From 5Ks to 50-Milers: How I Became An Ultramarathon Runner In Two Years

In the summer of 2008 I had just finished law school, but I hadn’t started working yet. I was running a bit for exercise, because I had the time, but once my first son was born, running just didn’t stick.

Seven years later, knee deep in parenthood and my career, I weighed around 210 pounds—and wasn’t doing a single thing about it. So I made a few New Year’s resolutions: lose weight, get healthier, and start building better habits. I had to face that I wasn’t 20 years old anymore.

I started and stopped working on my resolutions many times (just like everyone else in the world). I was trying a lot of different things to keep up momentum—my wife and I even bought a water rower, but that got boring fast—and when I started running a couple of miles a few times a week, I learned that there was a 5K race in town. It was sponsored by a local pub, which didn’t hurt, so I signed up (even though I found myself questioning why, considering I still wasn’t very good at running).

I practiced for a few months and by the time the 5K rolled around, I didn’t exactly kill it (I came in around 28:25), but I did enjoy it, especially hanging out with fellow runners afterward.

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As I kept up the running after the race, I noticed I was losing significant weight—about 45 pounds! And by the middle of summer 2016, it stopped being about losing weight. I was really just loving the running. So I began focusing on races and getting fit for different events.

It wasn’t always easy—in fact, it was a real challenge. When I ran my first actual marathon in 2016 in Brooklyn (a nostalgic moment for me because I had lived there from 2009-2015), I completely crashed after the first 16 miles. I sat down, then laid down. The longest I had ever run before was 16 miles, so I was pretty unprepared, and I thought about quitting. What kept me going was that I had told everyone that I was doing the marathon, and I just couldn’t live with quitting. That’s when I got a second wind.

From there, I was totally hooked.

Runner’s High

There’s so much to love about running. You’re alongside elite athletes, you can experience gorgeous scenery, and you get to inspire your kids. My youngest son, Nate, who is five, has done two 5Ks with me and I didn’t even have to carry him! During the first, he was hurting at mile two and a half, but he didn’t want to stop. When he saw the finish line, he bolted!

The social aspect of running kept me coming back for more, too. At the end of 2016, I looked for a running buddies club so I could meet other runners. I found one called Fueled by Doughnuts (our group was just featured in Runner’s World, in a piece called “One Pretty Sweet Club”) so I attended one of their group runs one December night.

The group is founded by the owner of a local doughnut shop who provides doughnuts and coffee after every run. The founder also hosts two insanely popular races in Montclair, NJ—a 5K in December and a half marathon in March. Running with Fueled by Doughnuts is how I met all of my running buddies, some of whom have turned into very good friends.

Full Steam Ahead

In early 2017 I decided that it would be fun to do something a little more adventurous than a road race. I found a cool 50-mile ultramarathon (an ultramarathon is any race longer than 26.2 miles, which is a standard marathon) near Ithaca, New York, called Cayuga Trails 50. The ultramarathon, which took place in June 2017, was a 50-mile trail run with more than 9,000 feet of elevation gain. The scenery was beautiful but the course was tough.

Carlos, on one of his runs.

I made it about 42 miles in 14 hours, but I was so mentally defeated by mile 42 that I just gave up and asked my wife to pick me up where the trail was intersected by a road. That night I ate three dinners and then fell asleep.

As soon as I woke up, I felt regret for not pushing myself to finish those last eight miles. I had been on my feet for 14 hours—what were a few more? Physically I know I could have done it, but it was a failure of mental toughness.

This year, I’m going to run an easier 50-miler called The Dirty German in Philadelphia. Then I’ll try Cayuga Trails 50 again down the road. (I’ve also been toying with the idea of trying a 100-miler instead!)

To amp myself up for these runs, there’s a lot of Lupe Fiasco on my Amazon Prime playlist; his music is upbeat, introspective, and addresses different issues. I listen to him if I’m doing a treadmill run or a hard run outside when I’m not with friends. For easier runs, I like to just catch up with friends and need to make sure I can talk.

But all of that doesn’t make running easy all the time. When I’m lacking motivation, my friends get me out of the house. I’d say about 90 percent of my running habits today are because I’m going to hang out with friends. I actually haven’t had this many friends since high school!

My advice to people who want to start running or working out:

  • Create a habit of laying your clothes out ahead of time, especially early in the morning. After a while you won’t have to think about it, you just do it. Getting your stuff ready for beforehand reduces the need to make that early morning decision: Do I get up and run? The easiest way to build a habit is to make it happen on autopilot, and by knowing you’re all set and ready to go, there’s no more mental struggle about whether or not to hit the snooze button.
  • Give yourself something to look forward to after your workout, like coffee.
  • Consider it a mental workout, too. Your body is capable of a lot more than you think it is. When you’re fatigued and want to slow down, it’s not really a physical limit—it’s an emotion. Your brain makes you feel it, but you can push past it. Once you understand that, it’s motivating.

Share your own victories, both big and small, on Instagram using #VictoryIsMine and tagging @vitaminshoppe. We might feature you on our page!


I Tried Boxing For 2 Weeks—And It Was No Joke

I’m 20 minutes into boxing class and I’ve already done a ridiculous amount of burpees, pushups, and squats. My face is beet red and my shirt is soaked through with sweat—and I’ve still got another 30 minutes left to go.

I’m pushing my body to its limits—and I love it. I think?

For most of my life I’ve been your average, garden variety gym-goer, never veering too far from holistic mind-body-soul workouts used to straighten out my mental state and give me a good stretch. I tried out boxing on a self-dare. (I’ve got this masochistic voice in the back of my mind that loves a new challenge—even if it’s out of my wheelhouse.) I wasn’t planning on jumping into the ring or transforming my body; I just wanted to try something different.

I’d always had a naturally strong upper body (my muscles don’t flinch when I’m carrying super heavy grocery bags and I’m never concerned about trekking an oversized duffle of dirty clothes to the laundromat), but was never able to properly control that strength and often ended up with pulled muscles. I hoped that boxing would help prevent injury, and also limit the pain I often experience from my Plantar fasciitis (when inflamed tissue spans the bottom of your foot).

Still, I was incredibly intimidated by boxing. I’d seen those people running around the perimeter of city blocks sporting boxing gloves and doing burpees—and it never seemed very inclusive or accommodating to different fitness levels. I knew I’d be a fish out of water.

Related: 6 Really Good Reasons To Add Boxing To Your Workout Routine

I walked into the throes of Church Street Boxing in Lower Manhattan to find myself amongst an array of unique and sweaty humans. Every punch was choreographed as instructors walked around their respective groups to make sure shoulders, forearms, wrists, and torsos were all positioned correctly with each individual swing. I grabbed a matching set of gloves from a side bin and waited for the rest of my class to arrive while I continued to gawk at the action around me.

We began with calisthenics: bear crawls, jumping jacks, pushups, mountain climbers, and a run around the block—which could have easily sufficed as its own workout but was very much not even remotely the end.

Back at the gym, I arrived panting. We talked about the proper way to use your strength without throwing your whole arm out, and then we started jabbing, in a circle, with our instructor. With each combination (a.k.a. different kinds of punches) we did a series of burpees until the entire group had finished multiple rounds of this. Then another run around the block, and running up and down the stairs of the multi-level building. Finally, we finished off with various other combos.

My sweat-drenched body was eager to meet the cold air outside as I limped to the train. I knew I should have spoken up about my foot and its history, but felt embarrassed by being new and needing adjustment during my first class. I found myself at home with a bag of ice on my foot wishing I would have swallowed my pride and simply asked to not run. The next morning I had to wrap my foot just keep it compressed enough to walk.

The next few days were rough. My arms were impossibly difficult to lift above my waist and my foot was still throbbing; I had to roll it out on a tennis ball at work when I wasn’t up walking around.

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The next class I attended had a different instructor and a brand new set of faces, but the same vibe: so much sweat and strength swirling around the room as trainees punched bags and did situps to a loud and guided count. I made it through a similar round of workouts and immediately cornered my instructor after he announced a run around the block. “I have a major foot injury that doesn’t allow for me to put pounding pressure on my foot…May I have a modification?” He allowed it, and prompted to me to do lunges across the length of the gym floor. “Perfect! Yes! I can do that!” I said. The workout was still incredibly hard, but I didn’t end up having to ice my foot for the next week just to recover.

I continued to go to different classes, trying out new clubs and boutique boxing studios, and I did find things I really loved about boxing, like having to be agile while springing my arm forward…all the while protecting my face. And having to use my center of gravity to keep my body grounded on impact.

Boxing also reiterated this: My body responds and reacts differently to each workout, so I have to be mindful of what I need to do in order to keep moving forward in my fitness life. Boxing might not ultimately be my thing, but it sure taught me to acknowledge my injuries and speak up for my body.


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

As someone who suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, and for whom panic attacks never get any easier (do they for anyone?), I have long considered giving meditation a try.

Meditation dates back thousands of years, offering benefits like improved concentration, stress reduction, and inner peace. Mayo Clinic even points to research suggesting the practice can help manage symptoms related to pain and digestion. With such a rich history, why had I been procrastinating?

For one, there was the time factor. With a hectic schedule, there are days when I feel too busy to eat—so how could I pull off taking 10 minutes to sit and, essentially, do nothing? I squirm at the salon while waiting for my hair color to process, thinking of the many other things I could be doing. I was doubtful I could sit cross-legged (what I presumed you absolutely must do while meditating) while clearing my mind of all thoughts. Meditating felt like a luxury my to-do list couldn’t afford.

Then, I worried about being able to relax. My concerns over having a panic attack while trying to stay quiet and focused on a meditation class completely freaked me out. What if I have to leave the room and disturb my classmates? I pictured a mugshot of sorts hanging in the local meditation studio classifying me as someone who disturbs the peace (literally). Have I mentioned I have a flair for the dramatic?

I had so many reasons to keep on keepin’ on with my daily grind, without making a single attempt to try something new. Something that, if even slightly successful, could be a gamechanger for me. But then, somehow, I pushed through my fears and committed to trying it for at least one weekI still had that irrational fear of being fidgety in a class, so I reached for my phone and downloaded the Calm app.

Day 1

That first day I began with a simple five-minute Deep Sleep body scan at night. I was suspicious that something so brief could calm my mind, but by the end of it, I found myself wishing I had started with the 10-minute version because it was so relaxing. The voice guiding me through the meditation was soothing and I found myself falling asleep more quickly than usual.

Day 2

The second day of my weeklong experiment was pretty chaotic, and the irony was not lost on me that I needed to stop everything I was doing to practice Calm’s Daily Calm, a 10-minute meditation that changes each day. I squeezed it in midday, and while I can’t say I completely turned off the outside world, I noticed I was a bit more mindful for the rest of the afternoon and evening.

Day 3

I decided to take the plunge and sign up for Lunchtime Detox, a 30-minute session at The Den, a neighborhood meditation studio in Los Angeles.

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The classroom was dimly lit by candles and offered a number of different props—from traditional meditation pillows to upright floor chairs to blankets—to make students feel comfortable. Our teacher briefly asked what we hoped to gain from class and asked us to be completely still in three-minute intervals. Most importantly, he asked us to not be critical of ourselves in terms of questioning whether we were meditating “correctly.” There was something really lovely about being reminded that it’s okay to just…be.

I walked out of that class feeling great, jonesing for more.

Day 4

Day 3’s meditation led me back to The Den for Focus, a 45-minute session dedicated to “training the restless mind.” If I’m being totally honest, I don’t remember the specifics of that class because I was so blissed out that I think I dozed off for a period of time.

At that point, I felt hooked.

Day 5

Of course, not every day allows for larger blocks of time to meditate, unfortunately, and on Day 5 I found myself scrambling to squeeze it in with the Calm app. It was 11 p.m. and I realized the entire day had passed without taking even five minutes to chill. I played the 10-minute Deep Sleep meditation but couldn’t get into the right frame of mind for the experience.

Note to self: Don’t force meditation if the result means you’re agitated with yourself for forgetting to do so in the first place.

Day 6

I blocked out 10 minutes for Daily Calm around lunchtime, attempting to combine the experiences I had at The Den with the convenience of listening to a guided meditation on the app in my own home. It served a as a nice little break—as well as a reminder that, yes, I do have 10 minutes in a day to help myself.

Day 7

For my last consecutive day of meditation I headed back to The Den for Reiki, a form of healing and something I had never experienced before. Our teacher asked each person to share what they were trying to heal in very simple terms, like anxiety, grief, stress, or physical pain. While I typically clam up at the thought of having to speak in a roomful of strangers, it was a really unifying experience and, in the end, made the meditation feel more relaxed.

Related: It’s Time To Stop Being So Scared of Meditation


Since I wrapped up my meditative week I’m happy to report I’ve used Calm a few more times, working in some peaceful moments here and there throughout the day. My goal is to get back to The Den, because I think there’s so much to learn about the practice. I really enjoy being in a space designed to maximize the experience of meditating, too.

But more importantly, I’ve learned that there’s always time for me, and I need to stop trying to rationalize reasons to believe otherwise. Whether it’s five minutes or 45, taking that time to just breathe is more impactful than I could have previously imagined. Self-care isn’t selfish, it’s necessary.

