It's no big surprise that I'm extremely active.
What does seem to take many people by surprise, though, is to hear about who I was just 3-4 years ago.
I've changed so much in the last few years that this actually happened: a group of old coworkers coordinated a goodbye happy hour for someone moving out of state. Since I showed up a bit later than the rest of the group, I simply plopped down in an open seat and started listening in on the conversation. I sat across from one of the girls who wasn't involved in the party planning and didn't know I was coming, someone I used to see every day at the office for years... she didn't realize it was me for almost 20 minutes, until someone finally said "Hey, Natalie..." The look on her face when she realized who I was... it was priceless. True story.
And whenever people see photos, or hear me talk about where I've been, and how far I've come, they ask me ... how? Or, more frequently it's posed as a question I absolutely hate : "What's your secret".
And when I hear that question, I always internally want to scream:
Honestly, I think we all know the ultimate truth - keeping a healthy body weight isn't about magic coffee, or counting points, or the latest workout craze. It's about eating healthy food and getting off your butt once in awhile.
But when you're the me of 3-4 years ago, pictured above in the green sweater vest and weighing 240 lbs, it seems so hard! To think about totally quitting fast food, avoiding a glass (or bottle) of wine after a bad day at work, stopping at 1 or 2 slices of pizza instead of 4 or 5... or even worse, trying to haul your 240 lb carcass to the gym after the most exhausting day at the office... just thinking about those changes make you want to quit, and you haven't even started.
So, how did I do it?
Well, I suppose like most life changes, mine started with a huge push.
In May of 2009, I joined the ranks of many Americans out there and became unemployed. I was scared to death. Not only did I have to figure out where my next paycheck would come from, I also had to face the fact that I was going to be stuck at home ... alone ... a lot.
At 240 lbs, knowing that I was likely to spend my next few weeks, months, or years sitting at home depressed, bored and with nothing better to do than eat... I panicked. I already knew I was too heavy, and I knew being lonely and depressed was only going to drive me to eat more than I already was. Not to mention turning 30 years old was just around the corner for me, and my father developed type two diabetes in his late 30's after years of being overweight himself.
In attempt to calm my nerves, I cut a deal with myself. I was no longer going to eat because something sounded good, or because I wanted it. I was only going to eat when I was actually hungry.
At first, that seems like such an inconsequential decision. I mean, of course if I want to eat, it's because I'm hungry... otherwise I wouldn't want to eat, right? But it was amazing. In the first few weeks after I made that agreement with myself, I started to realize that most times I was eating because I thought I wanted something. Not because I was truly hungry.
For example: one of my biggest cravings every day was salty snacks (IE potato chips). So for the next week, every time I wanted potato chips, I said to myself two things:
(1) Am I hungry?
(2) Am I REALLY hungry? Because I can have a banana, or some baby carrots, or...
Like magic, after thinking about it for a few seconds, I wasn't so hungry.
And so began my life change. By simply realizing the difference between a craving and true hunger, from May to October of 2009, I dropped around 10-15 lbs without any other lifestyle changes. All I did was question why I wanted to eat what I thought I wanted to eat.
Then came the snow. Because I do live in Minnesota, after all, and it was creeping into November. So my husband suggested that since I had the time off (being unemployed), maybe I spend some time getting out of the house. So off to Buck Hill I went. Two to three days a week, in between turning the world upside down looking for jobs and attending unsuccessful job interviews, I headed to Buck Hill.
Pretty soon, I was literally skiing my ass off, and everyone was starting to notice.
All winter long I kept up my "awareness" of what I was eating, and continued to ski. And as the snow started to melt, my confidence started to go up as well. Everyone was telling me how great I looked, and I realized... wow, this isn't so hard. All I had to do was be a little more aware of what I eat and get off my butt and do something fun.
With my small success in 2009, I started to think maybe this weight loss thing didn't have to be so hard. If I made a few more small changes in addition to skiing and being aware of what I was eating, I could be even healthier.
That's when I decided I wanted to run a 5K. As the snow melted, I changed my time spent skiing into time spent running the local community center track. As race day neared, I hoped I'd be ready.
At about 215 lbs, I ran my first ever race. And I did run, the entire way! So what if it was a finish time of over 36 minutes. I did it. I couldn't believe it.
