How I Learned To De-stress, Gained Energy, & Lost Belly Fat

I lead a pretty busy life: I’m a real estate agent in New York City (which means I’m constantly on the phone or running around or filling out paperwork), my social life is important to me, and I travel often to see family and friends in different states and countries.

Some people thrive emotionally, and even lose weight, from always being on-the-go. For me, though, leading a busy life means carrying around a good deal of stress. I find it virtually impossible to regulate my worrying and just turn off, which my doctor says is a recipe for all sorts of problems, like high blood pressure and insomnia and cortisol overload.

Did you know that cortisol contributes to belly fat? Yeah, I didn’t either—until my gut started getting out of hand when my stress levels grew. The science doesn’t lie: An extract from a study published in Obesity Research found a direct correlation between both stress and cortisol levels and “greater abdominal fat depots.” According to Harvard Health, belly fat isn’t just an aesthetic issue, either—it’s linked to high blood pressure, cardiac disease, and problematic blood sugar levels.

I genuinely wasn’t aware of the terrible lifestyle habits that were linked to my stress until recently. For one, I was too busy to care. Secondly, I wasn’t brought up in a healthy family. I wasn’t raised to eat healthfully, nor was I raised to exercise or be mindful of my body. These just weren’t things my family prioritized, and that sort of thinking stuck in my adult life. Long day? Fried chicken. Lots of paperwork? Sit hunched over at my desk, totally sedentary. Bedtime? Stay up late stress-binging Netflix until 3 a.m. It all contributed to a giant, overbearing sense of disconnection, feeling crappy, exhaustion, and yes, weight gain.

I was clued into needing a change when I realized I was literally living for my job and ignoring everything else. A friend pointed out how stressed I seemed, and how much I’d changed, which was the wakeup call I needed.

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I decided to see both a doctor and a therapist. I needed someone to tell me exactly how bad things were getting—and how to fix the issues. My doctor urged me to eat better, and to eat more frequent, smaller meals. So, I complied.

Instead of eating a burger or pizza or fried chicken whenever I was feeling super-stressed or hungry, I grabbed a fruit shake or smoothie every few hours when I was feeling an energy dip. I won’t lie: I’ll never be in love with nutritious eating, but paying attention to what I’m eating (and when) allowed me to keep my energy levels up and not experience inevitable sugar crashes and stomach distress. I also started adding daily multivitamins to make up for gaps in my diet.

The nutrition aspect was only one part of the whole, however. My therapist suggested I try to “live in the moment” every once in a while. When I had a good day or experienced something pleasant, she suggested I close my eyes and let that thought wash over me. (She also suggested I take that approach every so often with food: sit down with my food instead of inhaling it, being more mindful of the food itself, as well as the experience of eating.)

When it came to managing and de-escalating feelings of overwhelm or stress, she recommended that I take a few deep breaths, acknowledge the stress, and break down my tasks into organized steps. The result? Instead of feeling like I was drowning in a million phone calls or emails or appointments, I was able to separate myself from the moment and then tackle my to-do list with a clear mind.

The last thing I did was disconnect from physical objects, like my phone and my computer. I’d take strategic breaks throughout my busy day. No social media. No news. No emails. I’d let my mind dissolve and I’d just be in the moment. I’m no Zen guru, and I’ll never be “good” at disconnecting (mostly because my job requires me to be connected), but giving myself a few moments to turn off has helped immensely with my stress levels.

Related: 3 Physical Signs You’re Way Too Stressed

Armed with my newfound ability to live in the moment, I didn’t want to disrupt or take away from my efforts by going and throwing it all away at some fast food joint. I even started adding a few workouts to my week. It’s amazing how a new perspective and set of coping tools can refresh your definition of “living well.”

There were many tangible things I noticed after about four weeks of practicing mindfulness. For one, I had more energy throughout the day. At night, I fell asleep at a reasonable hour, instead of letting my thoughts race through my mind, and I slept more soundly. Plus, my gut had actually gotten smaller! I was able to fit into my favorite pairs of jeans and trousers without my belly bulging over the top, and I felt more confident in my workwear. As a real estate agent, you’ve got to look polished and smart, so this was a real win for me.

Before learning (both from my doctor and from my own experiences) that there is a legitimate connection between our bodies and our psyches, I was really risking it with my own sanity and health: Eating what I wanted, whenever I wanted, never stopping to take a moment for myself, and neglecting my body’s needs could never be sustainable, and I’m so glad I made the effort to improve my lifestyle before I put my health at even greater risk.

I Tried Powering My Runs With Caffeinated Gum—Check Out My Results

One of the first things you learn when you start running long distances is how important it is to fuel your body while you’re running. Sure, you need to eat a healthy diet the rest of the time, but if you’re running for an hour or more, you’re probably going to need to gas up your engine while you’re on the go—and that’s not exactly easy.

In my three years of racing everything from 5Ks to marathons, I’ve seen runners down some pretty crazy foods, drinks, and other products, like Gatorade (of course), energy gels, Clif Bloks, Power Bars, bananas, salt tablets, and more. At the Disneyland Paris Half Marathon, aid stations handed out apple slices. At the Boston Marathon, runners grabbed orange slices and gummy bears out of kids’ grubby hands. During the half marathon portion of a half Ironman triathlon, one station even offered Red Bull and soda to runners! (The easy-to-digest simple sugars can really give you an extra boost—especially towards the end of a race—but wow).

The thing is, in order to find out what really works for you and avoid any gnarly stomach issues on race day, you have to test your race fuel during training. The only thing I eat on a run—and only during runs over 10 miles—is a sugar bomb of an energy chew, which I can down in about two bites. Still, I’m game to try anything, so when I heard The Vitamin Shoppe launched Run Gum—not just any gum, but gum that contains energy-boosting vitamins B6 and B12, caffeine, and taurine (an amino acid and antioxidant that can stimulate the muscles) to power workouts and busy days—I was all for seeing if it could give my runs an extra boost.

Here’s how it works: Every packet contains two pieces of gum—and each piece packs about 50 milligrams of caffeine. You can pop one piece for ‘moderate’ energy, or chomp on both for a bigger kick. Run Gum comes in three flavors: fruit, cinnamon, and mint. (I preferred the mint, but like most gum, after about five minutes they all taste basically the same.)

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Since I was in between races, it was the perfect time to experiment with a new type of fuel. For my first trial, I took one fruit-flavored piece right before heading out to run three miles. It was 80 degrees and super-humid—not my favorite running weather—but I didn’t notice anything majorly different about my energy levels, and my pace seemed pretty on par with my usual.

The next day, I chewed one piece of the cinnamon-flavored gum at the start of another three-mile run, and popped a second piece in at the halfway point. I had started out feeling pretty tired (it was a Sunday night and I may have closed down the bar with my friends the night before), but I did feel like I picked up the pace towards the end!

Two days later, I popped one piece of mint Run Gum halfway through my third three-mile run—and that run actually felt the easiest of the three. It was still hot out, but rain had washed away some of the humidity and I’d caught up on my sleep, so I felt like I was back to my normal self.

In the moment, it was hard to judge just how much the Run Gum affected my run performance, especially since the circumstances of my runs were all a little different. (Thanks a lot, rain, heat, and hangovers…) So I turned to my data—and it was a little surprising. According to my Nike Running Club app, my fastest average pace was actually during my first run, when I chewed one piece of gum at the outset and didn’t really notice any energy boost. During my second run, when I chewed two pieces, my speed actually dropped in the last mile—even though I thought I picked up the pace. Maybe all that chewing threw off my perception of my speed… However, it was during my third run, when I started chewing on Run Gum halfway through, that I hit my fastest mile. Score!

Related: 11 Caffeine-Free Ways To Power Your Workouts

With those stats in mind, I thought maybe my first run turned out to be the fastest because I wasn’t really chewing that long while I was running. (I popped the gum into my mouth before I started, chewed for the first half mile or so to get the juice out of it and tossed it.) You see, I find it hard to chew and run at the same time (I can’t drink water and run at the same time either, and usually walk through water stations when I need a drink during races). Using my mouth for something other than breathing was distracting, and I figured that not being able to breathe at full capacity slowed down my pace when I chewed.

That said, that first run was my fastest, so clearly something about using Run Gum to kick off my run worked in my favor, whether it was the caffeine, the vitamins, the taurine, or a combo of the three. Though Run Gum may not replace my go-to fuel for longer-distance races, like half and full marathons (I think I’ll still need the sugar), I’ll definitely try chewing on some Run Gum before training runs and races to jump-start my system.

Not to mention, Run Gum’s energy boost could also prove very handy when that three o’clock slump hits me at work. If I’m going to chew gum anyway, why not chew gum that has perks.

Diggin’ What’s Good? For more essential health facts, tips, and inspiration, join our Facebook communities, Eating Healthy and Staying Fit, today!

How I Finally Stopped Yo-Yo Dieting And Became A Celebrity Weight Loss Coach

For most of my life, struggling with weight was my identity. As early as fifth grade, I noticed I didn’t look like the rest of my peers, and at 14, I attended my first weight loss meeting. I was by far the youngest person there. The then-trendy weight loss program, called Diet Center, involved weekly weigh-ins and an extremely restrictive eating plan of bland lean proteins and vegetables. And so began my life of dieting and fearing food.

Throughout my teens, 20s, and early 30s, I lost and gained the same 35 pounds over and over and over again. I tried every plan imaginable, from the Grapefruit Diet to the Soup Diet, and read as many diet books as I could get my hands on. While I could always lose the weight, I could never keep it off.

I thought I had to follow a strict eating plan, and that if I wavered it even slightly, I was failing. So when I did waver, I became so distressed that I ate everything in sight. I fell into a cycle of restricting food, breaking down, overeating, and punishing myself by restricting all over again.

My relationship with food and my body only grew worse when I started a career as a Broadway actress and singer after finishing my Master’s degree. I knew every extra pound could be the difference between landing a gig or losing it—because agents and casting directors thought nothing of telling me I was too heavy for a role. Food, exercise, and my weight took over my life. I felt great when my weight was down and terrible when it was up. I was either eating plain grilled chicken with salad and exercising for hours a day, or chowing down on anything I felt like and not exercising at all. Healthy balance felt impossible.

After 10 years in theater, I’d had enough. As I walked away from that career, I finally felt free from the constant pressure to be as thin as possible. So what did I do? I completely abandoned exercise and gave in to every temptation, binging on all the food I’d spent a decade trying to deprive myself of. I gained 35 pounds—fast.

Again, I was desperate—but I realized I would never live a healthy, fulfilled life, or maintain a weight I felt good about, with my extreme approach to food and exercise. So, after reading about their flexible, realistic eating plan, I decided to give Weight Watchers a try. Throughout the next five months, I finally shared my insecurities, unhealthy behaviors, and fears at support meetings, which was a huge weight off of my shoulders. I enjoyed pizza, occasional desserts, and wine (all workable in the Weight Watchers program), and shed the weight I’d gained.

I felt like I’d found a family of other people who had struggled the way I did, and the positive environment helped me maintain my weight loss for the first time in my life. When a receptionist job opened up at the company, I applied, thinking it would be a temporary gig. Quickly, though, I became a meeting leader, running 17 group support meetings a week, and found myself helping launch the Weight Watchers website.

