My Health & Fitness Journey
Healthy living and fitness are a huge part of my life as well as something I find excitement in pursuing. But, it hasn’t always been this way… My journey to eating healthy, losing weight, and exercising began over a decade ago, however it took several attempted methods and slow progression to eating as healthy as I do today. This is a very long post, but my goal to help others requires full disclosure and honesty so I decided to take you through my life’s progress to explain why I ate how I used to eat, the things that effected my body and health, and the varying “diets” I tried as I changed my lifestyle.
My goal for you (the reader) is to understand the challenges and setbacks I faced, the diet and work out plans that worked for me, for you to feel understood by relating to the struggles I had, and to feel inspired to keep working at bettering yourself in whatever goals YOU set for yourself as you change your mindset to know that you’re changing your lifestyle and NOT just dieting.
Throughout my story you will find highlighted links that will take you to additional information that I am referring to. I will also share all of those links at the very bottom of this post so if you’d like to skip ahead to look at them without reading you may. I understand, believe me…this is a long post!
How it all Began
It all started when I was a child. My dad was a strict vegetarian for over a decade and we ate fairly healthy both at home and at my grandmother’s. We took packed lunches to school, but no one ever wanted their packed lunch. We always want the cafeteria food because – hello pizza and hamburgers! At least that’s how it was in the 80’s and 90’s. Ironically the kids who had to eat cafeteria food didn't want that and they'd trade me for my packed lunches! It was common for my family to order meatless, cheese-less pizza if* we ever ordered pizza and it felt like torture. I remember many afternoons praying we’d stop to get a hamburger from McDonald’s (which I could not fathom doing now). When we’d stay the night with our grandmother, she would spoil us rotten and let my siblings and I each pick out our OWN ice cream, chips, soda, cereal, etc. These weren’t weekend trips…she lived on the next street from us. And when we’d stay the night at our friend’s houses we relished things like Spaghetti-O’s, pizza WITH cheese, macaroni and cheese, or donuts in the morning. The simple things… ;)
These environmental factors lead me to dislike most all vegetables and binge eat junk food any time I had the opportunity because I wasn’t sure if or when I would have access to these “treats” again. I began babysitting at the age of 14 and then by 16 I was working “real” jobs at the local skating rink and then as a credit union teller. The little amount of money that I had left to spend after paying for my car, I would spend on gas and FOOD. Why? Because I wanted to eat fast food and junk food and not eat the healthy meals being prepared at home.
This pattern continued and worsened as I entered in to college. Most days a Pepsi and Doritos were my easy go to "meals". Sometimes it was a bag of Chex-Mix. On a better day when I felt hungry enough I would blow my measly income on Chick-Fila. It was delicious, but breaded and fried. When I was hungry and on the go between class and work, I’d grab a Snickers bar. Thankfully my metabolism was off the charts high because I was still a twig at that time and the freshman 15 theory meant nothing to me…
When the Weight Arrived
Then the day came that I joined a medical study with UTMB Galveston to get free well-woman exams and compensation for my time spent while they ran tests on me. In return, I had to take the Depo Provera shot every 13 weeks and get a full-body bone mineral density scan every 6 weeks (if my memory serves me correctly). I was a college student and working part time at the credit union. This study seemed like a great offer all in all considering I didn’t have health insurance.
Precisely one year after starting the Depo Provera shot my body changed. My 1st annual exam with UTMB was great and they were shocked that I had actually lost a pound (randomly) over the year. They said most people gain weight. I mentally patted myself on the back for my high metabolism despite my junk food addiction. But, within weeks of that appointment and a new shot being administered I began to gain weight. The pounds fell upon me like a fire hydrant bursting open. At first I didn’t mind it so much (somehow), but eventually it began to bother me. I attempted to eat “healthier” but I’m not sure what that really meant to me at that time. I know I counted how many chips I took out of a bag. I know I sometimes didn’t put cheese on my turkey sandwich. Yet, I was expecting big changes from my lackluster dietary modifications. After one more dose of Depo Provera, the onset of heavy depression from the hormones, continued weight gain and a new, extreme redness began to flare up on my face, I decided I needed to quit the study. No amount of free health care or monetary compensation was worth what was happening to my body.
