The most physical activity I ever really did growing up was running around in gym class or outside with friends. I felt sluggish; I was very unhappy with the way my body looked and felt. Looking back, I was completely unempowered and nearing depression.
THE FIRST CHANGE
When I turned 18, I knew something needed to change. I wanted to feel better about how I looked, and about myself. But I had no idea where to start. Luckily, my brother, a dedicated gym rat, wanted a gym partner, so he took me under his wing.
I had literally never touched a dumbbell or barbell in my life. Our first week in the gym together, my brother taught me how to use the equipment, proper form, and most importantly, that I was stronger and more capable than I thought I was.
Soon enough, I was heading to the gym on my own. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with the feeling of a good workout. The natural endorphin-induced high I felt was the best part of my days. I started to see physical progress, but what I loved the most was how strong I felt. I really impressed myself, and that fueled me to keep trying to get stronger every week.
Then, life happened. After about a year of consistency, I sort of just lost motivation and started to see going to the gym as a chore. Again, I started to feel like crap. I hadn’t made many diet changes other than drinking protein shakes, and my bad diet plus little to no physical activity was a recipe for feeling run down, unmotivated, and basically just overall blah. I lost the muscle definition I had gained. I gained my little gut back. My energy levels plummeted, my acne came back in full force, and my mood was all over the place, once again.
THE SECOND CHANGE
After a few months, I finally thought to myself, “Enough is enough Mikaela.” I laced my running shoes up and got my behind back in the gym. To my surprise, my endurance and strength had both dropped. Who would have guessed that could happen so fast?! Thankfully, this ended up motivating me to get my strength back up. I was so strong before! I knew I could do it again.
This time, I got even more serious about the gym. Not only did I commit to a much more structured gym routine and implementing a ton of cardio, I began weighing and measuring my food, counting my calories, and every macronutrient.
My diet had to be *perfect.* I cut out all salt, seasonings, and sugar—which didn’t leave much room for anything but lean meat protein, vegetables, and rice (with the exception of my once-a-week cheat days).
As one might assume, I lost weight and got ripped within an extremely short amount of time. I felt absolutely amazing physically—I had crazy-high levels of energy, no digestive or skin issues, and I even felt way more confident in social situations.
There were so many benefits of the lifestyle I was living, but at the same time I had one huge problem: I was obsessed with the way my body looked. If I consumed anything with sodium, I was convinced I could see the water retention in my skin, even if I was as lean as a string bean. Looking back on it, I had very serious body dysmorphia. I was by far the fittest and leanest I have ever been, yet I was constantly picking myself apart every single day, only ever looking for things that I could “improve” instead of appreciating the beautiful, healthy body that I had.
This “high” lasted about six months, but in the fall of 2016, it all fell apart. This time I didn’t just fall off the fitness bandwagon and bump my knee, I fell on my face.
For me, my extreme diet and training regiment was completely unsustainable. As I became less motivated to stay obsessed, I returned to a normal weight. But watching myself bounce back from the lowest body fat percentage I’ll probably ever be made me feel terrible about what I saw in the mirror. I was ashamed to go to the gym because in my eyes I was no longer that “super-fit chick.” I was battling serious self-image issues, which then led to binge eating—two things that took me a long time to fully recover from.
THE FINAL CHANGE
Sometimes, it takes losing a good thing to truly appreciate it. The hardest part wasn’t just losing my trim body, but the feeling of being physically healthy. I realized that my way of approaching diet and fitness weren't exactly healthy, but I was certain there was a way to feel great physically while still being kind to my body. I became determined to get in shape again, but this time, keeping my mind healthy was the priority. I never wanted to go through that crash ever again.
I began to take an interest in digestive health issues and solutions. I’ve always have a sensitive digestive system—bloating, abdominal discomfort, lethargy after meals, and good old acne breakouts. I started to follow wellness activist Kris Carr and Mark Hyman, M.D., and I realized that my body wasn't just affected by whether or not I went to the gym—my diet played a big role as well. I began to look at food as fuel and as medicine. I realized that I could heal myself, physically, mentally, and emotionally through the foods I ate. "Healthy self = heal thyself" became one of my favourite phrases.
STICKING WITH IT
In time, I realized I didn’t have to take the “all-or-nothing” approach. Despite having a more sensitive gut, I learned that as long as I ate healthy 70 percent of the time, my body didn’t react as negatively to having treats here and there. This is where I’ve really begun to finally find comfort in my diet.
Now, I don't track my carb intake, my protein intake, my sodium intake. I never weigh myself. But I feel strong, I feel healthy, and mostly I feel comfortable in my own skin. I work out four to six days a week. I aim for six, but if I miss a day or two, I don’t stress about it because my nutrition keeps me feeling good. My workouts are mostly strength training, with five minutes of cardio warmup and 10 minutes of a cardio burnout at the end.
One important thing I've learned is it's one thing to have muscle definition and to look fit and lean, but being truly healthy means elevated energy levels, regulated mood, better digestion, clearer complexion, better quality of sleep, the ability to focus and concentrate, increased motivation and confidence, and overall, a better quality of life.
MIKAELA’S NUMBER-ONE TIP
Perfection is unattainable and unsustainable. Fluctuation and change is a normal part of life, and it’s a normal thing for your body. But most importantly, being fit won’t make you happy if you don’t truly love yourself. Investing time, energy, and love into your body’s well-being is one of the most rewarding decisions.
As told to Rachael Shultz.
This article originally appeared on Women’s Health US.