time I held a weight in my hand, and each time I pushed myself harder.

Becoming a Bodybuilder

Before long, I hired  a personal trainer. I was hesitant at first because I thought money would be an issue (and who hires a personal trainer right before the holidays anyway? I wanted to eat cookies and continue to drink wine). But I trusted my gut; I knew he was the right one.

I wanted that sort of power and energy. I didn’t want to sit on my couch feeling lost, alone, and purposeless.

Beyond training, I knew I wanted to become a bodybuilder—and my trainer was a Nationally Qualified Physique Committee bodybuilder, as well as a contest prep coach. By February, he became my coach.

Putting in the Work

Going into it, I had no actual idea what bodybuilding would do for me mentally, physically, or spiritually.

Related: How 3 Pro Bodybuilders Stay Motivated In And Out Of The Gym

First, my trainer set me up on a meal plan. I stopped drinking, and I followed a strict diet that was low in carbs and high in protein and fats. I started lifting with just five-pound dumbbells, utilizing high-reps and sets for endurance.

Once my endurance grew, my lifts increased at five-pound increments every eight to 10 weeks. It was a struggle for me to understand that I needed endurance first before my strength could increase, and it has taken me four years to realize patience is key in order to succeed at this. I began to lose fat and I started to build real muscle.

Most importantly, I didn’t quit.

I love my muscles. They inspire a confidence in me that allows me to voice my opinions without feeling fear.

I entered my first competition in May of 2015, after two years of dieting and hard work. I was ready, and it was one of the greatest feelings in the world. I placed first in Women’s Master Figure and third in Open—and I knew I wanted more.

The Lifestyle

Since those early days, I’ve competed four times. Right now, I’m prepping for my 5th show. And, I’ve placed first in the top five of each category I entered in Women’s Figure, making me a Nationally Qualified NPC figure competitor.

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I don’t compete month after month or week after week. Instead, I choose shows that will help the judges see my improvements show over show. This approach also allows me to not be too hard on my body or my mind.

Will I make it to the National Stage? Maybe one day, if and when my coach says I’m mentally and physically ready. I only want to present my best self. But if not, competing is still fun and exhilarating. I feel beautiful. I feel like I can take on the world after I compete.

It has taken me four years to realize patience is key in order to succeed at this. I began to lose fat and I started to build real muscle.

My favorite snack? One scoop of chocolate whey isolate with a banana (blended), always post-workout (unless I’m prepping for a show and my carbs are lowered).

Related: 8 Breakfasts That Pack Between 20 And 30 Grams Of Protein

I usually wake up at 4:30am for fasted cardio three days a week, I eat every two to three hours, and I train for 75-90 minutes with 30-40 minutes of cardio, seven days a week. I also have to fit in a full time job, meal prep, and my two very active kids!

How Bodybuilding Transformed Me

My kids will be the first ones to tell you their mom is a bodybuilder. I’m teaching my girls that women can look any way they want and that there is no societal “norm” for the female body.  I’m teaching them through example the importance of healthy eating and exercise.

I set the bar high for myself to show my kids that you can do anything you put your mind to.

Although they’re right there with me, some people don’t fully understand why I do what I do or why I love it so much. Those few loyal friends that stuck by me are still there, though, and I’ve made some great new friends along the way.

ca2.pngAll of this has taught me a lot. We live in a world we are judged. And women, in particular, are judged by our looks and our bodies. Bodybuilding has taught me that I am strong and sexy and that I can look how I want to look.

I love my muscles. They inspire a confidence in me that allows me to voice my opinions without feeling fear. They make me feel like I can say “no” without feeling guilty.

And, they make me feel like I can rock a bikini and not care about what others think.

I set the bar high for myself to show my kids that you can do anything you put your mind to. I want to teach them that it shouldn’t matter what the world outside sees; it matters how you feel about yourself.

Related: I Traded Jillian Michaels For The Gym—And I’ve Never Been More Motivated

I Stretched For 30 Days With The Goal Of Touching My Toes—See How It Went

I’ve always been ashamed of  my lack of physical flexibility. Even back in elementary school, I’d be so embarrassed that almost everyone in gym class was able to touch their toes with relative ease—while my wrists barely skimmed my knees. What is wrong with me, I wondered. Why can’t I do this?

The older I got, the more my self-consciousness grew. When my friends talked about taking a yoga class together, I’d gently bow out. The idea that all of my friends would notice that I couldn’t easily move from one position to another terrified me. I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t fit, or that I was lazy and out of touch with my body.

Related: Shop yoga accessories, from pants to flex bands.

The rational, logical part of my brain knew that the first step was to simply show up: If I just tried, I told myself, I’d probably make some progress. But the fear of looking like the worst person in the class stopped me from moving forward.

