How HIIT Classes Rebuilt My Self-Confidence

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with fitness. As a teenager, I pretty much went out of my way to do anything but exercise.

Throughout college and grad school, I continued the tumultuous relationship with working out. I fasted, I yo-yo dieted, I ran for two miles every day for a week—only to drop off for months at a time. I consistently felt like a failure, and I was discouraged. I didn’t like the person I saw in the mirror. And, I didn’t like the person inside—sluggish, racked with low-self-esteem, and disappointment.

Related: I Biked Under Water For 30 Days—And Here’s What Happened

I failed every workout and healthy eating routine every single time. Why? Because I had subconsciously decided that I couldn’t do it. That I wasn’t good enough. I wouldn’t be able to finish the workout. I self-sabotaged and succeeded in failure each and every time. I was caught in a cycle of never being strong enough, pretty enough, good enough, smart enough.

Then, I hit a wall. I was tired of feeling tired. I was tired of telling myself that I just didn’t have the knack for this kind of lifestyle or a new sport. It was time to reset my life’s settings for my physical health and mental well-being.

I didn’t need to remind myself of the major advantages to working out: cardio health, better sleep, less stress, better cognitive function, and stronger memory. I knew these were all things I should want from working out—on top of a better physique.

I failed every workout or healthy eating routine every single time. Why? Because I had subconsciously decided that I couldn’t do it.

But I needed a workout that was exciting, a little challenging, and something new. So when an exercise buddy told me about HIIT—high intensity interval training—I was intrigued. HIIT is a series of cardio and strength moves which alternate between high-intensity and low-intensity. For example, you might have 30 seconds of burpees (killer!) and then 60 seconds of kettle bells.

High intensity interval training. It’s short phrase that packs a big, daunting punch. Could I do it? Did I want to? Yes, I could and I did! I gulped and pulled the trigger with my debit card: I signed up for a ten pack of HIIT classes.

I didn’t know it then, but my self-confidence would be the biggest gift I’d give myself.

My First Class

The HIIT studio (I went to Athleta’s studio in NYC) was minimal and clean: all you need is a yoga mat, some small weights (I chose 5 lbs), and water—um, lots of water. You will get super thirsty as you zip and zag from one rep to the next. Take advantage of the floor-to-ceiling mirrors in your local spots: You’ll want to focus on your form with each movement. Usually, I avoid watching myself in the mirrors (low self-esteem, yay!) but this time I just focused on what my body was doing and it was doing a whole lot.

My first HIIT class was on a Saturday morning (yep, I signed up for a 9 a.m. torture sesh), and I was prepared to hate it. But I knew the drill: running around, panting, red skin, a chest burning with fire. I’ll be honest: the first class (even the first three!) weren’t the easiest. I didn’t fly through all of the moves with ease and grace. I had to take my time and study my form in the mirror. I definitely did not cycle through 25 burpees in under a minute.

Related: Shop protein bars to fuel your next workout session.

And then, something unexpected happened right in the middle. I fell in love with my HIIT class. I loved the high energy, the racing music, and the constantly-shifting exercises. I wasn’t bored by repetitive movement (because there’s none of that!) and I was using all the different parts of my body.

Time whizzed by. I did have some low points in the class: feeling winded because of asthma and not being able to do all of the moves. It was actually a life-changing experience. I tried to take on as much as my body could handle without feeling light-headed or completely out of breath.

Instead, I felt strong as I moved through crunches, squats, stretches, starfish jumps, and kettle bell lifts. I felt a sense of pride when my instructor said my squat form was “ah-mazing.” That was me, I did it. And just me alone. Oh, and did I mention that workouts like this HIIT class can burn up to 700 calories? It’s no joke.

I fell in love with my HIIT class. I loved the high energy, the racing music, and the constantly-shifting exercises.

I left the class a smiling, sweaty mess. I did it—I beat my own odds and I felt completely fabulous. I was so convinced that I’d drop out of the class early or stop frequently to take breaks and I didn’t do any of that. I stayed true to the workout course and saw it through. Then, my body showed me what it’s really capable of.

I can do all of that and more. I’m a workout warrior now.

Beyond My First Class

I’ve been working out with HIIT for over 60 days now (!). I certainly feel a little trimmer and my overall stress is reduced. Oh, and I fall asleep in a mere minute at night. But my self-confidence regarding my own body and my self of personal strength and power is what really motivates me —and what changed my life. I now look at my body with a sense of pride. I don’t look dramatically different, but I’m stronger and faster. I love myself and what I can do.

Related: 7 HIIT Workouts That Incinerate Fat

Instead of looking at my life and my body as a series of cant’s, I look at myself as a vessel for opportunity. I can be a badass. I can change my life with just a simple workout. I’m ready to keep on my HIIT journey like a real champion.

Who knows—maybe I’ll break into weight-lifting, too! I’ll see you at the next gym class, fellow warriors. I did it, and you can too.

I Lost My Belly Fat By Addressing The Core Issue: Stress

Stress, for me, has always triggered overeating. And when my metabolism took a drastic dip in my twenties, all of my weight gain went straight to my belly. I knew that if I kept up this lifestyle of living on stress and cheeseburgers, I was going to be in terrible health by 40.

Stress and belly fat are a potent pair: It has long been believed that cortisol, a hormone which our body releases in response to stress, plays a role in fat accumulation around our midsections. According to one 1994 study by the Department of Psychology at Yale University, people with a high waist to hip ratio had higher cortisol levels when exposed to stress. These people also reported having no coping mechanism in place to deal with the stress.

I’m in my thirties now, and I recently got engaged, so I’m embracing adulthood and the future it will bring. I want to be healthy and not burnt out in my later years. I want to enjoy them. Sure, I miraculously still have my hair, but the belly fat is there too. Well, it was, up until recently.

Related: The Truth About Belly Fat

People gain weight for different reasons (their macros are off, they don’t sleep enough, they don’t work out properly, etc.), so I can’t say what will work for everyone. But what worked for me—on top of dieting (I love the keto diet) and exercise—was making sure I did daily activities that centered me.

I think of my body as a computer. Stress is the pop-up ad or the malware on the hard drive. What I need to do is find ways to boot myself up so stress doesn’t crash my system.

What worked for me—on top of dieting and exercise—was making sure I did daily activities that centered me.

I was one of those people. Throughout my life, I’d gotten used to feeling stress when I’d first wake up. I’d be groggy and anxious and I’d carry it throughout the day. Food cravings—and all that cortisol—would be coursing through my body before noon. That would, of course, make me want to eat.

Then I figured out that I needed to boot up correctly—I’d need to get centered and calm during that first hour after waking. I came up with daily routine to help curb the cortisol and create a mindset of mindfulness and calmness.

Right when I roll out of bed I start free writing (or journaling). I get all those panicked, worried, and weird thoughts out of my head and onto the page. It’s an effective morning meditation. I do up to three pages (or more if I am feeling particularly stressed!).

I think of my body as a computer. What I need to do is find ways to boot myself up so stress doesn’t crash my system.

Then, I make my bed and do some actual meditation. I just sit and focus on my breath. Then I eat a healthy, fat-filled breakfast (fat keeps us sated for longer), and lastly I exercise (for the endorphins and the energy boost).

I try not to look at my phone or email while I focus on getting centered for the day. No, I haven’t magically transformed into a morning person, but I have become a morning routine person.

Related: Mindfulness Tips From A Former Stress Junkie

Work issues and personal stressors will never go away, but I can harness a mindful attitude, practice acceptance, and look for solutions instead of stress eating. I remind myself that mistakes will happen and they are not the end of the world. I remind myself that I need to only learn from the mistake. I don’t judge the negative thoughts; I just observe them and let them pass. Let it be and move forward is a mantra that helps me.

I also make sure to do something physical each day that is fun and relaxing. I take a hobby break in the afternoon. I garden and walk nature trails. Getting out in nature always helps me have perspective; being in greenery is like nature’s sedative.

On rainy or cold winter days I’ll play some music and hit a ping-pong ball against the basement wall. What all of these hobbies have in common: me being physical and me being present.

By being aware of your impulses—and choosing constructive outlets—you will begin to walk the path towards a higher quality of life and a lowered stress level.

So what happens when I start stressing late night before bed—when the munchies hit? Some people can do healthy midnight snacks (or easily avoid snacking altogether), but for me it’s not so easy.

Related: Shop natural products for stress and anxiety. 

Just like I practice mindfulness when I wake up, I do the same at night. I use that time to power down properly. I read for pleasure, I watch something for entertainment, and I make an effort to be mindful and not let stressful thoughts rule me. I focus on my breath and just breathe. I let go of the worries and focus on the present, and I prioritize sleeping over worrying.

Sure, keto and exercise have helped me, but so has practicing mindfulness, keeping up my healthy daily habits, and accepting that I will never be free of stress.

I’ve learned that wellness is a mindset. By being aware of your impulses—and choosing constructive outlets—you will begin to walk the path towards a higher quality of life and a lowered stress level. And, bonus points: You will see results in all areas of your life, not just in your stomach.

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

At my annual check-up in 2010, the doctor pointedly told me, “You have high blood pressure and it hasn’t gone down since your last visit.” The last visit was a month earlier, when I’d promised to change my diet and start an exercise routine. I was 32-years-old and running out of excuses.

I came to the follow-up appointment knowing that I had polished off a quart of butter pecan ice cream the night before and begun the day with a big syrupy pile of pancakes. Truthfully, I was surprised he didn’t tell me that I was diabetic. Still, this was worrying.

The doctor told me he’d have to put me on meds—and that I’d need to exercise and eat well this time around.

I’d promised to change my diet and start an exercise routine. I was 32-years-old and running out of excuses.

At that point, my weight had ballooned to 225 pounds (which was much higher than it was during my last pregnancy in 2003, seven years earlier). I was feeling every pound, too—breathing heavily and needing a half-hour of recovery time after carrying laundry up and down the stairs. My knees and ankles ached, and my back was on fire. Everywhere I went, it felt like my heart was going to beat right out of my chest.

I left that appointment frightened, thinking of all those serious blood pressure medicine side effects (like death!) you hear about in commercials. I also ruminated on all the rumors and myths (which I knew weren’t entirely true) I’d heard about blood pressure meds from people I knew:

You get on those pills and never get off. They’re addictive.

My cousin’s uncle’s wife got on blood pressure pills and had to have a liver transplant a month later.

They make you feel like crap.

I knew I was too young for blood pressure medication. I needed to do something about this situation—so, after a tortuous mile-long walk through my neighborhood, where my kids rode along beside me and heckled me for being “soooo sloooow,” I got my big ass on a bike.

I had bought it a few seasons back at a yard sale, and had promptly shoved it to the back of the shed. It was an adult mountain bike with a few gears, and it totally worked once I cleaned off the cobwebs. I got on and pedaled around the yard to try it out.

The seat was a challenge. It was a tad too small for my big hind quarters, so I bought a wider seat and set off for my first ride.

I knew I was too young for blood pressure medication. I needed to do something about this situation.

After one block, my knees ached. I stopped to flex them and started again. Soon, my calves were wailing and tightening and begging me to quit. I rode on, knowing that turning back would mean the bike would go back to the shed and my exercise attempts would end. I didn’t like walking and I knew that nothing else would get me up and out of the house. I also thought about those blood pressure meds and kept pedaling.

Related: Shop protein to fuel your next workout. 

By the time I reached the park about a mile from my house, I was cruising in the wind, feeling pretty good, and barely noticing my aches and pains. Before I knew it, I was farther from the house than I had ever been without a car. I got a little worried about tiring out on the way home, so I turned back. The sun was setting and the air was cooler, but I made it.

Over the next three months, I carved out time to ride every single day that I could, taking my kids along with me. We would drive to the park by the beach with our truck loaded up with bikes and gear. We’d ride the trails that ran throughout the park until the sun had all but set on the horizon. I even rode to the Saturday morning farmer’s market whenever I could, weaving through the crowds of tourists downtown to bring home fresh produce—which, incidentally, helped me improve my eating habits. I became addicted to that late afternoon ride for the rest of the summer.

Before I knew it, I was farther from the house than I had ever been without a car.

And because I was biking all the time, I drank loads of water to stay hydrated. I was drinking so much water that my soda intake had gone down drastically. I also brought portable snacks (like almonds, berries, protein bars, and fruits) to take with me on the bike. These little snacks helped reduce my appetite for junk food, and since eating huge, heavy dinners made riding tedious, I naturally sought out lighter meals.

