About ErinRileyRD

Someone recently told me that I have way to many ideas and random information racing through my brain and I needed an outlet for it all. Enter- ErinRileyRD wordpress blog- Where I share my thoughts on nutrition, food, eating, fitness, training, weight loss, and everything else in between. Let me know what you think!

A Positive Perspective on Competing in the Fitness World

“Seek not to become a person of great success, but rather a person of great value.”Albert Einstein (rephrased)

My journey back to the stage started on a whim when a former eating disorder client of mine from several years ago contacted me with regards to doing a figure competition prep nutrition plan for her. Knowing what I do about eating disorders and competition prep, I was very reluctant to say the least. However, after meeting with her, I could tell she was in a better place, and quite frankly, she was going to pursue competing with or without my help. So I decided I would help her and we developed a game plan.

At that time competing had not been on my radar for several years. I was enjoying life as an intuitive eater, free from food anxiety, and not worrying at all about the scale. I was focusing more on my career and had recently started in a contracted sports nutrition dietitian position for the US Air Force. From a training perspective, I had completed a half marathon a few months earlier and I was still doing some running and getting in some lifting (maybe) a couple days per week, but nothing really focused or consistent.

After meeting with this client I really got to thinking about the feasibility of successfully competing in the physique based sports with a history of eating disorder tendencies. Personally, I was the furthest away from these tendencies that I had ever been in my life. I had a healthy relationship with food and my body, and I genuinely liked it that way. I was in a really good place. And competing again was not in my plans, as I had no intention of messing with that new found perspective. 

But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if it could be done- compete, but maintain a healthy perspective toward food and my body. I have to admit, I really missed the challenge of training for something. I’m an athlete at heart and I have been my whole life. And I genuinely love the process of training for competition. But in addition to my mental health, my physical health had also been a concern when it came to competing. I had pushed myself too far in the past- worked through injuries that I never should have worked through, and ultimately destroyed my shoulder to the point where competing in the fitness division is no longer even possible.

And then suddenly I had this bright idea- “But what about Figure?”

Truthfully, the thought of competing in Figure was pretty intimidating to me. I am a FITNESS pro. I turned PRO and excelled in FITNESS because 2/3 of your score is based on your routine and I had some kick ass routines. But I certainly was not known for my physique. So to compete in a division judged solely on physique, against women that had spent years and years perfecting every detail of their physiques— one could see how that might be intimidating.

Regardless, I went online and checked the IFBB schedule and saw that the NY Pro was about 14.5 weeks away. Hmmm… doable…maybe?? Something in me kept saying yes. There was suddenly a strong compelling force within me saying “Yes. You can do this. You need to do this.” I don’t really know why I felt SOOO strongly about it, but I just felt like this is exactly what I was supposed to do.

So I emailed Dan to make sure he would be on board, and of course he was supportive (although I’m sure he also thought I was slightly out of my mind), but once I knew he was ok with it and believed I could pull it off, I literally got right to work. I came up with a plan and started right at 14 weeks out.

Right from the very start my mindset toward competing was completely different than it ever had been before. I was not doing this for a placing. And I was not doing this as a desperate attempt to get lean because I was so uncomfortable with my body (both underlying reasons for competing in the past). I was doing this so that I could go through the process, as someone that had truly developed a healthy relationship with food and my body, as someone that had developed the tools and mental strength to handle disordered eating  thoughts and as someone that was regularly helping other athletes to do the same (but not necessarily within the fitness industry). I wanted to go through this process, knowing what I now knew, and then be able to share the experience with others and hopefully offer some legitimate insight into the experience of competition prep.  

Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear. Despite my positive experience, I would still NOT advise anyone with a history of a diagnosed eating disorder to get into physique based competition. The fact is the eating/exercise behaviors required to get on stage are in some ways like a self-imposed eating disorder. If it’s done with the mindset that it is for a temporary period of time for a temporary look, and with a positive perspective toward one’s body and relationship with food that is maintained at all times- it can be done safely (in my opinion). However someone with a previously diagnosed eating disorder may find it very difficult to view it in this way and stay in this mind frame despite being recovered and old thoughts and behaviors may creep in. And it’s not worth that risk.  

Furthermore, the entire mindset that is portrayed throughout the fitness industry in general also tends to be very  disordered- it can be so triggering to those that are susceptible if not viewed in the right way. There are even a lot of people that enter the fitness industry with a perfectly healthy mindset and leave it with disordered eating tendencies.  I want to be someone that is doing it “the right way” and sending the right message.

So back to my journey-  I honestly had no idea how my body would hold up or how it would respond to literally being thrown into a contest prep nutrition/training regimen, but I was determined to give it a shot. And so I got started. I developed my own nutrition and training plan and started plugging away. I also began journaling- not just keeping track of my nutrition and training but really writing down all of my thoughts and insights and analyzing my successes and struggles- maybe I’ll publish it someday, maybe not. I also started reading more books about how to develop a strong and positive mindset, and applied these principles to my prep on a daily basis.

Several weeks into my prep, from a behavioral perspective, everything was going smoothly. I was on point with my nutrition, I was training hard and sticking to my schedule, and I was maintaining a positive state of mind. Unfortunately, my body was not responding as quickly as I would have hoped. In the past this would have really thrown me into a state of panic and anxiety, however this time around I managed to keep myself calm and focused and I just continued to trust that I was doing the right thing.

