In my early twenties, I went through several stressful life transitions — moving, dealing with student loan debt, juggling work and school, family drama. All of that caused my weight to creep up. But when I got engaged a few years later, I hired a personal trainer and worked out in preparation for my wedding, which helped me lose fat and put on muscle.
Then, after my wedding, life took over. Between working full-time and juggling family, friends, and a social life, I put on nearly 10 pounds. I wanted to lose weight, but I never went to the gym – I hated doing cardio and told myself I just “didn’t have time.” I tried to counteract this by restricting what I ate during the week, but then I’d binge on food and TV all weekend. I even bought Kayla Itsines’ Bikini Body Guide (BBG) and did it for a week, but it was too challenging so I gave up.
Two years ago – four after my wedding – I hit 64.5 kilograms. That, combined with seeing so many transformation pics on Instagram week after week, was enough to motivate me to really commit to a plan. My goal was to lose 4.5 kilograms.
I've always heard that “abs are made in the kitchen” and “you can’t out train a bad diet,” so I decided to focus on food first. I knew very little about nutrition, so I bought a meal-prep guide that had me eating 1600 calories a day, and I followed it for 12 weeks. While this made it easier to stay on track, the food was pretty boring. But after getting into the habit of meal prepping and cooking, I found the confidence to search for and create my own recipes once those three months were over.
Then, I gave the BBG another try. This time, I completed all 12 weeks without missing a single workout. My dedication to my diet and workout routine were paying off; I lost 2.2 kilograms over three months. But while I was starting to see the changes I wanted, I was also developing unhealthy habits. I was obsessed with being able to say I hadn’t missed a BBG workout. I didn’t eat out a single time during the 12 weeks because I was so scared of losing all my progress. Instead, I'd eat before I went out and just order tea at dinner. I started to develop anxiety and control issues over food. I had lost fat and put on muscle, but I didn’t enjoy working out. And, to top it off, I had plateaued.
I decided I needed at least a little novelty, so I started heading to the weight rack after completing my BBG workout. I didn’t have a particular routine and wasn’t doing anything too crazy with the weights, but I started to see a little progress. Over time, I could lift more, do full pullups, deadlift, squat. And I began to love how good that strength felt.
Then, I discovered macros. A lot of girls I followed on Instagram were having success tracking their carbs, fats, and proteins, and since I was loving lifting so much, I figured why not give it a try? I calculated mine and continued to meal prep, but bumped my daily calories up to 1,900.
This was such a big turning point for me; I learned that to get stronger and progress, I needed to actually eat more and fuel my body instead of depriving it. As anxious as I was about increasing my calories, in practice it showed me that I didn’t have to eat low-carb and avoid foods I enjoyed. I could eat pasta, bread, and rice and still make progress. I continued to meal prep religiously every Sunday but with much more balance. I included healthy versions of the foods I loved. I even began to eat out once or twice a week with less anxiety about screwing up all my work in the gym. I had spent years yo-yo dieting, so it was hard for me to believe I could actually eat so many foods I loved and still be happy with how I looked.
A few months later, I gave up BBG for good. I'd hit a point where I was only looking forward to after the workout, when I could go lift weights. I reached 68 kilograms, meaning I had actually gained three kilograms instead of losing my original goal of four. But so much of what I gained was muscle — and most importantly, the number doesn’t really matter. The feeling of having to reach for heavier dumbbells was so, so empowering, and so addicting in the best way. Eating more and lifting heavier made me feel absolutely badass — confident, self-assured, and beautiful.
I never realised how messed up my relationship with food was, but in retrospect, I was constantly depriving myself of things and was completely unable to find a balance between health and fitness. I always chose the most drastic means to reach my goals, drastically cutting calories or doing a lot of cardio. Learning about macros, increasing my calories, and starting to lift really helped me discover food freedom. I don’t go around with a scale weighing my food or avoiding new things. I have a healthy idea of what a serving size is and what I can eat.
Now, I follow my own meal plan, aiming for 2,100 to 2,400 calories a day. I’ve created a ton of recipes over the last year that I use for meal prep, and I always focus on using fresh ingredients, minimally-processed foods, and healthy substitutes. I have always loved fruits, veggies, and oatmeal so I include a lot of those in my daily eats. If I’m not cooking, my absolute favourite thing to eat is Thai food. I could basically eat Thai food every day!
I train five to six days a week now, typically 60 to 90 minutes of weight training. My weekly schedule usually consists of one day each for shoulders and abs, conditioning, back and biceps, chest and triceps, and two leg days. My workouts vary from heavy lifting days to days with more sets and higher reps, and a lot of supersets to challenge me and keep things spicy! I generally still hate cardio but I try to do a conditioning workout once a week. And I also listen to my body for when I need more rest or when I’m super sore.
If you told me when I started this journey that I would gain weight and be 150 pounds, I probably would have never started. I never thought in a million years that I would enjoy going to the gym. I never thought I’d watch less TV and go to bed early so I could get to the gym before work, since that’s the only free time I have.
I also didn’t expect to love and value myself so much more. I grew up extremely loved, always supported, and married the kindest, most hard-working man ever. But, despite so much love, it was still a challenge to always know my own worth when I was struggling with how I looked and, more importantly, felt. Now, I’m in such a good place in my life physically and mentally. I’ve found a good balance between working out, eating well, and juggling life. That’s not to say it isn’t a shit show sometimes. But, I know what I need to prioritize to make me feel my best. Sometimes that means skipping the gym to spend time with family. Or taking a mental rest day because I’m run down. For me, small and sustainable changes have helped me develop a healthy lifestyle that no longer involves extremes or deprivation.
NIKKI’S NUMBER-ONE TIP
Remember how individual everyone’s transformation journey is. I started BBG because of the before-and-after’s I saw where girls had visible abs after 12 weeks. I assumed if I put in the work, ate well, and didn’t skip any workouts that would be me! It wasn’t. Comparing yourself to others can be such a joy thief. I came to realise that I may never be as lean as other girls despite eating well and training hard. Our bodies are all so different. We lose weight differently, we gain weight differently, and we all have different strengths. You have to find a way of eating and training that’s sustainable for you. Extreme dieting and exercise doesn’t make anyone happy and doesn’t boast lasting results. Once I started focusing on the physical and mental changes I saw and felt, and how strong I was becoming, these things made it easier to stop comparing. Now, when I see incredibly strong women, I look at them with admiration instead of jealousy. I imagine how long it took her and all the obstacles she overcame to get there. Sometimes I even go over and compliment her because I really believe women should empower and encourage one another.
Follow Nikki’s journey @justget.fit
This article originally appeared on Women's Health