When I was in my early twenties, I underwent a routine gynecological procedure—a laparoscopic surgery—that went very wrong. My condition deteriorated during the week after my procedure, and when I went to get my stitches removed, I was sent to the hospital where doctors discovered a perforation in my bowel.
I ended up spending over a month in the intensive care unit in a bed, unable to even get up to shower myself, unable to walk. It was a pretty strange period in my life. I don't remember much of the physical or emotional pain of it, but, years later, every now and then a smell or something brings me back to the time I spent in hospital and triggers the emotions. But what I do remember is my own strength, and the strength of my support system.
After I got out of the hospital, my body was a mess. I was given no direction on how to re-balance it, but I was warned about the possibility of developing scar tissue, and told that exercise would help. So once my body could handle it, I started running—a sport chosen largely because I didn’t know much else about fitness.
What I did know: Being so sick and weak made me want to feel strong and capable again. Fitness quickly became a great avenue to explore that. I had never really thought of exercising as fun, just as something you were required to do in grade school. But I set a goal to run a 15K fun run, which I ended up doing two and a half years post-op.
Getting back to my normal life, back to college, and back to my routine was empowering; I got out of an unhealthy relationship, moved houses, finished my degree, traveled, and moved overseas for a while. During that time though, working out was still only something I did when I had a goal set (like a race) or when the weather was good—there wasn’t a lot of thought behind it beyond wanting to be a bit active.
Eventually, I realised I needed more than just running. I wanted to get fit and feel more confident in my skin. I’d heard and seen a lot of good things on social media about a 12-week resistance training program, and since I could do it from home without a gym membership, I decided to give it a go.
This decision opened me up to a whole new way of moving and challenging my body. By the time the three months were up, I was hooked. I started light weight training regularly.
After about a year, I started to feel antsy. I had plateaued and wanted a new challenge, so I got a personal trainer and started learning how to lift real weights. I enjoyed it and saw some results, but I wasn’t seeing the total transformation that I wanted.
I was bummed. I resigned myself to the fact that I maybe just don't have the genetics or body to get to where I wanted to be. I went through different trainers, different workout styles, tried a lot of different diets, but didn’t really see all that much of a difference.
But I’ve always persevered, so I decided to switch trainers one more time—and that changed everything. I started working with a guy named Jason Tencate, and, for the first time, someone looked deeper than just what hours I was logging in the gym and what food was on my plate. He looked at my gut health, blood tests, hormones, life circumstances, stress, diet, and exercise, and factored all of these into my workout and diet plan.
First, we focused on losing a bit of fat, but then my goal shifted to work toward building more muscle mass and strength. My program changed every three weeks, and was determined by the comprehensive testing my coach would do, depending on my stress levels, my results, my body fat, etc. Sometimes I would do four weight training days and three cardio days, other times I’m doing six weight training days and one cardio day.
When it comes to losing a bit of fat and looking really fit, I’ve found diet is really the biggest component. I've played a lot with different approaches—keto, low-carb, high-protein—and it's different for everyone, but what I’ve found to really work for my body is eating a low-carb diet. While I've dipped as low as 6000 kilojoules a day to cut fat, I found that to be super unsustainable. Now, I still eat close to 8300 kilojoules daily, which still keeps me in shape while not making me hungry all the time.
A typical day for me looks like:
Pre workout: BCAAs
Post workout: Protein shake (water + protein)
Breakfast: Eggs, bacon, feta, avocado or overnight oats
Snack: Protein shake (almond milk, protein powder, coconut oil, banana, peanut butter, ice, cacao powder)
Lunch: Vegetables with meat (chicken or steak)
Snack: Rice cakes with avocado + ham
Dinner: Steak, greens, and sweet potato, chicken stir fry, mexi bowl etc..
However, I’ll never *not* eat donuts, pizza, chocolate, ice cream, and dumplings—maybe even all together.
Around three months ago I really started to see results—all the training I had been doing started to shine through.
But what really started to change was how empowered I felt. I felt (and still feel) strong, energized, and consistent thanks directly to training and lifting weights. While my goals started as physical ones, it's become more about proving to myself that I'm capable of a goal that takes a lot of time and energy.
Learning to push myself really hard and knowing I can always improve has shaped who I am today in a big way, and fitness taught me that. I've lived a life filled with low self-esteem, lack of self-love, struggling to bounce back from rejection, and only feeling worthy when someone else loves me or pays attention to me. These things don't just disappear, but working on my strength and health has had a huge impact on my self love.
I didn't even realize it for a while, but when I was faced with some pretty hard life changes recently, I approached them like a badass—and I have no doubt that's because I’ve learned how much I’m capable of withstanding in the gym.
SOPHIE’S NUMBER-ONE TIP
Stop aiming for perfection. Being “healthy” is not just about eating clean foods and cutting out everything “bad” like drinking and late-night snacking. That helps, but what’s truly important is striking a balance and enjoying spontaneity. I can get really rigid and inflexible with my routine and it can put a lot of pressure on all of the other aspects of my life. Identifying this and re-framing my perception of what it means to be healthy is something I’m constantly working on and will forever be evolving with me, but it’s something that really helps me feel fulfilled at the end of the day.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US