What Happened When I Drank Apple Cider Vinegar Every Morning For 2 Weeks

I consider myself a fit, healthy, wannabe wellness goddess. I do CrossFit® five times a week, attend yoga class regularly, frequent local health food joints, and fire up a meditation app during my morning subway commute.

My morning ritual, though, is as far from @yoga_girl’s or Gabby Bernstein’s as it can be. It usually starts with me hitting ‘snooze’ five times followed by 10 minutes spent mindlessly scrolling through Instagram before I finally trudge over to the fridge and pour myself a mason jar-full of cold brew coffee.

Then I crawl right back into bed with my laptop to start some work before finally getting up, washing my face, making some breakfast, and heading to yoga.

Sure, it’s not like I’m eating a box of munchkins every morning, but in the era of A.M. meditation, gratitude journaling, turmeric lattes, and collagen smoothies, I often wonder if my morning ritual could be doing a little more for me. Enter apple cider vinegar (ACV), stage left.

Pretty much the OG of at-home-remedies, ACV is a favorite among health gurus, beauty fanatics, and wellness junkies, with many people swearing by a shot (or a few tablespoons) of the stuff first thing in the morning. That’s because of its purported ability to boost digestion, support a healthy weight, and amplify your glow from the inside out. Understandably so, considering ACV packs antioxidants, B vitaminscalcium, and potassium, and supports healthy gut bacteria. Research shows that it can boost heart and immune health, and even support healthy blood sugar.

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Was this just the pungent punch-up my morning routine needed? I was about to find out. I bought myself a big ‘ole bottle of Bragg apple cider vinegar, imagining that with every sip of the pungent stuff I’d feel more invigorated, digest like the wind, and move one step closer to ‘Gabby Bernstein’ status.

I vowed to start each day for two weeks straight with ACV to decide if it was for me—and the results were a bit surprising.

I Confirmed That I’m Bad At Taking Shots

I played rugby in college, so I spent most of my time doing sprints, not shots. I never really liked the taste of alcohol, anyway, and as I became even more dedicated to fitness after graduation, I didn’t want drinking get in the way of my gains.

That said, as much I’d like to say that I waltzed into my kitchen on morning number-one and flawlessly threw back a shot of ACV, that’s not quite how it went. I poured a few teaspoons of ACV into a glass, but before I could even attempt to drink it the aggressive odor of vinegar practically punched me in the face. So, I totally chickened out, pinched my nose with my free hand, and spent the next five minutes taking baby sips of the stuff.

Once I finally got it all down, though, something magical happened: I felt instantly awake. (And, to get the eye-watering taste out of my mouth, I brushed my teeth before my morning cup of coffee for the first time ever.)

Since the whole shot thing clearly wasn’t going to work for me, I decided to dilute my ACV in water. (Lots of non-shot-takers mix their vinegar into water, tea, or seltzer—sometimes adding a little honey and fresh lemon to help the stuff go down easier.) For the remaining 13 days, I either poured two teaspoons of ACV into my water bottle and downed it bit by bit throughout the morning, or splurged on a Bragg’s ginger apple cider vinegar drink, which dilutes the ACV and balances it out with ginger spice and a bit of stevia. Toning down the kick of the vinegar made my new morning routine much more tolerable.

I Felt Healthy As A Horse

If I do say so myself, I have a quality immune system. I haven’t gotten sick—like ‘can’t get out of bed’ sick—in years. But I’d like to think that my morning ACV, which I started sipping during the height of cold and flu season, helped keep my system strong and my body able to work out twice a day without feeling rundown.

Things Got A Little Stinky

By ‘things,’ I mean my bodily fluids. Within five hours of my first shot, I noticed my urine smelled a bit like asparagus. And when I hit the gym or got sweaty in yoga class, the smell that oozed from my armpits—and everywhere else that sweats—was equally off. The acidic stench (a potent combination of vinegar and feet) burned my nose. I barely let myself breathe while doing downward-facing dog and child’s pose. By day three, I learned to be extra generous with my deodorant before doing anything remotely active.

And look, I know a vagina isn’t supposed to smell like a field of daisies and that it’s normal to smell a little different depending on where you’re at in your cycle, what you ate, or how much you’re sweating—but when I started drinking ACV, boy did I notice a change. A little concerned, I called my gyno to fill her in on the situation. She said that introducing such an acidic food into my pretty consistent diet may have thrown off my pH, and that my vagina was likely adjusting to the change. Interestingly though, she also mentioned that since ACV is so acidic, it can help mitigate some bacteria overgrowth—a major vagina win. At the end of the two weeks, though, I was still a bit smelly, waiting for my body to adjust.

My Digestion Felt The Difference

My digestive system typically moves pretty quickly—or quickly enough that I poop three or four times a day. I’m a creature of habit and nosh on pretty much the same healthy eats every day: oatmeal for breakfast, salad with chicken for lunch, ground turkey with kale for dinner, an absurd amount of peanut butter for dessert, and two apples and a protein shake whenever I need a snack. I also faithfully take a probiotic every night before bed—so my system knows what’s up. But when I first added ACV to the equation, something weird happened: I couldn’t go. I spent the first two days sitting on the toilet willing my body to do its thing—but nothing.

Dr. Google told me that drinking an extra cup or two of water might help get things moving, so on day three I vowed to drink tons of water in hopes of easing what was now straight-up discomfort. Much to my relief, I went to the bathroom after yoga, then again after lunch, and then a third time right before CrossFit.

In the name of regularity, I continued drinking as much water as possible throughout my experiment—and it kept me going two or three times a day. Some research suggests that the acids in ACV slow the activity of certain digestive enzymes, which can delay stomach emptying, explaining why my usually-hyper-speedy digestive system acted a little differently.

The ACV Checked My Appetite

Every morning after downing my morning vinegar, I felt really full (and bloated) for a couple of hours. I’m an avid kombucha drinker, so I was no stranger to this full sensation, though. Suddenly I understood the research around how drinking ACV can cause people to eat fewer calories.

Eventually I forced myself to eat some breakfast—I had to fuel my afternoon workout, after all—but I didn’t actually feel hungry until around lunchtime!

My post-ACV full-and-bloated sensation stuck around for the full two weeks. Moving forward, if I’m going to inflate for a few hours, I think I’d rather it be from a deliciously fizzy bottle of kombucha instead of ACV, though.

My Skin Looked The Same

Throughout my ACV experiment, I regularly rocked mud masks and chugged extra water (partially just to wash the vinegary burn out of my mouth)—so if my face looked extra glow-y, I can’t say it was thanks to the ACV. I’m sure the extra antioxidants the ACV offered didn’t do my complexion any harm, though!

So, Will I Continue?

My experiment definitely brought ACV’s very-real effects to life. Who can say ‘no’ to the vitamins, minerals, and gut-boosting compounds in this stuff? Though I won’t continue to swig down ACV in the A.M., I want to put the rest of my bottle to good use. I called my go-to nutritionist Keri Gans, M.S., R.D.N., who recommended using ACV in salad dressings—which is how I’ll be reaping the benefits of this golden liquid from now on.

Related: 14 Practical (And Unexpected!) Uses For Apple Cider Vinegar

I Tried Coconut Oil Dental Care For A Week—Here’s What Happened

I don’t have the most comprehensive oral care routine. I brush twice a day with Sensodyne Pronamel Gentle Whitening Toothpaste, usually for about two minutes. Once a week, I floss and watch with dismay as blood fills up my mouth, sort of like I’m a satiated vampire.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a dentist (my husband says it’s been over two years, though I think it’s only been one) so when I was given the opportunity to try some new and natural oral healthcare products from Desert Essence, I figured there would be no harm in it. 

I was sent a package of three products: Desert Essence Coconut Oil Toothpaste, Desert Essence Coconut Oil Mouthwash, and Desert Essence Coconut Oil Pulling Rinse (luckily I like the taste of coconut) and was instructed to use the products together for one week. According to the labels, the products provide “complete care for teeth and gums” and help your mouth to feel “clean and fresh.” Sounded good to me! 

The first night, I started with the Coconut Oil Toothpaste, then followed up with the Coconut Oil Mouthwash, which reminded me of a tropical adult beverage. What a shame to have to spit it out! These definitely didn’t taste like your average toothpaste and mouthwash—while there’s a tinge of mint flavor, it is subtle and mild. 

The final product I use was entirely new to me: the Coconut Oil Pulling Rinse. I was vaguely familiar with the concept of oil pulling, an ancient Ayurvedic tradition that involves swishing with oil for long periods of time, but had never actually considered trying it. A New-Age-y friend had recently started swearing by its oral-cleansing powers; however, I am not very New-Age-y, so I’d scoffed a bit at her zeal.

Related: I Tried Oil-Pulling for 2 Weeks—Here’s What Happened

 The instructions on the bottle said to work up to 20 minutes of swishing.

 “Are you kidding me?” I asked the bottle. I am not a patient person. I look for quick fixes. 

Well, I thought, I can do one of two things: I can either double-task and do something concurrent with swishing or I can try and be mindful and slow things down. So I lit a candle, sat on the bath-mat, and slowly swirled. For 20 minutes.

The oil rinse tasted mildly of coconut and had a pleasant consistency. When I was done, my mouth felt awesome—smooth, clean, and soft. And when woke up the next day, my mouth still felt great.

I liked the idea of incorporating oil pulling into my nighttime routine. As a person who suffers from insomnia, I have a lot of nighttime rituals. Most nights, I wash my face with ice-cold water and apply a variety of oils and creams. I drink a glass of water and take various vitamins. Then I crawl into bed, listen to a podcast, put on the sound of rain hitting the ground at medium speed, and occasionally pop an Ambien. It made sense to add a mindfulness exercise that also benefited my health.

The next night, I took a swig of the oil and started washing my face. Then I went through my other rituals. Ten minutes later, I was ready to crawl into bed, so I spat out the oil and called it a night. I still woke up with a mouth that felt fresh and teeth that felt oddly—but pleasantly—smooth. Not bad for 10 minutes!

I continued to brush and rinse with the Coconut Oil Toothpaste and Mouthwash, and they did their job well, but it was the oil pulling rinse that really surprised me. At the end of my week-long experiment with the products, I even decided to continue on with the oil pulling rinse as a part of my nightly routine. (I would be lying if I said I was going to use it every night for 10-20 minutes, but I will probably use it a few times a week for five minutes.) My mouth and teeth felt cleaner and healthier after having used it, and my breath even stunk less in the morning. Double-win!

What Attending A Wellness Retreat Did For My Body Confidence

Being invited to a wellness yoga retreat at a gorgeous ranch and beach club in Malibu, California, sounds like the stuff of fantasies. But when I first agreed to attend YogaOutlet’s first-ever two-day retreat, featuring classes with world-renowned instructors (I’m talking people who’ve graced the cover of Yoga Journal or have their very own workout DVDs), I wasn’t thinking much about relaxing.

Outside of taking restful, restorative yoga once or twice a week, my regular practice was fairly limited. The thought of taking Vinyasa classes that get your heart rate up by doing intense flows—along with advanced moves like shoulder stands—alongside people who do it for a living was a fairly intimidating thought. But this wasn’t a retreat for pros only. It was going to be a mix of press and pros—and being that I was game to expand my skill set as a student, I thought to myself, Hey, I’ve got this. Then I sent the “Count me in!” email. Captures

Fast-forward to the first day of the retreat: I realized that not only were lithe, internationally famous yoga pros in attendance, but the classes were also peppered with the kinds of Instagram-famous couples who casually do acroyoga (think yoga meets Cirque du Soleil). Oof, there was no way I’d be able to keep up with them, I thought. They better keep that retreat photographer far away from me.

There’s no way even my mountain pose (which is just standing still basically) was going to look correct next to these yoga rock stars. And there was no way I wanted to be in the background of those shots, let alone take YogaOutlet’s team up on their offer to go do some sun salutations on the grounds of the ranch for an Instagram-worthy photo shoot.

Once an overweight adolescent, and now an adult whose hormonal imbalances and stress levels will forever influence her size, this was most definitely a moment which brought out insecurities around my body and fitness. Even gym classes in high school were pure torture. Though I’ve come a long way since then, I’m not beyond experiencing occasional PTSD from the days when I was a chubby 12-year-old in a stoplight-red regulation gym uniform, timidly flailing away from a dodge ball—or a volleyball or a basketball or a football. You get the picture. 

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But obviously, yoga is 180 degrees from dodgeball, right? In fact, it’s supposed to be one of the most mindful, body-accepting workouts out there. And yet, get me sweating around a bunch of people who seem to know what they’re doing better than I do, and there’s a chance I could have let my insecurities turn me into the unhappiest camper to ever attend a posh retreat on the Malibu coastline. Luckily, it didn’t play out that way.

During the retreat, I listened to experts in the yoga and wellness fields lead vibrant conversations on everything from Ayurvedic medicine to building a supportive social circle in an era of self-isolating digital communication. I stopped and sipped water when holding a certain pose began to feel just plain wrong on my back or shoulders. I made small talk about organic food and the beauty of Miami Beach with one of the acroyoga couples. And eventually, my guard came down.

Sure, in some circles, people who practice yoga or have an intense interest in the fitness community are more about image than wellness. They’re capturing their workouts for social media to appear a certain way—not to share their knowledge. They’re competitive, and maybe even lacking a practice, which is what yoga and fitness is supposed to be about! Practicing—and therefore, always being a work in progress.