At about 6 weeks out I knew I was behind. But I had made so much progress and gained so much insight by that point that I just didn’t want to quit. I just knew that I could get to the stage. I also knew that I was going to have to be a little more extreme with my nutrition and training than I would have liked to be, but it was necessary (TEMPORARY and short term, but necessary) if I wanted to get on stage looking like I belonged there.

I had made the commitment to myself before I started that if I felt like I was jeopardizing my mental or physical health in any way, at any point during the prep, I would stop. But I honestly felt great physically, and my mental game/mindset was stronger than it had ever been. So I made the decision to push through until the end, even if it meant double cardios and very low carbs, as long as I kept that commitment and a positive frame of mind.

Those last 6 weeks were not easy, and to be honest, I was not always perfect. But looking back through my journal there is one key thing that stands out. No matter what happened, I never resorted to negative judgement toward myself. No matter what happened, I was always able to come back to a positive and determined mindset. I was always able to get back to trusting that I was going to pull it off and no matter the outcome I would be proud of myself because I knew I was doing all that I could. I just believed  it was all going to come together at the end. And it did!

This was the most positive prep experience I have ever had. I have truly gained so much insight and confidence from this experience, and I’ve learned so much that I believe can be helpful to others. Here are some of the initial major insights I’d like to share:

1. It was NOT easy. In fact, it was really, really HARD. And I was NOT always perfect. But I never beat myself up for it. I viewed every failure as a chance to learn and improve. I never resorted to judging myself negatively or “hating myself” for any choice or action. I analyzed it and learned from it. This has significantly improved my confidence in my ability to handle obstacles.

2. I never judged myself based on my body. My body was not necessarily responding how I wanted it to but I never let that determine how I felt about myself. I knew I was giving it my all, and I trusted that my body would do what it needed to do. And in the end if it didn’t, I was still going to stand on stage tall and proud because I knew where I started from and the amount of work I was putting in to make it happen. Throughout the prep I continually encouraged myself and made sure I felt proud of what I was achieving, regardless of how I looked. This made a HUGE difference in the experience as a whole.

3. I learned to stop comparing myself to everyone else and to my previous self. This was much more difficult than I had anticipated it being, and I had to be diligent in my efforts to avoid this behavior. But for as difficult as that was, I was never, ever focused on a placing. Getting on stage was my goal. Where I placed was irrelevant. In the end my placing had no impact whatsoever on how I felt about myself, my journey or what I had accomplished (and this is the first time I can say this with 100% honesty).

4. I managed to maintain a healthy relationship with food. No matter how rough the diet got, I always viewed it as a temporary way of eating for a temporary goal. And once that goal was achieved I knew I would resume a healthy, balanced way of eating. Again, I was not perfect and I had my moments. But I was always able to bring myself back to a positive place pretty quickly. I never ever judged myself negatively, or freaked out about, or had a mental meltdown regarding any food choice/behavior that was less than consistent with my goals. I just got right back to a positive place mentally and right back on track to the best of my ability- always with the trust and belief that I was capable of seeing this through (this too is the first time I can say this with 100% honesty).

5. I maintained self-love. This sounds weird, but in the past I used to allow my fear of not being good enough to motivate my actions. I would do things because I felt like I had to, or else I was not good enough. This time around, I always believed I was enough, regardless of how I looked or if I had made a mistake. I always believed in myself, I always treated myself kindly and I never acted out of fear or compensation or punishment. I learned how to handle and overcome my anxiety and keep my mind on what I believed I could achieve, not on the fear of what might happen (again, another first).

In the end, this prep truly strengthened my confidence level in my ability to achieve any goal I set for myself. It improved my ability to handle and overcome obstacle and setbacks. And it strengthened my trust in myself and my body. My mind and self-image are stronger than ever and my healthy relationship with food has remained perfectly intact. Physically, I did not make my shoulder injury any worse (this is a big success as my last fitness prep REALLY added a lot of damage to my shoulder joint).  

Even in this post competition period which, in the past, I’ve REALLY struggled with, I’m finding my confidence in my ability to handle it is stronger than ever. I am two weeks post competition and it’s the best I’ve ever felt mentally and physically after a show. I have yet to experience any signs of a physical or emotional post-competition “rebound.” My body is healthy. My metabolism is healthy. And my mind is healthy. I am healthy. And I’m continuing to move forward in a positive way by setting new goals for myself.

So what is the next step for me? Do I plan on competing again? Absolutely…just not right away. I had to put my body through a lot for the final few weeks of this past prep and I don’t believe it’s healthy to compete multiple times in a row under those circumstances. Additionally, I want to focus more on other aspects of my life. A contest prep requires so much time and dedication, and most of your energy gets devoted to preparing to get on stage- other things tend to take a back seat. And this is ok, temporarily, because to achieve a great goal you must really put 100% of your energy into it. But I do not want my life to be that way year round. My goal is not necessarily to win a show or to compete at the Olympia (I’ve already been there, done that). My goal is to have a complete, well rounded and fulfilling life. Competing can be part of that life but it is not my whole life. For now I’d like to put a little more energy into building my professional career and sharing with others all that I’ve gained through this experience. I will compete again when the time is right, but in the meantime I’m going to try to build bigger shoulders and a bigger butt, spend a lot of time enjoying the summer with Dan and my family, and focus on helping others to achieve their nutrition and fitness goals.