Onward with my life I went. The ten pounds did not come off, nor did my poor eating habits change. I always had major texture issues with foods so unless I ate Mexican food (and way too much Taco Bell), I always ordered breaded chicken. Grilled meat grossed me out! All I ate back then was Mexican food, breaded chicken, fried foods, chips, regular (non-diet) soda, and sugary alcoholic beverages when I went out. That was my diet: nothing healthy, rarely any water.
Through the years with my terrible eating patterns and sedentary lifestyle, I gradually gained a little more weight. Then, in 2005 I began to break out in hives. The outbreaks were random. My top lip would swell up. Then a patch on my arm would break out in hives. Later I’d get hives on one leg. Then the bottom left side of my lips would swell up. I would randomly break out in hives in sporadic locations for months. I tried to narrow down what I was consuming that was causing it. Was it food coloring? MSG? Fried foods? It wasn’t until during one specific lip flare up that I chugged as much water as I possibly could thinking maybe, just maybe that would stop it from getting worse and flush my system. It worked! That was my first clue that I had too much sugar in my system and I needed to rein it in. I had been drinking soda all day, every day from the moment I woke up! From then on, small changes to reduce my sugar intake and increase my water intake drastically helped stop the hive breakouts almost immediately.
Time for a Change
Here I am now in 2006, almost 20 pounds heavier than what was my normal weight. I was finally feeling very self-conscious about it but didn’t know where to really start. The Adkins/low carb/South Beach diet was the new craze back then and my sister had tried to get me to try it several times as well as positively promote the idea of working out. I was always resistant because I loved my Pepsi and had texture issues, plus I was an adult and therefore I do not HAVE to eat vegetables if I don’t want to! I had a long list of "offensive vegetables" that I refused to touch (childhood trauma, I tell you).
Thus my health and fitness journey began. Slowly. I started by trying to be conscious of how many calories I was actually consuming in a day and began to keep a food journal (on paper back then) to document how many chips I ate, if there was cheese on my sandwich, did I add creamer to my coffee? That first step helped, but it is not the end all method to health. There's plenty of sites and phone apps that can help with this now. I used to use My Fitness Pal. Keeping a food journal can help anyone who’s as far off track as I was! I gradually lost 5 pounds or so, but truth be told I never slowed down my Mexican food and margaritas. I am only human! ;)
Later on in 2006 my ex-husband offered to try the low carb diet with me as a means to convert our bodies from sugar burning to fat burning. I had watched several family members do this and saw the results so knew it worked, if only I could get through the gross textures. What was supposed to be a 7 day turnaround plan ended up being a 3 month plan for us because we enjoyed the results and the routine. We ate less than 20 carbs per day every day with one cheat meal per week. As we got started on that plan I had to learn how to cook low carb dinners and pack low carb lunches for work, plus figure out what I could snack on all day. It took a little effort in the beginning but we fell into a routine. I lost all of the extra weight I had gained. I felt amazing. I tried to get into the habit of working out as well but it didn’t truly take off for me as a lifestyle at that time.
I eventually went back to eating a more “normal” diet (whatever that is) that included some carbs, but truthfully my pallet and my stomach never could quite handle excessive breads, pastas, rice, etc. anymore. Therefore, I proceeded to occasionally have a piece of bread at an Italian restaurant, but never ate the bread from a sandwich or hamburger. If pasta was being served I may have taken one or two bites, but picked around it to eat the meat or vegetables. However, put a brownie in front of me or chips at a Mexican food restaurant and I had met my match. Game over. My weight slowly went back up about ten pounds as I cherry picked what exceptions I allowed myself. I was generally OK with this, everything still fit, and it never got any higher so I assumed all is well that ends well. I plateaued and was happy with this weight, lifestyle, and eating pattern for the next couple of years.