I still have that race bib hung up where I see it every morning. "New Prague 5K, #2023, 2010".
Feeling happy that I could do it, I decided to run a few more races. From spring 2010 to the following fall, I ran a total of 5 races, all at a 5K distance. My "training" was running a 5K distance on the track 2-3 times each week, with a race about once every 3-5 weeks. I started that spring around 215 lbs and by the time I finally got a temp job that July, I was just about to clear the 200 lb mark.
Although I continued to remain active, somewhere in spring 2011 I hit the dreaded plateau. I was being mindful of what I ate, and I was working out, but my weight loss tapered off. At around 200 lbs, I didn't want to stall out.
I really thought about what I was doing and tried to decide how to keep the good times rolling. I realized that although I was being mindful of what I ate, I was not really eating totally healthy. I shifted my emphasis away from asking "am I really hungry", and instead focused on ensuring I was eating my 5 a day (fruits and veggies). I also made sure I was working out at least 3-4 days per week.
Slowly but surely I lost more weight. By the time I decided to give up my temp job for a full time permanent position in another office, I was about 185. It was funny to turn in my ID badge to my boss, because even she looked at it and said "wow, it doesn't even look like you, what a difference".
At 185, I was feeling great! I had trimmed my 5K pace from 36 minutes to about 30-31 minutes, and I was starting to have serious fun with it. Introducing... (drum roll)... costumes!
However, as my running improved, my personal life declined.
I spent the next 6 months in a major disaster. The job I decided to take as a replacement for my temp position was not a good fit. It was consuming all my free time and I had no work/life balance. At first I started missing a work out here or there. Then it was at least once a week, or maybe twice. My weight started to creep back up to 190.
I knew that if I wanted to keep my health (not to mention my sanity), I needed to find a new job. I committed myself to keeping as healthy as possible, and dedicated any free time I could to finding something else for work. Which didn't take long, thank goodness!
Upon accepting my new position, I was finally free! I honed my workout routine, which was now 4-5 days per week, and decided to train for my first duathalon and half marathon.
My weight dropped back down to 185, and then 180.
People started coming to me on a regular basis asking about weight loss. I really started to wonder why it was I was so successful and why others struggled. A friend of mine put it best when she said "You realized staying healthy is hard. You have to eat right, and bust your ass. You're working your ass off. But, you look happy doing it!"
She was right. I was happy doing it. After I completed my training and crossed the finish line for both my duathalon and half marathon, I decided to share my happiness with others and pursued getting my group fitness certification.
Although I completed my group fitness training at the end of 2012, I was not yet actively teaching since there were no openings at my preferred gym. So, to fill my time, I started to read more about nutrition, vegetarianism and veganism. I've always admired the healthy aspects of leading a mostly vegan lifestyle, but debated if I could ever sacrifice cheese. I am a good MN/WI girl at heart, after all!
I decided my new years resolution was to attempt a month of living dairy free, while keeping up my emphasis on fruits and veggies, and continuing to work out. It wasn't nearly as hard as I thought, and although I did not stay totally dairy free after my "test" month, I now find myself eating much less cheese and dairy than I used to.
Just after I finished my dairy experiment, a position opened at the gym, and I began teaching group fitness. Which more or less takes me to where I am today. I absolutely love teaching group fitness. I can't believe it's a job... I feel like I'm 6 years old again and getting paid to play a game of Simon Says.
Given that my muscles continue to grow and my waist continues to shrink, my focus has shifted away from the number on the scale. I now focus on trying to achieve a lean body, and workout 5-6 days a week. My fitness routine includes running, biking, group fitness/cardio classes, hot yoga, and even the occasional lap swim (much to my own surprise, since a bad swimming accident as a child pretty much kept me out of the deep end for many, many years).
I try to encourage those around me to be active. I listen to what they have personal interests in, and then suggest physical activities that relate to that - because let's face it: if you don't enjoy it, you're not going to do it long term.
I (was) also a part of the Health & Wellness committee at work, and have developed a reputation for being the "health food nut" and "crazy bike commuter" of the office. I truly work at leading a healthy lifestyle all day long.
And now, whenever someone comes to me and asks "what's your secret", I repeat the following mantra:
FRUITS AND VEGGIES, FRUITS AND VEGGIES... AND GET UP OFF YOUR BUTT!!