Getting in shape for its own sake can be a tough order. Using fitness to achieve a particular goal, however, often makes it easier to keep focused until you accomplish that which you set out to do.
Most people start an exercise program to lose weight and firm up. And sometimes along their journey, they discover benefits that go beyond building better biceps or fitting into a favorite pair of pants. Their goals may also change along the way. In fact, weight loss may become secondary in the overall effort.
“Fitness helps build confidence, for example, which benefits all aspects of life,” says Pete McCall, CSCS, chief fitness officer of PMc Fitness Solutions and author of Smarter Workouts: The Science of Exercise Made Simple (Human Kinetics). “Plus, staying consistent leads to long-term changes, which yields the biggest benefit—greater health and a better quality of life.”
Being fit can also help reduce the impact of injury and help speed recovery. “It’s especially important to exercise during your recovery from an injury,” says David Geier, MD, a sports medicine physician in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. “There might be some benefit to exercise in it helping to increase blood flow to the injured area, thus helping to speed healing.”
Preventing the injury from happening in the first place is obviously ideal. “Injuries
often occur after a person fatigues and starts to lose perfect form, technique or body control,” Geier says.
McCall cautions against doing too much if you’re starting out. “Start by walking. If walking for 30 to 40 minutes at a time is a challenge,” he says, “there are health benefits from walking just a few minutes at a time.” If the idea of starting an exercise program seems overwhelming, McCall suggests simply adding more activity, noting that “walking, taking stairs or standing can be the first step towards a healthier life.”
The following four examples illustrate how fitness helped these individuals achieve a goal and benefit beyond their initial expectations.
34; Seattle, Washington
Sometimes fitness benefits go beyond the physical.
Such was the case for Alex Tran, a digital marketing strategist for an e-commerce and logistics company. “I came from a family where fitness wasn’t on my radar,” she says.
It took a eureka moment to shift Tran’s thinking about the role fitness would play in her life: In 2005, she saw her weight balloon from 115 pounds to an unhealthy 180 pounds while studying for her master’s degree. She knew something had to change.
Tran began taking classes at a local 24 Hour Fitness gym, which was “harder than I thought.” The Body Pump class focused primarily on resistance training, but she wanted something more.
Tran then discovered yoga. “I felt shifts in my mindfulness,” she says. She discovered how to be more in the moment, saying, “I noticed the mental benefits to the practice.”
After about three years of practice and seeing results from her workouts, Tran realized it would take more than exercise to get off all the weight. So she took a hard look at her diet and began cutting back on her food intake.
The challenge of leaving food on her plate was difficult. “I was raised in foster care and didn’t know when I’d get more, so I’d developed sort of a hoarding personality,” Tran explains.
Practicing yoga helped her in this respect as well, and she now pays it forward by teaching yoga to foster kids. “Practicing mindfulness and being in the present helps with the anxiety of new experiences,” Tran says.
39; Dallas, Texas
Working in the healthcare field doesn’t automatically lead to a healthy lifestyle, as Jason Priest discovered.
As a registered nurse married to a pharmacist, Priest fit the bill of someone who knew what to do but wasn’t doing it. “We had a free gym membership, but I didn’t go,” says Priest, who tipped the scales at 230 pounds about 10 years ago. “I was in pretty bad shape.” A steady diet of pizza, ice cream and virtually no water resulted in feeling bogged down, deprived of the energy he needed to enjoy life. At 29 years old, he recalls, “I realized I was way too young to feel so fatigued.”
No one particular wakeup call spurred Priest to action, who notes, “My ah-ha moment crept up on me.” But once he made the decision to get in shape, he jumped in with both feet.
Priest began his fitness regimen by going to high-intensity cycling classes four to five times a week. It wasn’t long before he saw his weight nosedive to 160 pounds. And while the weight loss happened quickly, Priest saw the need to build muscle tone, so he added weight training to his routine. He then cleaned up his diet: “I cut out fruit juice, ice cream and high-sugar foods.”
Priest admits an hour-long workout is the easy part, saying, “It’s the remaining 23 hours that are the toughest” because he is not focused directly on fitness. In addition, injuries and setbacks have made him realize how easily he could slip back into old habits once the cycle is broken.
For the most part, however, Priest stays the course. “Anything outside of extremes will not derail me,” he says. “I’ve developed unflappable fitness and nutrition habits and they’ve become my core values.”
Atiya K. Jones, MscD
52; West Sussex, England
Being chosen for a competition that involved looking good in fitness wear and an evening gown supercharged Atiya Jones’ motivation to get in shape.
Jones was 37 and overweight at the time, noting, “After having three children and going through a lot of stress, I got to 200 pounds.”
Acceptance into the Mrs. Illinois International contest kicked Jones into high gear. “I was up at 5:30 a.m. six days a week working out: swimming, walking or, three days a week, weight and strength training,” she says.
She started working with personal trainers. “I worked hard and was very focused. Working out became my spiritual book.” Jones also worked on her mindset, saying, “I was determined to overcome the negative self-chatter.”
Jones competes at a size 4 to 6, although she doesn’t usually maintain such a low weight outside of competition. Since she lost the initial weight she admits to gaining some of it back.
The experience of losing weight was more than about the pounds or winning the contest, though. Jones says, “I matured through the process. I discovered some gems inside myself.”
Jones now helps other people find their inner genius; she’s published nine books and conducts destination retreats. She’s also become a vegan with a focus on natural pea protein, nutritional yeast and vegan-safe vitamin B-12—with an occasional sweet treat.
“I made a complete lifestyle change and went from wearing a size 18-20 to an American size 6 and the title of Mrs. Illinois International,” Jones says. “My body just feels better.”
50; Lake Forest, California
Starting his life as a self-described “beefy” kid, Rene Esparza didn’t know he’d end up in boot camp and spend 10 years in the Marine Corps, where fitness would define his lifestyle.
“My parents thought it would be a good idea for me to get into sports,” says Esparza. “So I started playing football, baseball and soccer.” It wasn’t until his teen years that he saw himself leaning out.
In 1986, at age 17, Esparza entered the Marine Corps to help pay his way through college. Boot camp consisted mainly of calisthenics-based exercises: pullups, pushups, running, burpees and situps. His day started at 5 a.m. and ended at 9 or 10 p.m.
After years of playing sports, the 13 weeks of boot camp wasn’t as hard for Esparza as it was for many other men. “You kept going until you were told to stop,” says Esparza. “Often the mental side caused men to fail more so than the physical.”
Not surprisingly, being physically fit became a way of life for Esparza. “Fitness became ingrained in my DNA,” he says. “Working out makes me feel better and I’m more productive. Without exercise I feel miserable.”
Esparza admits his days of heavy lifting and extreme sports are behind him; injuries suffered during service require him to modify his workouts. “No more heavy weights,” he says.
He also emphasizes the value of meditation and mindfulness. “Most service members have a lot of fatigue and anxiety, and just five to 10 minutes of meditation helps with sleep,” Esparza says. “Overall, fitness keeps me healthier and also helps me get through my day and feel more positive.”