Healthier Eating Improvements
I worked out intermittently from there on out and later in 2008, IF I tried to run with my dogs I might* have made it a half mile to a mile with some occasional stops to catch my breath. I was diagnosed with exercise induced asthma in 2009 and was prescribed an inhaler to use before exercising. This bothered me. I didn’t want to be dependent on any form of medication so I literally used the sample twice and never bothered getting the prescription filled. I thought I was destined to lift weights with little to no cardio, and at that time I was not the least bit upset to rule out cardio forever!
As we got closer to the wedding date in 2009, we decided to try the newest thing at the time – My Fit Foods. It was fairly new back then and we enjoyed their meals so we decided to try their 21 day challenge. The idea was to follow a planned meal schedule that they provided after assessing what our goal was to achieve in the 21 days. They picked out the meals carefully to avoid any allergies or food aversions, but nonetheless we were on a schedule for breakfasts, snacks, lunches, snacks again, and dinners plus no alcohol and an apple-cider vinegar cleanse in the mornings. Talk about an adjustment! I was used to not eating breakfast, drinking alcohol if I wanted to, decent lunches, and heavy dinners. Their plan was heavier on the carb ratio in the mornings (rice, potatoes), a lower carb ratio at lunch (rice, noodles, potatoes), and the little to no carb dinners. I had to eat every 3-4 hours which at first felt like I was force feeding myself. But, after the first week I fell into the routine and by the end of week two my body would get hungry right on time every time. Within the 21 days I lost 10 pounds so continued it through 28 days and lost 12 pounds total. Perfect timing, healthier eating, and a detox cleanse. All in all it was great. (I do not know that their current meals or plans are as healthy as it was back then, so I am not endorsing them, only informing of what I tried 7 years ago!)
After finishing the program my eating patterns had been changed a little bit more for the better. Visually seeing food in the My Fit Food containers helped me to acknowledge and know appropriate portion sizing which is a struggle for all of us! The amount we serve ourselves or receive in restaurants is MUCH greater than what we truly need to consume. There are visual reminders online that can help you to recognize what a proper serving size is for proteins, vegetables, etc. I realize that some people need to consume more because of working out/fitness goals so this isn’t applicable to those circumstances.
As the years passed my eating patterns remained similar as before. I avoided carbs on most days unless a dessert or chips were put in front of me. In 2010, I started taking classes at the gym for kickboxing and Pilates and learned that (at that time) I needed the structure of a class or I would easily talk myself out of working out on my own or wouldn’t put in very much effort and time into it if I did go to the gym to work out. Kickboxing helped my poor breathing in that it pushed my cardio limits. There were times I’d have to step out of the kickboxing routine wheezing, struggling to breathe, and would wait to catch my breath before joining back in. This slowly got better as I continued to train. Later in the year I purchased TurboFire kickboxing DVD’s to train at home because I would frequently miss class when I had to leave work late. I felt good that I was finally working out regularly and my ability to breathe was getting better. I eventually quit that gym because of both of those things: missing class times because of work and I could work out alone at home. Introvert paradise.
What happened next? Take a wild guess! I stopped working out consistently. I wasn’t motivated when I got home late, I brought work home with me which got prioritized over working out, I cooked dinner or had plans after work, etc. Everything else was more important. Of course my weight slowly went back up throughout that time to the same weight pre-My Fit Foods diet and I was OK with it. I always balanced back out to the same weight when I wasn’t working out and just accepted that that was my “normal” weight.