One day, at the end of the summer, I went shopping. I tried on my usual size 16 pants and found that I was actually a loose-fitting size 14 (almost a 12!). I went home happily with my new duds.

At that point, I had lost 25 pounds. Plus, my blood pressure had come down to a much better range.

Now, seven years later, I’m still a big girl on a bike, but I’m way healthier.

Finding Keto Ended My Lifelong Search For The ‘Perfect Diet’

Searching for the right diet has made me feel like I’m Indiana Jones on an elusive quest for a lost and Holy Grail. I’d tried counting my calories and eating low fat foods, but I’d just end up starving—and then binging—after my first week.

I tried eating whatever I wanted and upping my exercise. This did not work at all. After all, unless I was going to exercise all day, I was not going to lose weight. I then tried eating low-carb. I lost some weight, but felt like I was starving.

When I hit 215 pounds, finding the right diet started to feel hopeless.

On top of over-eating, there were other factors at play. A lot of my work life involves writing or editing, so I often end up sitting for most of the day. I love working with words and reading them, but I don’t love the weight that comes with a sedentary lifestyle.

After eating way too much Pad Thai one night, I went to Barnes & Noble to see if I could find a book with a diet solution that didn’t feel like absolute torture. Before going to the diet and cookbook section, I ended up looking at the New Releases section and spotted, almost serendipitously, a book about Alzheimer’s and dieting. It was called The Alzheimer’s Antidote: Using a Low-Carb, High-Fat Diet to Fight Alzheimer’s Disease, Memory Loss, and Cognitive Decline, and its focus was on the ketogenic (high-fat) diet, something that felt seriously antithetical to what I’d been told before (“stay away from fat!”).

When I hit 215 pounds, finding the right diet started to feel hopeless.

My mother had recently passed away from Alzheimer’s and it had left me with lingering fears about my own health. The book brought up both the pain of her loss and my own struggles with eating. Nevertheless, I bought a cup of coffee and read through it, right then and there.

The book described keto as a diet in which you use fat, instead of carbs or even protein, as fuel. It explored the health benefits of a high-fat diet not only for weight loss, but for cognitive functioning. Win!

It really felt like what I was searching for, but it was difficult to wrap my head around the idea of eating fat as being a healthy act. I had vivid memories of the old-school Food Pyramid teaching us that fat would give us heart problems. But there I was, reading this book, which showed me study after study linking keto to health and, on top of that, satiety. I was sold.

Related: 15 Keto Snacks For All You Fat-Fuelers Out There

The first three days of going keto were rough. It reminded me of when I had quit smoking. On the second day, I had a headache the whole day and felt very tired; however, by day five, an amazing thing happened: I felt full and I had lost weight. I was burning off the fat in my stomach without feeling hungry. This was really working!

The only catch? In order to stay on this diet, I had to learn to cook.

It was difficult to wrap my head around the idea of eating fat as being a healthy act.  But there was study after study linking high fat dieting to health and satiety.

The keto diet isn’t just a diet. It’s a lifestyle. A lot of healthy fats need to be prepared and cooked (healthy keto fats include olive oil, avocado oil, butter, ghee, coconut oil). Favorite foods needed to become keto-friendly if I was to seriously focus on my goals. I learned to cook mashed potatoes, pasta, pizza (you can have cheese occasionally), pancakes, and even crackers the keto way. (You really need to avoid all grains, processed foods, refined fats like canola oil, and high-carb veggies, among other things.)

Related: 4 Crucial Insights I Learned Along My Weight-Loss Journey

Eventually it turned into a fun game—what favorite food could I make keto? Cooking became a new hobby and a healthy passion—and it also became a way to heal the little kid in me that liked to binge on food.

I stuck with it and embraced the lifestyle change. By the first month I had lost 10 pounds. I felt more energy and vitality. The weight loss definitely helped, but eating lots of good fat was also an effective way to naturally boost my energy. By the second month, I was down 15 more pounds, and by the fifth month I had hit an important weight-loss goal: 25 pounds lost.

I hope to be another 25 pounds lighter by the end of the year. I do have an occasional slip here and there (I’m not a monk!), and when it happens, I feel the difference in my body. But you don’t have to reject all the carbs; I just make sure every carb I eat counts.

Perhaps most important, I finally realize that there is no universal perfect diet; it really comes down to finding the one that works best for you. For me, that’s keto.

How My Sleep Habits Changed When I Started Doing 10 Minutes Of Yoga A Day

Falling asleep was never one of my strong points. Even when I did fall asleep at a reasonable time, it wasn’t unusual for me to wake up in the middle of the night, unable to fall back to sleep until roughly 20 minutes before I needed to be up for the day.

Needless to say, I was often pretty tired during the day. So when people talked about their runner’s highs, endorphins, gains, and personal bests, my eyes would glaze over and I’d want to lie down for a nap (more than I already did before the conversation started).

I just never ‘got’ the love of exercise. “When I have a bad day, I go for a run and I feel so much better,” runner friends would tell me. But if I went for a run, I ended up swearing under my breath and praying for it to just end already. It was not relaxing. Making playlists of the best saxophone solos from 1978-1983? For me, that was relaxing.

There were times when I’d attempted to push through the hatred of exercise. But I never really put in the effort to research what type of exercise might be a good fit for me; I’d just pick whatever I thought would burn the most calories in the least amount of time.

That usually meant joining a gym so I could get on an elliptical machine and go nowhere, sweating and swearing the whole way. Eventually I’d lose some weight, give myself permission to slack off and enjoy my life again, and I’d be right back on the couch binge-watching every British murder mystery Netflix has to offer.

Rinse and repeat, again and again. Nothing stuck.

I never really put in the effort to research what type of exercise might be a good fit for me; I’d just pick whatever I thought would burn the most calories in the least amount of time.

But several months ago, I accidentally happened upon the exercise for me.

I was scavenging Google for possible insomnia solutions when I came across a video for evening yoga. It was a mere 10 minutes long. I had done a little yoga in the past, but I never kept up with it. The more strenuous types of yoga didn’t appeal to me (surprise, surprise) and the gentler styles just seemed like a waste of time (since exercise, for me, was only ever about the calories burned). In this case, however, I wasn’t concerned about burning calories; in fact, I wasn’t concerned about my body at all. I needed to train my brain to calm down and transition into sleep mode.

The video I used walked me through gentle stretches, including cat/cow pose, bridge pose, happy baby pose, spinal twists, seated forward bends, and legs up the wall.

With this video, I started to do 10 minutes of yoga before bed each night—a totally doable amount—and it made a positive difference almost immediately.

My brain responded to the slower, deeper, more deliberate breathing by calming down and stopping its “helpful” suggestions (i.e. what I should have said in that meeting at work, what I could maybe write about tomorrow, and who was that juror in that murder mystery anyway?).

Related: Shop yoga blocks and mats.

I also realized how much tension I constantly hold in my back and shoulders. With yoga’s easy, gentle stretching, I learned to un-clench my muscles, which ended up making sleep a lot easier. Yoga signaled to both my body and my brain that it was time to rest, and I finally understood that mind-body connection that other people found through running, lifting weights, or other more intense forms of exercise.

Eventually those 10 minutes helped me move on to longer, more challenging sequences. My arms and legs are definitely more toned and I am also stronger—I can do several pushups now. Plus, I’m more flexible. When I started I could only grab my calves during seated forward bend—and now I can grab my toes!

I finally understood that mind-body connection that other people found through running, lifting weights, or other more intense forms of exercise.

It may sound like nothing, but 10 minutes of gentle yoga is an excellent way to start or restart exercising. It’s over quickly, it’s not competitive, it feels good, it meets you where you are (even if that’s barely off the couch), and it counts as exercise! For me, it was a way to finally make exercise a habit, and it got me into doing more, more often.

I don’t know if I’ve lost any weight because I no longer weigh myself, but I do know that I’m stronger, happier, and more flexible. Between that and getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis, I finally have a consistent exercise routine that I actually like—and that works.

The Technique That Helped Me Fix My Posture And Clear My Mind

Have you ever really thought about your posture or the way you move your body? Does that little voice in your head ever chime in to remind you to stand up straight? Unless you’re an athlete, model, dancer, or actor, it’s unlikely that the positioning of your body is on your mind too often (unless or until you’re actually experiencing pain or discomfort, that is). I never thought much about it, either—until I found out about something called The Alexander Technique (AT).

AT is a method that teaches people to release unwanted muscular tension in their body. It is intended to help people become more aware of their posture, balance, and coordination while they do everyday activities, like sitting, standing, and walking.

AT was developed by an Australian actor, Frederick Matthias Alexander, in the 1890s (stay with me here, ok?). Here’s a little more about how it works:

AT proposes that in order to rid the body (and the mind, which can definitely be affected by muscular tension) of excess tension, we must be aware of and break bad habits, such as slouching or sitting (or even standing) improperly.

Related: Shop for products to support your personal health goals. 

The idea is that if you’re able to become conscious of how your body struggles against itself—and if you make some small changes—you can start to feel better. In fact, according to the Journal of Clinical Practices, there is a strong evidence to suggest the effectiveness of AT on relieving back pain.

I’m pretty skeptical when it comes to alternative approaches to wellness—you’re not going to see me at your yoga retreat—but I was intrigued by the possibilities of AT. Like most Americans, I work at a desk, and there are definitely days when my neck gets tight and super-sore. (I also have scoliosis on top of it.) So I signed up for a couple sessions of AT with certified instructor Ariel Carson, AmSAT, who runs Redefining Posture in NYC.

Here’s what I learned from the experience:

Pretty much everyone can benefit from better posture

If you work in an office (like many of us), you probably already know that bad posture leads to increased discomfort and lower productivity. And people in the service industry take on a great deal of strain working shifts on their feet. As Ariel told me, even mundane habits like checking smartphones can lead to tension in the body, particularly the neck (since it’s always pointed down). As she explained, “Posture becomes an ever-deepening exploration of how you respond to any given stimulus in your environment.”

If you’re interested in learning more, there are a number of free resources for self-study, in addition to certified teachers.

It’s not about doing; it’s about undoing.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from my first AT session. Ariel told me simply to arrive wearing clothes that allowed for freedom of movement. After a brief consultation, she began by carefully observing my movements as I did simple tasks: sitting, standing up, and walking across the room.

In one exercise, Ariel had me lie flat on my back on a massage table, with knees up, feet roughly at shoulder width and flat on the surface, hands on the belly, and head propped slightly up by a thin cushion. I was invited to breathe “all the way down to the hip sockets” and think not about what my body was doing, but rather to allow the surface to support me. She noted how most people unconsciously brace themselves against their environment rather than fitting into their environment.

Related: I Weightlift For My Sanity

The session was akin to guided meditation; as I focused on the space around me and grew aware of how my neck, back, and shoulders tended to tighten and strain, I could gain control of these habits and correct them. It’s something I could feel happening—a wave radiating through the body.

Here’s a video that showcases how to unlearn certain physical behaviors:

THE mind and the body are intimately connected.

AT is about far more than developing good postural habits; it’s a practice that relies on tuning the mind to the body and vice versa. As Ariel puts it, “instead of being trapped by your habits, you can make educated conscious decisions for yourself and your life that uplift and sustain you.” I gained most from the way I was encouraged to reframe my own thinking. After every session, I felt not only more comfortable and relaxed in my own body but sharper and clearer in mind

I try to apply what I learned about AT into my daily life, as the concept of spending some time localizing on areas of tension and “undoing” them resonates with me. In uncertain times, with daily stresses just about everywhere, there’s something genuinely encouraging in the idea that you can make changes that influence every aspect of your life.

How I Stopped Eating My Feelings—And Started Cooking Them Instead

I remember going to my Italian grandmother’s house and eating mounds of pasta while watching bad hair metal on MTV (this was the ‘80s!). I was barely five but I can still taste the ice cream she served while “Cherry Pie” by Warrant was blaring in the background.

Grandma gave me all the food I wanted and let me watch whatever I wanted—unlike my own parents, who did neither. Eating at Grandma’s made me feel better about things, including my family life, which was hard because my parents fought and we all weren’t very close.

It was my grandmother who trained my mother to be a good cook. And the only time my father and I would spend time together was at dinner over those delicious meals. Food became the only way for all of us to be close. I wished we all talked more—but instead we just ate. It made it seem like everything was ok.