As the months and years passed, and I was able to consistently wear the same size clothing, my confidence grew, and my yo-yo ways of the past finally faded. I realized that one slip-up did not have to lead to days or weeks of binging, and that I could return to my healthy eating patterns at my next meal. My life fell into a balance: Instead of thinking of workouts as erasers of bad food choices, I exercised joyfully, savoring walks outside, jogs, and kickboxing. I packed healthy snacks (like nuts or hummus and veggies) for work, and discovered my go-to recipes (like ground turkey and tomato sauce over spaghetti squash). The more consistent my routine became, the easier it was to sprinkle in indulgences without going overboard. Finally, I realized what it meant to be healthy.

After nearly eight years with Weight Watchers—during which I had two beautiful sons and successfully lost 50-plus pounds of pregnancy weight, twice—I became their Director of Brand Advocacy and National Spokesperson, appearing on programs like Dr. Oz, Oprah, and Good Morning America and collecting success stories from members across the country to be featured on our website and in our magazine. I flew from New York to Los Angeles every week to lead meetings for Jessica Simpson and a dozen of her friends and relatives, helped Katie Couric negotiate a healthier on-set buffet table as a newly-minted news anchor, and assured Jennifer Hudson that she could indeed fit Buffalo wings into her meal plan.

It was a rush, and forced me to really step up my own weight maintenance skills as I navigated constant travel, jet lag, time zone changes, and new stress. I learned I couldn’t always be perfect, but I could be consistent. I packed snacks for long flights, turned down alcohol, kept workout gear with me at all times, used hotel gyms, and stocked mini fridges with my own healthy food. No challenge could derail my healthy lifestyle!

After 11 years with Weight Watchers, I decided to take everything I’d learned about balanced living, self-love, and long-term weight loss success and go out on my own to help others get healthy and stay that way. I studied to become a certified personal trainer and nutrition exercise specialist, and have since consulted for weight loss and wellness companies all over the world, and helped all kinds of clients—from celebrities and CEOs to stay-at-home parents—achieve their health and fitness goals.

I think my personal weight loss journey has helped me better understand and support others—and just as my career develops, so does my personal health journey. As I learn and grow, I am constantly fine-tuning my strategy for maintaining a healthy weight and attitude. Maintenance is an active process, and if you want to continue to see success long-term, you have to keep your eyes open to the ever-changing landscape of your life! Sure, as I get older I may not be able to drink as much wine as I used to, or have as much for dinner as my growing sons, but these days I’m excited to find out where my next chapter will take me, and I know that health will be a part of who I am forever.

Liz Josefsberg is a weight loss and wellness expert with over 15 years in the industry, as well as a member of The Vitamin Shoppe’s Wellness Council. A mom, author, fitness enthusiast, and weight loss success story herself (65 pounds lost!), Liz consults all over the world. She loves testing every diet, exercise regimen, device, and piece of gear she can get her hands on. 

I’ve Lost 30 Pounds On Keto—But The Benefits Go Way Beyond Weight Loss

Like a lot of people, I ate a ton of pasta and pizza during my college days. I not only gained the feared “freshman 15,” but my stomach was often a mess. There were days when intense nausea or intestinal pain would prevent me from going to class (or going out at all).

Eventually I saw a doctor, who gave me probiotics to balance my gut, but he also recommended that I remove things from my diet, one by one, to determine the root cause of my digestive issues. Ultimately, the culprit turned out to be those heavy carbs I was eating.

Together, we decided that I’d start a keto diet, which focuses on low-carb and higher fat intake. It also doesn’t restrict the amount of food you eat—it’s not about calorie counting—which was important to me. The goal of keto is to get into a metabolic state called ketosis, which happens when the body is deprived of carbs and starts to break down stores of fat for energy.

To start, I cut out potatoes, bread, rice, soda, cereal, and sugary sweets. (I’ll be honest: I still miss those foods—a lot.) I added healthy fats (like avocados) and tons of protein-packed fish (like salmon, tuna, trout, and swordfish) to my diet. I also upped my intake of specific veggies, such as Brussels sprouts, arugula, and bok choy. To get my pasta fix, I started making veggie noodles with a spiralizer.

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Even though I was making strides in replacing my core foods, learning to count my carbs was certainly an obstacle in the beginning. Most people know that eating fried chicken or cheeseburgers all the time probably isn’t good for you, but with keto, you have to get specific—especially if you want to get into ketosis. For example, you have to be aware of your carbohydrate-to-fiber and natural sugar ratio. I don’t exceed 30 grams of carbs per day. This is pretty challenging because hidden carbohydrates are everywhere.

For the first few weeks, I constantly needed to pull up the approved keto diet list when grocery shopping. I’d often have to put things back on the shelf—especially fruits, which I never realized were so high in sugar. But I eventually got into a routine with it.

A lot of people were skeptical when they heard I was doing keto. They couldn’t conceive of how a diet that allows you to eat a ton of protein and fat could possibly be healthy for you. (Hint: I do not eat bacon all day! I choose clean proteins and healthy fats.)

What works for me is having a variety of clean snacks or small meals on-hand (like avocados, hard boiled eggs, celery and peanut butter, or tomatoes and blue cheese dressing) when I’m hungry. It helps with the cravings—and prevents me from reaching for an easy (and most likely carb-heavy) meal.

Related: Want To Try Keto? Here’s What A Healthy Day Of Eating Fat Looks Like

To me, eating keto has become more than just a diet. It’s a lifestyle.

Even though keto can be pretty hard, it is rewarding: I lost 30 pounds in six months and my digestive problems have totally disappeared. I also have way more energy! Before going keto, I’d reached a point with my weight where I was lethargic and couldn’t do the things I wanted to do—like take long walks with my girlfriend.

The benefits of going keto, however, go well beyond the physical: I feel more in control of my wellness, I’m way more creative about my food, and I’m more mindful of my body and my time.

I’m always researching new and exciting meal options, which keeps keto from being boring or unsatisfying. (There’s usually a keto version of any recipe out there, and it can be a fun challenge to find it and make it.) I usually prep my meals on Sunday nights for the week ahead, which has allowed me to better budget my time (as a recent graduate student and full-time professional, it’s crucial.)

Mostly, I am empowered by my own effort. There’s no quick and easy way to be healthy. Choosing to eat healthfully takes time and focus.

These days, checking nutrition labels has become second nature to me, which is a game-changer. I’ve never paid more attention to what I put in my body! It’s made me more mindful of the fact that quality really is more important than speed and ease.

Like anything else, the more effort you put into keto, the better the overall results. I love knowing that the hard work I’m doing has a direct influence on my physical and mental wellbeing.

I Took Collagen ‘Beauty Shots’ For A Month—Here’s What Happened

With my 30th birthday approaching sooner than I’d like, I’ve spent a lot of time recently looking into how to switch up my beauty routine in order to stave off the inevitable wrinkles. I tried Botox about eight months ago, and while I liked how smooth it made my forehead, it’s not exactly the most cost-effective method to keep lines at bay. So when I heard about Reserveage Nutrition’s Watermelon Mint Beauty Shotsantioxidant and collagen protein-packed beauty drinks that can be taken daily to support healthy, youthful skin—I knew I had to give them a, well, shot. I decided to down one every day for a month in hope of more youthful skin on the horizon.

What’s In A ‘Beauty Shot,’ Exactly?

The star of Reserveage’s beauty shots is the ever-trending collagen protein. “Collagen, an essential building block of healthy skin, is the protein matrix that keeps skin firm and strong,” says Bobby Buka, M.D., board-certified dermatologist and contributing founder and chief science officer of First Aid Beauty. “This collagen can become easily damaged as a result of our daily exposure to environmental factors such as sunlight and pollutants.” And when collagen breaks down, you can say hello to wrinkles.

Each beauty shot (three ounces) contains five grams of hydrolyzed collagen, along with a few other skin-loving ingredients like 90 milligrams of vitamin C (which protects against environmental damage that causes aging), 15 milligrams of biotin (the B vitamin that supports strong skin, hair, and nails), and hydrators like hyaluronic acid, cucumber extract, and aloe vera extract. The label references a study that found that 2.5 grams of collagen per day increased skin elasticity after just four weeks, so considering the beauty shots contained twice that amount of collagen, I was optimistic!

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“When we take collagen, it gets broken down into amino acids by our digestive system,” says Monique Chheda, M.D., board-certified dermatologist. “These amino acids are then absorbed through the gut.” Once absorbed, collagen can be utilized throughout our entire body—not just our skin—so there’s no guarantee where it’ll end up, she explains. (Collagen is also important for gut and joint health.) Though more research is needed on collagen’s skin benefits, both docs I spoke with said there certainly wouldn’t be any downsides to getting more of it!

Shots, Anyone?

As a beauty writer, I have access to the best skin-care products (#workperks) and know I have to be very diligent with sunscreen, so my skin started off in pretty good shape. That said, though, I have started to notice itty-bitty lines forming at the corners of my eyes, and that my face looks more tired and dull than it did in my early and mid-20s.

So given how important collagen is for skin health—and how much pollution I’m exposed to living in New York City—I was pumped to add these beauty shots to my daily routine and see whether I’d notice any differences after a month.

Related: Which Type Of Collagen Is Right For You?

I kept the rest of my relatively low-maintenance beauty routine exactly the same so I could measure whether or not the collagen shots were doing anything: I used a gentle facial cleanser morning and night, applied sunscreen in the morning, and continued my usual retinol serum before bed (retinol is the gold standard wrinkle-fighting ingredient). Once a week, I slathered on a brightening face mask.

I’m always in a rush to get to the office on time in the morning, so I stashed my shots in my bag the night before so I wouldn’t forget to take them. Still, I got home from work most days that first week only to find the shot still in my bag—so I had my first few shots for dessert. Once I started taking them out of my bag as soon as I sat down at my desk, though, getting into the routine grew easier. On crazy-busy days, I often didn’t get around to imbibing until the afternoon, so instead of going out for my usual iced hibiscus tea at three o’clock, I made the beauty shots my afternoon treat. (I consider the four bucks a day I saved a major perk of the experiment.) I even packed a few shots with me on a long weekend of traveling for a friend’s wedding, and knocked them back before moving onto more traditional celebratory beverages (a.k.a. actual shots).

I expected the shots’ watermelon mint flavor to be overly sweet and artificial (when I hear anything is watermelon-flavored, I automatically assume it’s going to taste like a Jolly Rancher), but it was really delicious! Nice and subtle with no weird aftertaste. And despite all of the ingredients in there, the shots went down like water. I worried they’d be goopy or chalky, but they had a thin, pleasant texture. I came to really enjoy drinking my shot every afternoon, and was sad when my 30 days were up.

My Complexion, A Month Later

After 30 days of dutifully downing my shots, I didn’t notice a change in the wrinkles around my eyes—but I did, however, notice that my complexion looked all-around glowier than usual. Prior to the beauty shot experiment, my entire face had been looking pretty lackluster, but the area underneath my eyes had really been riding struggle bus (which probably has something to do with the fact that I don’t always get a full eight hours of sleep) and I often sported dark circles.

By the time my month-long shot habit came to a close, though, not only did my entire face look brighter, but my under-eye area looked much more, well, alive. I even stopped applying under-eye concealer! Since dullness was something I was looking to address, I was really happy to see that these shots had some effect.

Plus, there was another surprising benefit from taking the shots: My nails suddenly felt harder and stronger. (Chheda told me that research suggests biotin may be helpful for strengthening nails, so I credited the biotin in the shots for the unexpected perk.) I bite my nails and they normally break very easily, but by the end of the 30 days, I realized I hadn’t dealt with a cracked nail since before I started guzzling the shots.

Glowy skin aside, I’d continue drinking the shots just to keep my nails strong year-round!

