It didn't help that I was also working crazy hours as an emergency medicine physician assistant. Sometimes I would work days, sometimes nights. Sometimes, I would scurry around the emergency room for five days in a row, be off for three days, and then back on again. Shifts were usually 10 to 12 hours long.
I was pretty much always sleep deprived, jet lagged, or catching up on sleep. When I tried to work out at home, I had my kids crawling on me or wreaking havoc somewhere else in the house. My husband and I had gym memberships, but while he found the time to go five to six times per week, I went months without going.
My busy schedule also affected my food choices. I usually skipped breakfast, and if I worked the night shift, it might be 4 p.m. the next day before I ate something. When shifts were too busy for my colleagues or me to even walk to the cafeteria to get some food, we usually ended up ordering pizza or Chinese food and eating at our desks. I also had a terrible habit of stopping at Starbucks to get some sugar-loaded drink on my way to work because I felt like I deserved or needed it to get through my shift.
I really had no routine eating habits. One day, I would eat 3,000 calories. The next, I'd eat 500. When I had several days off in a row, I would put together healthy meals—but when I went back to work, everything fell apart.
1. The Change
Medical scrubs hide a lot of weight gain. You can pack on quite a few kilograms without having to change sizes. On my days off, I noticed that I was wearing my scrubs at home because my regular clothes were uncomfortable. Eventually, none of my jeans fit.
And then, my brother-in-law's wedding arrived. When I saw pictures from that day, I hardly recognised myself, and I knew right then that I had to make a change for my health. Every day at work, I see the results of poor lifestyle choices.
In September of 2016, I researched fitness apps to help motivate me, and decided to start paying closer attention to what I was eating.
2. The Food
The first change I made was upgrading my Starbucks habit. I swapped out my typical sugary drinks for low- or no-calorie "refreshers" or herbal teas. I also started taking advantage of the restaurant's healthy breakfast options—the sous vide egg bites are delicious.
I quickly became more conscious of making sure I ate breakfast—even if my breakfast was at noon after a night shift. My kids love scrambled eggs, so when I was on a normal schedule and making breakfast in the morning, I started adding a couple in for myself and eating some too. Eggs became my go-to source of protein at breakfast, but I also worked to integrate a source of protein—like chicken, fish, or steak— into all of my meals, however sporadic they were.
Having healthier options while I was working also helped me prevent making poor food choices. I bought fruits and vegetables, threw them in my work bag, and had them ready to go for whenever I needed them. I swore off fries and hamburgers at the grill at work. I brought my own meals from home, or if I went to the cafeteria, I tried to stick to grilled chicken breasts with salads, fruits, and vegetables. And I stopped eating whatever was sitting on the table in the break room.
3. The Workouts
Still, my biggest changes were to my workout routine. Because of my work schedule, I couldn't do the typical "join a gym, commit to a schedule, get a trainer, go to classes" thing. I needed something flexible—and something I didn't have to think a lot about or plan ahead.
With that in mind, I was browsing the app store on my phone and found Aaptiv, an audio fitness app with trainer-created workouts set to music. There are categories for outdoor running, treadmill workouts, strength training, yoga, and many more. All I had to do was download the app, choose my workout preferences, put in headphones, and hit play.
I started with one of Aaptiv's 5K training programs, because I used to love running (I had run a half marathon years before!). The 5K program contained 30 workouts that were mostly around 30 minutes long, with some up to 45 or 50 minutes.
I did these workouts, which consisted of endurance runs, interval runs, and tempo runs, around three times per week. In the beginning there were runs I couldn't do exactly as prescribed. My Aaptiv trainer, Rochelle would say, "Sprint for two minutes," and I would be out of breath by 45 seconds and have to walk. But I didn't stop doing the program. I did what I could and moved on to the next day.
Meanwhile, I got creative with my workout schedule. I would drop my kids off at preschool, or daycare at the gym, and whether I had 20 minutes or an hour, I'd sweat and push myself. My husband was a big supporter of my health and weight-loss goals, so he would often offer to take care of the kids so I could get to the gym.
It took me about 10 weeks to finish all of the workouts in the 5K training program in December of 2016. I didn't have a race to run, so I went to a local track and ran a 5K just to do it—and I did it in just under 30 minutes! My husband brought our kids, 2 and 4 years old at the time, to the track. They played in the dirt while my husband cheered me on.
After the 5K, I wanted to keep running, but also wanted to add strength training in order to tone up. I looked at the strength training section of the Aaptiv workout and started adding those classes into my running routine. Most were bodyweight workouts, but some included light weights. I've used old textbooks, bags of flour and even my kids as weights! I would generally work out four to five days per week, for up to 60 or 90 minutes at a time, alternating between strength work and runs.
After three months of healthy eating and exercise, I was down 4.5 kilograms. After nine months, 9.5 kilograms! The inches I lost were even more impressive to me—eight inches from my waist, three inches in my thighs, and three from my hips. I was able to start wearing all my old clothes again. It was like having a whole new wardrobe.
4. Sticking With It
My unpredictable schedule is still an obstacle, but instead of letting it become an excuse, I now use it as a reason to plan ahead. Every week, I schedule in at least four workouts, plugging them into my phone calendar as appointments.
I also plan ahead all of my meals, prepping them on my days off and bringing them to work each day. That whole "fail to plan, plan to fail" mantra is certainly true for me.
5. The Reward
The biggest reward for me has been finding out what my body can do. One of my favourite Aaptiv trainers, Meghan Takacs, always says, "Your body can do it, your mind just has to let it go there."
Pushing past what I thought I was capable of, and accomplishing even more, is amazing and makes me so proud of myself. I'm 38, have two small kids, and I'm in the best shape of my life.
6. Mandy's Number One Tip
Do what you love. Whether it pertains to working out or what you eat, you won't stick with anything if you hate it. For changes to stick, they have to become part of your life. So make sure you're happy making those changes. If you aren't, look for something else.
There are so many options for physical fitness and so many ways to modify your eating habits, you just have to find the ones that will work for you.
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US