Related: What Happened When I Finally Took Everyone’s Advice And Started Eating Breakfast

In grade school, I didn’t feel like I fit in with the other kids, so I would eat to calm my nerves. At that point, my emotional eating didn’t look like a problem because I had the metabolism of a hummingbird.

By the time I got older and went to college—turning to food for comfort during all the years in between—I gained weight and kept turning to unhealthy food. I might have never dealt with my emotional eating problems and depression if it wasn’t for Wendy’s.

I ate Wendy’s a lot, though I barely ever stepped foot into the place. I was in a serious relationship with a girl who worked the Wendy’s drive-thru, and every night she would bring home a ton of leftovers. Maybe it was hitting my twenties or eating chicken nuggets every single day, but my skinny frame began to expand—and it was not muscle.

By the time I got older and went to college—turning to food for comfort during all the years in between—I gained weight and kept turning to unhealthy food.

This weight gain didn’t change my eating habits. I did try to exercise more (and it worked to some degree) but each year it got harder. I kept eating and gaining more weight. Even when I randomly tried to diet and eat ‘healthy,’ I’d buy Lean Cuisines and end up feeling unsatisfied—so then I’d end up eating three in a row.

I refused to learn to cook because I was so used to others cooking for me or giving me food. And when I was out of TV dinners and stressed out about work, school, or a relationship, I’d end up just giving in and getting fast food.

I hit rock bottom in my late-20s, when I found that I was 60 pounds overweight. I just stared at the numbers on the scale and wanted to cry. I could feel the little kid in me frightened that he’d have to give up eating whatever he wanted. My adult self was experiencing a harsh reality: I needed to change how I approached food. It needed food to become actual nourishment.

Related: Shop spices and bring flavor to your healthy, home-cooked meals.

When I made the decision to really eat healthfully (I chose whole foods and more veggies over processed stuff) and deal with the emotions behind my eating, I realized that I was going to have to learn to cook—for myself. It occurred to me that I had never even bothered to learn to cook! Others cooking for me was their way of showing they loved and cared about me, so I needed to show love to myself by cooking healthy food for myself.

Related: Mindfulness Tips From A Former Stress Junkie

Cookbooks and YouTube videos became my best friends and my confidants. I dusted off (yes, they were literally dusty) my measuring cups and created a cooking area. It was difficult at first, and my fiancé politely lied to me about the first couple of meals being good.

But I got the hang of it, and I actually started to love the process. Cooking was like learning a new language: It was math, science, and art all rolled into one. It empowered me to know that I was responsible for what I ate, and I started to see food as fuel and art instead of an ephemeral escape.

Others cooking for me was their way of showing they loved and cared about me, so I needed to show love to myself by cooking healthy food for myself.

After cooking every day, my kitchen skills have really improved, and my fiancé’s appreciation of home-cooked meals has as well. She had done all the cooking up to this point, but now I’ve claimed the kitchen, as well, and it’s really become a creative space for me. It’s brought us closer and made dinner more intimate. I take my time to savor the meal as we talk and enjoy the food that I cook.

And becoming passionate about cooking started a domino effect of healthy habits. When I’m feeling high or low, or if I need to get centered, I spend some time in my garden and then I cook a healthy meal.

I don’t eat my feelings now; I cook them. The cravings have gone away and I am halfway towards reaching my weight-loss goals. It has increased my self-esteem and I am much more willing to try things that once seemed impossible. (Example: As someone who works in publishing, I finally attempted to learn Photoshop and print interior design—if I could cook, I could design covers and books!)

The biggest change and benefit of cooking my own food has not been the weight loss, though. It has been an inner bonding between my adult self and my inner child. Cooking has become a way for me to be a responsible adult, while tending to the little kid in me that learned to eat away his feelings and anxiety. I understand now that I am responsible for my own health—and the kid in me gets to enjoy the food I make with love.

That feeling I looked forward to experiencing when I visited my grandma is now something I get to experience on a daily basis.

Being healthier has helped my nerves and my depressive symptoms. It has enabled me to see the world as a kid again, when there were always new discoveries. My grandma has been gone for a while, but I know she’d be proud that I’m learning to cook healthy food that tastes just as good as her own.

I Drank A Gram Of Caffeine A Day—Here’s What Happened When I Went Cold Turkey

If you know me, you know I have a ‘fever’—and the only prescription is more caffeine.

I consider myself generally healthy: I bust my tush at the gym five or six days a week, I meal prep on the weekend to keep my calories in check, and I don’t booze nearly as much as I did back in the day.

But I have this caffeine habit. People at work know me as the guy who consistently and constantly has an energy drink in hand. I love getting my morning fix with a nice can of Bang. And then there’s my early afternoon pick-me-up with a refreshing can of SPIKE. And then there’s some late-afternoon preworkout so I can crush it in the gym. So, yeah, that’s a lot of caffeine.

If you don’t have your calculator out, I’ll do the math for you: All of this comes out to about one gram of caffeine a day. That’s like ten cups of coffee or twelve small Red Bulls. (I know, crazy.) I’ve been crushing energy drinks and preworkouts for so long that I’m no longer sure whether or not my ‘always ready to rock and roll’ personality is natural or caffeine-induced. All I know is I feel good all day long.

My hardcore caffeinating started back in college because of a combination of two things: working out and late nights studying. I’d knock back a preworkout before hitting the gym and grab an energy drink to help me get through all-nighters. From there, it was a slippery slope to my daily gram of caffeine.

I never thought it would catch up with me—despite what I’d read online about the dangers of going caffeine crazy (like the fact that too much caffeine could lead to insomnia, nervousness, and irritability, or this study that found that people who drank more than eight cups of coffee a day were twice as likely to commit suicide).

After years of caffeinating heavily, though, the negative effects have started to rock me. I can count on one hand the number of nights of uninterrupted sleep I’ve gotten throughout these past few years; I’m lucky if I get five decent-ish hours. At one point I even started taking sleep aids at night—just so I could boost myself back up with caffeine in the morning. It was a vicious cycle.

I remember getting home from the gym one night (after crushing a chest workout) and still feeling so wired that I actually put some liquid cherry sleep aid in my chocolate protein shake. Chocolate-covered cherry! Great flavor, frightening idea.

The next morning, I finally realized that I was in dangerous territory. I’d told a few friends about my concoction—and they were not impressed with my creativity. They were worried. At first, I was put off by the “Bro, what are you doing?” and similar comments—but slowly I began to realize how unhealthy my habits had become.

Coincidently, not long after, one of my co-workers challenged me to give up caffeine cold-turkey for one whole week. I was the perfect guinea pig—not only because I was loaded up on the stuff, but because I had realized that I really needed to get my act together.

So that night I downed two cans of Bang (as a way of saying, “goodbye, caffeine!”) and mentally prepared myself for my seven-day caffeine-less adventure.

Related: Let’s Clear The Air About Caffeine

The First Couple Of Days…

On day one of my caffeine-free life I woke up groggy, as per usual. After a few minutes at my desk—at which point I’ve usually had my morning Bang—I was hit with absolute lethargy. I was just sitting there, staring blankly at my computer screen, trying to keep my eyelids from closing. If I had let my eyes close for more than a second, I would have definitely fallen asleep.

Which is exactly what happened the following day. I closed my eyes for a second too long—and opened them 10 minutes later.

By the afternoon my energy finally started to kick up, but I felt very irritable. (It probably didn’t help that I had about a dozen of old energy drinks at my desk staring into my soul.) I made a pretty unhealthy (but caffeine-free!) decision, and bought a 12-pack of decaf diet soda. I flipped my energy drinks the bird—and hid them from view in a drawer.

My energy level dipped down again on the 40-minute drive home from work, but I still had enough mental and physical juice left to get myself to the gym. The mental grind was real. My workouts seemed to drag on and on and I was tempted to just go through the motions of my routine and then get out of there. But I pushed myself through with a little help from a solid playlist, and I actually ended up sweating more than usual. Like, dripping. Was my body struggling that much more to get me through my usual routine?

Related: Why Do Some People Sweat More Than Others?

Crossing The Halfway Mark

After the first few days, I didn’t feel like as much of a zombie in the mornings. No more dozing off at my desk! (And good thing, because sleeping at your desk is probably a fire-able offence.)

My newfound A.M. energy was probably a result of the AMAZING sleep I was getting. As the week went on, I continued to crash hard when I got home from the gym. I didn’t need a single sleep aid. Instead of waking up and staring at the ceiling at around 2:00 a.m., I was out cold the entire night. I’m talking seven hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Around mid-week, my workouts also began to pick up. My focus and intensity were back at (or at least close to) the level I was used to. And I still sweat buckets.

One thing I really wasn’t anticipating when I kicked the caffeine: I started craving fast food and ice cream. (Not that I don’t always want both of these things, but these cravings were wicked.) I almost hit the drive-thru for a burger with three patties and cheese, please, a few times. So I turned to my other bubbly beverage or sucked on a sour mint to distract myself. I started to wonder if I just really loved the flavor of my energy drinks. Perhaps I just craved something yummy, like my favorite blue razz or cotton candy drinks.

I Survived!

I thought I’d be in bad shape by the end of the week, but I never really craved caffeine itself as much as I thought I would. The withdrawal headache I had mentally prepared for never actually came and I certainly wasn’t mad about it!

The last few day, my weird food cravings faded. And knowing the finish line was close, I started to feel pretty dang proud of myself. I would definitely finish this experiment stronger than when I began. My productivity at work and intensity in the gym slowly shifted back to normal. I didn’t want to nap before lunch. I wasn’t tempted to half-a** a workout. I felt like my usual self—just without the caffeine.

Since finishing my little caffeine-free experiment, I’ve kept my total intake at about 350 milligrams a day. Occasionally I’ll get up to 500 milligrams, but I haven’t come close to the full gram I used to down. As I started to suspect during my caffeine-free week, I think I crave bubbles more than caffeine itself.

I haven’t even considered taking a sleep aid since my cold-turkey week, and it feels great to actually wake up well-rested.

I don’t think I’ll completely cut out caffeine any time soon (I just love that cotton candy Bang too much), but now I know I can do it—and that feels pretty damn good.

Related: Check out caffeine-free vitamins and supplements to support your gym performance.

 

I Weightlift For My Sanity

The. Weight. Room. Hearing those three words used to immediately transport me into a male-dominated turf riddled with loud grunts, motivational tank tops, and a ton of unnecessary flexing. Not exactly a welcoming visual. I had never actually worked out in a gym weight room for that reason—it never seemed like the right place for me—but all of that changed in the past year. And then, so did my life.

My wellness journey is deeply rooted in the need to feel calm, beyond building my strength and endurance. I’ve always been anxious and I also spend a lot of time managing my depression. I use medication, but I also turn to fitness for its feel-good hormones—I’ve done yoga, running, and swimming. For the longest time, I never felt the need to be ripped or to be able to show how much I could lift, so I never even considered adding lifting to the list of activities that could support my mood.

And because lifting never made sense to me, I kept sequestering myself to those other workouts, or to Cardio Island, where my routine felt safer. On that island there were fewer chances for me to incorrectly use dumbbells or show off my poor deadlift skills.

My wellness journey is deeply rooted in the need to feel calm, beyond building my strength and endurance.

The fear of messing up or really hurting myself took over my thoughts, too. And then off to the treadmill I went, where I could zone out for an entire album or a lengthy podcast episode.

MAKING👏A👏200LBS👏DEADLIFT👏LOOK👏EASY👏

A post shared by Laura (@lauradelarato) on

On top of all of that, I was dealing with minor knee trouble from a previous sports injury. It was seriously getting in the way of my workouts, so I decided to see a trainer for the first time in my life. Maybe she could help me run in a smarter way? I was determined to correct the pain for fear of not being able to run at the gym—I mean, what would I do if I couldn’t do that?

Related: My Size 18 Body Doesn’t Mean I’m Unhealthy

Besides helping my knee, the first thing she did was place a set of eight-pound weights in each palm. She stood before me and mimed the proper way to do bicep curls. I tried to hand them back, explaining that I was only here to help figure out the pain caused by running, but she didn’t back down. She really believed I should be lifting.

One set of 10 reps with eight-pound weights was barely a test. Simple. So I did another set. Not so simple. At that point, everything started to get a little shaky. I couldn’t curl those eight-pound weights after the second set—I really wasn’t as strong as I thought I was!