Want to try Reserveage’s Beauty Shots for yourself? Treat yourself to a six pack or two.

I Tried Using Vitamin B3 To Calm My Nerves

Anyone who suffers from a panic disorder, like myself, knows that feelings of panic or anxiety can be predictable—or they can pop up out of nowhere. While I have learned to anticipate—and take measure against—situations that may set me off, I am still vulnerable to the unexpected. To manage my anxious feelings (at one point I was having panic attacks up to six times a day), I’ve had luck using benzodiazepines (one of a few types of anxiety meds, which includes valium and xanax).

In fact, they’re pretty much the only drugs that have ever had the power to alleviate my own hardcore panic attacks in the moment. However, I make it a point not to use them regularly, because, in my experience, if you can ‘ride out’ an attack, it helps to build resiliency.

These drugs can also present some challenges if you take them regularly and then decide to discontinue use (common withdrawal symptoms include sleep disturbances, irritability, and anxiety). My fear lies more in knowing I could build up a tolerance to them if I use them enough, which introduces the bloodcurdling possibility that the drug might not work when I’m really freaking out and desperately need it to work.

So, after doing some thorough research, I learned that a more sustainable, everyday, safe solution might just be readily available—right at my local health food store: vitamin B3.

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Studies, like this one published in ISRN Psychiatry, suggest that some people who experience unstable moods and anxious feelings can benefit from regular, daily use of vitamin B3. That’s because, as was published in another study in Orthomolecular, the vitamin influences the balance of brain chemicals like serotonin, noradrenaline, dopamine, and GABA (all of which control our moods).

After reading the studies, and figuring that I had nothing to lose, I purchased some B3 and tried it for myself. I took 500 mgs a day in the morning and I used no other drugs daily. It’s important to note that people, especially with any sort of health condition, use B3 under the supervision of a doctor.

Related: I Tried Meditation Every Day For A Week—Here’s What Happened

The results

I’m happy to report that I noticed real improvements in the way I felt! Within the first two weeks of taking the supplement, I was much calmer in general. My anxious feelings, which were usually loud and noticeable, quieted down—more like the dull roar of a distant engine. The general feeling of daily distress, which I’d lived with for so long, had subsided, and I had more room to move around in my own psyche without being constantly bombarded by my own anxious thoughts.

Encouraged (and elated!) by these unexpected developments, I wanted to further dive into my own mental wellness. At that point, I started combining the use of B3 with regular exercise, which is known to improve mood and anxiety levels.

By the third week, things only got better.

A month into exercise and B3 usage, I had only had three serious panic attacks. These did require pharmaceutical-drug intervention, but this was a real departure from the number of panic attacks I was having before starting B3.

It was nothing short of a breakthrough for me, as I’m something of a cynic. I didn’t expect the vitamin to work for me (or at least not work to any degree worth mentioning).

Sure, some of this might be the result of a placebo effect, but all I know is that I feel better (and the science backs it up!). I’m no doctor, but I definitely see B3 as a sustainable way to manage my own anxiety. On top of that, I am elated by the prospect of managing my condition more naturally.

I Tried 5:2 Intermittent Fasting For A Month—Here’s How It Went

My natural hunger cues have always left me itching for something to nosh on every three or four hours, so when my Mom swapped her three-meals-a-day eating style for smaller, more frequent meals back in the early 2000s, I became a certified grazer, too.

On a typical day, I’d enjoy six mini-meals: I’d start the day with a Bulletproof coffee and a little Greek yogurt, munch on a protein bar and an apple mid-morning, go for a salad with chicken and veggies at lunch time, enjoy a slice of avocado or almond butter and banana toast mid-afternoon, have grilled chicken and sautéed spinach for dinner, and snack on an apple with peanut butter before bed.

In college, eating these smaller, more frequent meals helped me avoid the ‘Freshman 15,’ and later, at the office, it kept me focused on my work. Research has even linked a ‘grazing’ eating style with lower fasting insulin levels, and I’ve found it keeps my blood sugar and energy levels nice and stable.

After ditching my cubicle to go full-time freelance this January, though, my grazing basically transformed into non-stop inhalation of almond butter. Whether seven o’clock in the morning or nine o’clock at night, you’d find me in the kitchen with a spoon in one hand and a jar of Justin’s nut butter in the other. I was spooning my way through a jar of nut butter every three to four days, and it was time to kick the habit.

As a CrossFit® athlete and health and fitness journalist, I’m constantly charging after new goals, learning about trends, and reading up on the latest research—and I wondered if intermittent fasting, which I’d seen lots of buzz about, could help me nip my out-of-control grazing in the bud. Curious, I decided to give it a go for a month.

Intermittent fasting, which is basically the exact opposite of my grazing ways, is the practice of abstaining from food, typically for extended periods of time. Though fasting has roots in many religions, including Christian, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhist, and Islam, it’s become popular in the wellness community in recent years for its weight loss and health benefits.

The thing with intermittent fasting: There’s no one right way to do it. Some approaches involve completely nixing food for two days per week, others involve eating only during a small six- to eight-hour window every day, and others involve eating just 500 calories a day two days per week.

Related: Is Intermittent Fasting Really All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

I usually eat between 2,200 and 2,400 calories a day, so going full days without any food did not appeal to me (how would I train?). I opted for a type of intermittent fasting known as 5:2 fasting.

Five days a week I’d eat as usual, but on two non-consecutive days, I’d limit myself to just 500 calories a day.

I still had hesitations: Could this approach help me overcome my nut butter habit? Would I be able to stick to it for a full month? Would it affect my workouts?

I hit up one of my favorite dietitians, Jessica Crandall, R.D, who’s a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, to talk through my concerns. “If you’re an athlete, you need to plan when you’re going to take a rest or recovery day, and match that up with when you’re going to fast,” she told me.fasting is going to help with recovery? She also advised me to pay close attention to how I felt on the lower-calorie days, and to look out for any nausea, lightheadedness, or cramping.

I followed Crandall’s advice and planned out my first week so I’d fast on Thursday (when I’d do yoga instead of CrossFit) and Sunday (when I’d take a full rest day). In week one, I ate normally Monday through Wednesday and made an effort not to over-indulge on Wednesday night in anticipation of Thursday.

Week 1, Fasting Day 1

I’ll just come right out and say it: My first low-calorie day was a total fail.

I started off okay, whipping up my usual Bulletproof coffee (coffee with MCT oil, butter, and collagen protein) in the morning and sitting down to work until lunch. I’d normally drink my brew (which clocks in at 185 calories) and down my first two mini-meals in that time, but knowing I needed to make my 500 calories last all day, I sucked it up and stuck with just the coffee.

And then noon rolled around… My belly’s excessive grumbling let me know my body was not happy about this switch in routine, so I opened the fridge, looked longingly at my PB, and grabbed a Granny smith apple (60 calories) instead, hoping the fiber would help keep me satiated a little while longer.

An hour later I was hungry again, and I’d already ‘used up’ more than half of my prescribed daily calories. I no longer wanted a scoop of peanut butter; I wanted a 32-ounce steak.

I compromised by grilling up some chicken (200 calories), and luckily felt satiated.

Things went truly awry a few hours later, however, smack in the middle of a downward dog at yoga. I felt lightheaded and unstable (which didn’t surprise me considering I’d consumed just 465 calories, as opposed to my usual 1,500 by this point), and needed to avoid any positions where my head went below my waist for the rest of class. I left feeling agitated.

So what did I do? Hit up my favorite healthy chain, Sweetgreen, and order my go-to: a beet and goat cheese salad with chicken. I tweaked my order and skipped goat cheese and dressing to save some calories, and though the meal tasted pretty flavorless, it still clocked in at around 500 calories. Oops.

That salad made me feel human again, but it pushed my total calorie intake to 965 calories—almost twice more than I was prescribed.

Week 1, Fasting Day 2

I woke up wildly hungry the day after my first attempted fast and housed a three-egg, turkey, cheese, and broccoli omelet, and two slices of buttered whole-grain toast for breakfast. My total calories for the day came in higher than usual, at around 2,500.

On Sunday, my second fasting day, I slept until eleven and opted for a large (like very, very large) black iced coffee and three eggs for breakfast (210 calories).

I hoped my late start would make the rest of the day easier, but by mid-afternoon my stomach was growling again. I tried the fiber approach again by snacking on some carrots (110 calories), and they held me over for another two hours. For dinner, I grilled up some more chicken (200 calories) and sliced up half an avocado (120 calories).

I definitely didn’t feel satisfied or well-fueled. I noticed I’d been responding to emails at a sluggish pace, and again, I caved. I made myself a piece of plain Ezekiel toast (80 calories) so I could power through my inbox, and hit the hay having once again exceeded my calorie limit. At least I was only 200 calories over this time?

Tweaking My Approach

Clearly, week one didn’t go well. My body seemed okay overall—my digestion was still regular and my weight hadn’t changed—but I just didn’t feel good. I spent my first fasting days constantly thinking about food and had to lower my usual squat weight by 10 pounds during Friday’s workout. On Saturday, my training partner also commented that I seemed to be moving slower than usual.

I called Crandall again, and she suggested I increase my calorie intake to 750 and up my protein on fasting days. “As an athlete, you don’t want to put yourself at risk for muscle loss or nutrient deficiencies,” she said. “so try eating egg whites for breakfast and even more lean proteins, like chicken or beef, throughout the day,” she said. I hoped the tweaks would be enough to power my workouts and not feel supremely miserable on lower-calorie days.

Weeks Two And Three

Luckily, my next two weeks went significantly smoother. My digestion continued as normal, and while I was still a little testy on my low-cal days, I got through it. The best part, though? I kept my peanut butter addiction under control throughout my five normal eating days and consistently ate between 750 and 800 calories on my fasting days, which felt much more manageable than trying to stick to 500. Following Crandall’s advice, I made sure the bulk of my fasting-day calories came from proteins. I also focused on high-antioxidant vegetables, which she said would help with satiety and muscle recovery.

I settled into a routine on fasting days that looked like this:

  • Breakfast: large black coffee, two eggs, one egg white (160 calories)
  • Snack: granny smith apple (60 calories)
  • Lunch: undressed spinach salad with half a pound of grilled chicken (240 calories)
  • Dinner: half a pound of grilled chicken or pork with sautéed kale (250 calories)
  • Snack: apple or serving of baby carrots (50 calories)

My biggest remaining issue: that my Monday and Friday workouts (which followed fasting days) still suffered. I felt strong for the first 25 to 40 minutes, but then petered out. When I rowed, my calories-per-hour dropped by about 200; when I ran, I tacked 20 seconds onto my mile time; and when I did burpees (which are usually my thing), I felt like I was moving through molasses. Crandall explained that this was probably due to low carb intake on my fasting days.

Making It Through The Month

After four weeks of fasting, I stepped on the scale to see that I’d dropped two pounds—and losing weight wasn’t even my goal. My body fat percentage didn’t change, though, so I speculate it was just water weight.

Ultimately, my experiment proved that consistently dropping my calories so low twice a week wouldn’t be doable long-term if I wanted to keep training hard. Even after I settled into my routine, I found myself feeling pretty cranky and obsessing over food on fasting days—and day-dreaming about brunch mid-squat!

I will say, though, that the plan definitely did help me kick my nut butter habit. Ditching the calorie-dense creamy stuff on my low-cal days helped me realize I didn’t need that much of it on the other days of the week, aside from my usual nut butter and apple snack—and that’s a win for me.