Avoiding yoga because I lacked flexibility wasn’t the first time that I’d let fear get in the way of doing something because I was worried about my body’s limitations, though.

For most of my life, I wanted to be a runner. Runners were, in my mind, part of an exclusive group that I longed to join: They became antsy if they hadn’t been able to run outdoors for days at a time, they talked about split times, and they complained about their tight IT bands. I wanted to be a part of those conversations. Their efforts inspired me.

Many years ago, I actually lived with three runners; they would plan running trips together, plotting new locations and coming back with photographs looking sun-kissed and sweaty. They’d invite me to join them, but I’d excuse myself, complaining about my lack of footwear.

One day, my roommate took me to a shoe store. I bought a pair of New Balance sneakers, and ran my first mile that same day. Sure, it took me thirteen and a half minutes, but when I finished, my roommates looped back around and gathered me in a hard hug as the blood pounded in my ears.

I wanted to feel that sense of accomplishment again. At the beginning of this year, I made a list of the things that I wanted to do before the year was up: “Take a yoga class,” I listed (and immediately cringed with fear).

I’d been avoiding this for so long that it seemed unfathomable that I’d actually go. What would it take to make me feel comfortable enough to attend a class? The answer was simple: I needed to believe in my body’s ability to change and grow.

Related: Shop products for your personal health goals.

I’m an organized, goal-oriented person, so I embarked on a 30-day stretching challenge with clear rules and objectives. I knew that I needed a routine I could be accountable to, so I decided that I’d stretch for the first and last five minutes of every day. I also knew that my goals needed to be measurable, so I decided to focus on the thing that had caused me so much shame when I was younger: I wanted to get closer to touching my toes every day.

Day One

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On the first day of my stretching challenge, I felt the familiar feelings of shame sneak up again. Even though I was alone, I could feel the skin of my face heat up. There were more than four inches between my fingers and my toes. But beyond the shame, I could feel that ‘good pain’ of a muscle giving way and warming up. That evening, when I stretched again, I was disappointed that I hadn’t already (somehow!) seen progress, but at least I wasn’t feeling total self-consciousness.

Related: How I Went From Gym Class Dropout To Half-Marathon Runner

Weeks 1& 2

Up to two weeks after beginning this challenge, I still hadn’t noticed that much of a difference, but stretching—as a definitive part of my morning and evening routines—became important to me. It was like brushing my teeth or washing my face: an important self-care ritual.

Week 3

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It wasn’t until day 20 that I noticed a substantial change. I’d gotten out of bed and stretched outside the bathroom door. At this point, one of my cats came to stand at my toes. The tips of my fingers—which could actually stretch far enough to pet my cat—were far lower than they had at the beginning of the month. In the beginning, there was no way I would have been able to touch my cat if she came to visit me while stretching.

As I stretched, I counted backwards from 30 to help myself hold the move, and I literally had to stop myself from jumping up and down in delight. I was actually doing this!

Day 25

By the 25th day, I knew that I’d clearly made progress. I was still a few inches away from easily touching my toes, but I was really getting there. At this point, I thought back on what I learned about the human body: namely, that it is incredible and malleable. It is capable of change.

Related: What Happened When I Drank Golden Milk For 30 Days Straight

Day 30

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On Day 30 of my stretching challenge, I basically touched my toes, although briefly. In order to fully accomplish my new goal, I realized, I’d have to take this knowledge of my body and head to a yoga studio. So, I searched for a drop-in yoga class near my apartment.

The vinyasa class I walked into was exactly what I needed. Within a few minutes of getting started, I was too busy trying to follow the instructor to worry about whether people would notice how bad I was at yoga.

At one point, I actually fell over, but no one laughed or looked at me with judgment. I have no idea if I was the worst person in the class, but I survived it. And that’s because I put trust in my body.

I intend to go to another drop-in class before the week is over. And now that I’m almost able to touch my toes, I’m going to start a new challenge: I’m going to work on my splits—every morning and every evening.

How My Chronic Pain Changed My Outlook On Friendship

In 2010, a car T-boned me as I was driving on a residential street near my home. I wasn’t hurt, so I drove away—filled with gratitude that it wasn’t worse. But within days, signs of a possible injury started to surface. My fingers tingled in a strange way, and my back, neck, and shoulders were stiff. Within a week, I could barely walk at all.

I went to the doctor and received a diagnosis: It was “mild” whiplash. The pain only increased, though, radiating down my spine like a flaming spear. Months later, I was reevaluated again only to learn that I had been misdiagnosed. I actually had a severe whiplash injury and possible broken bones in my rib cage.

Sure, over the months my insides healed themselves—only, they did so pretty poorly. Because of this, I lost partial range of motion in my neck, and the muscles in my shoulder and neck were damaged.

