By Linda Melone
Getting in shape for its own sake can be a tough order—especially when you’re working out on your own and a gym isn’t available.
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. And that may expand beyond a desire just to stay in shape.
“Fitness helps build confidence, for example, which benefits all aspects of life,” says Pete McCall, CSCS, author of Smarter Workouts (Human Kinetics). “Plus, staying consistent leads to long-term changes, which yields the biggest benefit—greater health and a better quality of life.”
Need some inspiration? The following four stories show how fitness helped these people find benefits they weren’t even looking for.
Alex Tran, Seattle WA
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 gym, which was “harder than I thought.” The 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.
Jason Priest, Dallas TX
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 Priest 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, 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.”
Rene Esparza, Lake Forest CA
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 getting lean.
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.”