 

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I Don’t Believe in “Cheat” Meals…

My contest prep started about 11 weeks ago and to be perfectly honest it kind of started out on a whim–I literally decided out of nowhere around 15 weeks out from the NY Pro that I wanted to compete, so I took about a week to come up with a plan and started my prep the following week. Prior to that I had spent the better part of the last two years learning, practicing and fully embracing an intuitive style of eating. My own personal experiences and subsequently a position as an eating disorder nutritionist had prompted me to learn as much as I could about eating disorders, disordered eating, food issues, body image, and everything that goes along with it. Learning the concepts of intuitive eating and listening and being kind to my body was my “recovery.” Teaching and helping others has served to reinforce everything I have learned and experienced. It is something I whole heartedly believe in. Prior to starting this prep I was in a place where I literally ate whatever it was I felt like, exercised how and when I felt like it, and still maintained my body weight within about a 2-3lb range ALL THE TIME. I ate a lot of nutritious foods but not always. And I was perfectly ok with that. I was content with myself. I no longer focused on my body or sought after the next diet or worried about my weight. I no longer battled with food. I no longer binged on food. Food and my body no longer consumed my thoughts. And it was truly a beautiful thing.
I believe that every person has the ability to maintain his/her normal/healthy body weight through a nutritiously intuitive eating style. And that is exactly what I was doing. And it was amazing. But in my heart I am an athlete. The process of training for a competition or event really brings me true joy and I really missed it. But my options for competitive sports are somewhat limited at this point in my life. So with already being an IFBB Pro, competing in the IFBB figure division seemed like the most logical option. The only problem was, the style of eating required to achieve a stage ready figure body seemingly contradicted everything I had come to believe in with regards to food. But the more I thought about it, the more I believed I could apply and maintain everything I had learned, even in a contest prep situation. It was (and is) my belief that I could approach a contest prep in a completely different way than I previously had done (and in a way that is different than what is generally considered “acceptable”) and I could succeed at both competing and maintaining a healthy relationship with food. And then I could help show others how to do it.

My goal at the start of this prep was to prove to myself (and others) that it could in fact be done without diving into the unhealthy depths of disordered eating and food obsession and body dysmorphia and ruined body image. The truth is, I was coming from such a great, healthy place that the idea of messing with it by artificially controlling my food intake (i.e. not always listening to hunger and fullness cues and not always listening to what my body was telling me it wanted to eat) for the sake of achieving an athletic goal was actually quite a bit scary- but I knew it was going to be temporary. To me, contest prep is a temporary way of eating to achieve a temporary goal. This may be a rare opinion in the fitness world, but I don’t eat on a meal plan year round, and I don’t walk around within 3lbs of my stage weight year round (nor do I have any desire to do either. To each his own).

Having a healthy relationship with food and my body and preserving that relationship at all costs (even if it meant not being as “lean” or “ripped” or “hardcore” as everyone else) was my first priority when designing my approach to this contest prep. Because in 100% honesty, having a healthy relationship with food and my body– no longer having constant anxiety around food, no longer constantly worrying about what others think of how I look, no longer feeling the need to keep foods out of the house for fear of bingeing, no longer obsessing about what I eat—has led to a significantly greater amount of happiness and peace in my life than any amount of leanness ever has or ever will. And I intend to maintain that perspective at all times.

Along with viewing the contest prep style of eating as a temporary means to a temporary ends, I’ve also implemented some other strategies along the way to help me maintain my perspective. I have approached the entire process with a perspective of “I have permission to eat whatever I choose at any time and whatever my choice is, I trust that it is what is best for me in that moment.” I trust my ability to choose the actions that will move me closer to my goal. If I choose an action that is not consistent with this, I trust it is for a good reason, and that’s good enough for me. I do not analyze or beat myself up over any choice. I own it and I keep moving forward.

I don’t believe in “cheat” meals (or days). I hate the word “cheat.” To me the word cheat has a morally negative connotation attached to it. And so if I say I’m having a “cheat” meal, it makes it seem as though there is something inherently bad about it, like I’m doing something I’m not supposed to be doing, when in fact, all I’m doing is eating food. There is nothing moral or right or wrong about it- it’s just food. So there is no reason to feel any type of way about it. I also think the “cheat” concept makes me feel like I have to go and eat certain types of food and eat as much of it as I can because after this I can’t have any of it again until my next “cheat.” And this promotes a last supper, “stuff my face” mentality rather than listening to my body’s cues.  