Honestly, I didn’t like the lifting at first. Mostly because I wasn’t very good at it. I always had to slow down every rep to get the mechanics just right and I got frustrated when I couldn’t find my balance during weighted squats or lunges. I’d get annoyed and then I’d find myself rushing (which only ever leads to pulled muscles).

So, I compressed and iced and elevated my body and went back to training. It was a great lesson, actually. For someone who strived for serenity, I was really putting a lot of pressure on myself to speed through the reps just because I found them to be challenging.

It was a great relief to find something that actually made me feel still, all while watching myself do overhead extensions in a gym mirror.

I kept up with the training and really dived into lifting smarter: That meant no hunching on dumbbell rows, no lazy curls, no swinging my arms to use momentum when the lift got difficult.

Related: There Are Two Types Of Cardio—Here’s Why They Both Matter

Then I started noticing something amazing: I was falling asleep faster—an issue I’ve had trouble with since I was a kid. I was less emotionally reactive at work, and had a generally better attitude throughout the day (I never felt this way when I was running).

Another major benefit? My confidence was boosted. I would walk into work a little taller knowing I was increasing my squat-weight steadily overtime. And as a person who is constantly aware of my own mental health state, it was a great relief to find something that actually made me feel still, all while watching myself do overhead extensions in a gym mirror.

I started with eight-pound weights! I can now deadlift 200 and squat lift 170.

So I stuck with it. I now head to the gym, turn on a podcast, and go through my routine. I treat it almost like a form of therapy. I even track my progress in a tiny notebook, and it’s a real trip to see where I started at and where I am now. Remember: I started with eight-pound weights! I can now deadlift 200 and squat lift 170.

I’m still not in the market for ripped arms and I don’t really want to be able to lift a car (though, that would be pretty cool). I have a lot more autonomy over my range of motion and I’m definitely the person my friends call when they need help moving out of their four-floor walkup.

Related: Shop protein to fuel your next workout.

I breathe easier, sleep better, and find myself more open to trying different workouts because of the chance I took with weightlifting. It’s not going to erase all of my hard days and restless nights, but it makes it a whole lot easier to mentally manage them.

4 Crucial Insights I Learned Along My Weight-Loss Journey

On my 40th birthday, I joined a gym. “I want to be fit and 40, not fat and 40,” I quipped to my husband, mother, and friends. I hit a high of 180 (at 5’4”), and wanted to lose 40 pounds to reach my ideal weight, which I had easily maintained for years before and between my two pregnancies.

When women hit their late 30s and early 40s, they often report that it’s harder to lose weight either by dieting alone, or relying on the diet and exercise routines that worked before. “Typically, this happens when a woman with a normal or fast metabolism could eat without gaining much weight,” says Rachel Myers, a NASM-certified personal trainer in Atlanta. “After having children or becoming premenopausal, her metabolism slows. This is why it’s important to maintain a balanced diet, and cut added sugars and processed foods because your body doesn’t handle them like it did.”

Friends of mine who embrace the body positivity movement (supporting bodies of all shapes and sizes) discouraged my weight-loss crusade, saying I should accept myself: “Your new decade means your body has naturally changed. Love it.” But my 40-pound weight gain was due to stress-eating during a year-long recovery from injuries I’d sustained in a car accident when I was 37. And I wanted to look and feel healthier.

So, I enlisted help from a personal trainer, a Weight Watchers coach, and a nutritionist to win the battle of the bulge. Here are four important things I’ve learned along the way.

1. Quick-Fix Diets Are Just That.

I lost my first 15 pounds (down from 180 to 165) in two-and-a-half months by quick-fix dieting and doing regular workouts. Then, I joined Weight Watchers. At first, I was gung-ho about tracking everything I ate through an online app, excitedly logging in my handful of chocolate-covered almonds or serving of pesto. Then, I stalled out and stopped tracking.

Sometimes, women (like, well, me) alter their diets drastically to lose weightcutting gluten or dairy, switching to a low-carb or ketogenic diet, or following a fad or crash diet. My 41-year-old friend with three young kids and an overnight job always searches for the holy grail of diets to finish off that last 10 to 15 pounds. Recently, she dropped 10 pounds on the Egg Diet (lots of eggs, grapefruit, and not much else for two weeks). She looked great in her smaller jeans, but within a month, the weight came right back as she fell into old habits.

Related: Yes, I Take My Toddler To The Gym

Many people look for a quick fix,” says Renee Angelucci Cancelliere, personal trainer and group fitness instructor at Williamstown, NJ-based Rush Fitness. “Bottom line: They don’t work. Change your lifestyle and educate yourself on eating clean. Treat yourself to a cheat meal to satisfy a craving. Cut it in half, since portion control is a big factor in healthy eating.” 

Ultimately, my Weight Watchers coach suggested the Weight Watchers Simply Filling plan, which works for me. Quick summary: You can eat as much lean protein, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and good grains as you want, and you track foods not on the recommended list. Because I generally eat unprocessed and gluten-free, this lifted a mental burden. I lost 17 more pounds, down to 148 in four months.

2. find the right workout for you—and stick to it. 

When I’m at my goal weight (sporting chiseled arms and a V-shaped torso), working out is a pleasurable must-have. When I struggle to lose weight and build endurance again, it’s a nightmare.

My personal trainer recommended rigorous high-intensity interval training. “HIIT has many benefits,” Angelucci Cancelliere says. “You burn fat more efficiently and increase your metabolism. You can incorporate cardio and weights into the same workout. I always say, ‘If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.’ Interval training is challenging: That’s why I use it for myself, my clients and my classes.”

My endurance has grown from strength and cardio HIIT training. It has also grown from treadmill use; I walk at a 4.2 speed on a 15 incline for 35 to 60 minutes. It’s killer, but it’s enabled me to start jogging and then running. Nowadays I can run a good length of beach with my kids and not get winded. It pays off to work hard.

3. The Scale Doesn’t Always Matter

“I don’t focus on a number,” Angelucci Cancelliere says. “Most women obsess over the scale – you can be 150 pounds untoned or 150 pounds of toned, defined muscle. Which would you rather be?”

Related: Shop protein to fuel your kick-butt workouts.

Instead, she recommends focusing on body composition. “By reducing overall body fat and increasing muscle, you improve your quality of life,” she says. “Other benefits: normalizing blood pressure levels, reducing joint pain, improving sleep quality, and upping your mood, energy levels, and self-confidence.” 

I had lost 32 pounds—hitting 148. Then, the loss stopped cold. But at that point, my primary measurement and motivator was the scale; as the 149, 148, 150 winked back at me week after week, I fought the idea that the number suddenly didn’t matter.

When my nutritionist checked my body composition, she found that my fat had gone down a few percentage points and that my muscle had gone up the same amount. “If you lift weights, remember one pound of muscle takes up less space than one pound of fat,” Myers says. “Focus on body fat percentage.”

I now focus on how my body looks and performs (while tracking muscle growth), rather than the number on the scale.

4. healthy habits are not optional

Along the way, I’ve hit rebellious days and weeks where I’m just done with food tracking and workouts. That said, eating clean and going to the gym are must-dos. These healthy habits are not contingent on whether I want to or not.

“Negativity sabotages success in all aspects of life,” says Angelucci Cancelliere. A big mistake people make after losing some weight is relaxing and letting bad habits creep back in. “They lose 10 pounds and ease up,” she says. “It becomes a yo-yo of lose-gain-lose.”

When I reflected on habits I developed through Weight Watchers (not stress-eating at night, not eating after 8 p.m., avoiding trigger foods like cheese and chocolate, eating clean with only some cheat meals), I realized many were second nature, and they would get me to my goal weight in time.

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

“Expecting fast results will sabotage you,” Myers says. “If it were easy, everyone would be in great shape.”

While I work to lose the last few pounds, I know what works for me. So whether I lose more weight or continue to replace fat with muscle and stay the same weight, I can be comfortable with who I am and rock my awesome body.

I Biked Under Water For 30 Days—And Here’s What Happened

I’ve always loved to swim, but about two months ago I started doing it pretty regularly. The impetus: I was in the midst of a minor health crisis. A metabolic test had shown that I was about 20 pounds overweight, my blood pressure was a bit high, and my HDL cholesterol (high density lipoprotein a.k.a. the “good” cholesterol) was low. The extra weight was putting pressure on my bones and joints—the last thing I needed as someone already dealing with chronic autoimmune arthritic symptoms.

It was time to make a change for my wellbeing and my future.

I didn’t need scientific proof of water’s benefits, but there are plenty: Water exercises improve body fat percentage, increase physical strength, and decrease blood lipids (fatty substances found in the blood), according to the Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation. Plus, I hated the gym. So when a friend who learned of my newly-minted mermaid status told me about Aqua Studio, a breezy, chic “wellness sanctuary” in New York City, I felt a magnetic pull. The boutique studio offers salt water aqua cycling classes (yes, you bike under water, where the bottom half of you is submerged) in addition to “land” classes (like yoga on the mat), health coaching, and boutique-y goodies like creams and turquoise swim gear.

Related: I Drank Collagen For 30 Days—Here’s How It Turned Out

The studio is a haven. The scent of mint wafts throughout, and it’s immaculate, airy, and stunningly beautiful. Oh, and it’s the only studio of its kind in NYC (we can thank the French for inventing this workout, as well as Aqua Studio’s owner, Esther, for bringing it to NYC; merci!). Did I mention yet that the classes can burn up to 800 calories?

I decided to do a 30-day challenge (I managed 18 45-minute classes in one month), not only because I am an insane person, but because if you’re going to take care of yourself, you might as well go hard.

My First Class

I took the Blend class first (composed of three of their popular classes: Power, an utterly intense, legs-only class; Interval, an arms-and-legs class; and Restore, a calming, stretch-focused class). The instructor, Ed, was thoughtful, enthusiastic, kind, and nurturing. He helped me adjust my seat and figure out the four bike positions (one sitting, two standing, and one in the water), and I felt super at ease. P.S. They dim the lights, line the room with candles, and play great music—like a cocktail party!

Me with Aqua Studio instructor Alexia.

We powered through the different focuses. I was a mess. The water offers a billion times more resistance (take that, SoulCycle), while also massaging your cellulite away, limiting impact on your joints, and increasing circulation.

Because you’re in water, the pressure is on YOU to pedal faster to increase resistance (unlike a normal bike, you don’t set a level—you work for it). This means you use your core to seriously round out each pedal, which, in water, is difficult as hell.

I was like a kid at the beach. Totally intoxicated by the water’s power and fully detached from any worry. I felt alive, I worked hard, and I didn’t feel out of place. Unlike many other studios, there’s no sense of clique or exclusivity here. People of all shapes, sizes, and fitness levels share the pool and work hard together. (This, for me, is key; fitness is personal and shouldn’t be a competition or social status symbol.)

The Next 17 Classes

In the beginning, I sat down a lot. I needed to take a break because I wasn’t strong enough. My body quickly adapted, though. By week two, I started trusting my body and pushing past those awful lactic acid bouts. I cycled harder and harder, working closely on my form.

I cycled through their various classes (you can see them all here) and found that my favorite is Plyo, a full-body class that combines exercises on and off the bike. For folks who want a hardcore workout, I recommend their Boost, Plyo, or Power classes. For yogis who want to stretch and ‘be one with the water’, I recommend Restore. Their schedule also includes classes in French, some live music classes, and some with specific music (like all-90s playlists. Yes, please).

By week 2, I started trusting my body and pushing past those awful lactic acid bouts. I cycled harder and harder, working closely on my form.

Halfway through the month, a death in my family occurred. My natural response was to hide away, but I pushed myself to attend classes, since they gave me a chance to be quiet in my thoughts. I found myself grieving silently while in the water. The grounding effects of exercise allow you to focus on the now, which can you help you find hope and purpose.

Related: How Zumba Helped Me Lose 30 Pounds And Become The Life Of The Party

But it was the kindness of the instructors that actually helped me the most. They didn’t know it, but their encouragement was healing. I took most of my classes with the wonderful Ed; Alexia, who is detailed and calm and caring; Moses, who is fun and fiery while pushing you harder (he calls you a warrior); and JC, who is exceptionally form-focused and super encouraging (he regularly gives you high fives). They are all full of light (yay for non-judgmental instructors!)

I was like a kid at the beach. Totally intoxicated by the water’s power and fully detached from any worry.