Diggin’ What’s Good? For more essential health facts, tips, and inspiration, join our Facebook communities, Eating Healthy and Staying Fit, today!

What’s For Dinner? Self-Love

Like most people these days, I live a fast and busy life—which makes it challenging to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. For a while I’d heard that meal prepping could help solve this modern-day conundrum, but it wasn’t until I actually put the practice to the test every Sunday that I realized just how much meal-prepping could change my life for the better.

Taking the time to nurture myself by creating a menu, shopping for ingredients, and preparing foods turned out to be a radical form of self-care: I now find that the more conscious I am of my dietary choices, the more in-touch I feel with my body and the happier I am.

While it may be a bit challenging to start a meal-prep routine, it’s totally worth it. Once you make the effort, you’ll see that each meal yields infinite possibilities. Plus, you save loads of money.

Making your meals in one long stretch is also a creative way to practice mindfulness. Slowing down and meditating on the texture of my food (say, a strawberry’s coating of tiny seeds and ripples) suddenly gives me a sense that everything is linked— the earth, the gardens, the people that grow our foods, my health. I crave that meaning, that awareness, and that connection to my food.

Looking to join the ranks of many joyful meal preppers but don’t know where to start? Here are some of my no-frills methods—hopefully they will inspire you to give it a shot!

The Logistics

Learning to make a variety of meals that will last a full week (and working to stretch the capacity of each dollar) takes a good amount of planning and patience. The biggest challenge for me? Staying organized. With meal prepping, it’s essential to always have all your ingredients on hand. Going to the grocery store for a forgotten item wastes precious time and distracts from the process. My solution: I use my phone to make a shopping list that I update continuously. It includes both pantry staples I’m running low on, as well as foods I need for the week ahead.

Since I usually cook several dishes for the week ahead, I use my phone to set separate alarms for each item— this helps the process go smoothly. I time out how long each item will take to be ready, and then cook the dishes that take the longest first.

So, what do my meals look like? I tend to prefer a simple Mediterranean-inspired diet, with lots of grains, greens, lean proteins (like fish and chicken), legumes, and olive oil.

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Breakfast

find that mornings are the most challenging time of the day to eat healthy, given I’m always rushing around. Especially Monday mornings. Meal prep is a life saver for anyone who tends to get caught unintentionally skipping breakfast. 

While many meal-preppers praise fresh granolas and all kinds of chia puddings carefully placed into Pinterest-perfect, photo-ready Mason jars, I’m not in this for the social media stardom.

I keep breakfast nice and simple, with lots of fresh fruit, like fresh pineapple, guava, and blueberries or strawberries. I chop up and portion out these tropical fruits (one cup of fruit per breakfast) and then stash them in round, glass Tupperware containers.

Dinner & Lunch

I use a crockpot to make the bulk of my lunches and dinners. I always start my crockpot dish before everything else, as they take the most time to cook. My favorite recipes are white bean soup, butternut squash stew, a white bean turkey chili, and “Cincinnati Style” chili. I dream of having two, or even three, crockpots going at all times.

Base Ingredients

After I get the crockpot going, I prepare—on the stove top—whole grains, which act as a base for other meals and can also be added to salads. Using grains in my dishes helps me save money and diversify my diet, since grains (and beans and legumes) are pennies per portion.

Polenta, rice, and steel-cut oats are all cost-effective and delicious, and quinoa is a staple in most of my meals, as are French Green lentils, which I spoon upon salads. I usually portion out a half cup of grains for each of my meals, and store them in glass Tupperware containers.

Related: The Instant Pot Is A Meal Prep Master—And These 6 Recipes Prove It

Salads

I love and live off of salads. To save time, I buy bags of julienned carrots and triple-washed boxed greens. Pro-tip: Arugula, kale, and spinach keep the best.

On Sundays, I portion out five days’ worth of salads, starting with five separate handfuls of greens. Then I prep and portion out the toppings (about one quarter to one half cup per topping). Once assembled, each salad is a ready-to-go meal, sans dressing and toppings. (Keep the dressing and toppings in small glass Tupperware containers or baggies.)

I want each salad I enjoy to be slightly different, so I shop in the bulk section to purchase nuts, seeds, and other healthy toppings like dried fruits. I love coupling candied pecans, crumbled walnuts, halved hazelnuts, or shaved almonds with crumbled goat cheese, dried cranberries or cherries (or fresh blueberries or strawberries, when in-season), and thinly-sliced red onions.

For protein and an energy boost, I also top my salads with chopped roasted chicken (about three ounces). Or, I add a can of sardines for a dose of heart-healthy omega-3s. Sometimes I add freshly-cooked and seasoned chickpeas, fresh from the crockpot).

Veggies and Peppers

Root vegetables—like carrots, fennel, beets, and potatoes—take the longest to cook. Each week I roast a huge tray of beets and a bunch of vegetables (which I later eat chopped on a salad or on a bed of rice or quinoa).

Faster-cooking peppers, zucchini, yellow and summer squashes, asparagus, onion, and garlic take less time, so I cook them later on during my Sunday meal prep session.

Pro-tip: Heating everything in the oven at once saves time and energy, and keeps the kitchen cool in the hot summer months.

Diggin’ What’s Good? For more essential health facts, tips, and inspiration, join our Facebook communities, Eating Healthy and Staying Fit, today!

I Had My Thyroid Removed—Here’s How I Stay Healthy Now

In the spring of 2014, my allergies hit me hard—or so I thought. I was constantly stuffy, was plagued by ear pain and pressure (which I just attributed to the fact that I was blowing my nose so much), and had a raspy voice. But I was a busy working, single mom, so I just took my usual OTC medications and waited for my symptoms to pass with my son’s little league season.

A month later, though, I still felt awful and was relieved that my yearly checkup with my internist was coming up. The appointment started out as it normally did: My blood pressure and weight were perfect and I had no problems to report except for allergies. But things took a turn when my doctor felt around my neck and under my jaw and noticed a grape-sized lump.

From there, things happened at warp speed. An ultrasound soon revealed that I had a four-centimeter tumor covering the right lobe of my thyroid gland, which turned out to be a follicular variant of papillary carcinoma, and that I needed surgery to remove the entire gland. A few months after that, I’d have to swallow a radioactive iodine pill to take care of any remaining cancer cells.

People told me thyroid cancer was a ‘good’ cancer, because if found and treated early, I wouldn’t die. (Thyroid cancer has a survival rate of nearly 97 percent after five years, and I’m almost at my five-year mark as I write this.) However, having just lost a vital gland and gained a lifetime of medication, invasive tests, and doctor appointments, I didn’t quite see it that way. Post-thyroidectomy would require a lifetime of surveillance—not to mention anxiety about cancer returning.

I also didn’t realize just how important my thyroid was until it was gone. You see, this butterfly-shaped gland is like your body’s battery; the hormones it stores and produces affect the function of every organ in your body. Your thyroid regulates your metabolism and influences everything from your weight to your energy levels to your body temperature to your mood—and it’s hard to be a good mom, professional, and human being when you’re exhausted and depressed.

Related: Could You Have A Thyroid Issue?

Before having my thyroid removed, I weighed a healthy 119 pounds at five-foot-four, was clear-headed, energetic, and happy, and I slept well. I loved chasing my son around the park, taking our pup hiking, working out, and dating. I ate a healthy diet but didn’t have to worry about weight gain if I indulged in foods like bread or pasta. I had a fine-tuned metabolism and was always on-the-go!

With my thyroid gone, though, I had to start taking a drug called Synthroid (which is synthetic thyroid hormone) every morning, two hours before having any coffee or food—and I quickly learned that replacing a vital gland with a drug would be a roller-coaster of a science experiment.

Sure, I was alive—but I had no quality of life.

Immediately after my surgery, I was put on a very high dose to suppress my thyroid-stimulating hormone (which is the pituitary gland’s signal to the thyroid to get working) so cancer cells couldn’t grow back. I felt hot and red-faced, had night sweats and anxiety, and was constantly drained. Even though my diet did not change, I started to gain weight—and my fatigue made it difficult to exercise regularly. My confidence plummeted. I had to buy all new jeans. Some days I just wanted to hide under my covers.

After six months, my doctor lowered my Synthroid dose—a lot—because my bloodwork said I was in the normal range for someone without a thyroid. But I didn’t feel normal at all.

Now I was chilly, constantly covered in goosebumps, forgetful, and still depressed—not to mention my hair was falling out, my legs retained water and looked puffy, and my skin had become ruddy and red. I easily lost track of what I was doing and felt tired after a full night of sleep. The weight gain continued (20 pounds total) and I felt like I was 85, not 35. Frustrated and angry, I started cutting calories in an attempt to shed those pounds, but that only sabotaged my metabolism more.

Sure, I was alive—but I had no quality of life. For two and a half years, three different doctors did little more than tell me I was fine. Frustrated and angry, I put my background in health journalism to use to find myself the best doctor I could.

I got an appointment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City with an endocrinologist named Dr. Laura Boucai, who not only specializes in thyroid cancer maintenance, but in quality of life after thyroid cancer. For the first time, a doctor really sympathized with me, and I spent much of that first appointment crying. I was used to being shushed, reminded that I didn’t have a deadly cancer, and told to deal with my ‘new normal.’

After an ultrasound and blood work, Dr. Boucai determined my thyroid levels were way too high and my Synthroid needed to be adjusted fast. She also told me that my lifestyle was just as important as my prescription and that I’d have to stick to a few new rules, like drinking lots of water, exercising every single day, and being careful with carbs.

I had no idea how I’d make it all happen. After all, not only was I dealing with my major health problems, but I was also raising my son solo, rushing him to his math tutor and following his social calendar, and working full-time. My doctor made me realize, though: I didn’t have a choice. It was time to get tough!

Attitude was everything; not feeling sorry for myself made all the difference.

So I stopped putting sugar in my coffee, saved pasta (gluten-free) for Sundays only, started wrapping sandwiches in lettuce, and stuck to nuts and raw fruits and veggies for snacks instead of my usual salty pretzels and pita chips. I also committed to exercising at a challenging pace for an hour every single day—a major step up from my usual four weekly workouts.

Meal planning helped a lot. Every Sunday night, I cooked a huge batch of grilled chicken and quinoa salad with peppers, kale, and a sprinkle of feta. I also stocked my fridge with Greek yogurt, tuna packets, cold bean salad, and a pitcher of lemon water. Not having to think about what I was going to eat made it easier to stay on track with my busy schedule.

And when I dropped my son off at soccer practice in the evenings I hit the track for a fast-paced walk or run and ran up and down the bleachers. I also rekindled my friendship with the elliptical in our apartment complex’s gym, and started walking and hiking with our golden retriever again. I joined a barre studio (talk about burn and sweat!) and bought tennis rackets for my son and me.

Throughout the next four months, I lost 14 pounds, gained back my confidence, and started feeling like my old self again. Attitude was everything; not feeling sorry for myself made all the difference.

My new, simple outlook on life is this: Something terrible happened to me, but it will not define me. Sure, I’ll always have to have my blood-work and Synthroid dose checked every few months, but I finally have the energy and drive to really live. And that scar on my neck? It’s barely visible anymore, but I like it. It’s a battle scar that reminds me I’ve been there, conquered that.

Diggin’ What’s Good? For more essential health facts, tips, and inspiration, join our Facebook communities, Eating Healthy and Staying Fit, today!

I Have The WORST Allergies—Here’s How I Manage Them Naturally

I wasn’t always allergic to life. As a kid, growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I tumbled through nature and its millions of spores, motes, and pollen on a daily basis, climbing trees and digging holes. And I never once had any allergies. We always kept pets in our house, and my tabby cat Tigger slept in my bed with me every night. I rode horses. I gardened. I was a child of nature.