The most effective tool that I’ve been utilizing throughout this prep (aside from reading and journaling) is something I’ve termed an “intuitive eating day.” This is not a binge day, a “refeed” day, an “all you can eat” day or a “cheat” day. My intuitive eating day is a day where I let my body decide what it wants to eat and how much. It is just a day of “normal” eating for me (how I would eat if I weren’t prepping). I listen to my body, I trust my body, I don’t measure anything, I eat generally nutritious foods (for the most part but not always), and I eat when I’m hungry and stop eating when I’m satisfied. There is no bingeing, no stuffing my face, no “last supper” meals, no “cheating.” I eat intuitively. For those of you wondering what that might look like, here is an example:
​Breakfast: Oatmeal/egg white pancake topped with peanut butter and sugar free syrup or honey

​Lunch: Chicken, sweet potato, large salad with lots of veggies and whatever else I feel like
​Snack: No Cow protein bar, trail mix (nuts/dark chocolate mix), fruit
​Dinner: Banza chick pea pasta with ground beef, broccoli, tomato sauce and cheese (this meal always varied- sometimes sushi, sometimes pizza, sometimes just steak and veggies- whatever ​I was in the mood for)
​Dessert: Dark chocolate with natural peanut butter (a couple of times I had ice cream because I really felt like it- Ben and Jerry’s “The Tonight Dough” is the BEST ice cream ever invented!)

So you can see, its mostly nutritious foods that I genuinely like to eat, not measured, not over eaten, but eaten in amounts that satisfy me. This is how I “normally” eat. And I’d like to stay as close to that as possible. Do I believe eating like this once per week has hindered my progress in any way? Nope. And even if it has from a physical/leanness standpoint, I don’t care. It’s important to me to maintain my ability to eat this way and I believe it has actually helped me stay on my game mentally- which is really the most important thing during a contest prep. I’ve also incorporated a bit of intuitive eating throughout my prep nutrition plan, but that’s a bit harder to explain and I’m not going to get into the details.

The key is, I listen to my body.

Dan asked me the other day what I wanted to eat after my show. And I looked at him like he was crazy. I have no idea what I’m going to feel like eating 3 weeks from now. And I’m not in such a deprived state that food is constantly on my mind and all I can think about is eating (fill in the blank). Sure I get hungry and sometimes I’d like to eat more or something different, but like I originally mentioned, my perspective is “I have permission to eat anything I choose at any time.” And I trust myself to consistently make the choices that will help me to reach my goal. But if I want something badly enough I can just have it (I can count on one hand and still have fingers left over the number of times this has actually occurred but just having that self permission with no fear of judgement is key for me).  I’m not obsessed with food and what I can and cant eat.

Now please don’t mistake this approach as a “lazy” approach to nutrition for contest prep. I can assure you I have worked extremely hard on my nutrition for this prep—probably even harder than I have worked in the past and definitely harder than I had initially anticipated I would need to. But that’s all the more reason for me to keep the right perspective. When the nutrition gets really tough towards the end, having the right perspective is crucial (for me at least). My emotional well-being always takes precedent over my desire to be hardcore or shredded, but that certainly does not mean I’m not busting my butt to be my best.

I’m going to take a guess and say there’s probably not a “prep coach” out there that would advise clients to do what I’ve been doing. But I’m also going to go out on a limb and say there’s probably not many (if any) prep coaches out there that have significant experience working with people with eating disorders. I do. And the way I see it, a contest prep is a self-imposed disordered way of eating, and it can lead to many of the physical and psychological effects seen in actual eating disorders. To complicate that, many people that gravitate toward the bodybuilding sports tend to already have some type of disordered eating behaviors, and food and/or body image issues to begin with, tendencies which can certainly be exacerbated by the contest prep. So why not try to develop an approach that addresses this head on.

Many people will disagree with everything I’ve said. And that’s ok. That’s why I do my own prep. And it works for me. I’ve worked with enough eating disorder clients to understand the tendencies and the mindset. I also know my own personal experience, I know what I’ve learned from it, I know what is important to me, and I know what I want and don’t want. Is this approach necessary for everyone? No, of course not. But it would probably be very beneficial for some.  This approach works for me because I took the time to understand my own eating behaviors and to truly embrace and practice an intuitive way of eating. And I’m confident in my methods. 

I started this prep with a complete and genuine trust in my body and my ability to handle myself when it comes to food. I would strongly encourage anyone embarking on this type of journey to do the same. Unfortunately, not everyone that competes will start from a place of a healthy relationship with food and their body, and even worse many athletes (and prep coaches) do not necessarily feel this is important (or maybe they simply do not understand HOW important it is). And this is a HUGE mistake. If you’re starting from a place that involves disordered eating tendencies, and food and/or body image issues, I can almost guarantee you that a restrictive contest prep will make things much worse. My suggestion would be to take the time that you need to address these issues first and foremost. Read books, seek counselling, ask for help- do what you need to do to get yourself to a place where you have a healthy relationship with food and your body. That’s usually going to mean putting off competing. But it’s necessary and worth it. Trust me when I say, a contest prep will not solve your eating and body image issues. It will not make anything better. There is no way to implement a safe and healthy contest prep if you’re not starting from an emotionally healthy place. Let’s face it, you can’t successfully navigate an intuitive eating day if you don’t know how to eat intuitively. Then all you’re left with is the restrictive eating/cheat meal cycle. And personally I don’t believe in that approach. 

I Am Not My Body

I am currently in the process of training for a competition in which I will be judged solely on what my body looks like. One might think that this means my entire focus right now is centered on my body, and how it looks. But in reality, I am learning more and more as time goes on that even though this process is technically entirely about my body, it is really nothing about my body at all.  