The Results

With my mental state as it was, Aqua Cycle became a second home for me. It truly is a wellness sanctuary, and a place where you can work out in a meditative and beautiful setting. I felt I was able to not only work on my body but move through my pain while there, and that’s not something I say lightly.

For anyone who’s unsure of whether this is actually a workout, please let me illuminate you: You absolutely get what you put into it. You could slowly peddle and wiggle your arms about. You could forget your core and overcompensate by jerking around on the saddle. OR you can engage your core, peddle hard, and move your arms through the water with utmost focus on resistance. Your choice. Although, at the risk of sounding like a PR person (Dear Aqua Cycle: Let me please be your PR person), the instructors are so encouraging you will not be left in the dark; they will inspire you. You will leave there having worked really hard, but thanks to the water, you won’t be sore.

On the cash front, Aqua Cycle is a bit pricy (and it should be; it’s worth it!). It’s an investment in your mental and physical health. An intro class is $35, and they offer several packages.

You will leave aqua cycling having worked really hard, but thanks to the water, you won’t be sore.

I know you’re all waiting for the results. I can sense you there, scanning this article. So without further ado: I eat a mostly healthy diet but I do not believe in depriving myself of the finer things in life (I’m the anti-Gwyneth Paltrow, although I bet she’d love this studio). So, combined with a mostly-healthy diet, the physical benefits of these classes were 100 percent measurable.

I lost three inches off my waist, along with about 10 pounds (maybe more? I don’t look to the scale for results). My legs and hips have tightened up, my arms are more toned, my tummy is stronger and flatter, and my butt is noticeably perkier. Verification? An honest mirror and even more honest boyfriend.

Related: Shop products directly related to your health goals

Other important benefits are less physical, which I must impress upon you. Aqua Studio claims its classes can promote better sleep, less stress, increased flexibility, and better cardiovascular performance. I can attest to all of this, and I emphasize better sleep and less stress.

Since I began regularly attending Aqua Cycle classes, I’ve been a happier person. My feel-good hormones are through the roof, and I have connected with my body in a deeply spiritual way. I trust myself, I push myself, and I love myself. Sounds a bit cheese, right? Just wait until you try it. You’re welcome.

Want to locate an aqua cycle class near you? Good news: It’s growing in popularity all over the country. It exists in Los Angeles,   Miami,   Washington DC, New York state, and in plenty of other locations. And if you can’t get onto the bike, you can still find a local pool and experience the proven benefits of water exercise. 

 

Mindfulness Tips From A Former Stress Junkie

It was like an out-of-body experience without the serene white light—and it was terrifying. The first time I experienced a panic attack I thought I was dying: My hearing got muffled, my knees shook, and I felt like I was leaving my body as the room started to spin. Yet, I was still standing on my own two feet, my heart pounding from my ribcage to my eardrums. My kids in the next room had no idea what was happening to me.

Before that, I had been proud of being a stress junkie. My drug of choice: the body- and-mind-damaging high I get from squeezing an inordinate amount of tasks and deadlines into a compressed block of time.

In my mid-30s, with two children under age five, I was a Type-A workaholic who’d respond to emails until midnight, even after spending a full day in the office and completing the hour-long commute home. At night, I’d hang out with my kids while doing bicep curls or squats in the kitchen. After my kids were in bed, I’d sit down to write or do creative stuff. Don’t even ask where my husband or social life fit in.

It was like an out-of-body experience without the serene white light—and it was terrifying. The first time I experienced a panic attack I thought I was dying:

I loved having too many balls in the air—but only when I had the illusion of having control over all of them.

My boss told me I was one of the most productive people she’d ever met. My mother said she couldn’t understand how I could still stand, considering how much I did all day (and how little I slept).

But I really wasn’t so different from many of my coworkers. In fact, 59 percent of American workers say they use their mobile devices to do work after normal business hours, according to a recent Workplace Options survey. And about 80 percent of workers who use a smart phone, tablet, or laptop to work outside of typical business hours even say it’s a good thing, according to a 2014 Gallup poll. Plus, most of the mothers of small children I knew also worked a job outside the home.

But what was I trying to prove? I told myself I was showing my daughters what a powerful female role model looks like—a mother, wife, artist, and woman working in an executive role. A fit woman. A woman who’d wear Calvin Klein dresses and five-inch stilettos to work but also published a book of poetry. A woman who didn’t cry.

I didn’t exactly know it then, but I was overcompensating on a large scale, and my psyche was slowly being invaded by stress, anxiety, and fear.

Related: Shop Stress B-Complex vitamins.

“Not only are women working, they’re also still primary caregivers for their children, and they’re given unrealistic ideals to aspire to via social media, popular media, TV and magazines,” says Haley J. Snyder, empowerment coach, author, and public speaker at The Empowered Coach. “The main issue is a lack of balance in priorities, complicated with a proclivity for comparing to other people with ‘perfect’ lives.”

I suppose I was aiming to do it all, without showing the cracks.

I didn’t exactly know it then, but I was overcompensating on a large scale, and my psyche was slowly being invaded by stress, anxiety, and fear.

And because of it all, I began experiencing periodic panic attacks, exhaustion, depression, and feelings of hopelessness. Then, in May 2015, two days after moving into a new home, I was in a car accident.

A young driver ran a stop sign, T-boning my car on the driver’s side. As I sat covered in glass in the aftermath, ears ringing and head throbbing, all I could think of was my two children in the back seat. Are they dead?—a mother’s worst fear.

Luckily, they weren’t hurt. However, for a year I dealt with the effects of a concussion: light phobia, dizziness, and severe migraines with an aura. On top of that, I had bulging discs in my neck and a herniated disc in my spine. I gained 20 pounds due to inactivity and started having panic attacks daily.

Related: How Walking Every Day Renewed My Sense Of Self And Creativity

Because I didn’t want to take medication for the panic attacks, I found a stress-management professional who would offer other tips. The professional told me that the way toward recovery from the generalized anxiety and panic attacks was through mindfulness.

“The definition of mindfulness is noticing,” Snyder told me.It has three components: observing, describing, participating, and of course, practicing being nonjudgmental during these components.” It’s not a magic pill, but the more you do it, the better it works.

After a driver T-boned my car, I had bulging discs in my neck and a herniated disc in my spine. I gained 20 pounds due to inactivity and started having panic attacks daily.

My therapist sure had her work cut out for her. But the techniques actually worked. Here’s what I tried:

1. sHORT MEDITATIONS

I felt like the worst candidate for meditation (I have a hard time turning my mind off), but my therapist recommended downloading the free Insight Timer, which has more than 1.1 million users and offers timed, guided meditations (some as short as three minutes). The app sat on my phone for a couple months before I finally turned to it as a last resort.

I was working in my home office one day when my heart started pounding: There was no clear trigger, but a panic attack had snuck up on me. I grabbed my phone, selected the three-minute “happiness” meditation and lay on the floor. As the bells that began the meditation rang, I focused on those. Amazingly, at the end of the meditation, I felt like I had gotten on top of the panic attack.

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What I found in navigating and using different types of meditations was that the ones that worked for me were the most literal ones—the ones where I was prompted to scan my body, not the ones that asked me to imagine being on a breezy beach. This helped to distract me from feelings of anxiety.

2. GROUNDING EXERCISES

I also used Grounding exercises, which are about employing our senses (what we’re seeing and hearing) and connecting them to our bodies and mind.

These are different from guided meditations because you can recall and employ these techniques quickly and easily in order to distract yourself from whatever anxiety you’re experiencing.

Related: Shop essential oils to promote stress relief.

For example, when I had a bad panic attack at work, I closed my eyes and asked myself a series of questions: What’s your name? How old are you? What two things can you hear right now? What two things can you feel right now? What two things can you smell right now?

That allowed me to ground myself in the present, warding off the feelings of anxiety.

3. sTIMULATING The Vagus Nerve

My therapist believed that my panic levels increased after the car accident because I was suffering from PTSD—from the fear of losing my life or my children.

These are different from guided meditations because you can recall and employ these techniques quickly and easily in order to distract yourself from whatever anxiety you’re experiencing.

“One of the trademarks of PTSD is that your brain gets stuck in a feedback loop when it’s triggered,” Snyder says. “The brain then plays the memory as if it’s happening in the present moment, evoking all of the fear, angst, fight-or-flight responses and other physiological side effects that happened during the actual trauma.” Mindfulness helps you to identify when this is happening.

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

Here’s where the vagus nerve comes into play: It’s part of the parasympathetic nervous system and starts in the brainstem and trails down the spine to the tongue, heart, lungs and other organs. When you indirectly stimulate it by belly or diaphragmatic breathing, you’re forcing your body to calm down, since you’re counteracting your sympathetic nervous system, which activates your flight-or-flight responses.

Belly breathing essentially means filling the abdomen, rather than the chest cavity, with air. When it’s full, you hold it for a few seconds.

Belly breathing whenever I needed it became a lifesaver. I found that it almost immediately calmed physical symptoms of anxiety, especially before bedtime.

I’m still a work in progress in terms of moving past my anxiety and PTSD, but I use at least one mindfulness technique daily to guide me out of that panicked space and back into the confident sphere I used to walk in—and where I know I will will again.

Despite My Fibromyalgia, I’m Focused On Staying Healthy

Two weeks ago, I woke up aching from head to toe, as though I were coming down with the flu or had just run a full marathon the day before. But I didn’t have the flu and I definitely hadn’t run a marathon.

Instead, I had spent a half hour the prior evening swimming laps in the local pool. It was the first time in nearly a year that I’d gone swimming. After I was finished, I felt fabulousboth recharged and relaxed at the same time. But the next day it was clear I had overdone it.

Since being diagnosed a few years ago with fibromyalgia, a disorder characterized by musculoskeletal pain, fatigue, sleep, and memory and mood issues, exercise has become especially fraught for me.

Sitting in a chairno matter how ergonomically advancedfor more than an hour or so straight can send my back into severe spasms and set off a ripple effect of pain that eventually engulfs my entire body.

Before fibromyalgia, it was not unusual for me to leave my apartment on a whim to take a five-mile walk. In the winter, I often donned snowshoes and cross country skis to traipse the New England trails around my home. I loved to hike and rock scramble up steep mountains. I biked for hours on the tree-lined path that ran behind my building.

Related: I Ditched The Gym For The Pool—And It Changed Me

I might not be that active these days, but stagnancy is just as bad for my body (if not worse) than overdoing any exercise. Sitting in a chair
no matter how ergonomically advancedfor more than an hour or so straight can send my back into severe spasms and set off a ripple effect of pain that eventually engulfs my entire body.

Standing still in lines or crowds for more than 20 minutes causes shooting pains in my legs for the rest of day and into the night, keeping me awake at all hours. Even lying down usually does not offer me the pain relief most people would expect. Instead, my body feels its best when (and seems to benefit the most after) it has been engaged in low-impact mobility.

My diagnosis meant I had to educate myself on how to stay in shape without aggravating my condition. But this was a fine line that I had trouble seeing and often crossed unwittingly, especially as my body’s pain levels tend to fluctuate dramatically from day to day.

In my search for some solutions, I recently enrolled in an intensive eight-week rehabilitation program for people with chronic pain. The program emphasizes re-conditioning; it teaches us how to exercise and complete daily tasks in ways that reduce pain. In the program, a team of physical and occupational therapists work collaboratively to modify my weekly exercise regimens in ways that engage me in a level of activity I need to become stronger and more resilient, all the while trying to avoid the dreaded flare-ups.

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What I’ve learned: Quality over quantity is key when it comes to exercise. As a result, I am learning to be more present in my more fragile body. This means understanding and abiding by my physical limitations, while also staying committed to remaining fit and healthy.

What I’ve learned: Quality over quantity is key when it comes to exercise. As a result, I am learning to be more present in my more fragile body.

When I returned to the pool last week, I began applying what I learned. At first, I took my time treading water for a few minutes. When I progressed to doing laps, I swam much more slowly and mindfully, favoring comfort over speed. I took breaks and deep breaths often, gently stretching my legs beneath me between each lap before setting off again.

When my arms began to ache or tingle, I switched to using the boogie boards the club offered and simply kicked my legs gently behind me to get to where I wanted to go. I repeatedly reminded myself that I was not in any rush or race. And when I woke up the following morning, I was not besieged by body-wide aches that made me regret exercising the night before.