But during the informational, sometimes emotional conversations that the retreat fostered through classes and workshops, and even in the most physically intense moments of our yoga classes, I soon realized that there is a community of people who really do get it: Fellow students who aren’t going to give you side-eye if you have to stop halfway through an intense yoga flow in a heated room. Advanced instructors who will praise you for listening to your body and knowing your limits and connecting with the class in a mindful (opposed to aggressively physical) way.

Though every instructor had a unique way of coaching and connecting with the class, the powerful message that I heard over and over again was that you bring your body but also your head and heart to the mat. And it’s that ability to connect them that matters more than any long-held shoulder stand or inversion. 

Related: Does Yoga Count As A Workout?

As a kid, my fears around fitness were exacerbated by the pressure of competition. But somewhere between dripping sweat in downward dog and learning about my Ayurvedic boy type (pitta-kapha, obviously) and aromatherapy, I realized that the only person I needed to compare myself to at that retreat was myself. Captures

Because they truly do practice what they preach, some of the most advanced yoga pros in the world ended up doing the opposite of intimidate me. They inspired me to accept myself more—exactly as I am, with all of my current strengths and weaknesses.

I learned that wellness isn’t about how hot you look on Instagram in a Lycra yoga jumper while doing some bendy move. It’s about committing to, listening to, and taking care of your heart, mind, and body—at a retreat, or wherever you can quiet that overworked mind. Hey, you’ve got this. 

How My Dogs Help Me Cope With Anxiety

My two dogs would never cut it as certified therapy animals. They sneakily gobble petrified bacon off the concrete. They bark at other dogs. They chase kids on skateboards. They are too big for the subway and one of them—Violet—vomits anytime she’s in a car.

I love my dogs, but sometimes it seems they are just as dysfunctional as I am.

Despite their quirks, I find that my dogs—with their snuggles, heavy sighs, and slow and steady breathing—have helped me manage my raging anxiety disorder.

I was first diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder when I landed in a psychiatric hospital. I was exhausted, incoherent, and incapable of making choices. In the hospital, I was so paralyzed I needed to be ferried around and told what to do. I was also, for the first time, given a cocktail of drugs. Finally, I was handed over to the care of an outpatient therapist and psychiatrist, and started doing the hard work of healing and learning resiliency.

While I was building up my new support system, my partner and I decided to adopt a dog. We did some research, and a few months later we arranged to meet Parker at a PetCo in New Jersey. He was part of a group of dogs recently rescued from an over-crowded shelter in North Carolina. I immediately knew he was my dog.

Related: 5 Easy Ways To Add Meditation To Your Day

My partner wasn’t as taken with the twitchy, little black pit bull who refused to make eye contact. Parker’s foster mom, Lynn, told us he was a shy, weird pup with some anxiety but that he was incredibly lovable and sweet.

“An anxious dog,” I smiled as I sat on the floor. Parker shimmied up into my lap like it was safe land in the midst of a churning sea. We were a perfect fit.

When we took Parker home the following week, it became evident right away that he’d been through some sort of trauma. Regular walks were scary for him; he would pancake and refuse to move. Sometimes he’d run and hide under parked cars. Often, he wouldn’t leave the safety of a doorway or stoop. He was hyper-vigilant, always scanning, always alert. Loud noises made him jump and flatten.

I was despondent. How did I think I could take care of a living thing when it was hard enough to take care of myself?”

We hired a trainer who showed us how using food, rewards, and positive reinforcement helped reassure an anxious dog. After working on basic commands over a few weeks, Parker seemed less terrified of our daily walks and began to enjoy them more.

I felt empowered that I was able to help Parker, even in small ways. He rewarded me by trotting around the apartment with a stuffed porcupine and throwing it up in the air, by snuggling in my dirty clothes, and by wedging his way in-between my partner and me in bed.

After a year, my partner and I decided to adopt a second dog. Violet had been abandoned soon after giving birth and was still lactating when we picked her up. Though she had a sassy and assertive personality (unlike Parker), she also showed signs of trauma. It took a while for her to warm up to us, but once she did, her sweetness and a penchant for snuggling emerged.

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At this point in my own therapy, I was working on mindfulness techniques like breathing and centering my body. If I’m honest, I was failing miserably. Mindfulness unleashed all the obsessive thoughts in my brain, and they floated freely and torturously. Sitting still and focusing on my breath seemed like a Herculean task, and I began to hate meditating.

But holding Violet and focusing on her breath? I didn’t hate that.

Mornings are often difficult. I don’t typically wake peacefully. The minute I open my eyes, I am activated. My heart pounds even though there is no threat. So I often roll over and hug Violet, whose greatest skill is breathing heavily and evenly. We lie chest to chest—sometimes she’ll swat me in the face if she’s not interested—and eventually I regulate my breathing by syncing up with hers. This helps calms me and prepares me to face the challenges of the day.

On top of the breath work, taking the dogs for long walks also clears my mind. Playing with them encourages me to see joy in dark times. And when I can’t get out of bed, they happily stay in it with me.

Animals are healing creatures, and any animal can be therapeutic. I once knew a woman who got great comfort from her python. I have friends with hedgehogs, cats, rats, rabbits, and horses. My friends don’t all struggle with psychological issues, but they all report the psychological benefits of sharing their lives with animals.

According to a recent study written about in NPR, participants explained how “pets provided more than just emotional support and companionship…The animals also could distract them from their illness, even from severe psychosis.”

I love being around dogs so much that I eventually started volunteering at an animal shelter. Helping dogs with all sorts of special needs, quirks, and life experiences is challenging but rewarding, and I’ve learned that dogs are incredibly resilient and resourceful. They inspire me. Giving back to them when they have given me so much hope and comfort feels good and right.

My dogs are an important part of my life; not only are they my best friends, but they also play a significant role in helping me manage my anxiety. They help me feel capable. Dogs don’t judge; they don’t care if you struggle with mental illness—they only want to be involved in your life, even when you’re at your worst. And understanding that is incredibly healing.

What It’s Like Staying Fit With An Autoimmune Disorder

In the past year, I’ve become super-fitness-focused (did I just write that?)—because I was tired of the old, high-blood-pressure-me, and because I have an inflammatory disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis. In short, it’s degenerative, and it can cause my spine to fuse, leaving me with no mobility. It can also affect my heart, eyes, lungs, and stomach. Let’s just say, it seriously sucks.

If this disease were a vampire, it would feed on the sedentary. It looooves the sedentary. Sitting for 20 minutes? Not stretching all day? Not exercising? It’s all like porn to this disease. But that’s just me—there are plenty of other autoimmune diseases that don’t have the same effect, of course. However, research shows that many of these diseases (and remember, there’s over 100 of them!) respond really well to clean eating and tailored fitness regimens.

That’s because people with autoimmune diseases have some obstacles. Many of us are plagued with constant fatigue (you can go to the gym at 5 a.m., but I’m good, thanks), deal with some range of chronic pain or mobility loss (my inflamed joints have banned burpees for life), or deal with complications that prevent us from simply hitting the gym like everyone else.

But this isn’t a sob story! This is a victory story. This is what I’ve learned about staying fit, despite my limitations—and hopefully, no matter your current state of health, there’s something here that may apply to you.

1. Understand what an autoimmune disease does to you.

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked, “What is an autoimmune disease?” I’d be rich. Just kidding—but I’d probably have about $50 bucks, which is not bad at all for a hypothetical situation.

It’s one thing to explain to someone the mechanics of an autoimmune disease (inflammation in the body runs rampant, attacking itself and making the body sick), but it’s another to contextualize what this means for you.

Related: Millions Of Americans Have Autoimmune Diseases—Could You?

Because inflammation is at the core of these diseases, you can know that it’s the culprit behind many of your symptoms. Inflammation makes us tired because the body is fighting its own healthy cells. Inflammation can also cause pain. (Anyone who doesn’t believe in chronic fatigue or pain should stop and look up “Science” in the dictionary, please.)

Which leads me to number two…

2. Listen to your body.

This mantra is often tossed around—but the fact is, it can come off as a mindless platitude. You can trust me, though, that I’m not blowing smoke: You need to listen to your body. Learning to understand when your body needs rest—versus when it could use a healthy dose of movement (whatever that means to you!)—is key. Become a psychic to your poor, ailing body. It will thank you. Ignore its needs, and you will feel worse.

Here’s why you need be more vigilant: People with autoimmune diseases often deal with flare-ups. This word is like uttering “Voldemort” to us autoimmunies—it means a whole slew of things, and none of them are good. Flares are what we avoid at literally all costs, be it taking medicine, getting enough sleep, exercising, eating right, or keeping stress at bay.

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

Healthy people can go hard or skimp on some sleep and still be more or less OK. But for us, going too hard—or not moving enough—can result in a flare. I love my 7:30 p.m. aqua plyometics class (water is divine for anyone with joint issues, since it’s so low-impact!), but there are days when my body feels like it’s got nothing left. Gas tank empty. And I have learned to listen in order to prevent a flare.

Because you don’t always know when you’ll be too tired to muster a workout, it can be smart to take advantage of the times you do feel well enough. That could mean breaking into a spontaneous stretch, yoga, or plyo session—or rerouting your weekend plans to include a quick lap swim. I’m not saying this is easy or doable—and it’s a luxury to be able to make room for movement—but it’s something to consider!

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3. Small victories matter.

If you can’t get in a full 30 minutes or an hour at the gym, that’s OK. When I can’t, I try to do a variety of stretch sessions or short walks. Treating my body like it is capable is what matters. This might mean I do five minutes of yoga mid-day, or that you take the stairs instead of the elevator.

The point is, you can do something (anything!). For many autoimmunies, feeling out of control—like the disease is your boss—is the reality. When you can’t predict flare-ups or your reaction to a certain medicine, it’s important to do what you can to reclaim autonomy over your body. Don’t think you need to be an athlete or overcome disease by running three miles every morning despite the pain. Those victories are incredible, but so are the smaller ones.

You’ve got this dumb monster raging inside you, so be a friend to yourself!

4. Use fitness as mental therapy.

Obviously, there’s no complimentary therapy that can take the place of professional mental health care. However, there are ways to augment your mental health rituals—and fitness is totally one of them. Autoimmune diseases are basically free passes to the local pity party: You feel tired all the time, your body hurts, your friends don’t get it, your job doesn’t get it, and your spouse is tired of hearing you complain.

This is why, for me, I like to use fitness to get my endorphins rolling. I feel like I am making strides to feel better, and sometimes this is a key that unlocks that coveted sense of okay-ness. Suddenly, with all those post-exercise feel-good hormones flooding my body, it’s a little easier to feel celebratory and joyful. With time, it’s even made me feel like the disease takes up a just a sliver of my life—and not all of it. Feeling strong, capable, flexible, and in control reduces the number of times I feel badly.

Related: How Fitness Became My Drug Of Choice

But maybe you’re not in a position to get a rush of endorphins from working out—there are other ways to up your happiness levels: meditation, slowly walking in nature, journaling about your gratitude, or simply laughing (seriously, making time to laugh can change your physiology). Taking the time to slow down and care for yourself—in any way—can make a big difference.

5. Make fitness part of your wellness routine.

Maybe this seems insanely obvious by this point, but fitness isn’t an extracurricular to wellness. To me, it’s a part of the wellness pie-chart (which includes eating well and supplementing, engaging in pleasurable activities, using de-stressing tools daily, managing illness (medication, physical therapy), meaningful social interaction, and exercise). Making the conscious effort, day in and out, to move and strengthen your body, can be extremely empowering.

Just having the option to move your body is a privilege, especially to someone with disabilities. For example, when my disease is at its worst, people can become wheelchair or bed-bound, unable to move, turn, or even walk. I recognize that this could be me, so while I have the time to use my body, I do!

I swim or aqua cycle four or five times a week, and it impacts my overall wellness in a variety of ways: It lowers my blood pressure, it strengthens my body, it raises my good cholesterol, and it decreases my pain. (And, not going to lie, because I work out in water I get to buy bunch of awesome, neon-colored bathing suits that freak everyone else in the pool out.)

6. Ask the disease what it wants to eat for dinner.

I have never looked at food like an enemy, and I don’t believe food should be used as a tool for punishment or shame. We are pleasure beings and we like wine, cheese, fatty meats, and sugar. And that’s OK. But these pleasures must be indulged in in moderation, especially with an autoimmune disease.

In fact, research shows that many autoimmune diseases are deeply rooted in gut health, according to a study in Autoimmune Diseases. I know, for a fact, that eating cheese and most grains disturbs my gut flora and can trigger a flare-up.

Related: Shop probiotics to keep your gut healthy. 

There’s a two-fold benefit to eating well and eating for your body: One, it keeps you fit so that you can stay moving. Two, it keeps you energized and feeling good. Three, it keeps you from feeling shackled to frustrating digestive and disease symptoms.

If I ask my Ankylosing Spondylitis what it wants for dinner, it says salmon, avocado, arugula, and cauliflower. If I ask myself, Myself says pizza and cookies. You have to get in between them and figure it out!

7. Supplement for you.

People always say “take your vitamins and supplements!” and there’s a great reason for it. Whether you’ve eliminated food groups (something us autoimmunies do a lot in search of the least inflammatory diet) or are simply looking to increase health by getting more of the good stuff, supplements can make a big difference.