When Exercise Met Healthy Eating
The magical day came December 1st, 2011. My office building opened up a gym to its tenants for a small, one-time fee of $20. This immediately changed everything for me. I could take my gym bag to work and go straight to the gym on my way to the parking garage before ever heading home. This.was.money. Truly. The first three weeks I went to the gym and just knew I was changing my lifestyle forever. I no longer had any excuse not to go to the gym when I was walking right by it! Then, my dear friend Rachel that I worked with (at that time) asked me to meet her in the mornings to work out. I laughed and laughed and said NO WAY will I ever work out in the mornings and have to lug my things to the gym to shower and get dressed there. I was lucky if I woke up with enough time to make a cup of coffee! But, she planted the seed. And by the fourth week, Christmas Eve morning, I dragged myself out of bed to meet her at the gym before work. I think we used to meet at 6:15, which felt like the crack of dawn at the time but little did I know I’d end up working out earlier and earlier so that now I’m at the gym by 5am! She changed me forever. We’d meet about 4 times a week to do a small run and lift weights.
By February 2012 our office signed up for a 5k to which I said I would never be able to run as I couldn’t even run one mile with my “exercise induced asthma”. I reluctantly began training for it with the full anticipation that come “race” day I would have walk most of it. I started running the duration of one song only. ONE SONG. We’re talking like 3 minutes. Then I got the courage to struggle through two songs. Then I worked my way into three songs. By this point I was running one mile in what was give or take ten minutes so I proceeded to finish the 3rd song which was 12-13 minutes and kept adding to it. I worked my way up to being able to breathe comfortably and run a 5k by counting songs. This was amazing to me. I felt so accomplished by that time because I never thought the day would come that I could run at all and be able to breathe.
This launched Rachel and I into a (short lived) spurt of races such as a 5k mud run and later the Turkey Trot 10k and the half marathon. This was all spaced out perfectly that we were able to start running more and more, slowly increasing our distance with our new goals each time. That was critical of course as we built up the desire to even attempt a half marathon. It helped to have a buddy system in check to keep each other motivated and accountable. By this point I had no issues working out on my own in the mornings. My routine was set and so was my motivation.
During these past four years I have stayed consistent in working out 4-5 days a week (and sometimes only 3) with the exception of when I’m sick or had surgeries (that’s a whole other story). I mix up my training with classes, running and weights some days, and if the weather is nice or I’m training for the half marathon then I run outside. I am careful to listen to my body and take breaks when life is hard and I just don’t feel like doing it, which happens. I think that’s important too. Taking a week off because you’re weak or emotionally stressed out is OK, and it doesn’t break the long standing routine and desire to work out because exercise is a lifestyle now, not a chore. I enjoy it because it makes me feel good, releases endorphins, has improved my physique to what I wanted to achieve, helps relieve stress, and provides a fun outlet for me to socialize, meditate and pray, listen to music or podcasts, or read on the treadmill. You have to find what works for you. Don’t be afraid to try new things!
Last year I also tried Class Pass with my friend for a while and loved the ability to take classes at different studio/gyms and sample those facilities to see if I wanted to commit to just one place. I eventually quit Class Pass to work out at a specific gym whose classes I loved. Class Pass's pricing and plans have changed since then to a higher cost, but this may be a great option for you to try new work outs before committing to one gym.
I currently train at a gym and also mix in weekend runs and other random work outs here and there. It's a lifestyle and I love it.
The Final Piece: Nutrition
The final shifts in my health journey has been learning more about the Paleo diet and recently trying Whole 30. A couple of years ago I received the Paderno 3-blade Spiralizer which jump started my creativity in integrating in additional vegetables into my diet as a substitute for things like pasta and rice. I began to try new recipes like riced cauliflower, cauliflower alfredo sauce, sweet potato “rice”, vegetable noodles from the Spiralizer etc. There’s so many amazing recipes out there that make eating Paleo super easy and delicious. Once I became aware of this lifestyle, I switched gears to even bake Paleo treats versus using wheat flour and sugar. Honestly there are some recipes that do taste different, and it takes commitment and desire for a healthier lifestyle to accept that they do not taste the exact same as all of the processed, super sugary sweet, high fructose corn syrup and wheat/gluten foods. But, they still taste good and after a while I can no longer tell a difference that I’m eating healthier foods.