Likewise, when I go for one of my afternoon walks nowwhich are usually only a mile or two as opposed to fiveI incorporate a similar tactic. I pay attention to how my body moves and where it hurts, adapting my movements as needed to accommodate pain or tension. I take breaks as often as I need to.

Related: Shop for products that meet your specific health goals.

I occasionally walk with ankle braces and a cane because it relieves pressure on my aching joints and overactive nerves. I also apply methods for preventing pain before and after I exercise, including gentle stretches, massaging tight trigger points with tennis balls, and icing the sore spots on my body.

With time and dedication, I hope to build up my strength and endurance so I can add more laps and miles to my routine, but in a way that doesn’t make my pain worse.

I’m determined to maintain a quality of life that includes me being physically active on a regular basis. If that means modifying my routines, using assistive devices, and even ultimately accepting that I may not always be able to accomplish all of the things I did before my diagnosis, then I’m willing to do it. Though it may seem like a lot of work, my body is worth the effort.

What Happened When I Finally Took Everyone’s Advice And Started Eating Breakfast

When I decided to start eating breakfast every single morning (on top of documenting its effects on my health, energy, and general ability to conquer the day-to-day), I excitedly told a friend of mine. She was confused: “You? Trying to be healthy?”

“Yep,” I told her. “I’m doing it!” She laughed for a long time. But I was steadfast, determined to find the better, brighter, healthier me that lay dormant somewhere inside.

There were some surprises, at first. For one thing, I realized that eating breakfast meant actually being awake for breakfast. (Noon is apparently not breakfast time, I’ve been told.) I’m a student and a freelance writer, and we are nocturnal creatures: We can see in infrared and easily amass a whole body of work without ever crossing paths with the sun. I’ve tried to actually wake up early in the past, and it’s never gone very well. So, in my efforts to wake up and eat breakfast, past failures at making positive life changes hung over me.

But I remembered something: Last summer I decided to take an accelerated math class (!) at eight in the morning (!!)…because I’m a masochist. Naïvely, I believed this would make me a better person. I thought: A person who woke up at six a.m. to do math would be a person who went on to have a productive day. I would finally learn yoga and figure out how to do my own taxes. I’d be the best version of myself. But in actuality, I ended up being the same person, except that I was in a really bad mood all of the time.

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This time around, I promised myself things were going to be different.

Once I got past the initial shock of being awake for breakfast, I began to think about which breakfast foods I’d eat, and how I could make them healthier choices. Saying I’m “not a health-conscious person” is putting it lightly. Friends have categorized my diet as “gas station food” or “food you would eat at a child’s birthday party.” I like dollar pizza, mac and cheese, and greasy breakfast sandwiches. The only praiseworthy health habit I have is avoiding high-fructose corn syrup.

And while I might count a handful of Cheerios as breakfast, I wanted to take this breakfast challenge more seriously.

Once I got past the initial shock of being awake for breakfast, I began to think about which breakfast foods I’d eat, and how I could make them healthier choices.

I love green smoothies, but they’re so expensive! I decided to start making them as my breakfast, and they turned out great. I tossed kale, avocado, plain yogurt, green apples, almond butter, frozen bananas, apple juice, and ice into a blender, and voila!

Related: How To Make The Best Smoothie For Your Goals

It was like a dessert and only vaguely resembled something healthy, which is perfect for me. While I mostly drank a smoothie, sometimes I’d have an egg sandwich or a bagel instead (because I’m not a saint and bagels are a human right).

Unfortunately, I must admit: I began feeling better (which means I have to keep waking up early). Eating breakfast fits squarely into the all-important self-care box. By waking up to eat, I wasn’t beginning my day by rushing out the door on an empty stomach, which has been good for my anxiety.

I was also more aware of what I was eating, because I was doing this as a health challenge. I think that’s called accountability? (I’ve heard of that before but thought it was something for other people.)

Eating breakfast fits squarely into the all-important self-care box. By waking up to eat, I wasn’t beginning my day by rushing out the door on an empty stomach, which has been good for my anxiety.

My blood sugar and energy levels benefited from this experiment, as well. I’ve felt more stable with less spikes and low points throughout the day. The smoothies did make me gain a little weight (maybe all that avocado?), which I’m honestly happy about, since I walk five or six miles a day and tend to lose weight quickly.

Related: Shop superfood powders for all your smoothie-making needs. 

Also, since I started eating breakfast, a couple of people complimented my skin. Disclaimer: I use a bottle of highlighter a day, so it’s hard to know what’s what, but being the horribly vain person I am, I will do almost anything to look better, and so I plan to continue the smoothies.

While I’m not suddenly a morning person, this has been an overall positive experience for me. I have found some healthy breakfast choices that I genuinely enjoy, and it felt good to do something nice for myself. I can’t promise anyone I will always wake up early to eat breakfast, but I will try to when I can. Besides, veggie smoothies are just as good for you at two in the morning, right?

What It’s Really Like To Suffer From Lyme Disease—And How I’ve Learned To Cope

I used to be an adventurer, a traveler, an athlete, an occupational therapist, and a Pilates instructor. But suddenly, when I got sick with Lyme disease four years ago, I was thrust into a new role: I became The Patient.

Lyme disease is an insidious illness: There was no thunderclap, dark cloud, or bolt of lightning marking the day I contracted this disease. I assume I was doing regular, teenage activities, like hiking the bluffs of my rural hometown in Minnesota, camping, or swimming along the banks of the Mississippi River. But my assumption is just that: an assumption. 

I wonder: At what point did the Lyme disease begin chipping away at my immune system and calculating the day it would hit me? 

My body began to break down bit by bit. First, I was dealing with a series of large ovarian cysts, followed by the surgery to remove them. Next came the onset of interstitial cystitis—a painful, inflammatory bladder condition marked by urinary urgency and frequency. I held fast to the belief that this situation was temporary, and I soldiered on through sleepless nights and continuous pain for four years. 

Then, I began to experience constant vertigo, insomnia that landed me in the emergency room, debilitating fatigue, weight loss, digestive issues, and pain in my brain and spinal cord. My longtime general practitioner could see my health was failing, but she was baffled as to how to help me. I saw one doctor after another, but despite consulting with some of the best physicians, they could do little more than speculate out loud about what was going on with my health:

You’re in between vertigo episodes right now. We’ll catch it the next time!

Maybe an old Epstein-Barr virus has been reactivated?

You’re having silent migraines without a headache.

You have PTSD.

You need to stop eating so many raw vegetables; they’re giving you gas and causing your stomach pain.

You have an unfortunate case of severe chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and multiple chemical sensitivities. It’s one of the worst cases I’ve ever seen!

I went with the latter set of diagnoses: Severe chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and multiple chemical sensitivities seemed to encompass many of my ongoing health challenges. 

In 2012, the doctor gave me a round of steroids to treat my chief complaint: exhaustion. Unfortunately, the medication caused me to tank and land flat on my back in bed; the fatigue was crippling. New symptoms emerged—I couldn’t sleep, sit up, tolerate sound or light, and my brain and spinal cord burned with a ruthless intensity. Eventually, the sound sensitivity escalated to the point where I could no longer talk on the phone–not even to my mother (who lived far away, and who I wanted to talk to!). For months, I lay in a dark, silent room, hoping the symptoms would fade away. But I was wrong. I was 33 years old, and living in complete isolation.  

Eighteen months went by.

 At this point, I had nearly succumbed to the idea that I was unhelpable; this mysterious illness would claim my life, or—in an equally scary thought—it would become my entire life.

For months, I lay in a dark, silent room, hoping the symptoms would fade away. But I was wrong. I was 33 years old, and living in complete isolation.  

With the encouragement of my family, I decided to visit one more doctor. I vividly remember the appointment: I was too weak to walk on my own, so my husband carried me through the doors of the doctor’s office. That’s when I got a new diagnosis.

Related: Shop multivitamins to help promote health and immunity.

Following a two-hour appointment to review my medical history, the doctor diagnosed me with Lyme disease despite two negative western blot tests (Western Blots were the first immunoblot developed to detect Lyme. An immunoblot is a laboratory test that looks for antibodies). That day, I learned that the testing for Lyme disease is not an exact science. In reality, studies have shown up to 50 percent of those infected with the illness will never test positive through traditional blood work or recall a tick bite.

To make matters worse, only about 50 percent of people develop the classic symptom (the all-telling bull’s-eye rash), leaving many clinicians with the difficult task of diagnosing Lyme disease based on clinical presentation.

After endless trial and error, I assembled a team of healthcare practitioners and began a grueling treatment program (sometimes swallowing up to 60 pills a day) that will continue until I’m well or until I can’t afford the burdensome out-of-pocket expenses any longer.

I’ve also used herbs, supplements, medication, diet and lifestyle changes, light therapy, detoxification, exercise, and many other therapies to strengthen my body and mind. While I’ve made some improvements, I deal with unremitting fatigue, insomnia, muscle and nerve pain, and flu-like symptoms on a day-to-day basis.

Treatments are demanding. In the simplest of terms, killing a high infectious load in the body creates a cascade of inflammation for a period of time. Often, I feel worse before I begin to feel better.

Related: 
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So how do I cope with the constant barrage of symptoms? Some days I laugh. Some days I cry. Mostly, I’m a work in progress learning to listen to my body and respect what it has to tell me. Sometimes it tells me to rest. Sometimes it tells me to take a risk. When you live life with a chronic illness, every day can be a surprise, and you must always re-examine your body’s fluctuating energy reserves. Whatever the message, when I listen, my body always responds by moving me a step forward in my healing. These small victories fuel me to continue the long journey toward recovery.

When you live life with a chronic illness, every day can be a surprise, and you must always re-examine your body’s fluctuating energy reserves.

In addition, I’ve mindfully cultivated relationships, both in person and on social media, with individuals in the chronic illness community. I’ve teamed up with other Lyme patients to create an online support group for the state of Illinois, where I live, and I joined a fierce group of women for the Lyme Disease Challenge to raise international awareness about this emerging health crisis. We cheer each other on, and their support is essential to my recovery; it’s comforting to know I’m not alone in this longstanding fight.

After being diagnosed with Lyme disease, I remained fearful of nature for many years. These days, I have an overwhelming desire to reconnect with it, even if it’s on some paved trails. Being in nature is vital to my recovery. Although I live in an urban setting, there’s a nature preserve near my house, which allows me to walk and daydream (when I don’t feel super-fatigued) about my future ambitions. Though I continue to have physical limitations, the ability to walk, dream, and let my inner wanderlust free is a form of moving meditation for me.

And as an ex-gymnast and Pilates instructor, movement has always been an integral part of my life. For fitness, I incorporate gentle Pilates and yoga into my treatment protocol. In both of these mind-body exercises, the quality of the movement or pose is more important than the quantity of repetitions.

For core Pilates moves, I like the feeling of moving my leg muscles while lying down during the footwork series on the reformer. I like the fluidity of the rowing series on the reformer as well.

In yoga, I like the gentle stretch and spine twist of triangle pose. On days when I feel stronger, I like the physical challenges of crow and side crow, although I’m not very good at them yet. Of course, I love corpse pose, or savasana, as it’s very calming to my nervous system.

The breath work involved with these forms of exercise helps to reinvigorate my body and relieve stress and tension. Despite the fact that I am living a modified life due to waning strength and energy levels, I refuse to give up, and I use mind-body exercises to remind me that movement is life. As long as I am still moving and breathing, I am living.

Lyme disease has cost me a lot: my job, friends, financial stability, and the ability to start a family. Still, I remain mindful of the idea that just because a few chapters of my life ended, doesn’t mean the whole book closed. There are many unfinished chapters to my life story, and I’m writing them one page at a time.  

Life may not always look the way I want it to look, but I’ve discovered a spirit of perseverance within me that constantly whispers in my ear, “Keep going. You can try again tomorrow.” 

How Walking Every Day Renewed My Sense Of Self And Creativity

I’ve always loved walking. When I was in elementary school, I would ask my best friend to walk home with me and we’d take all the scenic routes, finding new paths through our city every afternoon. This same desire to walk and explore stayed with me as I got older, always as something I could turn to for self-care or just to get some movement in. While I preferred to amble about on a leisurely stroll in the warm weather, I’ve definitely also walked in some of Massachusetts’ most intense blizzards (like I said, I really like to walk).

But then two years ago, things changed. I graduated from college and started working full-time while going to graduate school at night and I essentially stopped keeping up with my walking habit.