Research what works for you. I know that fish oil has been found helpful in patients with Ankylosing Spondylitis, for example. Start with a multivitamin to fill in any nutritional gaps, and work with a functional medicine practitioner, if possible, to identify what else might work for your body and your autoimmune disease.

Related: Shop joint health supplements to keep your body feeling its best. 

Who’s Good: Meet Yoga Guru And Best-Selling Author Sara DiVello

These days, all you need is a basic knowledge of superfoods and an iPhone upgrade to be deemed a social media influencer. So how do you distinguish between the people on Instagram who can provide solid info, inspiring ideas, and encouragement along your own health and wellness journey and the many one-trick ponies filling feeds with butt selfies? We can help you cut through all the noise (and smoothie bowls).

Welcome to Who’s Good, a regular interview series from the editors of What’s Good that catches up with the best, brightest, and boldest social media has to offer.

Up this week: We talked to Sara DiVello, yoga instructor, Athleta brand ambassador, and author of the best-selling book, Where in the OM Am I? One Woman’s Journey from the Corporate World to the Yoga Mat. You may have seen her work in the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Marie Claire, or MindBodyGreen, where she shares inspiring, friendly advice on how to bring Zen to a busy lifestyle. (More on that below!)

Sara, thanks for chatting with us! Let’s start with your yoga practice. How did you come into it, and what are your focuses as a yoga instructor?

Tuesday Truth: an Open heart is a brave heart. 💙

A post shared by Writer • Speaker •Yoga Teacher (@saradivello) on

So happy to chat! I love The Vitamin Shoppe and find myself in-store a healthy number of times per week. I started doing yoga because my heart was broken—I continued because it gave me tools to manage my anxiety and insomnia, which totally changed my life. The full story is, my boyfriend at the time dumped me, and shortly thereafter, I got laid off when my company was acquired by a much-larger one. Talk about a personal-professional double-whammy! I felt rejected in both spheres of my life and plummeted into depression—and the fact that it was a dark, dreary, freezing cold winter in Boston probably didn’t help. The post-practice peacefulness I felt after yoga helped me through that. I then stayed with my practice for next 17 years because of the ways yoga changed my life. It helps me feel calm, grounded, and centered, which is literally life-changing for a chronically anxious person like me!

My focus now as a teacher is to share the same tools that helped me. I lead a slow, mindful, therapeutic-oriented practice, and I set a tone that is warm, welcoming, and accepting of ALL, regardless of age, ability, or experience. I have people in their 70s and 80s in my classes and I also have super-flexible professional dancers. Often, I have people who tell me they hate yoga but somehow like what I teach. But they’re all there because something resonates with them in some way.

My theory is that when you set a tone of welcoming acceptance, and give people the tools to slow down, tune in to the deepest parts of themselves, and—in the process—connect to something sacred, you provide a key that they can use for their unique journey and healing.

I don’t teach, preach, or practice any of the “cool stuff” you may see on Instagram (like headstands or arm balances). I’m here to give myself and others the tools to slow down, connect, and heal anxiety, insomnia, and the terrible sense of being chronically overbooked and undernourished when it comes to time, energy, and resources.

Tell us a little about your book, Where in the OM Am I?One Woman’s Journey from the Corporate World to the Yoga Mat. It was an NIEA winner for Best Memoir and Shape Magazine selected itas a best book. Who is this book for?  

OM is for anyone wondering where they are in their life, what the heck is going on, and if this is all there is. It’s for people feeling stuck, who have a gnawing sense of deep-down dissatisfaction, or a gentle yearning for more. It’s also for people who just need a good laugh. One of my favorite reviews said it’s “The Devil Wears Prada meets Eat, Pray, Love….” And, I would add, “with some humor from The Office thrown in on the side.”

All kidding aside, the book is about finding what you want to do in life, as told through my transition from working in financial services to teaching yoga, and all of the super-crazy “characters” in both worlds. It also addresses how women can be so mean to other women both in the workplace AND in the yoga world (and let me tell you—the yoga mean girls really caught me off guard!).

Overall, I wanted readers to know that they’re not alone, that this is their one glorious life and they deserve to pursue what would make them extraordinarily happy. And, that if I can make a shift, anyone can.

Tell us about your work as a brand ambassador for Athleta.

✨I'm taking over @athleta's National Instagram Stories today! 🙌🏼✨ And to celebrate I'm also launching a Power of She Absolute SelfCare Challenge! Swipe left 👈🏼 ✨ For 10 days I'll be sharing my top wellness tips, tricks, hacks, and recipes to enhance your Absolute SelfCare starting with food today (scroll left for recipes and details)✨ To Enter: 1: Follow me (obv) 2: Comment below with questions or what you're excited to try (or even just a ☺️ to let me know you're here) 3: Follow along Daily for my tips (and to see new prizes added). Winner will be picked on Day 10! #powerofshe #absoluteselfcare . . . . . . . . #athleta #athletaambassador #athletanewbury #sponsored #athletaxsorel #YogaJourney #YogaJunkie #YogaLifestyle #YogaGram #YogaLife #YogaGirl #Author #AuthorLife #AuthorsOfInstagram #Wellness #Health #MindBodySpirit #HealthyLiving #Bewell #Inspiration #Empowerment #HealthAndWellness #HiVibeTribe #GoodVibesOnly #GirlBoss

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I was incredibly honored when Athleta chose me as one of seven U.S. yoga ambassadors when they launched their ambassador program in 2015. I continue in this role today. As an ambassador, I provide free health and wellness events to the Boston community, which is super-important to me. I fully believe in Athleta’s mission to support and empower ALL women—of all ages, sizes, abilities, and backgrounds. Athleta also provides educational opportunities to the women who manufacture and sew their clothes, and that is equally important to me.

You recently spoke at the WELL Summit, an event series aimed toward self-improvement. As a keynote speaker, what did that mean to you—and what did your speech revolve around?

Even though I do it all the time, I’m actually a very nervous public speaker, so to get up in front of 500 people and share an intimate story is vulnerable and scary for me, but it’s also deeply meaningful. I passionately believe in the power of storytelling—in each person’s ability to positively impact someone else’s life. It’s the same foundational belief I have about writing a book—if you have a story and are called to share it, you probably should. Because if you can open someone else’s eyes, heart, and mind, you can change their life–and that is one of the best and most powerful things we can do in our lifetime.

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My speech was about creating and embracing your best life. I focused on how my mother’s terminal breast cancer diagnosis made me committed to living each day fully, to dreaming big dreams and pursuing them with unyielding focus and unrelenting dedication, because to do so is to honor the gift that we have each been given and that is the gift of another day. That commitment is part of what motivated me to leave my “safe” career in financial services and risk going after my dream to be an author.

You do a lot of free events and workshops. Can you tell us about why you offer communities services like these?

I grew up poor and consequently didn’t have access to a lot of opportunities that I would’ve wished for. I was the first in my family to go to college and I worked my way through. I’m so grateful to have had that opportunity and for all the opportunities that came about as a result of it. So now I’m committed to doing what I can to give back.

Yoga, health, and wellness can get pretty pricey, which can squeeze out a lot of people. So as an Athleta ambassador (and in other volunteer/donation capacities), I provide complimentary yoga, meditation, mindful eating, and other health and wellness events and classes to the community, in an effort to make these accessible to ALL.

I’m really excited because I just completed my fourth year of teaching Yoga on the Charles for the Esplanade Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to maintaining green spaces in Boston, where they then host free health and fitness classes for the community.

It’s one of my favorite things to do. We gather between 300 to 600 people each week, and it’s so wonderful to be outside, breathe fresh air, and do yoga together as the sun sets over the Charles River. The sunsets are spectacular and the classes, while always wonderful, are also always unique. One time the mounted police rode two horses past the class and we all kind of paused to laugh (and take photos)!

But whether I get 600 people, or 16 at a more-intimate event, what really matters to me is seeing that spark of awareness click on. That “Ohhhh…Yes! This feels good! I can do this!”

Speaking of horses, you recently talked to Elite Daily about a new trend called HORSE YOGA (we didn’t know that was a thing). We actually published an article on eight adventurous yoga styles, but this is a new one. You must give us the scoop.

That was so fun. I love Elite Daily and the writer who interviewed me is hilarious. But when it comes to horse yoga, my take is this: I love horses and I love yoga. I also love spaghetti and ice cream, but I do not love these things smooshed together.

I’m a yoga traditionalist. My focus is on getting people out of pain and in that state of profound stillness, where they can connect to the deepest parts of themselves. In that stillness and connection, they can calm, ground, restore their energy, and rejuvenate.

Again, I don’t teach, preach, or practice any of the “cool stuff” you may see on Instagram, like horse yoga or balancing on one pinky over a ravine. I don’t need it. I’m here to relax, rest, and recharge (and to share those tools with others).

What are your top three tips for living a well-balanced life, especially for the busy folks out there?

1.    Don’t try to do it all as defined by anyone else. Do what feels good for you.

2.   Take time for the deep breaths every day.

3.   Get enough sleep and eat well. I know I’m a wreck without sleep and I need to eat every few hours—sort of like a two-year-old (but taller). If you’re well-rested and well-fed, everything else is possible. But you’ve GOT to have that strong foundation.

Do you have any go-to vits, supps, or smoothie recipes that keep you feeling high-energy?

Yes! I take a women’s multivitamin every day, as well as fish oil, and vitamin D supplements (again—I live in Boston. It gets dark a 4:30 p.m. during the winter! I need extra vitamin D!). And I start every day with a cup of green tea and honey, followed by a protein-packed, fiber-filled smoothie.

What can we expect to see from you as the year goes on?  

I’ve got a ton of awesome events coming up. From the Nantucket Yoga Festival July 9-10, to Yoga on the Charles in Boston every Wednesday July through September (free!), Day of WELLness in Boston in April, WELL Summit 2018 in NYC, and many more events up and down the east coast and around the country. Come hang with me on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or my website where you can sign up for my mailing list and be the first to learn about what I’ve got cooking (not to mention—you can get my friends and family discounts!).

When I’m home, I’m working on my next book—it’s actually a true crime murder mystery, so stay tuned! All this and more is on my social media and newsletter so follow me if you like healthy recipes, yoga you can do at your desk, restful sleep hacks, and other tips, tricks, and tools you can weave into your day to help live your best life. I also do a lot of giveaways.

Lastly, I truly LOVE what I do so if you’ve got questions, send me a message! As you may have noticed, I like to chat.

What It’s Really Like To Have Weight-Loss Surgery—And Drop 140 Pounds

I’ve always been chubby. Food was comforting, sentimental even. When my grandmother cooked cakes, brisket, and roast beef, she’d cut off tiny “ah-ahs” and feed the kids like an aquarium seal trainer. I learned early to associate food with comfort.

Before I was 10, my parents separated and I started packing on the pounds. Food was there when no one else was, literally. I gained most of my serious weight over the course of hundreds of afternoons while my mother worked the night shift at her second job. The first thing I’d do after school was put on a pot of water to boil. I’d make rice or pasta as an afternoon snack, then later, more rice or pasta with a steak for dinner.

I was proud of my cooking. I thought it showed that I was self-sufficient and Mom wouldn’t have to worry about me. I could take care of myself. But as I kept cooking, my clothes stopped fitting. I had to start shopping at big and tall stores. There, I discovered that overweight people apparently aren’t allowed to live in the same fashion conscious world as everyone else. Everything was loud, obnoxious colors with elastic waistbands and illustrations of dogs wearing sunglasses.

I got called names like “Fatboy” by other kids. Adults called me “Big Guy,” which is kind of the Diet Coke of fat shaming. Note to adults: The sting doesn’t hurt any less, in case you were wondering.

When my grandmother cooked cakes, brisket, and roast beef, she’d cut off tiny “ah-ahs” and feed the kids like an aquarium seal trainer. 

When I first heard about bariatric surgery I was in my early 20s. It felt inevitable—a looming certainty in the distance. I’d researched it and read success stories online, bringing myself to tears looking at before & afters. I was a walking “before picture.”

I’d even gone as far as scheduling the surgery twice. I cancelled both times after seeing older, heavier people in doctors’ waiting rooms and convincing myself, “I’m not as bad as that guy.” 

By the time I hit my 30s I’d ballooned up to more than 300 pounds, though. And in early 2016 I was heavier than I’d ever been before. My joints ached, I had sleep apnea, and because I wasn’t sleeping right I had no energy throughout the day. My boss was even threatening to fire me for falling asleep in meetings. I had a three-year-old boy I couldn’t keep up with and my self-confidence was at an all time low. Something had to give.

It was about 140 pounds ago that I sat in my car at an Exxon gas station, sweating as I struggled to lean over far enough to pull the lever that opened my gas tank. In that moment, I made a decision that changed my life forever. That was the day I decided to get weight loss surgery (WLS).

Surgery Prep

There are a some practical matters that need to be sorted out before this type of surgery. First off, the finances. I’d heard a lot of horror stories about the insurance approval process, and mine was difficult—but not impossible. My carrier (Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield) covered the procedure at 80 percent, which meant my out-of-pocket came to about $2,500 altogether. 

There are a few different types of WLS, but the common ones are called Lap Band, Gastric Bypass, and Gastric Sleeve. Most of the people I met along the way were getting the Gastric Sleeve surgery, which is what my doctor recommended for me. The procedure, he explained, involved removing a part of my stomach, creating a “pouch” about the size of a small banana. This forcibly limits your food intake, leaving you feeling full after eating much smaller portions.