Before the injury, I was surrounded by friends and parties—always chasing the next thrill, the next experience. I was the sort of person who was up for anything. I wore high heels almost every day and spent nights out with my friends. I was always on the go. I loved to exercise and be outdoors. I rode my bicycle everywhere. I hiked and backpacked on weekends. Sometimes I spent weeks at the coast and in the woods, where I learned to gut my own fish and identify edible plants. My world was big, then. I felt independent and able to explore—wild and free.

Related: I Coped With My Dad’s Illness By Running

But after the injury everything changed. For one, I became much less independent. With my neck’s limited range of motion, I felt unable to safely ride my bike. And I could no longer afford to live in the Bay Area, as I was too injured to work. It became glaringly apparent that I needed to return to Portland, where my family and friends were—and where they could offer emotional support.

Before the injury, I was surrounded by friends and parties—always chasing the next thrill, the next experience.

When I got to Portland, I moved to a not-so-central area. I was unable to go out and socialize because I was in pain, and it was challenging getting my friends to visit—when I reached out to them, they were always at a bar or a show or an opening. Coming to see me at my place, or just coming to my neighborhood, did not sound nearly as alluring as their Saturday night plans.

People I once valued like family became mysteriously absent from my life. I felt forgotten. Only a handful of people were willing to put in the effort to stay in my life. After all, I could no longer stay up all night drinking and dancing in stilettos. The new me wore sneakers and leggings. Mascara? Only if I was really feeling really glamorous.

While my friends finished college degrees and moved on to new careers, I laid on a plush couch in fuzzy sweatpants, plugged-in to a heating pad. I floated on a sea of pain killers, and the dull, throbbing pain resonated through my body like the beating of a heavy drum.

Related: Shop homeopathic products for all your needs.

Looking back, it felt like it was separated into two parts: before the accident, and after the accident. My soul felt divided. I desired pleasure, excitement, and new experiences, but my chronic pain kept me captive in isolation.

People I once valued like family became mysteriously absent from my life. I felt forgotten.

At that point, I learned to sit still with the grief, and in many ways, I am still learning.

I’ve realized that my body is not predictable and it does not care what’s on the agenda. My body is like a difficult child. It throws fits, it raises fists.

Now, I dream of thriving. I dream of wearing fancy shoes and dancing until sunrise. I dream of hiking in the back-country again and riding my bike.

But that’s not in the cards right now.

Related: I Won’t Let My Thyroid Disease Stop Me From Staying Fit

From all of this, I learned a valuable lesson: I realized that before my injury, I extended myself far too much to people who were not right for me. Alarmed with this new knowledge, I learned how to cultivate other kinds of friendships, especially through social media. I met people who cared about the same things I did: writing, poetry, and art. These were people who didn’t need me to be a person who had endless energy, who was always ready to go out. True friends stick together, regardless of how difficult circumstances become. They were willing to make changes in modes of interacting, as life necessitates.

My new friends were willing to travel to “my” side of town to meet in-person. I think, because I chose people who really seemed to care for me, I started seeing people show up for me.

It is hard for me to acknowledge how much I depend on others’ emotional support. Throughout this experience, I had to learn how to ask for help— at first it was an uncomfortable process, but now I am gaining confidence in expressing my needs. I realized that it is a lifelong process to accept and heal the emotional scars of a physical injury.

Eventually, I returned to school to finish my BFA in Nonfiction degree. Now, I am surrounded by solid friends old and new, friends I’ve cultivated in my vulnerability and transparency.

Because I chose people who really seemed to care for me, I started seeing people show up for me.

My friends understand when I cancel plans due to pain, and they don’t judge me for not being as financially secure as they are. I am at a different place in my life than they are, and they have compassion. This injury drew me an unusual path and it’s a struggle. When I’m ill, they ask what they can do to help.

Related:  Shop products that support your unique health goals. 

To those on the outside looking in, people with chronic pain come across as needy, flaky, and high-maintenance. But in reality, we must constantly assert ourselves in order to prioritize our health and honor our bodies. (Yes, I’ve actually had to leave a concert on my birthday before the band even started playing because of a pain flare-up.) So, you never know what someone is dealing with. Outside, I seem healthy, but looks are deceiving.

Living with chronic pain has raised the stakes. I seize every moment I can and cultivate authenticity in every interaction. Learning to fight for my body and advocate for my needs taught me about resiliency and determination. In fact, I have never felt so true to myself as I do now.

Related: 6 Healthy Habits I Wish I’d Learned When I Was Younger

I Traded Jillian Michaels For The Gym—And I’ve Never Been More Motivated

Have you ever known a person who could get away with doing the bare minimum—every time—no matter what? Someone who would half-heartedly do almost anything?