For the first time in my fitness career I am approaching this process from a new perspective. For the first time, I am not doing this for the sake of trying to find happiness in my body- for the belief that a certain look, or being leaner will make me happier and more satisfied. I have already learned that the “look” itself cannot bring true happiness or satisfaction. True satisfaction comes from something so much deeper than an outward appearance. For me, true satisfaction comes from who I am and what I do, not from how I look. Through this process I am getting better at maintaining discipline in tough situations, putting the work in every day, staying positive and persistent, learning how to handle obstacles, and helping others—these are the things that bring me true satisfaction. How my body looks is just an (irrelevant) side effect. 

In this sport, it is always possible to improve. And thus, most of us that compete are never actually 100% satisfied with our bodies from a bodybuilding perspective because there is always something to improve upon. There is no such thing as perfection. But that’s one of the cool things about the sport. There is always the opportunity to get better. But not being satisfied with my body from a bodybuilding perspective is NOT the same thing as not being satisfied with MYSELF. It also does NOT mean that I hate my body, or that I’m even unhappy with it. Wanting to improve can be a process of self-love, of belief in my own power. But deep down I KNOW that my body does not define who I am. I am defined by my character, my actions, my integrity and the way I treat others- none of which has anything to do with how I look.

In the process of training for a bodybuilding-style competition, I think it is extremely important that “person” and “body” remain separate. This can be a very tough thing to do. This is a sport that judges the body, and sometimes it can be very harsh. You must not allow judgement of your body to morph into judgement of who you are. I’ll say it again, YOUR BODY DOES NOT DEFINE WHO YOU ARE. When you allow judgement of your body, from yourself or from others, to influence how you feel about yourself, this is a big problem. And it can lead to the emotional and disordered eating issues that are seen in the fitness/bodybuilding industry.

So how do you avoid this?

First recognize WHY you want to compete, and be honest with yourself. This sport is not only physically grueling, but mentally and emotionally as well. Before jumping in, you must have a clear sense of who you are and have some sense of satisfaction with that person, regardless of what your body looks like. Understand why you want to compete and be realistic in your expectations.

Maintain a clear sense of who you are outside of the sport. Seek satisfaction in things that have nothing to do with your body- work, church, family, other hobbies, etc. Work to maintain the positive and important things in your life (outside of bodybuilding) and do not lose sight of them for the sake of changing your body. Stay involved in and aware of the bigger picture. This is so important because too often a competition prep can become an all-consuming black hole that can negatively affect relationships, finances, work and even your own physical and mental health. Keeping a clear sense of who you are and what is important to you in the bigger picture can help you avoid falling down this hole. Trust me, it is not a path you want to take.

Continue to help others in whatever way you can. This is one of the most satisfying things you can do.

Focus on process driven goals rather than outcome goals or physical changes. This is an extremely important key to maintaining your “person” satisfaction. Currently, my process goals focus more on my mental game and I have found this to be VERY helpful. For example, some process goals that I’ve been working on are- improving my ability to handle unexpected obstacles that used to throw me off track; staying relentless with my positive mindset and reframing negative thoughts; maintaining the “self-love” concept of discipline (as opposed to punishment/fear) and putting in the work every day, even when I don’t necessarily feel like it (and then mentally building myself up in a positive way for doing this); and replacing thoughts of self-doubt with ones of confidence and faith in my abilities. Focusing on these goals helps take the focus away from my body and allows me to feel successful even if my body does not look quite how I want it to. Process goals are always possible to achieve, outcome/results/body driven goals are not. It’s important to understand that concept.

Practice self-care and keep your focus on daily behaviors. Are you doing the things you need to do on a daily basis? If so, then give yourself credit for those accomplishments, regardless of how your body looks.  

Recognize if you are improving or if you are self-destructing. Are you getting stronger mentally or are you breaking down? If you find that things are turning negative, it may be because you are no longer separating how you judge your body from how you judge yourself. If that’s the case, take a step back and re-evaluate your approach. Remember, even in a sport where your body is being judged, YOUR BODY DOES NOT DEFINE YOU. Be proud of yourself for who you are and for what you are able to do, regardless of what your body looks like. Never lose sight of YOU the person. You are so much more than your body. 

 

The Comparison Game

OK, some Real Talk here…This past weekend I found myself checking up on all the social media accounts of the women competing at the Governor’s Cup out in Cali, as I was following the results of the show. All I kept finding myself thinking was “holy smokes, these women look amazing, there is no way I can compete with that.”

STOP RIGHT THERE.

Yes, that’s right- my personal mantra from the very start of this journey has been that I am doing this show FOR ME (my own self-improvement), not for anyone else and certainly not for a placing. And yet I still found myself falling victim to the dreaded but all too common social media comparison game.  

Here’s some advice. DON’T DO THAT.  

First of all, we must realize that the beauty of social media is that it lets us paint whatever picture we want. It lets us show only what we decide to show. And so our “followers” can never truly know if they are seeing the whole picture. This is fine. But with that, we “followers” must take ownership and realize this fact and therefore try not to put too much stock into what we see on social media.  