I’d researched it and read success stories online, bringing myself to tears looking at before & afters. I was a walking “before picture.”

I was required to sit through multiple seminars and meetings with nutritionists, psychologists, and doctors, who tracked my weight over a six-month period as I attempted (unsuccessfully) to lose the weight on my own. After jumping through all the hoops (and not losing weight), I was finally approved with a surgery date. I was ready.

The day of the surgery, my wife took me to the hospital and she and my father stood at my bedside until the moment the nurse wheeled me away. This was it. It was really happening. I thought I’d be nervous but I wasn’t. It was more like standing outside the gates of Emerald City, knowing something incredible waited for me inside.

The doctor administered the anesthesia and as I counted backwards from 10, the world faded away.

After the Surgery

Just a few hours after I regained consciousness, the nurses were encouraging me to get up and start walking around. This helped to relieve the gas pressure caused by the anesthesia. (A weird side effect: The anesthesia caused blood vessels to burst in my right eye. My son would call me “Blood Eye Daddy” for the next week and a half.)

There were five small scars from the incisions but they didn’t hurt very badly. The hardest thing was drinking water. I just couldn’t take in much as my newly smaller tummy got its bearings. Just a few small sips at first. I was able to drink about a cup by the time they discharged me.

I got home, sat on my couch, and let it sink in like a new tattoo. I’d followed through. This was a Decision with a capitol D. Irreversible. But it’s not like you have the surgery and suddenly life is a bunch of fluffy ducks.

I’ve heard people say that weight loss surgery is “taking the easy way out.” In my experience, that’s the furthest thing from the truth.

Here’s what it really feels like: You’re still 300 pounds but the weight feels impermanent—like it doesn’t belong to you anymore. You begin to think of your body as a temporary shell from which the real you will eventually emerge. You obsess on everything you need to do to reach your goal. It’s all you think about. It’s all you talk about. For a while, it’s all you are.   

The next few weeks were the most radical in terms of dietary changes. For 14 days I could only have clear liquids as my pouch began to heal. Water, protein shakes, and chicken broth (I couldn’t stand the beef broth—ugh, gross). Then another two weeks of soft solids and mushy foods like sugar-free Jell-O, cottage cheese, and loosely scrambled eggs. 

It. Was. Miserable.

If I had to pinpoint the hardest part of the whole experience, it would be those first few weeks after surgery. That’s when I realized that I didn’t have a problem with food but an issue with my entire lifestyle. I’d built routines that gave me comfort. Tough day? Eat heavy and watch TV late at night. Feeling bad about myself? Drown my sorrows in candy and root beer.

Related: Check out Nu Life’s new line of bariatric support products

Now, without those crutches, I was forced to deal with my issues head-on. I can only imagine this is similar to what drug addicts feel when they go cold turkey. There were nights I laid in bed, crying because I physically couldn’t eat the way I wanted to. There were days I sobbed to my wife on the phone, cursing the doctors and regretting my decision. Sometimes I dealt with it by taking bites of the foods I missed, savoring the feel of them in my mouth and then spitting them out.

But the weight started coming off.

Then, slowly, I began introducing more solid foods: fish, hard-boiled eggs, sliced meats. I found ways to mix it up. Eventually, I was cleared to start eating normally and healthier patterns took root.

Through the Looking Glass

It’s been 16 months since the surgery and the world I live in today bears little resemblance to the one I grew up in. When someone laughs, I don’t assume they’re laughing at me. If people are nice, I don’t assume they feel sorry for me. My clothes fit and I don’t have to shop at big and tall stores anymore. I can chase around my toddler and play on the floor with my new baby boy—and feel no pain. I’m more confident, I smile in pictures, and I’m not embarrassed to eat in front of other people. I can even wrap a bath towel all the way around my body.

For those of us who have battled with weight issues all our lives, it’s difficult not to tie our self-worth into how we perceive our appearance.

Are there negatives? Sure. I miss eating a juicy hamburger and a mound of fries. But I’ll still eat about half a burger and a fry or two. I don’t deny myself the things I love—it’s more about moderation and making better choices consistently.

Nowadays, I’ll have a protein shake for breakfast, turkey and cheese roll-ups for lunch, and then I try my best to eat a balanced, normal-sized dinner (that’s protein, vegetables, and a small amount of carbs). Switching to smaller plates helps control portions and makes it look like you’re getting more. Multivitamins and calcium are a must to get in the nutrition I need due to the reduced amount of calories I take in. (Every day is a struggle to take in the 65 grams of protein and 64 ounces of water my doctor recommends.) I work out at least three days a week and now that my body doesn’t creak and groan with every step, I actually enjoy it.

Last Thoughts

I’ve heard people say that weight loss surgery is “taking the easy way out.” In my experience, that’s the furthest thing from the truth. It isn’t a cure—it’s a tool. Total body transformation requires discipline, struggle, and support. My diet’s not perfect. I don’t always get to the gym and I’m still searching for those elusive abs (they’re in there somewhere!).

For those of us who have battled with weight issues all our lives, it’s difficult not to tie our self-worth into how we perceive our appearance. Whatever shape you are, my hope is that you have the courage to love yourself—whether that means taking pride in the person you are or working to transform yourself into who you’re meant to be. 

My journey is far from over. I’ve got a long way to go and my goals are always evolving. Today, I feel better than ever before and every day I’m one step closer to my best self.


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Who’s Good: Q&A With MNDFL Meditation

These days, all you need is a basic knowledge of superfoods and an iPhone upgrade to be deemed a social media influencer. So how do you distinguish between the people on Instagram who can provide solid info, inspiring ideas, and encouragement along your own health and wellness journey and the many one-trick ponies filling feeds with butt selfies? We can help you cut through all the noise (and smoothie bowls). Welcome to Who’s Good, a regular interview series from the editors of What’s Good that catches up with the best, brightest, and boldest social media has to offer.

Up this week: We spoke with Lodro Rinzler, chief spiritual officer at MNDFL Meditation. The meditation studio has three locations in New York City and also runs a separate non-profit, MNDFL Ed, dedicated to making meditation accessible and meaningful, especially for youth.

Thanks for joining us, Lodro! Let’s start with some basics: What is meditation, and why would someone want to do it?

Meditation is, quite simply, substituting your discursive mind for an object—like the breath, a mantra, or a contemplation. Science is now proving what some spiritual traditions have been saying for thousands of years. It’s no longer a monk in robes on the other side of the world telling you that mindfulness and meditation are good for you. Instead, it’s The New York Times, academic papers, your doctor, boss, neighbors, or friends!

A little bit of mindfulness meditation every day over the period of two months leads to increased gray matter in the hippocampus and more activity in the anterior cingulate cortex [which controls high-level thinking, like ethics, morality, and decision-making]—meaning drastically reduced stress levels, better sleep, a boosted immune system, and increased productivity overall. For me, showing up for something as simple as the breath allows me to show up more fully and authentically for the rest of my life.

How can the average person begin getting into meditation? 

While there’s a lot of great resources online, I often recommend working with someone who is a certified meditation teacher and really knows their stuff. It’s important to study with someone who can hold your hand a bit as you get going and answer questions that you have along the way. If you’re not near a meditation center you can go online and check out MNDFL Video, which also has access to those really special teachers.

(Note: Everyone’s first class at MNDFL is $10—and they have 35 expert teachers on-hand.)

How does MNDFL work? We love the idea of a community of meditators. What are some of the values and missions you have?

M N D F L exists to enable humans to feel good. We are New York City’s premier meditation studio, and recently expanded to three locations (Greenwich Village, Upper East Side, and Williamsburg). Each week we have over 150 30- and 45-minute classes featuring expert teachers from a variety of traditions, offering simple techniques in an accessible manner. When classes are not in session, the space is open for self-guided practice. The mission is to make meditation accessible to all.

How can meditation be helpful in an age of high stress, social change, and political turmoil?

Since November 2016, we have seen a spike in attendance for our MNDFL Emotions classes. People are definitely grappling with some strong emotions since the transition in presidency. Meditation allows us to feel how we feel, to express our own innate peace and humanity, and form more authentic (and often offline) connections with others.

What are some of qualities you look for in an instructor?

Great question. I look for a mix of someone who is very well-trained in their lineage, who will offer time-tested techniques (as all too often people call themselves meditation teachers and offer stuff they made up last week, which is pretty harmful).

In addition to excellent training and certification as a teacher, the other thing I look for in a meditation instructor is kindness—someone who has an open heart and genuinely cares about other people.

What does the average person get wrong about meditation? How do we bust those “I can’t do it” myths?

My teacher always says that any meditation is good meditation; there’s no getting it wrong so long as we attempt to do it. I would say that most people think they should sit once and feel instant peace. That’s a bit like expecting meditation to be a massage instead of a training. For example, you wouldn’t expect to be able to pick up a guitar and immediately play Free Bird. We need to train in meditation in the same way, doing a little of it regularly and—over time—we get better at it and see the benefits first-hand. So, the number one thing I advise is to get consistent with your practice over a few weeks and be patient with yourself along the way.

It Took Emergency Surgery For Me To Admit That I Was A Binge Eater

My husband Tuan says he hardly recognized the woman he drove to the emergency room in 2016: me. I was doubled over and moaning, after being woken up at 5 a.m. by intense abdominal pain.

In the E.R., I found myself on a gurney on the hospital’s surgical floor. The orderly had left me off to the side of the bustling corridor, where they lined up patients scheduled for surgery like taxiing planes awaiting takeoff.

Prior to that, an E.R. doctor had diagnosed me with cholecystitis, an inflammation of the gallbladder, and said I needed surgery to remove it. I’d had hereditary gall bladder issues, which had caused me to develop gallstones (hardened deposits of digestive fluid that can form in your gallbladder). But it was one particular gallstone, which had become lodged in my cystic duct, that became the source of my excruciating pain.

Waiting to be operated on was harrowing. I was nearly naked and the air felt cold—or maybe it was my fear making me feel that way. I shivered a little as I imagined my body in the drawer of a morgue, should something happen to me. A doctor approached me and introduced himself as my anesthesiologist.

The surgery was a wake-up call. I’d been keeping a secret for far too long—that I had been binge-eating since childhood.

“Can you read this before you give me the anesthesia?” I asked him. He nodded as I handed him a slip of paper. “I will come through this surgery well, and heal quickly,” it read. “I am loved.” The affirmation I wrote made me feel a little more in control.

Maybe my affirmation worked, because my surgery was successful. Afterward, though, I wore a drainage bag attached to the lower laparoscopic incision in my right side. It tugged uncomfortably at my skin, especially during bumps in the road as we drove home from the hospital.

After recovering for several months, I realized that the surgery was a wake-up call. I’d been keeping a secret for far too long—that I had been binge-eating since childhood—and surely that behavior had not kept me in optimal health.

My eating disorder had its roots in the chaotic household in which I grew up. I lived in fear of my mentally ill father and my parents didn’t emotionally care for me, so I often ended up turning to food for comfort. Many times after family dinners—long after I was full, long after my family members had left the dinner table—I stood alone over the stove in the kitchen of our suburban home, eating leftovers from the pots. A typical after-dinner binge left my belly feeling hard and round, yet I never felt sated.

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I got married in 2009 and continued secretly binging (or so I thought). My husband worked hard to ignore my binges, but empty Combos bags, clanking Pringles cans, and Cadbury bars still clinging to their foil—which I’d toss over the side of the bed after eating—were hard to overlook. I’d eat to treat myself after an annoying or long day, but these treats were ruining my health. Occasionally, my husband caught me bingeing and teased me for my “secret eating,” but neither one of us named the problem or took steps to address it.

For decades I had been able to binge without consequence. But now, in my late forties, my binge-eating had finally caught up with me. After the hospital, I had to try to make sustainable lifestyle changes for the sake of my health. More than that, my seven-year-old daughter deserved a mother who modeled good health practices.

I found a new doctor who worked at a hospital nearby. “I need help losing weight,” I told her. Young and eager to assist me, she saw how miserable I felt. The doctor promised emotional support—an essential element of sticking with good health habits.

It has been almost three months since that initial meeting and I’ve lost nearly 20 pounds (off of 200lbs), four BMI points, and several inches from my waist, hips, and butt, and my blood pressure has dropped. I’ve reduced my portion sizes and sugar intake, but I still allow myself to eat the foods I enjoy—in moderation. My husband now buys mini ice cream cones at Trader Joe’s (60 calories each), for example.

I had to try to make sustainable lifestyle changes for the sake of my health. More than that, my seven-year-old daughter deserved a mother who modeled good health practices.

Instead of forcing myself to go running, which I seriously dislike, I signed up for unlimited Pure Barre classes for a full-body group workout. I swim at the community pool and aim to walk 10,000 steps every day. I keep a food (and mood) journal to stay on top of triggers and remain honest with myself about what I eat.

In September, I rode my daughter to school on our cargo bike (another lifestyle tweak) for her first day of second grade. I felt good about knowing I had finally faced my behavior honestly, and I loved my improved mood, the way my pants fit, and how my more-sculpted shoulders looked in a sleeveless shirt.

I also love that my daughter watched me change my own health habits. I hope, inspired by my example, she’ll find ways to stay healthy far beyond the second grade.