Fast forward to age 12: All of that peacefulness screeched to a halt—or, came out as a sneeze, really. During the spring of seventh grade, I had such bad hay fever symptoms that my teacher would sit me in the back of class by myself, along with a box of tissues and a personal garbage can.

I was sneezing non-stop, eyes puffy and running. I felt like my throat had been replaced by a hornet’s nest. The only thing my mother knew to do was pump me full of Benadryl. But for me, the medicine was a coma-inducer: I’d experienced slurred speech, brain fog, and an immediate need to lay down and sleep the whole thing off. No joke.

At the allergist, they prodded me with 20 different needles, testing me for allergies to cat dander, tree pollen, dust mites, and much more. Nineteen of my 20 testing sites flared up in angry, itchy bumps, like mosquito bites with an agenda. The results were in: I was allergic to everything there was to be allergic to. (The one thing I was immune to? Bee stings.) Oh, and I’d developed allergy-induced asthma as part and parcel of the deal.

My doctor recommended immunization, a method of injecting small amounts of allergens into a patient to slowly immunize them to the supposed invader. I say “supposed” invader because that’s kind of what allergies are: Your body thinks that everything’s an attacking enemy, so it sends out distress signals, sort of like soldiers to the front line. Your body is constantly at war, but with nothing at all.

Along with the allergy shots, I was prescribed what has now become an over-the-counter treatment of loratadine, and then later fexofenadine, and a whole litany of other antihistamines. I also started using a rescue inhaler, slept with plastic bed casings, stopped cuddling with my cat, and limited my time outdoors.

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The thing was, none of those treatments completely worked. I didn’t have constant hay fever symptoms anymore, but if I came into contact with any allergens, like cats or dust or pollen, my symptoms returned—often with hives and wheezing. We then tried isolating foods to see if it was a food allergy. It wasn’t.

Fast forward to my adult years. I decided I didn’t want to take daily allergy pills or immunization shots anymore so I started doing research on natural remedies. I went to the natural food store and stocked up on raw, local honey, which my doc said might work. I took a little bit of it every day.

The idea is that local honey comes into contact with the flora that is native to where you live, so by ingesting some of it every day, you’re slowly immunizing yourself against local allergens. I can’t say for certain whether or not it was the honey (research on using local honey for allergies is mixed), but my seasonal challenges significantly decreased over time. Plus, it tasted delicious.

Related: 7 Natural Ways To Survive Allergy Season

On top of the honey, I also take daily probiotics. A healthy gut is essential to a healthy immune system and I truly think they’ve helped keep my symptoms somewhat at bay.

I’ve stopped trying to avoid allergens everywhere I go, mostly because it’s nearly impossible! I still live with a cat, I go outdoors, and I threw out all the plastic bed casings that my doctor recommended earlier on (I don’t know if you’ve tried sleeping with a plastic pillow case under your cloth pillow case, but let me tell you, it’s ridiculously slippery and uncomfortable, and makes you feel like a hospital patient.) Essentially, I’ve re-introduced myself to the world.

So what’s the conclusion? Though my symptoms have improved, I still have allergies. I still get attacks, often in the forms of hives and wheezing, but they pass. If it’s really bad, I’ll take an over the counter pill and use my rescue inhaler. It’s not a terrible price to pay for being able to snuggle with my cat and take in a deep, fresh breath of air.

Diggin’ What’s Good? For more essential health facts, tips, and inspiration, join our Facebook communities, Eating Healthy and Staying Fit, today!

I Tried Online Therapy—Here’s Why I Stuck With It

Getting to the doctor can be pretty nerve-wracking for anyone, but it’s especially challenging for me. I live with two co-occurring autoimmune diseases, along with generalized anxiety disorder. I also work full-time at a university library. In short, I’m tired.

Dragging my fatigued body to and from the doctor’s office is not exactly high up on my list of things I want to be doing, but therapy, for me, isn’t optional. So, when my psychiatrist started offering telemedicine (a fancy word for digital doctor appointments), I quickly took her up on the option.

Telemedicine doesn’t require much tech-savviness at all. To meet, my doctor uses a third-party telemedicine client, Chiron Health, which simply emails me a link to her calendar and to our appointment information. After I pay my copay (which is the same, for me, as an in-person appointment), it takes me to a teleconference screen where we can both see each other and talk to each other in real time.

There’s no noticeable lag in sound or video and we’ve only had technical issues once. Plus, I can access all of this using my phone, which has saved me on days that I’m unexpectedly not near a computer.

All of that is a real win, but at first, I was worried that there could be issues with the lack of in-person contact.

Would she still be able to read my body language? Would my symptoms be less apparent because she could only see part of my body? Would we meet as often? Was I still going to get the same quality of care as before?

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In time, the answers became clear: If anything, the quality has improved. We meet more frequently now because this option has eliminated many physical and psychological access barriers. I’m even more inclined to make and keep visits because I know how easy it will be.

The video range is also generous. My doctor can see my entire upper body, whether I’m wringing my hands or getting weepy.

Above all, telemedicine allows me to remain in the comfort of my own home or office without having to waste precious time getting to and from the doctor’s. Even setting up the appointment is easier: I rarely have to call her office.

I’ve always felt like I’ve been chasing a sense of calm. With the exception of my therapist, doctors have only ever caused me anxiety—but telemedicine has been like salve on that wound.

When I leave a session, I can breathe. I come away feeling like I’ve addressed my mental health without the stress of logistics, and can immediately get back to work. It’s like a recalibration.

Of course, telemedicine is not a catch-all. If I need bloodwork done, for example, I still need to go see my primary care doctor.

Related: 6 Supps That Enhance Your Memory And Help You Focus

There’s also a level of personal accountability that is necessary when it comes to using telemedicine. For example, it works for me because I know my body and am in sync with my wellness. I’m keenly aware of my ups and downs and I know how to communicate this without the physical proximity. Where others may need the in-person treatment, for me it removes barriers.

The option of logging onto my phone and talking to my doctor allows me to focus more on the issues I actually need to talk about, as opposed to the stress of getting there and rearranging my schedule to accommodate travel time.

It’s so, so important to find the right ways to heal ourselves—whether that means seeing a doctor in person or using your phone to keep on top of your well-being. It’s nice to have options, and I personally prefer digital therapy.

We Asked, You Answered: Top 15 Gym Pet Peeves

The gym is a place of transformation, inspiration, and hard-earned victories. But let’s face it—it’s also a place full of, well, personalities. From the people who grunt extra loudly to the folks who refuse to wipe their mats down after use, there’s always someone bending (or full-on breaking) the rules of gym etiquette. We asked The Vitamin Shoppe Instagram followers to share their biggest gym gripes, and here’s what they said:

 

 

 

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Like this post? Get more like it in our Facebook group, Staying Fit With The Vitamin Shoppe. 

How Quitting Dieting Changed My Life

On my 30th birthday party, I wore a brand new outfit—a beautiful black dress I’d bought just for the occasion—but something felt off. Looking at myself in the mirror, I picked apart everything about my too-large, too-lumpy body. My new dress rode up on my belly and the off-the-shoulder neckline wouldn’t stay put.

“Can I get you a snack?” my partner innocently asked, and I barked something about being so fat I didn’t need any food.

With only 20 minutes to go before my guests arrived, I was  feeling shaky, and longing for something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

I chose to quit dieting because I could see it eroding my sense of self, and I could even feel it tearing my partner and I apart.

I kind of knew what this was all about: I’d been on a diet of some sort since I was a child. Twenty years of restrictive dieting had conditioned me to feeling a constant, gnawing lack of something. Times of high stress (like planning a big birthday party) tended to heighten this feeling.

Earlier in the year, I had started reading the inimitable comedian and activist Lindy West. Her body-positive courage made me question everything I had ever believed about my own body. She wrote in The Guardian, “The ‘perfect body’ is a lie. I believed in it for a long time, and I let it shape my life, and shrink it—my real life, populated by my real body. Don’t let fiction tell you what to do.”

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Looking at myself in my beautiful birthday outfit and listening to my partner clanging around the kitchen, working hard to create special dishes for my birthday, I suddenly remembered West’s words. They jolted me out of my stupor and helped me decide on the biggest gift I would ever give myself—the gift no one else could ever give me: I would quit dieting.

I chose to quit dieting because I could see it eroding my sense of self, and I could even feel it tearing my partner and I apart. I told myself it would only be for a year, that I had gotten too invested in dieting, too invested in superficiality, and that a break would do me good. But nearly two years later, I haven’t looked back.

There have been numerous studies and articles about the harmful impacts of dieting and the fact that BMI is more like BS-I, causing doctors to overlook symptoms of real illness in favor of recommending a patient lose weight. Advocates have even developed alternative ways of measuring health, including the Association for Size Diversity’s campaign, Health at Every Size. Put simply, dieting can be bad for you, physically and mentally.

Related: Does BMI Really Matter?

I didn’t find all of this research until well after I’d made the decision to step back from restrictive dieting, and it further encouraged me to take my health seriously. But instead of dieting, I focused on eating healthful foods, getting movement, and generally taking care of my well-being.

The first weeks after I quit dieting were overwhelming. When my partner and I were out to eat, I felt paralyzed by the options on the menu. Before, I had searched out the item with the least fat or carbs, but after I’d quit dieting, I could suddenly eat anything I wanted. What did I even like? I’d spent years saying I didn’t enjoy dessert, but was that even true?

Grocery shopping was an even more daunting task. If I wasn’t sticking to a strict diet, how did I know what to eat? If my partner didn’t have to prepare my dish separately so it used less olive oil, would that mean I could just eat whatever he prepared?

I was faced with a deluge of new considerations and new opportunities. For a while, I was lost in a sea of indecision, but the longer I stayed away from restrictive dieting, the more I found foods I actually enjoyed—many of which are nutritious (and some of which are delicious, chocolatey brownies).

The strangest part of quitting dieting has been learning to understand my body and allowing myself to feel what I feel. In the past, when and what I ate was organized, pre-approved, and scheduled down to the minute. I didn’t allow myself to feel hunger. I learned to ignore those evolutionary signals that meant I needed food.

Now, after almost two years of not dieting, I am trying to learn what it feels like to feel a little hungry or a medium amount of hungry. My therapist and I believe there are signals that I’m growing hungry, but that I’ve spent a lifetime learning not to listen to those signals. So, I have to learn anew, like a baby learning to crawl.

What does that mean practically? I have a fast-paced lifestyle and a couple of jobs. So, I now carry snacks. I try to keep a little something nutritional on me at all times so I can answer my hunger pangs with something satisfying: fresh fruit, trail mix, seaweed, and snack bars boosted with fiber and protein. I even carry brownies when the mood strikes.

The other part of quitting dieting is renegotiating my relationship to exercise. Before, exercise had been a source of punishment. How hard would I need to work out to make up for that Indian buffet I went to? Which weights should I lift to try to make my arms look less flabby?

During one period I became obsessed with a very thin friend’s (unhealthy) workout routine and wanted to replicate it. I did this, until one day I realized that my legs just wouldn’t stop shaking. I sat down on the bench and realized I was lightheaded. I called my partner crying, begging for a ride home.

These days, I don’t use exercise as punishment. I try to enjoy my exercise! Instead of taking on daunting exercise regiments that work for someone else, I try to figure out what makes me happiest. I love walking. I love riding my bike. I love yoga. I even enjoy Zumba. 