Most recently I tried Whole 30. This was an eye opener for me because I thought* I was eating pretty healthy as I generally followed the Paleo diet. I have used Stevia in my coffee for years. I was making exceptions here and there to have a piece of chocolate, or a few chips when eating Mexican food but nowhere near the amount I used to eat, and sometimes ate a little bit of refried beans (my all-time-favorite food). I did have a Coke Zero with lunch every day though. When looking at the Whole 30 restrictions, I thought, “How hard can this be for ME? I eat pretty healthy!” Turns out – pretty hard. I had major cravings for my Coke Zeros for about 2 weeks and had late afternoon headaches for the first week. I struggled a bit to use full fat coconut milk as it was heavy for my stomach so I started making my K-cup coffee with 4oz of coffee and 4oz of hot water to lessen the bitter taste that stevia used to mask. Food wise I didn’t have any true issues at all because I already ate Paleo, but did have to refrain from chips, cheese, and my refried beans of course. One thing I did not do on Whole 30 was quit drinking alcohol, but that was my only cheat. Technically this means I didn’t complete Whole 30 properly, but after the withdraw symptoms, losing a few pounds, and losing any cravings for sweets now I am satisfied with my level of dedication to the Whole 30 diet. I went ahead and progressed with it for almost 90 days now simply because I’m used to the routine now and I don’t miss anything. Well, sometimes I miss Parmesan cheese on my vegetable “pasta” but it’s more of the texture I like than anything. I think the best result is that my pallet has changed and is very sensitive to things that are that sweet now. I tried once* to put a packet of stevia in my coffee and literally spit it out it was too sweet for me!
Will this last forever? I doubt it. Life happens and desserts happen. I managed to get through my birthday without sampling any desserts but I am not holding myself to strict restrictions forever. What I am doing is listening to my body which means that if I do not miss sweets and do not have a craving for it, why eat it? It is freeing and liberating. I know I can have a treat if I want it. We all have the ability to make a choice every day. Do you want a cookie? Will you feel guilty if you eat it? Will one cookie destroy your dietary goals? No. But, will it set off a chain reaction to downward spiral into making the exception every day to have a cookie? Maybe. I know how my eating patterns have been in the past and I easily fall pry into that mindset. If I don’t have it in my apartment, then I won’t eat it. If I purchase any packaged treat (chips/cookies/crackers) thinking I’ll occasionally have one, then I eat them in one sitting. It’s awful! So, I’ve learned to NOT allow temptations in my home. This leaves treats to feel more special if I ever do splurge when I’m out at a restaurant. Life is about balance, and that balance is different for everyone. As you’ve seen it took me A LONG TIME to get to this point in my battle with food and cravings, and this journey is different for everyone. Be kind to yourself when you fall off of your plan but do not make excuses and delay starting right back over. Slowly, over time, your lifestyle will change with consistent behavior. Food is a necessity, not a reward. Remember that and you will succeed.
*see below for the list of links
Links Provided in the Blog Post
MyFitnessPal - a website to set fitness and weight loss goals, track food and exercise. Make sure to download the free app on your phone!
Map My Run - a website and app to track running distance and pace using GPS (on the app) and offers a food journal but I have never used that feature.
Class Pass - this membership allows you to sample multiple gyms and fitness studios by offering various classes and class times. If you travel you can also use it in other states.
Web MD visual guide for portion sizes per serving.
7 day turnaround diet - converts sugar burning to fat burning by eating very low carbs so that your body is retrained to burn the fat we already have on our bodies.
TurboFire Kickboxing - I used to train using these videos at home which allowed me to cancel my gym membership at that time to save money. These are fun, fast, and set to music.