Don’t Judge My Eating Choices And I Won’t Judge Yours

People always ask me what I could possibly eat when they learn I don’t eat meat. Usually, they wonder if I “just eat salad.” The answer: I couldn’t live on salads alone, I’d die—not to mention, the idea that not eating meat amounts to eating just salads shows how little society knows about eating a plant-based diet. Have some imagination!

I haven’t eaten meat for more than half of my life. I became a vegetarian early on in high school, but I’d pretty much avoided meat long before that. It wasn’t just the flavor or the texture that turned my stomach (it quite literally made me gag), it was the thought that I was eating another creature’s body.

Related: 5 Plant-Based Protein Bars That’ll Make You A Believer

My parents, already privy to my rebellious ways, weren’t too shocked to learn that I would no longer take part in meat eating. I had, at a very young age, favored carrot sticks to chicken nuggets and mashed potatoes to meat. And while I’ve flipped between what you can call vegetarian and vegan several times over (I’m not ashamed—I’m human!), the key is that I tend to avoid labels. If anything, I call myself a veggie because while I’m mostly vegan, I won’t say no to the delicious arepas made by my Colombian mother-in-law.

Some people might say that I’m a coward, that I’m not ‘doing it’ correctly, or that I’m not strong enough to stand on my convictions and pick a side. I’d say: That’s absolutely wrong.

Humans are stuck on labels (hello, carnivores, herbivores, pescatarians, Paleo, Keto, vegan—and everything in between), so much so that there’s a need to identify (and justify!) ourselves by the foods we eat. And we’re stuck on judging how others choose to eat, too.

I tend to avoid labels. If anything, I call myself a veggie because while I’m mostly vegan, I won’t say no to the delicious arepas made by my Colombian mother-in-law.

I’ve definitely been judged for eating the way I do. Throughout my life, when people would find out how I eat, they tended to rapidly defend their own eating habits and lifestyle—and I get it. It’s like my rejection of meat makes them somehow feel uneasy. They lift a suspicious eyebrow and label me a dissident. And then they come at me hard, as if they instantly morphed into food experts; suddenly, they begin citing studies they’d read about the benefits of meat: “You’re going to get sick, you don’t have enough protein in your body, you’re going to be weak, your body can’t sustain itself on fruits and vegetables alone.” The list goes on.

To which I say I must actually be a figment of their imaginations, because I’m alive, standing right before them. Then I point to my thick thighs and my heavy backside, which say I definitely do exist. On the other hand, some people judge my body size, saying, “You sure don’t look like a vegetarian/vegan.” Their implication? That veggies should be smaller, or that somehow all vegans or vegetarians look the exact same.

Then, if someone wants to go all-out mean, they’ll say something like, “Oh, you’re one of those liberal hippie types, right?” And everyone giggles but me. Sometimes the room gets quiet—like, really, really quiet.

I don’t say anything at all about their food choices. More often than not, it seems like they’re surprised I haven’t forced my own ideas down their throats or delivered a good veggie sermon.

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Why don’t I stand behind the pulpit? Well, it’s not for me to stand behind. Others might want to, but I’d rather not—I’d rather be ready and willing to talk to people about my lifestyle, and to have a conversation. I don’t look at vegetarianism or veganism as something to promote. I don’t see it as some sort of dogma to distribute.

And while I choose not to eat meat for various reasons (including my own taste, ethics, health goals, and environmental sustainability), trying to convince people to join my tribe, if you will, would only mean that, in some sense, I think I am better than they are or that my choices are wiser. I don’t, just like they shouldn’t. I prefer to tackle conversations with mindfulness and compassion.

Each one of us has our own journey, and this is mine.


The Perks Of Having A Long-Distance Exercise Buddy

Throughout college, when time was plentiful, I’d treat myself to hour-long yoga classes, loving how each session made me feel: My mind was alert, my mood was elevated, and sometimes I was even euphoric. Feeling hopeful and energized by the classes, all the stress of the week would just melt away. A total reboot.

And yet despite the incredible feelings of well-being, bliss, and mental focus, I had a hard time sticking with it or creating a set regimen—especially as I got older. Confession: I’m one of those annoying people who is always telling other people that they should do yoga and then I forget to do it.

I knew it was good for me. I knew I needed it. I knew I couldn’t afford to not do it—for both my physical and mental health. Yet I would skip it. Self-neglect is a habit that is easy to start and hard to break, especially when you have mental health issues, as I do.

During those college years I was also smoking a pack a day to deal with stress, I wasn’t really exercising, and yeah, I was partying. I was surrounded by bad choice enablers and the party lifestyle was my norm. But in my 20s—like a lot of people—my poor lifestyle choices didn’t really manifest themselves on my body. I could drink like a fish and eat pasta every night and still sit at about 120 pounds.

I realized that if I was going to be a happy and productive human being, I was going to have to center myself mentally and physically.

That all changed when I hit 30, however. Thirty is the moment of reckoning. Your midsection grows, the bags under your eyes became more pronounced, and the aches in your muscles begin to hurt more and more. Exhaustion hits you harder and lingers longer. Your body doesn’t bounce back the way it used to.

And my problems were not merely physical. In my early 30s, I began to suffer more from stress-related anxiety and I had trouble focusing on work. Getting out of bed was an arduous task and facing the day filled me with anxious energy.

I realized that if I was going to be a happy and productive human being, I was going to have to center myself mentally and physically. So, at 32, I quit smoking, I quit drinking, and I began to do yoga again.

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I decided to challenge myself to do yoga for at least half an hour, once a day. I wrote a post online saying that I was doing a month-long yoga challenge and a friend from college reached out to me saying she wanted to do it too. The thing is, I live nowhere near anyone else, out in the country, surrounded by woods. To get my yoga fix, I couldn’t just drive to the nearest yoga studio and meet my friend at a local strip mall. So my friend and I started to do yoga together through Skype.

My Skype yoga buddy and I both have high-stress and time-consuming jobs. So we kept it simple: We picked videos to watch and followed along together. Since we had both previously done yoga, it was easy to slip back into it.

At first my mind was restless. It resisted. It wandered as I moved through the poses, not totally present. The first week was definitely a challenge, and I would be winded by the end.

Related: 7 Unique Yoga Offshoots For Adventure Seekers

By the end of week two, though, I really started looking forward to the sessions. Chatting with my friend and getting that energy boost made me feel happy and excited. I was sinking deeper into the stretches, I was picking up the pace, and my joint stiffness and muscle tension was decreasing. By week three I was doing yoga outside of session time! My flexibility was increasing and I started to be centered in my body again. And I’d preempt it, stretching when something was tight, instead of waiting for the knots to build like I had done before.

I was sinking deeper into the stretches, I was picking up the pace, and my joint stiffness and muscle tension was decreasing. By week three I was doing yoga outside of session time!

By the final week of the month challenge, my energy level in daily life increased significantly. It was easier for me to focus and get work done more quickly and more efficiently. My thoughts became more positive. Each time I worked through a physical blockage, a mental knot loosened up. Most importantly, I found myself coping better with the stress that led me back to yoga. Combined with not drinking and not smoking, this was making me feel so good.

I’ve been able to stick with it, thankfully. Having an accountability buddy keeps me motivated and it’s a fun way to catch up. This in itself is a morale boost, but once I feel the deep hug of yoga, I begin to remember that I am there, to not forget myself, to love myself. Having our daily online yoga sessions allows us both the freedom to meet when we can, and hit that psychic refresh button before diving back into our busy lives.

Yoga gives me the workout that I need because it brings my mind and body together simply by working my way through the various poses. Getting to spend time with a friend while getting a burst of endorphins and peace of mind is the daily ritual that keeps me going. I get a good workout, I feel refreshed, and I get to squeeze in some friend-time. I just wish I started Skype yoga sooner.

Related: Shop cozy yoga pants to get your stretch on. 

How Fitness Became My Drug Of Choice

What you see on the outside doesn’t always reflect what’s going on inside, and that’s often been the case with me. I have years of experience in the health and wellness industry (I’m the Manager of Scientific Affairs here at The Vitamin Shoppe), and I’ve always been proactive in my own health. I train hard, eat well, and use fitness as a way to manage stress. In fact, people I know are pretty impressed that I’ve maintained such a high level of fitness at my age (49!). I’m seen as a strong, tough individual—but like many others, I have my demons.

Those demons stem from my childhood, and I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been a long, tough battle working through it. As a young boy I had some idea that my mom—God rest her soul—wasn’t like (or didn’t seem like) the other moms in the neighborhood: My mom struggled with severe depression and anxiety for most of her life.

I can recall like it was yesterday seeing my mom ‘act out’. She had a very difficult time controlling her emotions—even in front of us, her kids. From watching her irrational behavior, and feeling such a lack of control over her mental health issues, I developed anxiety and depression as a young child, too.

The one thing that helped center me during this time was sports and fitness. Using my body—especially in an aggressive way—made me feel calm, less angry, and less frustrated with what was going on at home.

I have years of experience in the health and wellness industry, and I’m seen as a strong, tough individual—but like many others, I have my demons.

I was a quiet, shy kid, but when it came to sports (especially football) I was hyper-aggressive, getting great satisfaction from knocking someone over and watching them struggle to get up. To filter through some of that aggression, I also studied martial arts at a dojo. It was a way for me to be aggressive without really hurting people or getting into trouble.

Related: I Became A Fitness Instructor At 44

The dojo became a place for me to release my demons. I was an emotional roller coaster, a volcano waiting to erupt. And I had no idea that I’d need to deal with these sorts of feelings my whole life.

One cold December day when I was 15, I was playing football in the snow with my brother and his friends. I kicked the ball and my brother caught it. My brother was an all-around great athlete. He was fast as hell, even in the snow. As he came charging towards me, I drove straight toward his legs, rolled over, and collided with him. His knee smashed my back with incredible force, knocking the wind out of me and leaving me lying in the snow, unable to move.

I truly thought my back was broken. I couldn’t walk, so they carried me to my house (which was luckily around the corner) and called 911 right as my mom and dad pulled up in the car. As it turned out, I had no broken bones, but in the 1980s they typically didn’t do an MRI or check for orthopedic injuries that might end up affecting you in the long-term. And it wasn’t until four years later, when my back pain got worse and I had an MRI, that I found out that I had a badly herniated disc.

At 19, I had surgery. My orthopedic surgeon said he could repair it and I’d be just fine, but the eight days I spent in the hospital and two months of physical therapy that followed elevated my levels of anxiety and depression. I jumped back into football, hockey, martial arts, and lifting weights way too soon in an effort to feel better mentally. My pain began to feel worse than it did pre-surgery, which only exacerbated my cycle of anxiety and depression.

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Later on, I had epidurals (a spinal cord stimulator implanted to block pain), and I started seeing a chiropractor again—which offered some temporary pain relief caused by the muscle spasms, but did nothing for the shooting, burning pain down my legs caused by a compressed nerve.

As a last resort, I started trying different types of medication: anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxers, and—last but not least—opiates. The medication was effective at reducing the pain, and it also suppressed my anxiety.

I initially thought this was a good thing, but came to realize later on that it really wasn’t—at least for me. The medication was turning me into a different person, numbing me and making me feel very little emotion. So, I took my wife’s advice and quit. My goal was to turn to fitness and health again to deal with my trauma and pain.

Quitting cold turkey was hard; I couldn’t sleep for three months and my pain, anxiety, and depression came back with a vengeance. But I was comforted by my understanding of how the body works: As a scientist, I knew that I could help promote my body’s own production of natural painkillers and mood enhancers (endorphins) through vigorous exercise.

Strengthen that lower back with #deadlifts.@rogueamericanapparel

A post shared by Brian K. Tanzer, MS, CNS (@bktanzer) on

And that’s exactly what I did. I practiced yoga for my back and hit the weights pretty hard to release the anxiety I was feeling. To this day, I train five-six days a week, incorporating all the big lifts (like deadlifts, squats, and bench presses) along with exercises such as sprints, rowing, pullups and burpees. Although I still deal with chronic pain and mood issues like anxiety, it has become much more manageable.

Looking back, I’ve learned so much over the years. I used to let those feelings control me, and now I control them. I even turned to my fitness-focused skillset when my parents got sick and needed care, and then passed away, one after the other within a month. I see every challenge as an opportunity and I never let my anxiety get the best of me. I believe that training every day and making myself uncomfortable (or even miserable at times) pays dividends when facing emotional and physical challenges in life.

To this day, I train five-six days a week. And although I still deal with chronic pain and mood issues like anxiety, it has become much more manageable.

I now look back at all that I went through as a child, teenager, and adult, and I’m proud of how far I’ve come, despite all the challenges. And despite my mother’s illness and the ways it affected me, I don’t blame her. I love her.

Mental health is often overlooked because it isn’t something that can be measured with a blood test or x-ray. In the end, her mental health challenges inspired me to deal with my health in productive ways. I try to live in the moment—not in the past—and enjoy each day as much as possible.

Although I have had these revelations, I still wake up every day with anxiety and pain—and I do worry about aging and its effects on my body. But for now, I have a morning routine to keep me motivated: I throw cold water on my face and start banging out the burpees, squats, and pushups, which helps stabilize my body and my mood. I guess you could say that my go-to drug is exercise—and I don’t see anything wrong with that.

