It was my second year of law school and enough was enough. I was going to lose weight. But I had made a couple of unsuccessful attempts already and given up each time. Making a complete lifestyle overhaul was going to be difficult with a demanding law-school schedule taking up most of my time.
At first, I focused on educating myself and implementing small changes, one at a time. I vividly remember the charge I got with each healthy choice I made; how satisfying it felt to snack on veggies instead of french fries, the empowerment of bringing my own breakfast—a combination of greek yogurt, protein powder and high-fiber cereal—to school instead of picking up a bagel and cream cheese, and the freedom of curing my afternoon hunger with high protein, slow digesting, 1% milk instead of a bag of chips.
Within two months, I had overhauled my diet one smart choice at a time and lost twenty pounds in the process. With renewed effort, I signed up for subscriptions to Shape, Self, and Fitness magazines and read them on the elliptical machine in my apartment building’s gym. Looking at the fitness models who appeared on those magazines was inspiring. I hoped to be fit one day but certainly never dreamed of looking like one of them.
Four months later, I had lost a total of thirty-five pounds. And then, a year later, I graduated law school. The experience was the total opposite of my college graduation, where I’d felt so self conscious I hid from the cameras of family and friends. This time around I was bright eyed and happy, able to focus on the monumental occasion with the love of my family and friends. But the next big challenge was just a few days away a two-month journey across southern and eastern Africa.
In August 2008 I summited Mount Kilimanjaro, a defining moment as my new healthy self. Being fit gave me the confidence–and the strength–to attempt endeavors I never would have considered when I was overweight: kayaking the Nile, climbing an active volcano, and carrying a 35-pound backpack around nine countries. I had shed the skin of my previous unhappy, overweight self and come in to my own as an adventurous, independent and capable young woman.
I maintained my weight for three years by doing what I’d done to originally lose weight; eat less and run more. By this point, I was no longer a busy law student, I was a busy lawyer, working 60+ hours per week. While I was still making healthy choices and staying slim, I had no definition. I was, as they say, skinny fat.
I knew weight loss was all about taking in fewer calories than I used, so I wondered why eating less food and spending more time in the gym wasn’t yielding the improvements in my physique I was hoping for. In late 2009, after struggling for months to get leaner, I was eating just 1300 calories a day and spending 90 minutes a day, six days a week on the elliptical. I was exhausted and often sick, and I didn’t know why my body wasn’t responding positively to my efforts. I was down about my body and my efforts, and I considered just giving up on being healthy all together.
My boyfriend noticed that I was constantly run down, and that the happiness I’d felt about my transformation was wearing away as I grew more frustrated with my efforts to tone up. He was very fit himself, and seemed to know exactly what to do to add muscle and stay lean. He suggested that I start eating more food, especially protein, and spend just 45 minutes per day in the gym. But there was a catch: I could only lift weights. No cardio. When I refused, he dared me: “Try it for one month. If you don’t like the way you look when you’re done, you can go back to doing what you’re doing. How much damage can you possibly do in one month?” At 24% body fat with no signs that I’d be able to change the situation on my own, I accepted the challenge.
So I started lifting weights—heavy weights—and I increased my protein intake once again, bringing my caloric intake up to 1700 calories per day. I started a four-day weight-training split, lifting back and biceps one day, chest and triceps the next, shoulders and abs the third, and spending the last day on my lower body. I feared these changes would make me bulky and muscular. The process made me nervous, but my body changed so quickly–and so positively–I didn’t have time to question whether I had made the right choice. I went from 24% body fat to 18% in just five weeks. I was hooked. I had tightened up all over and was finally gaining the muscle tone I’d been desperate for. I began to cook and pack all my meals, bringing three meals and two snacks to the office each day. I bought a food scale to get a better understanding of exactly what I was putting in my body, and I continued using www.sparkpeople.com to log my food and exercise and share tips with friends. I had finally found a balance between working hard and being healthy. I was thrilled at the payoff.
One day, I was reading a fitness magazine and noticed that it ran a regular section featuring a reader model. They looked like the fitness models I’d looked to for inspiration when I was first losing weight three years earlier. I realized for the first time that “that could be me.” It was a monumental moment: at some point on my journey, I had developed the confidence to submit pictures of myself in a bikini that could be seen by thousands of people. Although I was not selected to appear in the magazine, I felt surprisingly comfortable with the process, which made me yearn for a challenge. Runners challenge themselves to run a marathon, or complete a triathlon, but I wasn’t sure what the options were for someone like me, who wanted to live a fit and healthy life but weren’t focused on cardiovascular exercise.
But then, I found it.
And I’ll tell you all about it in my next post.