What I love the most is being outside with my dogs and my partner, exploring new spaces or gardening. Instead of forcing intense exercise into my routine, I’ve tried to change my routine to include more frequent and longer spans of time where I can be active.

I no longer weigh myself, either. After decades of knowing exactly how much I weighed, down to the ounce, I now have genuinely no idea. Some of my old clothes fit. Some don’t—especially those items that I purchased to shame myself into losing weight. I wish I could say it never bothers me, but that wouldn’t be true.

These days, I don’t use exercise as punishment. I try to enjoy my exercise! Instead of taking on daunting exercise regiments that work for someone else, I try to figure out what makes me happiest.

Last week, I wanted to wear a nice shirt, but none fit just right. One was too tight on my arms, another wouldn’t button over my chest. I started down the same self-hating path and was inundated by the harmful thoughts and instincts I’d developed over a lifetime of counting calories and punishing my hunger.

I made myself sit down, let myself feel ashamed and overwhelmed and angry and pitiful, took a few breaths, and reminded myself that I quit dieting for a reason.

Most of the time, I feel ambivalent about my body and I think that’s just fine. Compared to the decades of loathing everything about myself, ambivalence is an improvement. Sometimes I also feel proud. It takes a lot of courage to fight the stigma and harmful narratives around being fat or a person of size (we aren’t all comfortable with the same way of describing ourselves).

Related: Why I Never Hide My Plus-Size Body At The Gym

I try to push myself every day to look for and tell stories of fat people. I try to fight the hatred I’ve internalized and instead celebrate the strong, beautiful body I do have, even if no one else does.

My focus is no longer on denying my needs, but embracing them—finding ways to create greater health and wellness for myself in the broadest possible definition.

I won’t tell you quitting dieting wasn’t scary—it was. But now I actually understand my body better. I look back on the night I decided to quit dieting, and remember laughing with friends and eating amazing food. I look back on my friends sharing stories about what they love and cherish about me. I look back on a person who, possibly for the first time, wasn’t denying herselfThat’s who I want to be, always.

The Oil You’ve Never Heard Of That Saved My Face

Anyone who has dry skin knows that managing it can be a never-ending, often painful challenge. The most uncomfortable permutation of my own dry skin is the malar rash I get on my face. A malar rash is also known as a “butterfly rash”—an irritated patch of skin that stretches across the cheeks and over the bridge of the nose.

Two years ago, I had flaky and sore neon-pink triangles on either side of my nose. After a wash, the dead skin would peel off leaving the skin raised and inflamed. This was the kind of enemy that could not be defeated by mere soap and coconut oil. 

Fed up with the affliction, I wanted to finally nail down an effective skin routine that didn’t take hours or leave me feeling raw. My skincare-enthusiast friends expertly assembled an assortment of expensive, high-quality products that promised to fix my face: cleanser, gentle exfoliant, toner, and moisturizer. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, first of all, all those excellent products didn’t work. The rash persisted. Moisturizers failed, making me feel like I was wearing a cling-film mask. And the toner dried out my damaged skin even more.

But everything changed when my friend sent me a bottle of maracuja oil. The contents of the enticing little bottle hadn’t worked for her oily skin type, so when she heard about my skincare struggles, she passed it along.

After just one application, I was hooked.

Maracuja oil comes from the seed of the passionfruit, known to scientists as Passifloraedulis, which is native to tropical and subtropical areas in South America. Products bearing the same name may also come from Passiflora incarnata, more commonly referred to as a passion flower, which is a wild vine that populates the southern United States. Both varieties are packed with nutrients known for promoting skin health, most notably the antioxidants vitamin C and vitamin B, as well as oleic and palmitic fatty acids.

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For optimal results, I rub an approximated silver dollar amount over my hands and massage it into my face. Since I use so much oil, it does take a minute or so to work it in, but my desert-dry face absorbs the moisture like a dehydrated sponge. To finish the job, I like to apply a vitamin E cream on top.

I apply the oil after cleansing in the morning and before going to bed. Using it gives me an extra layer of protection against the elements and keeps my face feeling supple and healthy.

Though my skin sometimes maintains a little redness, the hydration provided by the maracuja oil has helped manage the flaky dryness and keeps the area smooth. I’m also pleased to note that long-term use has not resulted in any pore clogging or increase in pimple activity!

Related: All The Ways I Use Tea Tree Oil In My Beauty Routine

Maracuja isn’t the only oil I use to tame the horsemen of the apocalypse doing their best to wreak havoc on my face. I also love camellia oil as a make-up remover and cleanser. I have experimented with various other oils as a primary staple, but many make me feel greasy, rather than hydrated.

Ultimately, this oil has been a lifesaver. Total game changer. My holy grail skincare product. After implementing it into my routine, I was suddenly taking selfies without a filter and admiring the natural glow my skin developed after regular applications.

Before, using makeup to cover the bright patches on my cheeks was necessary but frustrating, as the texture was visibly unpleasant and removal was always painful. Now, if I do wear concealer or foundation, my face isn’t a disaster zone when it comes time to take it off at the end of the day. I’m like, “Foundation-who?”

Many people I’ve encountered say they avoid maracuja oil because they’re familiar with it only through the super-expensive versions sold by luxury brands. This breaks my heart, considering that you can find affordable versions—like this oil from Shea Terra Organics—without dropping all your cash.

Best of all? I was able to forego the million-step skincare routine so many others before me have endured. Maracuja oil spares my face and my fragile attention span by keeping things neat, clean, and simple.

How Keeping A Food Diary Helps Me Manage Life With Lupus and Fibromyalgia

When you keep a food diary, you log everything—and I mean everything—down to the half-and-half in your coffee and the raisins in your oatmeal. It’s an effort.

Keeping a food diary is new to me. When I see my nutritionist next week, she’ll analyze it and tell me if I’m filling in the nutritional gaps in my diet. But I’m not keeping the diary to count calories, exactly—I’m doing it because this is what it takes to live with lupus and fibromyalgia. This is just the latest addition to my health management toolbox, which also includes supplements and exercise.

Systemic lupus erythematosus, usually just called lupus, is an autoimmune disease that affects the kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart, and lungs. Essentially, a healthy immune system creates special cells, called antibodies, that attack foreign objects like bacteria or viruses. With an autoimmune disease, the immune system creates antibodies to the body’s own healthy tissues. My body is at war with itself on a cellular level.

As if that weren’t enough, I also suffer from fibromyalgia, a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain on top of fatigue, sleep, memory and mood issues.

Between the two diseases, I live with chronic pain, joint stiffness, fatigue, brain fog, rashes, and fevers. Sometimes, due to the lupus, the lining around my lungs becomes inflamed and it hurts to breathe deeply. It feels like having the flu, minus the sneezing and the understanding that it will be gone whenever the flare-up is over.

There is no cure for lupus or fibromyalgia. In fact, the FDA has approved only one lupus-specific treatment in the last 50 years, and it didn’t work for me.

Like most people with autoimmune diseases, I’ve had symptoms most of my life—things like strange infections that didn’t go away with treatment, unexplained inflammation, and even an allergy to sunlight. When I had digestive problems, I saw a gastroenterologist. When I had allergy problems, I saw an allergist. When I had gynecological problems, I saw a gynecologist. It wasn’t until 2011, when I was 41, that I received a diagnosis of lupus. By that point, I’d gotten so sick I couldn’t teach, drive, or—eventually—stand on my own.

Medication only goes so far in treating autoimmune diseases, even when you find the right one. It’s only one tool. Somewhere in my head lives an irrational girl who wishes for a magic pill to fix me. Rationally, I know it doesn’t exist. Instead, I have to manage the symptoms that stay with me if I want any quality of life.

That’s where my health management toolbox enters into the picture.

With lupus, my overactive immune system has made proper eating hard. My stomach doesn’t empty normally. My intestines don’t absorb nutrients or push food along well. Too much fiber or fat and my digestive system goes on strike, leaving me unable to eat. Food allergies only further complicate the issue.

For this reason, keeping a food diary is so key. My nutritionist deals with my specific situation; she is aware of my health history, symptoms, medications, risks, preferences, and goals. They help me add calories and nutrients to my diet, and I also take a multivitamin to fill in some of the gaps. And, like many people with lupus, I am vitamin D deficient, so I take a high weekly dose of vitamin D.

Like diet and supplementation, exercise and movement is also an important tool in my wellness box. Actually, it’s as much a part of my morning as opening my eyes.

Movement is the only way to break through the immobilizing morning pain and stiffness of both lupus and fibromyalgia. Many mornings, my first thought is, I can’t move. It feels like someone has tied knots around all my joints and then pulled the string until everything is locked in place.

Related: Despite My Fibromyalgia, I’m Focused On Staying Healthy

When I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, my doctor—through my tears—suggested that I try tai chi to help with pain management. In fact, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article about a study in which people with fibromyalgia experienced less pain if they did tai chi, a “low and slow” martial art.

So I tried the tai chi out of desperation. After a few days, my pain decreased a little. After a couple weeks, I could push through my morning pain and not wince with every step. When I didn’t do it, every move hurt. Things like getting downstairs to make my morning coffee once again became agony and the tai chi helped that pain recede.

On hard days, every little bit of effort counts as progress. I take a few bites of oatmeal and wash my morning medications down with water.

The burden of keeping a food diary and tracking my exercise and all the little things I do each day to keep functioning is infinitely lighter than the burden of watching my life slip by without fighting for it. Only a few years ago, just getting through the day was a chore. If I could shower and get dressed without having to immediately go back to bed, it was a victory.

To make the process better, I use a pretty planner and colored pens to track my wellness progression. It’s how I manage a disease that wants to manage me.

When I practice these acts of self-care—like when I eat well, take supplements, and move through my tai chi practice—my pain ebbs away. In fact, I’m not just losing pain: I’m finding myself.

Tai chi and yoga both demand attention to breath, a basic and necessary action for life. With each breath, I remember: I am more than pain. I imagine that I can feel my chi—my energy—pulsing through my body. With every food journal entry and everything I do to take care of myself, my thoughts become clearer, and I can truly focus on things that matter outside of myself.

6 Supplements I Take To Grease My Achy Joints

Waking up feeling like the Tin Man—back so stiff I can’t bend over to touch my toes and knees so achy they feel glued in place—has been my reality for nearly five years. It takes a good half hour before I can get up and move around as normal, and even longer until I feel like I’m oiled up enough—yanked and pulled and stretched out—to be a human being.

I have an autoimmune disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis that causes super-duper stiff joints (commonly referred to as arthritis). I’m not alone—an estimated 54 million Americans live with daily joint pain or joint disease. That’s a lot of people feeling like me, all of us aching for some sort of respite from feeling creaky, cracky, and crooked.

Of course, successfully treating the various conditions that affect the joints is like finding your way out of a particularly tricky maze. I can’t say I’ve gotten out quite yet, but I’m closer than before.

I started by talking to a doctor and a nutritionist about medication and diet, but I’ve also had a lot of luck with vitamin and supplement use.

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When I started really feeling the effects of joint pain and stiffness—before I was medicated and even during medication—I did a lot of research on vitamins and supplements. For one, you can never be too certain of what you’re putting in your body. And second, it’s good to have that autonomy and knowledge. (That said, just because the Internet’s endless stream of immediate information is available to you does not mean you know everything. Always check with your doc first before starting any supplementation!)