Related: Shop protein products and amp up your fitness routine. 

How Meditation Helped Me Overcome My OCD

When I used to hear the term “OCD,” the first thoughts that popped into my head were always of super-organized sock drawers and Monica Gellar-level cleanliness (thanks, pop culture depictions of mental illness).

But that, of course, was before I was diagnosed.

I have a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder called Pure O (or Pure Obsessional OCD), which means that all of my obsessions and compulsions take place inside my head.

Here’s how OCD works: In an effort to control the severe anxiety caused by their obsessions, people with OCD perform compulsions (also known as “rituals”) to calm themselves down. Most people with OCD perform outward (or physical) compulsions, so things like hand washing, flipping a light switch on and off, or other repetitive behaviors.

But with Pure O, it’s a bit different. I deal with the same obsessive thought patterns, but my compulsions fly under the radar because my entire obsessive-compulsive cycle takes place internally. So, instead of performing an outwardly observable compulsion, like hand-washing, I perform a mental compulsion, like scanning my memories to look for evidence that my intrusive thought isn’t true. You might not be able to see it, but at times it’s like I’m at war with my own mind.

All of this information is fairly new to me. Before I was diagnosed, I had no idea what was going on inside my brain. I’ve always been a fairly anxious person, and I have a tendency to attach myself to disturbing-yet-completely-illogical thoughts. Like at work: If any two people walked into an office and closed the door, I would be 100 percent convinced that this was because I was about to get fired. I would spend hours sitting at my desk, terrified that I was going to be let go, racking my brain to figure out what I might have done that would cause me to get the ax.

You might not be able to see it, but at times it’s like I’m at war with my own mind.

I knew there was no logic behind my thought (I’ve never even come close to being fired), but it was like I couldn’t help myself. A thought came, I attached to it, and down the rabbit hole I went.

These thought patterns manifested themselves in all sorts of ways: fears about my weight, about my relationships, about my future. But for the most part, I just rolled with it. Did I hate the times I felt worried, anxious, and afraid for no reason? Of course. But, for the most part, they were temporary and didn’t interfere with my life in any significant way.

Until one day they did.

About a year ago, I had an intrusive thought that completely took over my life. I became obsessed with the idea that I had committed a crime and somehow forgotten about it. It sounds silly, but once it entered my psyche, I couldn’t let it go.

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Logically, I knew it wasn’t true. But I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about it. I would spend hours reviewing my memories, searching for evidence of a crime. I read an encyclopedia’s worth of articles on the standard profile of violent criminals to see if I fit the bill. It consumed my every waking moment, and the more I tried to reassure myself that I wasn’t some sort of amnesiac criminal mastermind, the stronger the thought became. And the stronger the thought, the more I was convinced it had to be true.

It was a vicious cycle, and by the end, I was hanging on by a thread, convinced I was losing my mind.

That was, by far, the scariest time of my life, but it was also the catalyst I needed to get some help. I started working with an amazing therapist who immediately recognized what was going on and started working with me to help me manage my obsessions, intrusive thoughts, and anxiety.
There were a lot of techniques we explored to get my anxiety under control, but there was only one that ended up changing my life: meditation.

When my therapist suggested meditation as a way to help deal with my Pure O symptoms, I wasn’t exactly enthused. I had tried meditation in the past, and while I thought it was great in theory, I’d never had any success with it. I believed my mind was too stormy to be tamed.

Still, at that point, I was willing to try anything to get my life back. So I decided to give it a shot.

When thoughts pop into my consciousness or I find my mind starting to wander, I acknowledge the thought with gentleness and compassion, let it go, and refocus my attention on the breath.

I started a Buddhist-style practice of meditation called Vipassana. It’s the simple practice of sitting in silence and focusing on the breath. When thoughts pop into my consciousness or I find my mind starting to wander, I acknowledge the thought with gentleness and compassion, let it go, and refocus my attention on the breath.

At first, meditation was painfully hard. I would find myself overwhelmed with intrusive thoughts every single time I closed my eyes. But I stuck to the practice. I acknowledged each thought, and with as much self-love and compassion as I could muster, I let them go and brought my attention back to the breath.

The more I practiced, the easier it became to detach from my thoughts and refocus my attention on the breath. And the easier it became to detach from my thoughts, the less scary and significant they seemed. That practice began to bleed into the rest of my life, and slowly but surely, I regained control over my mind.

That was a year ago, and today, as a direct result of my daily meditation practice, my life—and my mind—couldn’t be any more different.

I’m no longer wracked with anxiety around the clock. I don’t spend hours of my day trapped in obsessive thought cycles. I sleep easier. I laugh more. My relationships—with myself and with the people I love—are better than ever. I feel more in tune with myself, my thoughts, and the world around me. In a nutshell, I’m happy.

And all thanks to a little bit of breathing.

Do I still have intrusive thoughts? Yes. And I probably always will. But since I started meditating, they haven’t had any real power over my life. If I find myself caught in a thought cycle, I’m able to acknowledge it, let it go, and refocus my attention, just like I do when I’m in meditation. I’m able to see my intrusive thoughts for what they are—just random, insignificant brain synapses—and I no longer feel the need to attach to them.

I can’t say that I’ll never battle with Pure O again. But I can say, thanks to my meditation practice, I’m getting better—one breath at a time.

Related: Shop aromatherapy to level up your meditation experience. 

I Got An F In Vitamin D

There’s “mom tired”—you know, tired from chauffeuring teenagers around or staying up until midnight waiting for them to come home—and then there are other kinds of tired. I know mom tired well. We cope with it by consuming large amounts of caffeine and sleeping in traffic. But I had no idea what was going on when, a year and a half ago, I felt beyond your run-of-the-mill mom tired. I was just plain exhausted—all the time.

The culprit: a deficiency of vitamin D. But it sure wasn’t easy figuring that out.

First I went to my primary doctor for a Complete Blood Count (CBC) panel. A typical CBC panel doesn’t include a blood test for vitamin levels; instead, it focuses on blood cell counts, hemoglobin, blood sugar, and hematocrit. We learned that I wasn’t anemic, my blood sugar level was fine, and all the other results came back in the normal range, too. The doctor sent me on my way with some quick advice: “Get some rest.”

I discovered that Vitamin D deficiencies can cause nerve damage (that can mimic hot or cold sensations in your veins), along with pain throughout your body.

But I knew in my super-tired bones it wasn’t just your garden variety tiredness, so I went to a homeopathic doctor who intuitively knew to run additional panels. When the results came back, they weren’t pretty: My vitamin D was at a level five. (For reference, a vit D level of five is considered deficient in the land of vitamin levels—insufficient levels fall under 30, while deficiency occurs when levels fall below 20.  A level of 60+ is ideal.)

In adults, vitamin D deficiency can not only lead to fatigue, but weak bones, muscle weakness, and bone pain. Armed with this information, I set out to raise my vitamin D level.

I had a few options for how to go about increasing it, but at 5, it was so abysmal that it would be hard to do. First up: I had to get out in the actual sun to absorb vitamin D (keep in mind that any SPF I wore would create a barrier here). This was the simplest step.

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Next, I was told to consume foods high in vitamin D—but very, very few foods include it. And guess what? I hate the ones that do—like liver, mushrooms, and salmon. Instead, I went down the supplemental route and started on a massive dose—for three months—of vitamin D3, which offers the highest absorption rate.

This raised my energy and my D level into the 20s. But because I started feeling better after a few months, I started letting the supplements slip. You see where this is going…

My body was not thrilled with my lack of self-care and I began to feel exhausted again—just six months after taking my supplements. In fact, I began experiencing a new sensation that felt like icy water in my veins. Naturally, I consulted Dr. Google (not recommended, it’s all doom and gloom; go see a real doctor) to determine if I was near death, and I discovered that vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency can cause nerve damage (that can mimic hot or cold sensations in your veins), along with pain throughout your body. (It’s hard to remember to take your vitamins, so let this be a warning!)

Back to the doctor I went, and she ran another panel. This time, my vitamin D level had dropped to a 12. On top of that, my folate and B12 levels were extremely low—all accounting for the feelings I was experiencing.

After a stern—but empathetic—lecture from my doctor, I started taking my supplements again and I’ve been eating foods that contain these vitamins, as well.

The key, I think, is having open communication, asking for what you need, and consulting other professionals for a second opinion.

I felt way better—as quickly as two weeks later—after taking the folate, B12, and D3 supplements. Now I can sit down in a chair and not nod off while watching TV. I have also sharply reduced my caffeine intake, and even doing that hasn’t diminished my energy.

It’s interesting that vitamin deficiencies go largely ignored. Because my original blood test didn’t come back resulting in anemia or with other positive markers for disease, my primary doctor missed crucial vitamin deficiencies. This simple oversight could have caused me to continue experiencing my symptoms, or even worse ones.

Related: Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Your Doctor About Vitamin D

Having a doctor look at you blankly and ask if you are “getting enough rest” is downright frustrating. But if we don’t come to our doctors with even the simplest details around our health issues, we could miss something. When I tell my doctor that I’m exhausted, this should trigger him to check for all sorts of things, including vitamin deficiencies.

The key, I think, is having open communication, asking for what you need, and consulting other professionals for a second opinion.

You also have to stay accountable. It can be easy to overlook, but taking your daily supplements can make all the difference. I learned the hard way so you don’t have to.

Who’s Good: A Q&A With Fitness Star @KaisaFit

These days, all you need is a basic knowledge of superfoods and an iPhone upgrade to be deemed a social media influencer. So how do you distinguish between the people on Instagram who can provide solid info, inspiring ideas, and encouragement along your own health and wellness journey and the many one-trick ponies filling feeds with butt selfies? We can help you cut through all the noise (and smoothie bowls).

Welcome to Who’s Good, a regular interview series from the editors of What’s Good that catches up with the best, brightest, and boldest social media has to offer.

Up this week: We talked to Kaisa Keranen—a.k.a. KaisaFit. You (and her half-million other followers—or, as she calls them, “team members”) may have taken inspiration from her supercharged, any-time-any-where KaisaFit workouts. Or maybe you heard of the national #LetsMove campaign—on which she partnered with the Obama administration. (NBD, right?) If not, you’ll want to check her out—and get moving.

Kaisa, you’re a powerhouse personal trainer and fitness instructor (with an M.S. in exercise science!)—with half a million Instagram followers! Can you tell us a little about your journey to the life you have now?

Thank you so much! My story in a nutshell: I grew up playing pretty much any sport I could get my hands on and by the time high school came around I had narrowed it down to soccer and track and field. I ended up doing track at the University of Washington and after I graduated, found myself in the field of training. I had been pretty injured in college so when I graduated I had this desire to learn about my body and to have the education to take better care of it. Long story short, I fell in love with this industry and have been in it ever since.

Can you describe the KaisaFit method? How did you create and refine this method—and who is it best for?

The KaisaFit method is about simply moving. I think it’s less of a method and more of a mindset that hopefully, over time, cultivates a way of life. My mission is really just to encourage people to add more movement to their day, in whatever form that may be. It’s about helping people understand that they don’t need to hit the gym to get a good workout in, they have their body and their living room and sometimes (actually, most of the time) that’s all you need!

You were asked by Michelle Obama (!!!) to be part of her Let’s Move campaign. What was that like?

That was an INSANE moment in my life and I’m not sure if/how or when that could ever be topped. Mrs. Obama asked my friend and I to be the head trainers for her “Let’s Move” digital campaign and it truly was a dream come true. She is an incredible woman whom I admire so much, so to have her recognize us was absolutely surreal.

You created the #JustMove hashtag. How do you think people’s sedentary lifestyles are affecting them? Apart from the gym, what are some interesting, effective ways to get out and get moving? I see you on the beach, on the rocks, on park benches…

Really simply put, our sedentary lives are killing us. I know it sounds harsh but it’s the truth and it’s important that people start wrapping their heads around how awful our sedentary lives truly are for us.

This is the main reason why I started #JustMove. I wanted people to understand that at any moment throughout the day, and any location they might find themselves in, there is a way to #JustMove. It doesn’t always mean that you are lifting weights or even breaking a serious sweat, but it means that you are up and moving your body, making the world around you your gym in that moment.

How has your life changed since cultivating a social media following? How has it impacted your approach to fitness?

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My life has changed quite a bit since the moment I decided to share my workouts on social media—and in the best way possible! I get to connect and communicate with so many incredible people on a daily basis, and that is truly a gift. I am constantly motivated and inspired by my team (a.k.a. my followers, but I don’t like using that term). I just feel like we are one big family, and that we’re in this together, trying to support each other to be our best, happiest, and healthiest selves on a daily basis. For that I am constantly thankful!

Do you have a favorite go-to power-up and post-workout snack or recipe? Are there are any vits, herbs, or supplements you take to feel your best—and why?

