Transformations are a dime a dozen in the health and fitness industry. When we think about these dramatic changes, images of “before and after” beach body pictures and The Biggest Loser episodes typically come to mind.
Although these transformations are something to celebrate, there is often more behind them than pictures and stories tell; transformations that involve the mind and the soul. And where the mind and heart is, the body will follow.
Such is the case with these three individuals who each have taken a complete 180-degree turn in their lives—using a challenge or struggle to fuel their fire for thriving (and inspiring others to do the same).
These are their transformations, from the inside out.
AFM: Where were you before where you are today? Give us your back story.
Haley: My transformation story began during my senior year of high school, when I was diagnosed as a Celiac. Before that, I had no concept of self-awareness, health, or nutrition. I grew up dancing and performing, but quit my sophomore year of high school and completely abandoned all forms of physical activity. I never ate breakfast, ate fast food daily, and my favorite meals were peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches and mac ’n’ cheese. When I became ill, everything changed. Suddenly there was a long list of foods I couldn't eat as I tried to mend my digestive system and regain my health, forcing me to take up cooking. I got a job (and therefore a membership) at my local Lifetime Fitness, where I took up weightlifting and yoga. I found passion and an outlet for creativity in cooking healthy, whole foods. I became more aware of where I was sourcing everything that I ate from and using minimal ingredients. I went paleo for a bit, then I went vegan, (and my obsession with healthy eating took a life of its own). What began as an intention to further my knowledge in the world of health and wellness however, unfortunately turned into an obsession: an eating disorder.
AFM: So you were trying to be healthy but took it to an extreme? What did that look like for you?
Haley: I went refined sugar-free on top of being gluten-free and vegan. I became afraid of all food that wasn't prepared by me, certain the dishes were filled with toxins or other things that would disrupt my health. I unintentionally went into a downward spiral physically (I lost 20 pounds during the first few months of college due to restrictive eating). I was averaging about 800 to 1,000 calories a day on top of the same exercise regimen I had been using since truly getting into fitness.
AFM: When did you realize something needed to change?
Haley: Not long into it, I discovered a small yoga studio in walking distance from my house. They were donation-based, and I began going several times a week. My yoga instructors inflicted lots of food for thought on me, and during this time, I experienced a lot more self-reflection and awareness, and I think it was around this time that the concept of balance was ever first introduced to me. I finally read an article about Orthorexia Nervosa, an eating disorder that is an extreme obsession with eating “clean, good” foods. That's when I threw in the towel. My whole mission in life was to live a "healthy" lifestyle and become the happiest, strongest, most productive and positive version of myself that I could be, and I realized the place I had been living in mentally for the past year was far from that.
AFM: What did you do about it?
Haley: When summer began, I took off to Spain to study abroad—knowing that I would have no access to a kitchen and would be relying on food that others cooked for me to survive. I would also have no access to a gym—it was time to find myself and change my outlook on life. My time in Spain saved me, and shaped me into the person I am today. I no longer restricted myself from anything but gluten and dairy, which actually made me sick—everything else was fair game, even though vegetables are still my primary focus. I had finally learned that being "healthy" actually meant being balanced. I bought a web domain and began a new Instagram account (Soul + Spoon) to showcase my recipes, travel, and to try to inspire others to get involved in their communities and their kitchens. I also began working for Thunderbird and Lululemon, both of which challenged me to grow as a person, set goals and a vision for myself, and make truly valuable connections in the Austin fitness and food community.
AFM: What advice would you give others going through what you did?
Haley: Don't take things too seriously! Life's a journey, have fun with it. Learn to love yourself the way you are now, and in doing that, you will learn what's best for your lifestyle, your body, and your overall happiness. The health and physical changes will follow.
Mind: Brrr… It's Cold in Hof! (The Hof Method), Keep in Mind (Mindfulness and Meditation), A Proper pH (The Body's pH Balance)
Spirit: Coloring Outside the Lines (Aura Photography), Natural Rhythms (Internal Balance), Interview with a Psychic Medium
AFM: Tell us a little bit about your story—where you were before where you are today: your struggles and what experiences you had that have shaped you?
Paul: My story is about becoming both physically and mentally stronger. My real transformation journey started as I found myself in the computer industry. I went from having an active lifestyle to sitting daily at a desk in front of a screen. Sometimes we stop paying attention to what's going on in the body and before long I was a heavier version of me.
AFM: What was your breaking point—realizing something needed to change for your health and life?
Paul: A few things happened that raised my awareness. I can think of a story when I was at work and left my windows down in my car. My coworker, Frank, told me it started to pour. Both he and I had left our windows down, so we had to sprint to the parking lot to roll them back up. We sprinted back to the office door, and then I realized I couldn't hold a conversation with him. I was out of breath, and it took a long while to recover. Another thing that brought awareness that something needed to change was simply a picture I had with some friends that got posted on social media. It wasn't until I saw the picture that I could see how the added weight was present. These couple of instances really enlightened me, and I knew I had to take action to make positive changes.
AFM: What kind of changes did that look like?
Paul: My transformation was very systematic. I started with a cell phone that had a built in pedometer. I began to count my steps in the day. Watching my step count led to me wanting to increase my count. I started taking the stairs instead of the elevator to get the number of steps up. I have never been a fan of running so I took my next step to the elliptical. I was hesitant to move to treadmill but eventually did so to increase my steps.