Social media, fitness personalities, IFBB pros- it can all certainly be very inspiring. There are people out there who are absolutely AMAZING (like all those women that competed at the Governor’s Cup- huge props ladies- you all killed it!!). But sometimes, without us even realizing it, social media can start becoming a negative mindset trigger—and usually that happens when we start comparing ourselves, our bodies, our own journeys to those of others. This was the case for me this past weekend.

But you know what, I have no business comparing myself to anyone else, and neither do you. Luckily, I am pretty quick to recognize these negative mindset triggers and snap myself out of them. But for those of you out there that may not have the same awareness yet, definitely check in on yourself once in a while as you’re scrolling through social media and ask yourself what emotion is it actually triggering. Are you feeling positively motivated and inspired or are you feeling like you’re not measuring up?

The comparison game can really become a negative mind f*ck if we let it (pardon my language, I don’t typically swear, but it really is the best term to describe what I’m talking about). But the fact is, I am ME and you are YOU. We each have our own unique circumstances with different challenges and obstacles to overcome. What I do should have no bearing on you and vice versa. Regardless of what anyone else out there is doing and regardless of how anyone else out there is looking (at 10 weeks out, 5 weeks out or on stage)- it really has nothing to do with me. It does not change what I need to do on a daily basis to get myself ready for the show. It does not change my reasons for wanting to compete. And it does not make me any less deserving to stand on stage. Because my journey is my own and it is for ME. And I encourage everyone out there to take that same approach. You can only control YOU- your own actions, your own behaviors, your own mindset- and those things have absolutely ZERO to do with what anyone else is doing. So stop comparing yourself to anyone else and start focusing on YOU.

On a personal level, I’m going to take this concept even one step further. Most people involved in bodybuilding style competitions set the goal to become better with each show. And this is a fantastic goal- it’s always best to work on improving yourself as opposed to trying to “beat” others or to win a certain placing. But sometimes even that thought process can be a little detrimental.  I’ve found that every contest prep is different with different challenges and circumstances, so it may not always be fair to even compare yourself to, well, yourself. We always have to take into account our current circumstances. When I had announced that I wanted to compete in figure, I stated that my goal was to beat my 2013 physique. It seemed like a valid and motivating goal at the time, but truthfully, I really didn’t consider my circumstances before making that statement. I have now come to realize that I was in a completely different place in 2013, and so constantly comparing myself now to myself back then has proved to be a bit of a negative mindset trigger as well. In 2013 I had done a strongman show earlier in the year (and placed 2nd and qualified for the nationals!).  I was doing a lot of crossfit and conditioning workouts leading into and throughout my prep, and my shoulders were MUCH more functional than they are now. My ability to train at an exceptionally high level was much better (and I was training for fitness) and thus my training was much different than it can be now (due to my current injury limitations).  

Additionally, my focus has really not been on bodybuilding AT ALL in the past few years. In the last 2-3 years I’ve focused a lot on my career and made some major career shifts.  I’ve also adopted two rescue chihuahuas (my full time fur- babies), and moved in with my boyfriend and taken on the role of weekend stepmom to two young boys. In the gym my focus had been on a balanced approach to exercise that kept my body (and mind) as healthy as possible, and I even trained for and ran in a half marathon this past fall. So no, I have NOT been training for a figure competition this whole time. I literally decided about 8 weeks ago that I wanted to compete again and that was when I started training for it (giving me about 2 weeks to come up with a game plan and 14 weeks for a contest prep). So with all of that being said, how can I truly compare myself now to myself in 2013, or 2011, or 2008 when I stood on the Olympia stage. I am completely different NOW than I was in any of those times, so the comparison is not valid.  

But it doesn’t change my journey. It doesn’t change how hard I am working to be my very best RIGHT NOW in my current circumstances. All I can do is the best I can do RIGHT NOW, with what I’ve got to work with RIGHT NOW. And that’s exactly what I’m doing.

So just like I’m telling YOU to stop comparing yourself to others, I am also telling ME to stop comparing myself to others AND to myself in the past. MY current journey is what matters to me (and yours to you). RIGHT NOW is what I need to focus on, not what used to be.  I have no idea exactly how I’ll look the day of the show but I know I will be able to say that I did my very best. And that’s what truly matters. That, and sharing my journey and these types of insights with you guys, in the hopes that it may help you as well.

Fitspiration gone wrong

Recently I came across an article published in the March issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders that examined “fitspiration” websites versus the already known-to-be dangerous “thinspiration (or Pro-ana)” type websites.(Here’s the link to the article in case you want to read it yourself http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/25778714/ )

The study looked at 8 “coded variables” of potentially harmful messaging content on the websites, including things like food guilt, body/weight guilt and dieting/restraint messaging. Not surprisingly (to me at least), both types of websites shared common themes. In fact, the study reports that 80% of the “fitspiration” websites examined included one or more of the coded variables (potentially harmful messages). The study found that “…fitspiration (sites) include objectifying images of thin/muscular women and messages encouraging dieting and exercise for appearance rather than health motivated reasons. Such content may normalize compulsive exercise and (the) guilt inducing messages may contribute to poor body image…Research has noted the hazardous messages contained on “thinspiration” sites. The current study also indicates that sites supposedly devoted to healthy pursuits may contain (similarly) dangerous content.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the same results could apply to social media “fitspiration” as well as websites.