💥G I V E A W A Y 💥 . In honor of @vitalproteins launching their AMAZING creamer we are doing a little giveaway. . First, it is super important for me to state that my rule about social media is simple. If I wouldn't tell my friends and family about it, I wouldn't tell my team here on Instagram about it. . With that being said, I am a huge fan of @vitalproteins and have been using them for over a year now so I can comfortably tell you about how incredible their product is and how much of a difference it has made in the way I feel. . So in honor of their creamer launching today we are giving a few away! Just comment below and let us know what your morning rituals are. What are some of the absolute necessities you need to start your day off right? Mine include 2 pieces of toast, a huge cup of coffee w/ Vital's creamer and some slow jams playing in the background 🎶😁 . We will randomly pick some winners tomorrow morning and DM you directly 💙

A post shared by Kaisa Keranen (@kaisafit) on

I am a HUGE Vital Proteins fan! My pre-workout is coffee + Vital Proteins Collagen Peptides and two pieces of gluten-free toast with almond butter and honey. I train pretty early in the morning and it’s all that my stomach can handle before I go beast-mode.

During my workout I am sipping on Vital Proteins Beauty Water and post-workout I have my first big meal of the day: anything from an omelette to last night’s dinner. I’m not a picky eater but it needs to be good quality food and I need a lot of it.

What was the single most empowering or inspirational moment you’ve had as a trainer?

Oh maaaaan! That question is nearly impossible to answer. I have been a trainer for over eight years now so there is no way I can narrow it down to a single inspirational or empowering moment. Honestly, working with people day in and down out is inspiring in and of itself. I get to witness first-hand the changes that people make. The things they go through and come out of. The struggles and the triumphs. Everything. I’ve been there through it all and they’ve been there with me. It’s incredible to have a career that truly centers around community and connection, and I am thankful for it every single day!

So, what sort of amazing stuff are you working on these days?

Putting in wooork! 👊💪 #tbt

A post shared by Kaisa Keranen (@kaisafit) on

I am super excited to announce that I am in the process of creating my first monthly movement plan. I have been wanting to venture out on my own for quite some time and create and share content the exact way that I would want to use it if I was on the receiving end. The monthly plans will have varying degrees of difficulty, which means they are suitable for all fitness levels. They plans are basically designed to be everything that I ever wanted in an at home program and I am SO pumped to share them with you all in early 2018. If you want to stay up to date with release information, click here!

6 Healthy Habits You’ll Thank Yourself For Starting 20 Years From Now

For many of us, living a healthy lifestyle in our 20s and 30s is all about the here and now. Eating the right foods to feel and look good today. Or using that trendy sheet mask to get glowing skin for tonight. Rarely do we consider what our bodies will need and want down the road. After all, “future us” seems so far away.

But adopting certain healthy habits at a younger age (read: right this minute) can not only provide benefits for you in the present, but reap major rewards down the road.

Consider this: A study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings revealed that exercise capacity is “strongly associated with cognitive function.” Researchers learned that participants who actively worked out a few times per week lowered their risk of cognitive decline issues, such as Alzheimer’s disease. So when you’re hitting the treadmill, you’re keeping yourself looking good today, sure—while doing all you can to safeguard the future.

But this isn’t only about putting in time at the gym. There are plenty of good-for-you habits to incorporate into your everyday that are excellent investments in your future health. And some of them won’t even require you to break a sweat.

1. Turn Off Your Tech

“Try doing a digital “detox”,” says Samir Becic, fitness trainer and author of ReSYNC Your Life. It may sound harsh, but remove the TV from your bedroom in order to have better REM sleep (rapid eye movement, or deep sleep), he explains. “People don’t realize the enormous negative impact technology has on our health if it is used excessively,” he says. “Not only on our joints, but on our eyes, back, cognitive thinking, and mood.”

A 2013 study published in Current Biology determined that modern light exposure contributes to later sleep schedules, which only serves to disrupt our natural sleep and circadian clocks. By removing the presence of the dreaded “blue light” emitted from our phones, TVs, and computers in our bedrooms, we’re giving our bodies a better chance at a more restful, productive sleep.

Related: Is Lutein All It’s Cracked Up To Be?

2. Start flossing.

While daily flossing may seem like a no-brainer, a 2015 Harris Poll conducted on behalf of the American Academy of Periodontology revealed that 27 percent of U.S. adults lie to their dentist about how often they really partake in the activity (we won’t tell if you start flossing today!). For the sake of your mouth, dentists would like to see this number turned around.

“Flossing may seem like a nuisance when you’re young, but later down the line, you’ll be glad you started early as flossing can help avoid periodontal disease,” says Dr. Katia Friedman of Friedman Dental Group in South Florida. “At a later stage in people’s lives, periodontal disease is responsible for bone loss, mobility of teeth and ultimately tooth loss.”

Related: Shop oral health products to give your chompers their best chance. 

Pro-tip: According to Oral Health & Prevention, you want to floss and then brush—not the other way around—to get the most out of the habit. When you floss and then brush, you’re able to get all that gross plaque out of your mouth, instead of lingering there after it was extracted.

3. Wear Sunscreen

This advice probably sounds like a broken record, but consistent sunscreen application is one of the most important things you can do for your overall health and well-being.

“UV damage from the sun is a significant factor in skin aging,” says David Lortscher, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Curology.”

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The hard part is, there’s a delay between when sun exposure occurred and when its effects manifest. For example, it may take decades—yes, you read that correctly—of cumulative sun exposure or indoor tanning to cause skin cancer. It’s reasonable to expect that sun exposure 10 or 15 years ago may result in wrinkles appearing now. So, be sure to use sunscreens with SPF 30 or higher that protect against UVA and UVC rays.

According to The American Academy of Dermatology, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more should be used year-round, not just when the sun is high and hot. The lotion should be reapplied every two hours for continuous coverage, or more frequently if you’re swimming or sweating.

Related: Shop UVA- and UVB-blocking sunscreen to protect your skin. 

4. Add Retinol to Your Routine

Take good care of your skin now to reduce the effects of aging later, says Lortscher. “An over-the-counter cream with retinol offers anti-aging benefits, but prescription-strength tretinoin (the generic name for retinol) offers a potent punch that just can’t be beat.”

What’s tretinoin? It’s considered to be the gold standard in reducing fine lines and wrinkles, as well as boosting collagen growth. And, says Lortscher, “It’s the main anti-aging strategy (after sunscreen) of many dermatologists for their own skin.”

But what is retinol? According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s a vitamin A compound and an antioxidant. It neutralizes free radicals, those pesky unstable oxygen molecules responsible for disrupting skin cells and, inevitably, causing wrinkles.

You can start by adding this Ann Webb Super Retinol Slow Release night crème to your bedtime ritual.

5. Eat Mindfully

How often have you heard a friend or co-worker complain that they were so busy during the day that they “forgot” to eat? In our hectic lives we’ve become conditioned to either eating on the go or while we’re zoning out in front of the TV. But by choosing to eat mindfully we have the opportunity to not only appreciate the food on our plates, but make better choices as well.

“Try not to eat while doing other things like driving, watching TV, working, or another activity,” says Samantha Scruggs, a registered dietitian and blogger at Nutrition to Fruition. “When you actually pay attention to your eating and your food, you feel more full and are more aware of your portion sizes.” Notice how it tastes and smells when you’re eating.

According to a 2016 study published in Health Psychology, mindful eating was proven to reduce impulsive food choices in both adolescents and adults, decreasing the risk of obesity.

6. Eat Good Fats

Omega-3 has been a buzzword in the world of healthy nutrition for some time now, and with good reason. These fatty acids are work horses in your body, and to build a better one for long-term health experts want you to get your omega-3s straight from the source whenever possible.

“One of the healthiest habits to adopt now for major benefits down the road is eating two servings of fatty fish per week,” says Lainey Younkin, MS, RD, LDN, dietitian and founder of Lainey Younkin Nutrition in Boston, MA. Fatty fish, like salmon, albacore tuna, mackerel, and sardines, are chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids, “which lower inflammation in the body, leading to a healthier brain and heart, as well as glowing skin. One serving is just three ounces, or the size of a deck of cards, so top your salad with some salmon or swap the chicken in your taco for tuna,” says Younkin.

7. Meditate

Considering the difficulties we face finding the time to eat a meal in peace, you may be wondering when, pray tell, you’re supposed to have the time to sit and meditate. But carving out even just a few minutes for the practice can harvest benefits far beyond clearing your mind.

According to a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, mindful meditation can actually boost immune function, with researchers finding increases in antibody titers (the way doctors learn if your body is fighting a virus) to the flu vaccine among those who were in the meditation control group.

And don’t worry about being a meditation pro, says positive psychology and coach Dr. Barbara Cox, PhD, who encourages her patients to find a method that works for them.

What works best? “It can be something as simple as focusing on calming music or saying a positive affirmation,” she says. “Meditation is a very helpful tool for stress because by doing it regularly it can prevent stress. And if stress builds, it can help release stress, too.”

Plus, according to Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, meditation may actually improve the cellular aging process and reduce oxidative stress, which can age us and make us sick.

Related: It’s Time To Stop Being So Scared of Meditation

Making One Small Change At A Time Helped Me Lose 30 Pounds

When I got pregnant—a surprise to me—at 33, I was at a weight I had never known before: 260 pounds! It didn’t go away after I had the baby, and I ended up wearing my maternity clothes more than a year after giving birth. I had to buy yoga pants in a size 18, the largest I had ever worn. On top of that, my blood pressure problem (I had been on and off medication for about a year or so before getting pregnant) was back with a vengeance.

I was overweight, exhausted from being overweight, and even more exhausted from the newborn night feedings. My world was also dominated by a case of postpartum depression that seemed to have a choke-hold on me until about nine months after giving birth.

At a doctor’s appointment about a year after giving birth, I was a mess—and in need of serious help. I was overwhelmed by how much weight I needed to lose, the pressure of actually doing something to lose it, and the adjustment to a having new baby. I felt like I was failing at being a mother. Something had to change.

Related: Shop weight-management products for your health goal needs.

My doctor’s sage advice: “When you need to make such a big change in your lifestyle, sometimes the easiest way to do it is to make several small changes at a time.” So we talked about goals and listed them out. We decided that once I mastered one of them, I would only then add the next action to the mix.

My goals included:

  • Get more than 30 minutes of general activity each day, with three days of exercise per week.
  • Cut out soda and drink more water.
  • Cut down on carbs. My doctor gave me a list of foods to shoot for that was designed by the American Heart Association: fruits, veggies, whole grains, low-fat dairy, nuts, and healthy oils.

The ultimate goal? Making these lifestyle adjustments actually sustainable so that I’d continue eating healthy and working out forever, not just to reduce my blood pressure or weight temporarily. I didn’t want to feel depressed and I didn’t want to wallow—which only made me eat and not move.

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First things first: exercise. I got off the couch and to get some fresh air every single day. It was early summer, so I started off with short walks (with my baby) around the neighborhood every evening—I even went for a walk the moment I got back from the doctor’s appointment. (I didn’t give myself time to sit back on my comfy couch, where I KNEW I’d not get up from.) This was the best decision I could have made, because it symbolized my desire to quit being sedentary.

After a week or so, I got on a bike and put the baby in the bike trailer next to me—I did this until the weather got too cold for us to ride. But getting on the bike with the baby was more than just exercise—it was a bonding experience. He loved sitting strapped into the little carriage, watching the world go by. My older kids would get on their bikes and ride beside him to keep watch, too. I ended each ride feeling accomplished and refreshed, and the rush from my rides actually energized me and encouraged me to jump back on again.

After about two weeks, I felt comfortable enough to add another change to my list. This time, I would replace my daily soda intake—which was about 12 cans every single day. A whole pack. As a replacement, I would go with water, coffee, and green tea. I started the day with coffee, sipped on tea with meals, and drank water in between to stave off thirst. It took two weeks to whittle my soda intake down to one can per day.

By the end of summer, about a month later, I ended up going several days without soda, and I’d increased my water intake to 16 glasses a day. All the while, I maintained my evening biking routine at least three-five times per week.

My next change came about six weeks later. I was a certified carb junkie who never knew a cake she didn’t like. Chips, bread, pancakes for breakfast, cookies—you name it. It was my vice. To make my change, I would start my day with a good carb—oatmeal with nuts and dates—and I’d replace my snacks (like cookies) with nuts like almonds and pistachios. And tons of water.

I used whole grain breads when I went for a sandwich, and I even made whole grain pancakes. I started watching cooking videos on The Food Network for ideas, as well.

On my next grocery trip and every one thereafter, I just wouldn’t buy anything that would tempt me. This made things easier when my resistance was down at home and cravings kicked in. There was no soda, cake, chips, candy, or anything else at home. I had to fill my cravings with what I had on hand—only items that were good for me, and nothing more.

Eventually, I felt lighter. I could breathe easier when I moved, and when I moved, it no longer felt like I was dragging a thousand pounds of sand everywhere I went. When the physical weight was gone, the mental “weight” left, too. I felt good about myself. Like I was stepping out of a dark alley into the sunlight.

In about 12 weeks’ time, I went from couch to active mom with a few gradual, small changes. Each time I became used to something, it was easier to change something else. I began biking even further, and manipulating portions sizes so that my plates were a lot smaller than the hubcap-sizes I ate from before. The content of those plates also became more well-balanced, with a focus on a healthy protein, a good carb, and a sizeable vegetable ratio. By fall, I had lost 30 pounds.

Related: Big Girl On A Bike: How I Rode My Way To Weight Loss And Confidence

It’s not easy to simply begin a whole new diet and exercise routine. I believe that starting with one small adjustment—and sticking to it for a while—is key. Get yourself acquainted to and make sure you are comfortable with it. Then, add another. Soon, you could be active and healthy—and it will all feel natural.