Over time I started jogging and eventually got bored of the scenery, so I started getting outside and trying outside runs, though they were short. I signed up for an obstacle course race, Warrior Dash, and then found the Couch to 5K program. I started that program and then began to do workouts with weights. I kept to myself for all of this. A buddy of mine, Chris Sweet, saw me going through the changes and invited me to come work out with him at 24 Hour Fitness. I declined for a few weeks before I realized I was maxing out on machines at my apartment. I decided it was time to take him up on his offer and overcome my fear of working with others. He has a background in kinesiology so I learned so much through him.
AFM: What was most impactful in helping you “overcome”?
Paul: Getting over my fears. Fear of new food. Fear of what others think. Taking a leap of faith and seeing where I would end up. I would say most of all is having a "why." Why do I pursue the things that I do? It helps to always have that as a solid foundation to keep you going.
AFM: What advice would you give others going through what you did?
Paul: Be patient. We're too focused on instant gratification in society. Everyone wants a shortcut. My personal belief is many things in life are worth working for, and once you put in the effort, they'll mean that much more to you. Don't get discouraged if you don't see changes instantly on the outside. Typically changes occur on the inside before you ever notice what's going on externally. I measure things such as behavioral changes (i.e. feeling better), energy levels throughout the day, or even just having a sense of accomplishment. Also, don't be afraid to learn from others that know more than you. Many people helped me to get to where I am, and I am still learning daily. Lastly, take care of your body—including rest. I would have put more focus on understanding recovery earlier. I probably could have skipped a couple of injuries if I took time to recover better.
AFM: Where you were before where you are today? Give us your back story.
Hadley: I had the good fortune of being naturally thin and fit most of my life and was happy in my own skin. I was never a terrible eater by any means, but watching my diet was just sort of a non-issue. I ate what I wanted when I felt like it, stopped when I was full, didn't count calories or fad diet or create rigid rules for myself, and was pretty active.
However, things changed. During a period from about 2012 to 2015, I began gaining weight. It was slow, so I chalked it up to turning 30 and having a metabolism shift. In hindsight I've pieced together that a very large culprit for a lot of that change in my body was likely a medication I'd been on during that period (but I didn't put that together during the time). I wasn't doing anything different than I'd always done before, but suddenly my body was reacting very differently to what I was putting in it, and I was steadily putting on weight. It's not like I went from eating salad every day to suddenly eating fast food all the time—I was eating just as I always had. At one point I remember thinking "Well, I guess this is the way it's going to be from now on. This is me now."
AFM: So what did you do when the weight gain was happening?
Hadley: I reached a turning point in late 2014 after having been working out almost every morning at 5:30 a.m., doing my best to eat clean, and yet somehow feeling worse about my body than ever. I was sick of having to buy bigger clothes, sick of dreading to put on a swimsuit, sick of envying other people's bodies, and sick of not feeling like my best self, in every sense.
A friend of mine from my old boot camp had found a trainer several months before, Kim Eagle, and I had watched her fitness transformation through social media and never failed to be awed by the before and after pictures. Another good friend of mine and I were both inspired, and we decided to take the plunge into Kim's Earn That Body program.
AFM: What was the program like for you? Describe your transformation.
Hadley: Those first few weeks on the Earn That Body program were an emotionally turbulent time—and eating very cleanly and intentionally was revealing to me exactly how much of an emotional connection I had developed to food. In addition to just the challenge of the program, I was also simultaneously tapering off an antidepressant (the very same medication I now believe to have played a big hand in my weight gain), and it didn't take me long to notice that when I started feeling low or frustrated or irritable, my first thought was how soothing some chocolate or some mac ’n’ cheese would be. I had never considered myself an "emotional eater" before, but I realized in going through this process that food had been such a mindless soothing mechanism.
Then, I remember the incredible high of my very first weekly weigh-in, when I had lost four pounds just from one week of cleaning up my eating. By no means did I want to live by the number on a scale, but the feeling of seeing my hard work reflected in such a concrete way was incredible, and it's what kept me hanging on through the ups and downs.
AFM: What was your tipping point for changing your mindset and learning to be at peace with your body again?
Hadley: In early Dec. 2015, I made the decision to attempt my biggest challenge yet—sign up for a half marathon. Somewhere along the way, without even realizing it, my mindset had shifted from not wanting to do it, to "Yeah, I'll sign up and see how far I get in training" to "Duh, of course I'm finishing this." Not only my body, but my mind, was evolving right before my eyes, and it allowed me to finish that race.
A few days after the race, once I had returned home, I happened to be cleaning out my desk, and I came upon something that almost knocked the wind out of me. It was an appointment card from a liposuction procedure I had scheduled two years before, when I was feeling lowest about my body. I ended up canceling it a few days before, but ironically, the appointment time was exactly two years ago—right down to the date and the minute—from the moment I crossed the finish line of my half marathon.
There was something eerily poetic about that, and it solidified that taking charge of my body and life in the way I did was the absolute best decision I've ever made. I started this journey with the hope of simply "getting my old body back." At this point in my process I have not only gained an even stronger body than I've ever had, I've also gained a stronger mind—a mental toughness I never knew I had in me, which has led me to take on more challenges in all areas of life.
AFM: What advice would you give others through the process of getting healthier—like you did—even if it’s slow?
Hadley: You have to celebrate every little achievement because this is an ongoing journey! Also, journaling is an incredible tool for not only helping you get through hard times, but it has also been absolutely fascinating for me to go back and re-read some of my journal from when I first began all this. It's a great reminder of how far you've come. Lastly, be gentle on yourself. You will have tough days, you'll slip up and eat bad foods, and you'll skip workouts. Life happens. So, you move on and don't get bogged down in guilt and regret and all the negative self-talk.