An additional study that I came across in my reading on this topic was aimed at attempting to identify demographic populations that most frequently visit/follow health and fitness related social media pages of 3 types- weight loss/fitness motivation (“fitspiration”), detox/cleansing, and diet/fitness plan pages.  Do you know what this study concluded? Teenage girls. Consumers of health and fitness related social media content were predominantly teenage girls.

Fitness family—WHAT ARE WE DOING?? The first study is indicating that we are essentially operating on the same level as pro-eating disorder websites.  And who are we promoting this to?? Teenage girls!

Something needs to change. 

The word “fit,” in the context we are looking at, by definition means: “in good health,” or “physically healthy and strong.” Nowhere, in any definition that I came across, was the word “fit” defined by anything about how a person looks. So WHY has “fitspiration” become so geared toward influencing how we look, instead of how physically healthy we are. Why are we promoting achievement of a “look” over achievement of health… (To teenage girls!!).  As a member of the fitness industry I can tell you first hand, the way a person looks is NOT an indication of his/her health status.  

One of the “coded” variables in the first study was “thin pose”- meaning a picture of someone posed in a way to make them thinner. This was not something that was typically found on the “fitspiration” sites. However, had they included a variable for “awkwardly twist your midsection to make your waist look as small as possible, pop your hip up to make your butt look bigger and don’t forget to flex your arm pose” I’m pretty sure the fitspiration sites would have scored even higher on their ability to promote damaging messages.

Here’s the thing folks, it’s OK to be proud of how you look. And it’s OK to post it up once in a while for the world to see. But maybe we all should start thinking twice about the true message we’re putting out there as well as WHO we are pushing this message on.  

You can be “fitspiring” without putting up a million and a half pictures of your abs (butt, boobs, etc). You can also be “fitspiring” without objectifying your body. You can promote healthy eating without encouraging restrictive/disordered tendencies and obscure food rules. And you can promote physical activity without insinuating a need for obsession or extremes.  

So let’s start actually promoting the concept of being FIT- as in “good health physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.”  And maybe think twice before you post that next abs/butt/boobs [insert other body part here] selfie or your “guilt-free” restrictive food rules.  What message are you really trying to send and who in fact is listening?

Why Compete

There have been more and more stories coming out about the negative experiences women are having in the realm of physique based competition (figure, bikini, etc).  I myself have even spoken on some of the negative side effects I had dealt with from my involvement in the fitness industry.  So why would I voluntary return? 
From a personal standpoint, I’ve learned so much about myself and gained so much insight over the past several years. And one thing that remains true is I simply love to train for things. I’ve reached a point in my life where being an athlete certainly doesn’t define me. I am comfortable in my own skin and I know who I am. But I truly and simply love to train to compete. If a person loves to sing she should sing, if a person loves to paint she should paint. I just happen to love training, especially with a goal in mind, so why shouldn’t I do it, so long as it’s done in a healthy way. 

At this point in my life, my options for performance based training are pretty limited due to previous injuries. Things like fitness, crossfit, triathlons and even half marathons or other running based events are really not healthy choices for me as they will almost certainly exacerbate old injuries.  But I CAN train for figure in a manner that allows me to keep my body healthy without further progressing those injuries. 

But what about all of those negative consequences that go along with competing in figure? Well, one thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that in order to embark on a journey towards any goal in a successful manner, especially one that deals directly with your body, you need to have a very good sense of self.  The fact is, when competing is approached with the right frame of mind, it can actually bring many benefits, none of which have anything to do with how you actually look. Discipline, persistence, work ethic, self confidence, strength, patience- just to name a few. There is nothing wrong with these characteristics. In fact, these are all pretty important attributes to possess to be successful for most things in life.  The problem arises when these things are rooted in fear. When behaviors are rooted in fear- fear of gaining weight, fear of not looking a certain way, fear of not being enough, fear of failure or disappointment, fear of not measuring up, fear of what other people think of you–that is when things become excessive and unhealthy.  Behaviors rooted in self love and a true desire to become a better person while maintaining a sense of contentness within yourself are not negative or unhealthy.  It’s ok to want to be better and to strive to reach goals- it just has to all come from the right place.  For example, discipline should come from a place of self love and self respect. It’s when discipline comes from a place of self punishment that it becomes unhealthy.  Obsession is not healthy. 

I can honestly say at this point in my life I have a very clear sense of what is healthy and what is not.  When I look in the mirror and ask myself why I want to compete, my reasons are exactly as I have written.  I love to do it. I love the process and I believe the process helps build me into a better person.  There is no hidden feeling of the desire to “get lean” because I don’t feel good enough as I am.  I love who I am. I say my goal is to match or beat my previous best physique. But the truth is, the actual outcome means nothing to me. It’s the behaviors and the process that truly matter. It’s challenging myself to overcome obstacles that used to cause me a lot of anxiety and feeling stronger because I can now push through them. It’s about learning to do the best I can, given the individual circumstances of each day, and feeling proud of myself for my efforts. I am no longer afraid. I’m not afraid of gaining weight after the show, I’m not afraid of what people will think and I’m not afraid of failing. I am choosing to do this for myself. 

