When I was a teenager, I was in an abusive relationship. I was just 13 when we started dating, and by 15, the experience left me completely shattered. I developed anxiety and went through depression for quite some time. I felt as if my life had no value to it — and I was only in my first year of high school. Luckily, during my second year of high school, thanks to my great support system of friends and family, I started to recover from the trauma. I started to get my life back. And a lot of that had to do with fitness.
I became super active, joining a dance company and becoming one of the captains of the cheerleading team. But this wasn’t enough for me. Although I was active, I still lacked confidence in my body, and when summer would roll around, I was too ashamed to rock a crop top or a bikini to the beach. I realised I wanted more for my body and my health.
After graduation, about two years ago, I set a goal to lose weight and gain muscle. I had no gym membership, so I started to work out at home with high-intensity interval training and abs routines I’d found online. I’d use a five kilogram medicine ball and 2.5 kilogram dumbbells to work up a sweat.
But I didn’t see any real changes over the summer, which became frustrating. My motivation deteriorated right before my eyes. I fell into binge eating to cope. I found myself sinking into tubs of ice cream and copious amounts of Chinese take-out every day just to make myself feel better. But all I was really doing was hurting myself. In my mind I knew what I wanted for myself, but I didn’t know how to get there.
I started to follow a bunch of fitness gurus and models on Instagram, and that was enough to re-inspire me. I wanted to learn what it took to get achieve a strong body like them, and experience the feeling of knowing I did it all on my own.
I started to reevaluate my eating habits. I cut out all the processed foods and sugary drinks I was obsessed with. I started to do research on what a healthy diet consisted of. I began to implement more whole and nutrient-dense foods and began to learn how to meal prep. I was a college freshman and surrounded by fast food on every block, so it was extremely tempting to fall off the wagon. But I also learned that a diet can have balance, and that it doesn’t have to be painfully restrictive in order to see results. I quickly realised I was much happier when I let myself have some breathing room and enjoy the meals I loved, while still meal prepping and aiming toward healthy most of the time.
At the same time, my university boyfriend encouraged me to join his gym since my workouts at home weren’t quite getting me the results I was after. I went with him, but stuck to cardio on the Stairmaster or treadmill and the weight machines.
After a few months, I finally summoned up the courage to walk into the "bro section" of the gym and pick up some real weights—and that's when I started seeing real results. It was a complete adrenaline rush. Lifting weights became more than just a way for me to reach my body goals—it became my outlet. I was hooked.
The road was rocky at first. There were times when I stormed out of the gym because I felt embarrassed at being the only girl lifting weights in the guys' section, or when I would run to the bathroom and cry because I felt like I was weak and not good enough to be there. I had to realize that I was there for myself, and no one else in that gym could define my purpose.
I started doing more and more research to educate myself on weight training. I began looking into what bodybuilding was, along with the different types of training. There was a lot of trial and error while learning what worked for me, but pumping iron quickly became a daily thing. I went from training three to four times a week to five to six, focusing on a different muscle group every day.
During my first year of lifting and eating better, I saw the muscle and definition I had wanted for so long. But the second year—this past year—was a lot harder. I noticed that I was gaining weight despite my heavy training and having a healthy balanced diet. I was missing my period for months on end. I had no idea what was going on. When I finally went to my ob-gyn, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
The condition hit me hard and set me back a bit. I was scared and really had no idea what to expect. I just kept wondering, why me? I was healthy and extremely active. My mind became flooded with all these thoughts on what this illness was and how it was going to affect me when I was older, since it increases your infertility rates. I was in such a spiral.
Eventually, I had to stop and tell myself that going about this issue with a negative mindset wasn't going to get me anywhere. I started taking medication to help treat it, and started re-framing how I viewed PCOS — not as something that defines me, but instead as something that I was going to rise above.
Now, I'm back at the gym five to six days a week. I do legs twice a week and arms twice a week, but the moves themselves vary week-to-week. Typically, I include a lot of compound movements as well as isolation movements for hypertrophy training. I do cardio at least two to three times a week—usually a bodyweight HIIT routine with minimal equipment or HIIT on the Stairmaster for 20 to 30 minutes. But I always allow myself some rest days since it’s so important for mental and physical recovery. And of course, there are weeks where my body just says “no” to hitting the gym. But I’ve come to learn that’s okay—the gym will always be there, and taking a few days or a week off doesn’t change that tomorrow is a new day to pick yourself up and get back to training
My main focus right now is maintaining a healthy diet that also helps fight against my PCOS. My diet now consists of wholesome and nutrient-dense foods, lots of fruit, water, healthy fats, and proteins. I eat three meals a day with snacks in between. I tend to steer away from sugary drinks as much as possible and stick to water or zero-calorie seltzers with flavour. However, I try not to be too strict, since it still drives me nuts feeling restricted; if I want a Sprite instead of a water, I have it. Over time, I’ve come to recognise that the food I decide to put into my mouth does not define me or my self-worth.
I am actually still the same weight I was when I joined the gym — 59 kilograms (I’m 5’3) — though my body looks so different. More importantly, though, my mindset is so different. Of course, seeing the way my body has transformed so dramatically in the past two years has been amazing, and makes me feel so proud of myself. However my mental gains are what really make me proud. I used to be in such a dark place and went through things that no young teenage girl should have to go through, but I've evolved and I approach situations much differently than I would have a few years ago. The mental strength I now have allows me to fight against my PCOS the right way. I believe that being mentally strong is just as (sometimes even more) important than being physically strong. I feel like superwoman and I have fitness to thank for that.
Looking back at my original goals, all I wanted was to become fit. I wanted to be stronger, I wanted muscle, I wanted my dream body, and most of all, I wanted my confidence back. I would have never known that self-love and self-discovery would also come along for the ride. The person I was at 13 to 15 years old had blossomed into a fierce, confident, young woman. I changed completely inside and out. A fitness journey doesn't just have to be a journey to better physical appearances, it can be a journey to finding out who you really are and what you really want out of life. I think those are two factors that just come with the territory of being on a fitness journey, it's like you kind of don't expect to see that happen, but it just does.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US