With 12-hour days where I’d go straight from work to class to my bed, I barely made an effort to shower, never mind purposefully walk anywhere I didn’t already have to. I missed walking—missed the time to myself, missed being able to move and see things and find a sense of grounding.

This May, I finished my graduate degree—so no more night classes for me (yay!). I finally have my evenings to myself again, and my weekends aren’t packed with playing catch-up on homework and studying.

Related: Shop multis to get your health on the right track.

On top of my newfound free time, I also recently found a renewed desire to walk. A few weeks ago, after getting home from a three-day trip to New York City, trekking all over Brooklyn and Manhattan, I challenged myself to start walking every day after work. I wanted to recreate that feeling of adventure that I was missing and figured the best way to do it was to get back into taking walks (that, or world travel—which isn’t exactly free of charge!).

With 12-hour days where I’d go straight from work to class to my bed, I barely made an effort to shower, never mind purposefully walk anywhere I didn’t already have to.

I didn’t set a time frame or a distance for these walks, because I didn’t want it to feel like a chore; walking used to be fun—a way for me to get my creativity flowing and recharge my mental and physical health.

The first few days, I seriously struggled to get walking. The problem is that it’s not a part of my routine. I usually go to work, and then after work I might make social plans to meet a friend in the city or grab dinner with my partner at a restaurant. If I don’t make plans, my go-to hobbies are reading and creative writing, which unfortunately keep me locked away from people and the world. So when I challenged myself to walk every day, the first question I had was—how will I fit that in, now that I have some extra time?

I had to actively carve out time in my day, but it was totally worth it. On the first day of my challenge, I found myself walking around my neighborhood block because I hadn’t budgeted my time well; I needed to grocery shop after work that night, and by the time I’d finished dinner, it was already late. I’ll be honest and say my neighborhood isn’t very fascinating to look at, so I didn’t find the walk very stimulating. To avoid a lame walk again, I vowed to make walking a priority so that I wouldn’t have to resort to a snooze-filled walk again the next day.

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My daily walks varied, and I tried to keep up the habit on the weekend, too. I took a short walk in Western Massachusetts with my friends when I visited for a surprise party, and a longer walk on the beach the next day. I budgeted days for at least a few longer, intentional walks, and toured around the Charles River (in Boston) for over an hour with one of my friends. I’ve always preferred talking while walking over chatting at the bar or at dinner, because moving around keeps my creative energy going. (I also have ADHD, so I’m at my best when I can move my body while I’m thinking and having a conversation—as opposed to feeling restrained because I have to sit still on the same bar stool for two hours.)

After just a few days, I was starting to feel better: My mental health had improved—I felt calmer and more focused—and so had my creativity.

After just a few days, I was starting to feel better: My mental health had improved—I felt calmer and more focused—and so had my creativity. I’m a writer of both fiction and journalism, and getting out into the world filled my head with a ton of story ideas. Whether I was walking around Beacon Hill in Boston or on the shore of Wollaston beach, just being out and walking put me in the right headspace to create.

The only downside to my regular walks was that they encouraged me to make purchases while I was out. I’d spot my favorite ice cream shop and feel the urge to grab a small cup, or I’d be tempted to get dinner in the city instead of going all the way home and cooking the meal I’d planned. Basically, it’s just a mindset I need to plan for if I want to be budget-conscious (although ice cream is SO good).

There are days when I wasn’t (or am not) able to fit my walking in, like when I had a bunch of errands that needed to get done after work or I wanted to make plans with a friend who preferred to stay indoors. I probably won’t be able to walk every single day, but I’m going to make it an intentional, active part of my routine the way I do with reading and writing.

Related: Shop fitness watches to track your mileage.

It fills me with a small sense of adventure and travel on a local scale, which helps me keep my thirst for world travel at bay while I save for future trips to London, California, and Japan—all vacations where I plan to walk my heart out.

I Ditched The Gym For The Pool—And It Changed Me

I was diagnosed with arthritis in my 20s. Super-fun, right? Technically, I have Ankylosing Spondylitis (AS), which primarily affects my spine but causes all of my joints to feel swollen, click-y, and achy. According to the journal Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, AS is a complex, potentially debilitating disease that basically fuses your vertebrae. It’s chronic and lifelong. And if you google AS, you’ll see hundreds of pictures of people hunched over, totally incapable of walking. (A good rule of thumb: Never google anything ever).

In the past few years, I’ve really noticed my AS’s progression, mostly marked by profound stiffness—all of the freaking time, especially in the morning. It’s like I wake up super-glued to the bed, and when I move, all of my back bones are super-glued together. (I want to remind you that I am not 80 years old, I’m 31.)

When I finally stand up, it’s like ripping bone from bone, which, if that isn’t melodramatic enough, only gets better if I finagle myself into multiple positions on a yoga mat, trying to pry my body open. The key, any rheumatologist will tell you, is to always keep moving and keep exercising, in order to prevent the vertebra from fusing.

It’s like I wake up super-glued to the bed, and when I move, all of my back bones are super-glued together.

So when I say I needed to find an exercise regime that works, I don’t mean it in the “yoga bores me” or “SoulCycle is a cult” sort of way (although SoulCycle is 100 percent a cult). I mean it in the “I’m going to end up paralyzed if I don’t work out” sort of way.

I’d exercised a bunch. The elliptical was a favorite for a minute there because it’s lower impact than the treadmill, which makes me feel like all my bones might break immediately. But it gets kind of boring swinging away in one spot. I also really liked belly-dancing class because the music is amazing, my hips don’t lie (sorry, I had to), and it blends cardio and dance elements. But I couldn’t belly-dance every day. And everything else is fairly high-impact, so I’ve had to limit my kickboxing, pilates, and HIIT classes.

Related: Shop proteins for pre- and post-swim power-up and recovery.

And then I went to Miami for a quick weekend vacation (from NYC) a few months ago. I’d been to Miami a dozen times, and every single time, I spent half my vacation swimming. I am an actual mermaid, it turns out. Laps, doggy-paddling, headstands—you name it. When I’m swimming, I feel much lighter, I move with grace, and my body isn’t screaming with pain. (Any good specialist will also tell you swimming is the number one exercise of choice for AS patients.) After I leave Miami, I always wish I had a pool back home, and this time I decided to do something about it.

Riding high on the after-glow of water’s benefits (excess weight dropped, joints well-oiled, feeling energized, strong, and flexible, and AS symptoms less noticeable), I decided to join the gym near my workplace simply for its 25-meter pool.

For the past month, I’ve been swimming almost daily—and it’s changed me. Instead of feeling like getting into and out of water is a chore (ahem, gym), I look at it as life-bettering fun-time. It’s literally healing me every time I get in. It’s buying me a future free from disability and endless pain, but more so, it’s given me back a sense of connection to my body.

When I’m swimming, I feel much lighter, I move with grace, and my body isn’t screaming with pain.

It used to be that I was just dealing with this chronic illness silently. It was me against It. Regular swimming has changed that. Now I look at It as a friend who I must take to the doctor, and it just so happens that the doctor is water. Instead of thinking about how weight gain impacts my joints or how I’m weak during yoga class because my wrists can’t hold me up, I think about how every time I get into the water I get stronger, fast, more resilient.

At first, I could do one lap. One. I was breathless, I was struggling through that horrific muscle burn. Then I did two laps without rest. Then four. Now I can do six. (Also, hello biceps, perkier butt, stronger abs, a flatter tummy, and greater lung capacity!) For me, that’s huge. It’s a process, it’s a ritual, it’s self-healing. And it requires a mental sacrifice; I have to give up all the fear and self-doubt and disconnect and commit to the water.

It’s literally healing me every time I get in.

That’s not to say there aren’t obstacles. I’ve learned that although water is low-impact, chlorine is rough on the lungs and the millions of flaps you do with your feet will totally strain your ankles if you don’t properly stretch. I have to realize that no, I cannot eat a box of pizza just because I went swimming today. I have to figure out how to share a lane with another swimmer without being fully annoyed by them or annoying them. I have to learn when my body is fatigued, because swimming is a full-body workout. I have to learn how to stay awake afterward, too, because swimming wipes you out (fun fact: you get super-tired because your body is using its energy trying to regulate your body temp). Not to mention the horror movie that is gym showers (let’s just say I do not attend a luxury gym).

I can never go back to not-swimming; wherever I go, I know I’ll need a pool. It’s not a vacation experience or a perk for me. It’s a necessity. That, and a swim cap, because four weeks of chlorine-soaked hair is not a cute look.

How This Lazy Girl Survived The Whole30

I’ll just come right out and say it: I try to make smart food choices, but I don’t always get it right. I’m lazy about preparing healthy meals and I never turn down free (read: carb-overloaded) office food. In fact, I’ll pretty much always justify eating a cheeseburger because—you never know—it could be my last day on Earth! In short, self-control isn’t my strong suit.

On any given day, I usually whip up a protein shake or cereal for breakfast, pick up a salad for lunch, and scramble some eggs for dinner. Not too bad, right? But it’s the in-between snacks that are the problem. I’ll often nosh on the half-bagel leftover from a morning meeting or some late-night cheese.

On top of my not-always-so-hot eating habits, my weight has yo-yo-ed for the past five years or so. In fact, bloating and irregularity have been my ‘normal’ for far too long. I also recently learned that I have an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s disease, which may sound like some sort of ninja move—but isn’t. Basically, my body attacks its own thyroid gland, messing with its ability to make the hormones that my metabolism and cardiovascular system need. No wonder my weight has been trouble.

Finding out about my Hashimoto’s diagnosis has, however, made me more motivated about taking care of my health. So, when a friend of mine said she’d finished a 30-day eating plan called Whole30, I decided to check it out. She looked great, and said she felt even better. It was time to take my health into my own hands!

So, what is the Whole30, exactly? It’s 30 days without processed foods, ingredients you can’t pronounce, dairy, grains, legumes, alcohol, or sweeteners (natural or artificial). The goal is to give your body a month-long break from foods that might be causing health issues. Afterwards, you reintroduce foods one by one to see how your body reacts.

Some Whole30ers say they’ve lost weight, gained regularity, seen clearer skin, experienced less bloat, or developed a healthier relationship with food after completing the program. Intriguing, right? There’s one very important rule, though: Slip up just once and you have to start your 30 days all over again. Intense.

Okay, 30 days, I thought. I got this!

photo: Jenn Pena

So I committed. Unfortunately, that meant saying ‘goodbye for now’ to my buddies Cheese, Chewing Gum, and Mom’s Pancakes. I was worried that my inability to turn down pizza would do me in—but a line from the book Whole30 by Melissa Hartwig convinced me I could do it:  “Don’t you dare tell us this is hard. Beating cancer is hard. Birthing a baby is hard. Drinking your coffee black is not.”

Week One

Excited to feel (and see) results, I charged into my first few days on Whole30. There are a gazillion Whole30 recipes out there, but given my busy schedule, I decided to take the simple route. Still, I knew I had to do some meal prepping, so I made ground turkey with peppers and onions for my lunches and a giant fruit salad with grapefruit, blueberries, and strawberries to keep around as a snack. I made an easy egg-spinach scramble for breakfast each morning and stocked my work desk with nuts to squash sneak-attack snack cravings. (What did I do before cashews came into my life?!) For dinner, I scrambled up more eggs and spinach with some diced chicken and onions, and called it a day.

photo: Jenn Pena

Not gonna lie, I felt extremely tired. (Whole30 warned me this might happen.) Without the usual bread, excessive amount of gummy vitamins, and protein bars, I had drastically cut back on carbs and sugar. Despite the tiredness, though, I still finished the week strong. I felt lighter and more optimistic because I managed to survive a whole week!

Related: Is Sugar Really All That Bad For You?

That week brought some perks: My toilet time became more regular and I started drinking more water. Before Whole30, I was lucky if I drank a small bottle of water throughout the day before my nightly glass of wine. I think it was that extra H2O that really helped me ‘go.’

Week Two

With a family birthday party filling my house with non-Whole30-approved foods, week two got off to a rocky start. I was surrounded by temptation—and I felt a little annoyed about it. Luckily, my family was pretty happy for me for sticking it out, and even seemed interested in trying Whole30 themselves—until the cake came out, of course. Determined, I kept my eyes on the prize and got some kudos for my self-control. Take that, cake! As much as I love chowing down with my family at birthdays and parties, it was nice to go to bed not feeling bloated that night.