Here’s what I use to juice up my achy, break-y joints. I take each of the below once a day (except where otherwise noted) in the morning with my coffee and some fruit. Before supplementation, I was still doing much of the same: stretching, taking pain relief medication, and eating as well as I could. I can successfully report good news: I’ve noticed a significant increase in joint mobility and pain level after taking these supplements for about a year. Three cheers for knees that don’t pop and crunch with every jaunt up the stairs!

1. SAM-e

It might have a weird name, but SAM-e (or S-Adenosyl-L-Methionine), which is found naturally in the body and made by amino acids that we get through food, has been shown by studies to improve joint function and tenderness. It could help with joint discomfort, potentially reducing the pain you feel when you’re all locked up.

2. Cat’s Claw

I won’t lie—the oh-so-witchy name of this supplement is what caught my eye. But cat’s claw (this shouldn’t be mixed up with Devil’s Claw—which also aids joints but has a different set of benefits) has got some convincing science to back it up. First off, it may contribute to a reduction in joint discomfort, while also benefiting the immune system. Yes, please! A study showed that cat’s claw, when compared to a placebo, effectively worked to promote a reduction in pain, swelling, and tenderness of joints.

3. Turmeric

Golden lattes are incredibly popular and delicious, yes, but not without good reason. Turmeric—or more specifically the compound found in turmeric, curcumin—has been found to be effective in promoting relief from temporary joint discomfort. According to the Arthritis Foundation, turmeric has long been used by Chinese and Ayurvedic medicinal systems as a way to promote relief from pain caused by joint issues. In addition to taking one capsule of curcumin daily, I also frequently drink golden milk (made with turmeric powder and hemp milk or almond milk). Some experts say that taking curcumin with black pepper has been found to increase curcumin’s bioavailability (which is a fancier way of saying its “effectiveness”).

4. Fish oil

There’s something about fish oil that, for a lot of people, just seems gross. I get it. When you really think about it, it is kinda gross. However, I swear by it. Those little golden capsules, full of yellow-y joint-lubricating goodness, were one of the first supplements I took for my joints. And it helped. Bonus: Because fish oil is an omega-3, it’s also chock full of brain, gut, and skin benefits.

5. Ginger

I never liked ginger. But when my rheumatologist suggested that it might actually work to nix the symptoms I was experiencing, I decided to give a go—at least in supplement form.

According to Arthritis Foundation, ginger has been shown to reduce joint pain when taken twice a day. I take one or two capsules of ginger root daily (depending on my pain level), and often drink ginger tea for additional supplement. The bonus? Ginger seriously helps to settle any stomach issues, so it’s a win-win. (This is especially the case for me, since my autoimmune disease, like many others, causes digestive problems.)

6. Boswellia Serrata

Boswellia is the newest addition to my supplementation ritual. Interestingly, Boswellia is a plant found in India, the Middle East, and Northern Africa—and it’s known for producing sweet-smelling frankincense. However, its root has also been found to be effective for joint related issues. According to study, there’s some strong evidence suggesting that it is good for inflammatory conditions, although more research is necessary.

Bonus: Capsaicin

Studies show that capsaicin (the active compound in cayenne pepper)) has a pain-reducing effect on discomfort caused by joint and muscle issues associated with physical activity or overuse. I swear by capsaicin gel. It’s got a tingly, cooling effect—which, for me, distracts from the deep throbbing pain of a stuck knee or tight upper back. Plus, it’s safe to use. Some people might not fall in love with its extreme hot-cold effect, but it does work to disguise the pain. If you’re not into that tingly feeling, you can also find capsaicin in cayenne capsule form. 

 

Peer Pressure Has Always Been My Best Fitness Motivator

“Peer pressure” has always had a negative connotation. It’s why kids are “up to no good,” right? For me, though, peer pressure was always a good thing. Instead of getting me into to trouble, peer pressure got me into running.

Peer pressure was the reason I joined the cross country team in high school and it remains the reason, to this day, I show up before dawn ready to run.

I’ve never been athletically inclined on my own, so the concept of running for fun was ridiculous to me for a long time. Growing up, I dreaded gym fitness tests knowing I’d have to run the mile. I played soccer and basketball briefly, but only because my friends were playing too. I wasn’t very good and rarely, if ever, got to play.

When I started high school, I entertained the thought of trying out for field hockey. I was moving from a private school to public school and I thought it might be a good way to make friends, but I ultimately decided that sports weren’t for me.

I got lucky in high school and was adopted by a group of friends that gave me a place to sit at lunch and a ride home after school. As we grew closer, I learned that many of my friends were on the cross country team. They actively chose to log miles every day, while I dreaded running a lap around the track in gym class. I couldn’t imagine doing it voluntarily.

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As my first year of high school came to a close, a friend suggested I sign up for cross country when  the fall came around. I scoffed at the idea. “I’m not a runner,” I told her. She brushed that off.

“Just sign up,” she said. “If you change your mind, you can quit.”

So I signed up. But I had almost forgotten about it—up until a letter, along with a training plan—came in the mail.

I called my friend: “I don’t think I’m going to do this,” I said. “I’m not a runner.” Again, she told me to just show up and quit later if I didn’t like it.

Justly chastened, I acquiesced. I bought a pair of running shoes that were too big and completely wrong for my feet and showed up. The first run was six miles. I grumbled the entire way through, walking more than I ran.

But when I finished, I was met by a chorus of cheers. Great job, they all screamed—assuring me that it gets easier. The next day, they welcomed me back and cheered again. I suddenly had this incredible support system that was rooting for me and celebrated every time I crossed the finish line, even when I came in dead last.

The camaraderie I felt on that team kept me coming back. Even with injuries (likely from my lousy shoes), I signed up for more, electing to run both indoor and outdoor track. What’s more, my circle of friends grew as I got to know members of the boys’ team, too. They lifted me up and pushed me to work harder. My body got stronger and my pace got faster. Running became part of who I was and I was better for it.

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

But then high school ended. Despite my love of running, I no longer had the support of my team. Suddenly, my motivation waned. I left the suburbs of Connecticut for the streets of New York as I entered college and just couldn’t get myself out there on a regular basis.

I’d run through the streets of Brooklyn and across bridges and back, but I’d push too hard, do too much too soon, and then injure myself. After college, I started working and I just didn’t have time for running—or at least that’s what I told myself.

When I met the man I would marry, I felt that old inkling of motivation (pre-wedding workout!) but once the wedding was over, the urge to stay fit faded again.

Then, after having kids, I felt overwhelmed and out of shape. My body hadn’t bounced back from pregnancy and my mental health was suffering. I needed something for me, so I turned to what I knew had worked. I bought a new pair of running shoes and started pounding the pavement again.

It helped! I felt physically and mentally better after a run, but the motivation still wasn’t there. There was always something else to do. I had work or take care of the kids. I was too exhausted to wake up early and too exhausted by the afternoon to go out late.

I wanted it, though. I really wanted it to work.

Browsing Facebook, I found area fitness groups. One in particular, Moms Run This Town,  was in my town and the runs were near my house. I could lace up my shoes and simply step outside!

“Anyone up for an early morning run?” posted one member. I wondered what she meant by “early.”

“Does 5:45am work?” another said. I gasped at the time. An hour before sunrise.

“Anyone else want to join? All paces welcome!”

Before I had a chance to second guess myself, I replied, “I’m in.”

I hemmed and hawed. I made up excuses for why it was a bad idea. But I said that I was going, so I needed to go. Once again, peer pressure took over and I dragged myself out of bed and pushed through a three-mile run.

Related: How To Become A Runner When You Think It’s Not Your Thing

The next time an early morning run came up, I said yes again. And again. Even as the weather turned colder, I kept saying yes. Saying yes made me accountable. Saying yes meant someone was counting on me. And that’s enough.

I’m training for my first half marathon now. I wish I could say the race alone motivates me to get out and run, but honestly, it’s the fact that a friend is running the race, too.

We all have to find something that works for us and motivates us. Having accountability through a team or running group, and having someone relying on me to show up, ready to run, is what keeps me motivated.

It turns out that peer pressure isn’t always a bad thing if you just find the right peers.

All The Ways I Use Tea Tree Oil In My Beauty Routine

One of the greatest things about the beauty world is the diversity of methods, products, and natural ingredients from all over the world—along with the amount of cultural exchange it can foster.

With my family being half Italian and half Romani (a diasporic ethnic group from India, more commonly known by the racial slur “Gypsy”), I was lucky to grow up with a lovely mish-mash of beauty rituals involving oils, flower essences, and sometimes elaborate practices.

In fact, my Romani mama is a former bikini model and aerobics instructor, so she was always looking to improve her beauty routine. In the ‘70s she discovered tea tree oil, and when I was in middle school she introduced me to it, telling me that tea tree oil was the key to clear and healthy skin, hair, nails, and even teeth. I don’t remember her having any blemishes to speak of, so I assumed it either worked well or she was a witch of some kind.

I, on the other hand, did have some blemishes to test on, and got right down to it. And it turns out that she was right! I saw noticeable improvements in my skin, and it has been a fixture in my beauty arsenal ever since.

My mother and I love it, but the science speaks for itself: Studies have found that tea tree oil has cleansing and purifying properties. In fact, people indigenous to Australia have recognized the stuff’s efficacy for a long time.

Here’s how I incorporate tea tree oil into my beauty routine. Tip: Just be sure to test it out on a small patch of skin before you use it!

1. As a cleanse

I tend to get acne if there’s even a trace of makeup left on my face at night. Since I model, I often have a full face of makeup on and get home late at night completely exhausted. I have to fight the urge to just crawl into bed, no matter how wonderful that would feel.

I find that I can get excited about my skincare routine if I’m excited about the products I’m using. This makes my beauty routine feel less like a chore and more like self-care. (FYI: An oil-based cleanser, like Shea Moisture Sensitive Skin Facial Cleansing Oil, does an excellent job of getting off tough to remove makeup.)

After I’ve removed my makeup, it’s time to cleanse with tea tree oil. I turn this into a little bit of a facial massage by rubbing together some warm water and a few drops of tea tree oil along my jawline, nose, and cheekbones. Then, I rinse.

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2. As a mask

I use a tea tree oil-based clay face mask about once a week to draw out any impurities. My mother has been using Aztec Secret Bentonite Healing Indian Clay since the ’70s, and passed the secret on to me.

Like a lot of beauty gurus and bloggers do, I mix a tablespoon of the clay in a bowl with a tablespoon of Bragg Apple Cider Vinegar for clear skin (I love the fizzing sound it makes!), a dollop of royal jelly honey for moisture, and a drop or two of tea tree oil for its added benefits.

I apply the mixture to my face (it will probably tingle a little from the tea tree oil), leave it on for 10-20 minutes, and then remove with water to reveal a glow.

3. As a toner

Some toners can really dry out the skin, making oil production and acne even worse in the long run. Today, I use what my mother prefers: Thayer’s Witch Hazel Alcohol Free Toner. She taught me to swipe it—along with a drop of tea tree oil—over my face after cleansing to remove any remaining residue and to tighten my pores.

4. As a spritz

Spritzing facial mist throughout the day is one of my most beloved beauty discoveries. It keeps me looking fresh and awake. Here’s a spritz recipe I make on my own:

I combine it all in a spray bottle, shake, and spritz my face a couple of times a day when I need a pick-me-up.

Related: 5 DIY Skin Treatments Beauty Experts Swear By

5. As dental care

Tea tree oil can also help support dental health (and it’s got a great fresh scent). I like this Desert Essence Tea Tree Oil and Neem Toothpaste in Wintergreen and their Tea Tree Oil Floss. I follow it all up with a mouthwash like Desert Essence Tea Tree Oil Mouthwash Whitening Plus.