That annoying person was me, in pretty much every aspect of my life, especially when it came to fitness. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was a fear of failure or an intense laziness, but I do know it wasn’t good.

Plus, I was never very athletic growing up. I developed a condition in the cartilage beneath my kneecaps (called Chondromalacia Patella) when I was about 10, so physiotherapy happened more frequently than sports practice ever did.

Because of this, I learned early not to push myself for fear of pain, and that made me avoid exercise altogether throughout my teens. Thankfully, I came to my senses during my time in university and decided I wanted (really, I needed) to get in shape. I wasn’t physically fit, and it was bothering me.

By that time, I was lucky that a lot my knee pain was behind me. All of the physiotherapy I’d gone through in my teens had strengthened my supporting muscles, so I felt like it was time for me to do something—without fear, without doing the bare minimum.

Home workout videos were my first choice. I couldn’t understand why anyone would waste the extra 15-30 minutes going to and from a gym for something you could do right at home. It was cheaper than the gym, and it was more efficient, right? Wrong.

While watching my Billy Blanks kickboxing video, I avoided working out too hard. I would only do the first 35 minutes of a 60-minute workout video before I got bored of the floor work and gave up.

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Years later, I used the same approach with my Jillian Michaels and Tracy Anderson DVDs (don’t judge, I am obviously persuaded by a good infomercial). I’d skip the tough parts, or hit stop when the sweat started to flow too freely. I didn’t really have to push myself. I also didn’t have to put myself out there for everyone to judge me. I felt like if I went to a gym, all people would do is look at me and critique my form.

In my mind, I’d go to the weight room, and have no idea which machines to use. I’d go to the dance aerobics class and feel like an uncoordinated hippo. I’d go to spin class and quietly cry in the corner, wondering why anyone would want to do that to their bodies. It felt far safer (and easier) to stay home and work out without the overwhelming fear of being judged.

So, I continued to work out with my home videos, even after having my first baby—and later, while I was pregnant with my second. I thought to myself, “Yes! Who has time for the gym when you have babies?” as I patted myself on the back.

Related: Shop workout gear and put your best foot forward.

Then, I had my second child and found myself lacking motivation to even pull out my workout videos I knew I needed a change, but I didn’t know where to begin.

After months of looking for local workout options, I found a gym that seemed promising. I watched their videos. I read their blog posts, I saw their before and after photos, and I was completely obsessed with their brand before even starting. They seemed friendly, transparent, welcoming—and not intimidating at all. It was the right fit for me.

And, sure enough, I was hooked after my first class. It was an interval training class—for one hour, complete with sprints on the treadmill and bodyweight and weight training intervals. It made my workout challenging physically, but it wasn’t terrifying.

The class—and the gym—offered a perfect combination of independence and support. Someone showed me exactly how to do each exercise before a new interval set. Then, I was able to lose myself in simple movements like squats and mountain climbers.

On top of that, it was a revelation to be around people again. Maybe it was because my main company had been small children, but the feeling of being “in this thing together” during our workouts was real to me.

Sharing an eye-roll with the person next to me during a particularly long and painful sprint or hearing an epic song during a row—only to catch someone else mouthing the words with you: All of this makes the pain of exercising just a little bit easier.

Part of what has motivated me to keep going has been little things, like knowing I would get charged for a missed class.

Related: How Working Out Through Weight Gain Puts Me At Peace With My Body

But it’s also been the big things, like never feeling intimidated by those I’m working out next to, because there truly are all shapes, sizes, and fitness levels in every class.

The ridiculously fit 20-something is doing her thing next to the older man who is trying to get fit. Both of them are killing it, and it’s inspiring. I know there will always be a place for me on the spectrum of participants, because I see the entire spectrum of bodies and humans, not just a tiny slice of it, in each class.

That, in particular, has been important to me as I struggle to lose the 45 pounds of extra weight I’ve gained since having my second child. Only now, I also have more compassion toward my body instead of seeing it as a failure for not being the size four it once was.

For six months, I have looked forward to every single class I’ve attended. I now wake up at 6 a.m. once a weekend to work out, and that’s because I love the trainers, who push me to work just a little bit harder. I love the ever-changing groups of people I work out with, and I love the regulars that now joke and laugh with me.

Related: Shop protein and fuel your post-workout recovery.

And, more than anything, I love working toward a goal with a bunch of other people. I never really realized or assumed that this was part of the appeal of being in a group fitness class. Now I get it. It wasn’t about being looked at or judged; it was about us all trying, together.

Every time I see someone pushing themselves harder—pushing beyond their comfort zone—it inspires me to do the same. Because if they can do it, so can I.

Nowadays, while I may still settle for my house being “barely clean,” at least I’ll continue going the full mile—literally—when I hit the gym.