The rest of the week was a challenge. I continued to feel like a zombie (and not in the mood to think up new meals), so I had kept my daily menu pretty much the same as week one—a decision I started to regret by Wednesday. I switched to a combo of canned salmon and hard-boiled eggs for lunch. While that got me through the rest of the week, I was pretty over this Whole30 thing. I wanted wine and cheese, and I wanted it now.

photo: Jenn Pena

Week Three

At this point, I was straight-up crabby, but I knew I was halfway there. My stomach felt flatter, my face looked slimmer, I was going to the bathroom without a problem, and my skin was blemish-free, so I begrudgingly chugged along.

And then things went south. On Tuesday, I got home really late from work and didn’t have  dinner prepped. I was totally exhausted—and not in the mood to cook. Suddenly I was reaching for the cheese. (Palm-to-face.) I knew what this little oopsie meant: I had to start Whole30 all over again. I felt like I had let myself down, just for a stinking piece of cheese. So, back to day one, I went…

Starting From Scratch

Luckily, starting over wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. If anything, I was more focused, prepared, and determined—I couldn’t fail twice! I knew I had to switch up my meals to keep my taste buds in the game.

I cleared my usual temptations from the fridge and pantry (goodbye, cheese!), and prepped mixed berries and grilled chicken with spinach and a sweet potato for work. I also made cauliflower mash and a bunch of different veggies to give my spinach habit a bit of a break. By the end of the week, I felt energized.

photo: Jenn Pena

With the third week of my reboot came my birthday—and the fear that I’d slip up again. My mom came to the rescue, though, and made a Whole30-approved birthday dinner. We all noshed on grilled chicken, potatoes, and mixed vegetables for dinner—and even munched on fruit salad for dessert! While many birthdays past ended with a stomach ache, this time I went to bed feeling great. I didn’t even miss the cake.

After nailing my birthday, I practically danced into my final week of Whole30. By this point, I felt well-rested and alert all day long. It amazed me how much the foods I ate (or didn’t!) affected my mood, energy, and focus. I didn’t even think about sugar or bread as I sailed through the last few days. Even cheese didn’t taunt me much.

photo: Jenn Pena

I Did It! Uh, Now What?

Reaching day 30 was a great feeling. I was free of bloat and toilet struggles, my jeans definitely felt looser, and everyone kept telling me how great I looked. All this just from eating well!

But then came a feeling that reminded me of a weird breakup: I wanted Whole30 to end so badly, but once it was over I almost felt a little lost. Like, okay, fine, you’re free to go eat your gut-inflaming foods now.

The next day, I was out to dinner with my family and had myself a good ol’ hunk of restaurant bread with butter. (I’ll admit that my eyes might have closed in slow-mo as I chewed.) But my bread-y nirvana was cut short pretty quickly when my stomach started cramping up halfway through the meal. Did my body have an issue with bread? Reintroducing cheese a few days later didn’t go so well either—hello, bloat.

Related: 8 Possible Reasons Why You’re So Tired All The Time

Now that I’m acutely aware of how bread and dairy make me feel, I try not to eat them too often. In fact, none of my old guilty pleasures have much power over me these days. Free office food? Maybe I’ll grab a piece of fruit, but you’ll see none of my former cubicle grub-hoarding habits here. I’m also a lot better at reading food labels and I really think about what I put in my body. Other perks? A lot of the snack bars and sugary cocktails I used to enjoy taste funky to me now. Artificial sweeteners and piña coladas actually make me feel sick.

Though I’m not about to go full-on Whole30 all the time—I still love my protein shakes and a good happy hour from time to time—I’m so glad I did it.

Related: Cleaning up your diet? Find a natural protein supplement to fit your lifestyle.

What It’s Like To Work At The Vitamin Shoppe For 27 Years

There are jobs, and then there are careers—and if you’re lucky, your career is also your passion. For these The Vitamin Shoppe Health Enthusiasts, that is certainly the case. Here, Marvin Barton (a Health Enthusiast for 18 years), Lily Hariprasad (a Health Enthusiast for 22 years), and Melvin Summerville (a Health Enthusiast for 27 years), share their career journeys and reflect on how much The Vitamin Shoppe has changed since they started. In fact, Melvin recalls when the company only had nine stores total!

Today, 40 years since opening its first location, The Vitamin Shoppe boasts nearly 800 locations in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Imagine being part of that sort of evolution?

Marvin, Lily, and Melvin were dedicated when The Vitamin Shoppe was more like a Mom & Pop Shop, and they’re dedicated now that the company is an industry leader. Hear more from them on what it’s like to be a The Vitamin Shoppe lifer:

 

These 4 Health Enthusiasts Credit The Vitamin Shoppe With Transforming Their Lives

Working at The Vitamin Shoppe, I’m constantly learning about new and powerful ways to boost and sustain my health. Editing stories about nutrition, fitness, and wellness for What’s Good—on top of being surrounded by super-passionate Health Enthusiasts—inspires me daily.

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Vitamin Shoppe, I asked some Health Enthusiasts at the stores to share stories of how their jobs have personally transformed them. Here, you’ll see what happens when you focus on a goal and have an amazing company behind you all the way. (Hint: You succeed!)


SCOTT ROMANI
Store#167—Fresno, CA 

Scott Romani Blog

This is the story of how The Vitamin Shoppe saved my life.

During Christmas of 2015, I heard my six-year-old daughter, Emma, talking to one of her toys. She was crying out, “Please tell Santa to help my daddy not be so fat anymore.” This cut me pretty deep—knowing that even my daughter could see that I was overweight.

By the summer of 2016, I stepped on the scale and saw that I weighed 333 pounds. Before then, I had tried to lose the weight, but I failed. I couldn’t stick to anything! I made excuses and allowed self-doubt to dominate my actions. Now, I was serious.

For the next week, I focused on my diet and supplements. I didn’t exercise at all for that 1st week because I just wanted to focus on my diet first. I bought a fish oil, a multivitamin, CLA, Psyllium Husk powder, and Glucomannan. I concentrated on lots of lean protein and veggies and made sure I took my supplements religiously.

After one week, I had lost nine pounds. Then I added the exercise. I started weight training and doing cardio workouts five days a week, pushing myself in ways I hadn’t before. I woke up in pain but I didn’t quit. I used the pain as motivation and kept on going. Something was driving me this time, and it took me a while to figure out what that thing was. Then one day I realized why I hadn’t quit this time—it was because I worked at The Vitamin Shoppe (since 2008). But now, I was finally ready.

I started sharing my story with anyone who’d listen. I started telling the customers who came in about the things I was doing and the results I was seeing. They’d come in and ask, “How much weight have you lost so far?” One customer joked that I was “the incredible shrinking man.” That just added fuel to my fire! I couldn’t let them down.

The biggest push by far came from my staff and colleagues. I began to send out mass messages to my staff and other district managers about my progress. And every time I’d send a message I’d get back a tidal wave of support.

Sure, I did a lot of the work, but I would be nowhere without the support of my family or my customers, staff, and peers at The Vitamin Shoppe. They have given me a strength that I never thought I had, and I owe an awful lot to all of them.

Without The Vitamin Shoppe, I am sure my little girl would be crying to Santa again this year. Now she doesn’t have to, because as of May 5th 2017, I have lost 92 lbs.


KAREN HILSENBECK
Store #714—Stony Brook, NY

Karen Hilsenbeck blog

When I joined The Vitamin Shoppe in January 2012 my life was changed forever. I was on my third round of Weight Watchers in five years (I was about 25 pounds overweight). I had a tendency to fall back into bad habits, so it was hard for me to stay consistently healthy. In fact, my closet was filled with three different sizes of clothing—and at this point, I was slowly moving back into the higher sizes.

By the time I joined The Vitamin Shoppe, I decided to really get serious yet again. But it was different this time; I took a different approach. I came to the realization that it wasn’t just about losing weight, it was also about changing my lifestyle and committing to it.

By working on the field, I learned all about supplementation, healthy eating, and nutrition. I had an increasing interest and fascination with the vitamins and supplements industry, and this inspired me to start making better choices in every area of my life.  I added exercise too, starting just with walking two miles a day. I began really reading food labels, and within a few months the rest of the weight dropped off for a total weight loss of 30 pounds. I was feeling better than I had in over 10 years. To celebrate, I decided I wanted to become a runner.

A customer told me about the Couch to 5K program and I decided to give it a try with the goal of being able to run (not walk!) during the annual Santa Toy Trot that I had been participating in with my sisters for years.

It took me 12 weeks to get through the nine-week program, but I finished, and I ran (no walking!) that entire 5K. A few months after that I decided to try kickboxing. One of our The Vitamin Shoppe customers had just opened up a studio and invited me in. It was a very tough first class, but I loved it so much that I immediately signed up. I’ve discovered that it’s one of the best workouts ever (not to mention, it’s great for relieving stress).

Fast forward to 2017. I have maintained that 30-pound weight loss. I exercise regularly, I rarely get sick, I regularly read food labels, I rarely crave unhealthy foods, and I eat a nutritious diet. On top of it all, I truly enjoy my job and have found my passion at The Vitamin Shoppe.

Being here has changed my life and I’m so grateful for all of the opportunities I have been given and the people I have met here. I also have had the opportunity, as a Field Training Manager, to teach others all about healthy living. The best part? I’m able to share my successes with our customers.


OLIVIA BYRAM
Store #040—Levittown, NY

Olivia Byram blog

At my heaviest weight, I was 302 pounds. And at 5’9, I resigned myself to the idea that I was always going to be, well, big. I also felt that my love for food would always be more of a driving force than my desire to be fit (I had previously worked in the culinary field).

I wasn’t exactly the type of person who might shop at The Vitamin Shoppe—or so I thought. I believed that vitamins were for people who were already fit and healthy—and I thought that would never be me.

All of this changed when I was looking for a career change that would allow me to spend more time with my child. In 2015, I went in for an interview at The Vitamin Shoppe. I was surprised at the size of the store and the amount of products that were available, and I was absolutely thrilled when I got offered the position and began training with Karen Hilsenbeck.

When I first met Karen she was enthusiastic and engaging, and she was definitely healthy—so I wasn’t sure I could exactly trust her healthy snack recommendations. I was wrong!

Karen had actually worked to wean herself off of unhealthy sugary snacks and junk foods, too. In fact, throughout my training, I learned more and more about the importance of nutrition and supplementation. With this knowledge, I began to see The Vitamin Shoppe’s role as a leader in the community.

Because I had learned so much by working at The Vitamin Shoppe, and because I was surrounded by encouraging people and healthy products, I dropped 100 pounds (in the past two years I’ve lost a total of 187 pounds). I had more energy and felt so much better physically. I was able to work out and learn more and more about all aspects of wellness.

I shared all of my new knowledge with my customers, too, who became friends to me. While my wellness journey may seem weight-focused, it’s so much more than that.  This career choice—and the people in this company who have supported me—-has made my entire life so much better.


SAIF SALIM
Store #011—New York, NY

Saif Salim blog

My story begins when I first came to this the United States from Saudi Arabia at the age of nine. I was constantly bullied by classmates because of my accent, and every day after school some kids made a habit of chasing me. This continued for a couple years, so I really learned how to run fast.

Then, one day, my classmates finally chose me to play tag football. They hiked the ball and when it magically landed in my hands, I frantically wondered what to do next. They all looked at me in regret and screamed, “RUN!”

As soon as I heard that, I was gone like the wind. I sprinted the whole field, scoring a touchdown without anyone getting anywhere near me. They were all in awe of me, and that’s when I realized my talent. (Not surprisingly, the bullying stopped as well).

So, I joined the track and field club, and I ran my first track meet after a week of training. I started qualifying for youth national races, and later, I ended up qualifying for the 2008 Olympics in the 100-meter dash, but I tore my ACL three weeks prior.

The doctor said I would never be able to run the same again without surgery, but I shunned his statement. This is when I started learning all about vitamins and supplements (particularly for inflammation and joint health). And because I started taking them, I experienced a total health transformation.

I wanted to help others with their own health and wellness journeys, and I wanted to introduce them to the power of vitamins and supplements. I was already working in the health field when I found out about an opening at The Vitamin Shoppe. I was very attracted to its engaging culture; I wanted to truly listen to customers and help them. I got the job in 2010 and it remains a privilege to work for a company that is always evolving to better meet the needs of our customers.

Ever since I started working for The Vitamin Shoppe, I continue to train, and I run faster than I ever did.

My new goal? To qualify for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.