I also like to make my own mouthwash with naturally cleansing ingredients.

DIY Mouthwash

6. As hair care

In the winter, I tend to get a dry, flaky scalp and it drives me absolutely crazy. Over the years, I’ve come up with a few different ways to combat it, and tea tree oil’s cleansing properties make it a star ingredient. I simply mix a few drops of tea tree oil into my shampoo or condition and then smooth it through my hair as normal.

7. to support nail health

Due to tea tree oil’s cleansing properties, it can be great for nail health. When my nails are looking a bit yellow or brittle, I add a few drops of tea tree oil to my hand and foot cream and rub into my cuticles and nails.

8. to support beauty sleep 

Aromatherapy always makes me feel a little better. When I’m stressed out, I like to add three drops of lavender oil, two drops of tea tree oil, two drops of eucalyptus oil, and one drop of peppermint oil to my diffuser. I feel like it helps me breathe more deeply, reduce my congestion, and catch up on my beauty sleep.

Why I Broke Up With The Gym And Took To The Mountains

I’ve never been the sort of guy that likes the gym—in fact, I’ve always found the whole experience daunting. First off, I’m not a buff dude. I’m the not-conventionally-attractive guy sweating it out on the treadmill next to the super-fit 6’2″ bro with washboard abs. When I do actually muster up the courage to get to the gym, I find myself surrounded by a bunch of fancy equipment that I don’t really know how to use…that I simply end up forcing myself to stay on just to hit a number of reps.

In short, motivating myself to work out has been nothing short of challenging. After years of trying to force myself to get in a workout here and there, though, I found the illustrious secret to staying fit: the great outdoors.

Last summer, on a swelteringly hot day that no one should have willfully been outside, a friend of mine invited me to go rock scrambling, which is essentially the act of using your hands and legs to move up steep, mountainous terrain.

I’d hiked before, but never on high-incline rocks at a pretty fast clip. I remember thinking, This is essentially walkingright? I was wrong.

Related: How I Went From ‘Not Outdoorsy’ To Full-Fledged Biker

Rock scrambling was actually very tricky—nothing the average person can’t do with some trustworthy sneakers and some planning, but tricky nonetheless.

There were plenty of moments during that first experience where I had to tap into serious wells of strength—both physically and mentally—to assess and climb up those steep boulders. I’d had no experience doing any of it, but I had to make smart decisions and use muscles that, frankly, hadn’t seen the light of day.

I enjoyed scrambling up these rocks alongside a bunch of strangers also trying to make it to the top, and learned that I’m actually a fairly competitive person. The gym might not bring it out of me, but nature sure does.

There was one situation in which I’d climbed up a steep set of rocks and after getting stuck, needed to go back down and recalibrate my strategy. I ended up getting nervous because I didn’t have the strength to make the climb, so I slid down only to see my friend successfully complete what I’d tried to do. This only drove my spirit further, encouraging me to take a deep breath and give it another try. Unlike being at a fancy gym surrounded by four halogen-lit walls, I felt like I had achieved something real. I had pushed myself in a functional way that could serve me in my everyday life (and in future rock scrambles).

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The gym no doubt has its many benefits, but when you’re in nature, you’re faced with two simple (but very different) options: take the easy route or go the hard way. There’s something really fulfilling about pushing yourself in a semi-treacherous environment. In nature, you need to use your intuition; there’s no clear “time out” or end-of-workout (except getting out of there before nightfall)—which is totally different from waiting to hit 10 reps on a machine before you can quit.

As I regularly hiked and scrambled, I was surprised at how quickly my stamina and endurance developed. Each time I got stronger, gaining quicker physical reflexes. It felt like an accidental workout, all while being surrounded by beautiful scenery. (I live in New York City, so being able to exercise outside, smelling the air and seeing greenery, was a huge plus.)

You won’t get rock hard abs by hiking once a week, but it will develop your strength and stamina and make you feel more functionally apt. It also helps keep off those extra pounds (I’ve been known to indulge in fast food…more often than I should admit). Hiking also developed my legs, arms, and back muscles.

Another benefit: the hiking community. While some people around you may scramble like pros, nature is the great equalizer—you’re all out there doing the same thing, trying, moving forward. Strategizing routes with friendly strangers, helping an older person up a rock face, or having a quick chat with someone while taking a water break is encouraging—it’s this camaraderie that keeps me coming back to the mountains.

The most worthy benefit, though, may come from nature’s generous mental health boost. If you live in a city, or have a sedentary 9-5 job, setting some time away to get into nature is a great way to feel better about life in general. It definitely helps me disconnect from the grind (I work as a real estate agent, so I’m surrounded by architecture and paperwork every day). After a few weeks without hiking, I start to crave nature and the feeling of accomplishment that follows a good scramble.

During any hike, I collect victories along the way: I can choose the harder path, or climb faster than I did last time. These small but meaningful achievements are quite profound—and, personally, way more fun than figuring out my one-rep max.

I Thought I Was Healthy—And Then I Did Whole30

As a self-proclaimed health nut and the resident super-healthy black sheep of my family and friends, I’ve been known to squeeze in workouts on vacations and pass on pizza for salad. I love high-intensity workouts like CrossFit and if I’m going to do yoga, it’s going to be hot. I’ve been reading nutrition labels since high school, and though I’ve had plenty of slack moments (like all of college…), I’ve found a healthy balance by living without strict rules and eating a variety of carbs, fats, and proteins to feel good.

That’s why, when I first heard that my parents (ironically) were following Whole30—a 30-day eating plan that forces you to get back to healthy basics by eliminating sugar, alcohol, dairy, grains, legumes, preservatives, and processed foods and snacks—I didn’t think it was for me. I didn’t need a hard reset or rules. My diet was already healthy!

But when I visited home for the holidays, my attitude shifted. Having just completed their 30 days, my parents buzzed with enthusiasm and filled our meals with ‘compliant’ (a ubiquitous term for things you actually can eat on Whole30) foods. I was intrigued—and after my own 10-day stretch of indulging on holiday treats, I felt compelled to give it a shot.

Along with a small crew of friends and co-workers, I decided to go for it—and to say the next 30 days surprised me would be an understatement. Here are the five lessons I learned:

1. I hadn’t been eating as many whole foods as I thought I was…

As a self-proclaimed kale enthusiast (seriously, my boyfriend sometimes calls me ‘KALEsy’), I thought my vegetable and fruit consumption was in pretty good shape. When I started Whole30, though, I realized that I often sacrificed roughage in favor of protein. And I’m not just talking about swapping out greens for lean meat, but for a sugary protein bar or shake.

✌🏻❤️🌿

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Before Whole30, I’d typically start the day with a bowl of oatmeal with protein powder stirred in, eat last night’s dinner leftovers for lunch, snack on a protein bar, yogurt, or protein shake, and then have a serving of meat with a grain and a veggie for dinner. All-in-all not unhealthy, but without grains, dairy, and packaged protein products, I had a lot of gaps to fill once I started Whole30.

Throughout those 30 days, I’d have eggs scrambled with kale, peppers, and onions for breakfast, a large salad with a serving of meat for lunch, nuts, fruit, or a ‘compliant’ bar (like an RXBAR or an Epic Bar) for snacks, and a serving of meat with a double helping of veggies for dinner.

With fruits and veggies now front and center, I was forced to try a wider variety of produce and different ways of making them, just to keep things interesting. I found a lot of new go-to’s, including a sweet potato soup (I used butternut squash instead) from The Whole30 Cookbook, which has become one of my all-time favorite sides. It added a nice sweet element to my mostly-savory meals and kept well in the fridge, so I could spoon it out all week long.

2. Sugar is in EVERYTHING.

This is another lesson that falls into the ‘what I thought I knew’ category. I knew sugar was hidden in most foods—I’d even written articles about it myself! But Whole30 taught me that knowing added sugar exists and living added sugar-free are two totally different monsters.

Once I started really combing through the nutrition labels on everything I bought at the grocery store, I realized just how sneaky added sugar could be. After all, it goes by more than 50 names other than just ‘sugar’! At first, determining whether a food contained sugar and finding Whole30-compliant alternatives took a long time—but it fortunately grew much easier with practice. Thirty days later, I’m basically a sugar-molecule sharp shooter.

Related: 10 Foods That Pack More Added Sugar Than You Should Have All Day

Eliminating these secretly-sugary foods was a lot of work. At first I found myself reaching for RXBARs or Lara Bars to satisfy my sugar cravings, but the point of Whole30 is to break the habit itself, so I dug my heels in and tried to avoid using these ‘compliant’ foods as a crutch. Cutting out sugar was by far the hardest part of Whole30, but the farther in I got, the more I noticed and appreciated the natural sugars in fruits and vegetables. I couldn’t believe how sweet a cherry tomato tasted by the end of it!

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3. My social life revolves around food.

It’s reality: A lot of socializing happens over food and drink. But on Whole30, birthday parties, date night dinners, and even happy hours became impossible trap-filled nightmares. And while some people are able to make it work—passing up on cake and cocktails, ordering very, very carefully at restaurants, and bringing their own food to get-togethers—I found it much easier to just avoid going out.

#bulletproof and muscle books… #happytuesday

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If that sounds lame, well, that’s because it was! To avoid completely dropping off the face of the earth, I scheduled workout classes or coffee dates with friends who weren’t on the Whole30 train. But after spending a lot of time (and money) traveling to see friends and family in the months before my Whole30, I was more than happy to take a few weekends off and just rest.

4. It takes a village to be healthy.

It may have been for lack of better things to talk about (see above about my rather nonexistent social life), but I talked about Whole30 to anyone who would listen. I even dreamed about it sometimes.

My boyfriend and I got truly excited to plan which cool new recipe to make over the weekend, and our indulgence became finding more elaborate dishes, like Chicken Cacciatore or that homemade butternut squash soup I mentioned earlier.

My coworkers and I traded tips for fighting cravings, and I chatted with friends about new compliant packaged foods we found (I totally blew my boss’ mind when I told her about RXBARs). Our lives were consumed by making Whole30 work, and since we were all in it together, it was easier to face the occasional office birthday party. I even hosted a few ‘compliant’ get-togethers at home!

Looking back, I don’t know if I would have survived alone. Being able to talk to fellow Whole30-ers really helped me stay on track, and it was nice to share my success with others who know how hard I’d worked once I was done.

5. There’s ALWAYS room to grow.

Even though it took a lot of planning, work, and will power, I really felt the benefits of Whole30, and they kept me motivated whenever I started to wane. Around the end of week two, my clothes felt a little looser, I slept better, and I had more energy throughout the day. The strange thing: I didn’t even realize that I could feel better. Since I already ate healthy, drank lots of water, exercised, and got eight hours of sleep a night before Whole30, I didn’t expect that there would be room to improve until it happened.

Despite how difficult Whole30 was, I totally recommend it—even if you’re already a self-proclaimed health and fitness fanatic. The experience helped me redefine ‘healthy food’ (read: low- to no-sugar) and pull myself out of a major boredom rut with my meals. Not to mention, it taught me a lot about my own eating habits—especially my reliance on protein bars. Now if I itch for a protein-heavy snack, I’ll pick up an Epic Bar, which tastes more like food and less like candy.

I’m not going to continue eating in a totally-compliant manner all the time (even the founders recommend you only do it for 30 days), but everything I learned—especially about avoiding sneaky sugar and preservatives—definitely stuck.