From a professional standpoint, I feel it is my responsibility to lead by example.  There are way too many people in the fitness industry that are setting the wrong example. There’s way too much emphasis on the physical/vanity component with not enough emphasis on health. I want to show other competitors that they can choose to compete in a manner that emphasizes maintaining mental, physical and emotional health.  But who am I to tell people how to do it if I haven’t done it myself. I also work with athletes. Who am I to tell them that they can reach big goals in a healthy manner if I’m not doing it myself. I’m a big believer in the concept of actions speaking louder than words. And so I hope that my actions are what speak to those who look to me for help.

That’s why I choose to compete.

Protein Spiking- Not just a rip off, but a possible health risk?

There have been a few articles come up recently that talk about the dishonesty of some supplement companies using a practice referred to as “protein spiking”- essentially using single amino acids and other substances instead of whole proteins in an attempt to cut costs, thus altering (reducing) the true total protein content of the product (as compared to what is on the label).  As a consumer, I consider this a rip off.  But as a Registered Dietitian, I consider this a much bigger problem.

Before I go any further, let me first explain exactly what it means to be a Registered Dietitian.  Many people do not understand the difference between “nutritionist” and “registered dietitian (RD).”  Believe it or not, in many states, anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist.”  There really is NOT a ton of regulation for the use of that title or the training required.  On the contrary, Registered Dietitians (RD’s) are required to have a four year college degree with a specific subset of mandatory coursework.  In addition to an extensive list of nutrition courses, RD’s are required to take biology, chemistry, biochemistry, organic chemistry, and anatomy and physiology to name a few.  Upon completion of this coursework and a four year degree, RD’s complete a year long supervised practice internship within the nutrition field, a good part of which is spent in an acute care hospital setting working with doctors and pharmacists to treat patients with a broad range of medical conditons.  A HUGE part of the training to become a Registered Dietitian is learning the biochemistry behind specific disease states and the subsequent appropriate nutrition therapy.    Thus, we don’t just learn about “eating healthy” and “weight loss”- we learn a whole lot more about science and medicine. 


So with all that being said, I’m going to put on my “Clinical RD” hat for a minute and get back to the topic as to why this “protein spiking” is especially concerning to me.


In an attempt to reduce costs, some supplement companies have decided to put large amounts of free amino acids instead of whole proteins into their products.  This is done because protein in food products is often measured based on nitrogen content, and free amino acids contain nitrogen.  The difference is, single amino acids do not provide the same nutritional content as complete proteins (which contain ALL of the essential amino acids), and thus are not utilized in the body the same way. Although we typically associate protein powders with those looking to build muscle, not all protein supplement users are athletes or gym goers.  Some health conditions require an increased protein intake and often these patients will use protein supplements.  So if I have a patient that requires a specific amount of protein each day for something more significant than just a desire to build muscle, such as healing a major wound or recovering from a severe burn injury, and that patient uses one of these mislabeled protein supplements, he or she is not going to get the results we would anticipate and his/her health may be further compromised.


But aside from the mislabeling issue, are there in fact possible health risks associated with these “spiked proteins?  Well, that has a lot to do with which amino acids in particular these companies are using to spike their products.   The article that I had initially read stated that companies were using the amino acid glycine in their products.  Glycine is a relatively cheap, non-essential amino acid, which means it can be synthesized within the body (from serine) with a sweet taste, often used in flavoring.  Glycine is metabolized in three different pathways within the body.  In one of those pathways it is eventually metabolized to oxalate which is a major component in a common type of kidney stone.  


Now realistically, in an individual with healthy kidney function and a well balanced diet with adequate fluid intake, this shouldn’t pose too much of an issue.  However, in a person with compromised kidney function or in someone prone to or at higher risk for calcium oxalate stones, this could theoretically be a major concern.  Additionally, looking at the dietary intake of a person who we would typically expect to use protein supplements (athletes, fitness enthusiasts) we would most likely find that the individual is already consuming a high protein diet.  A high protein diet, especially from animal proteins, in and of itself can increase a person’s risk for kidney stones through a few different mechanisms.  One mechanism stems from the fact that the amino acid methionine, largely found in animal proteins,can increase calcium in the urine.  Combine this with a high glycine intake (from spiked protein powders) and that could potentially be cause for concern (increased calcium in the urine plus excessive glycine converting to oxalate = increased risk for calcium oxalate stones).  Furthermore, taurine was also listed as one of the amino acids used in spiking and some studies have shown that taurine has a potential diuretic effect.  This along with a high protein diet can lead to dehydration if a person is not drinking enough water and thus even further increase the risk for kidney stones.


One example of a population that this would be a huge concern for would be those people undergoing weight loss surgery, or other forms of gastric surgery (i.e. those performed to treat GI cancers).  The standard post-operative diet for sleeve gastrectomy and roux-en-Y gastric bypass patients consists largely of liquids, with a major emphasis on protein supplements.  It is typically recommended that these patients use high quality whey isolate supplements, however some patients cannot afford these products or simply do not like the taste and thus turn to other products on the market.  To make matters worse, a common post-operative complication of any GI surgery is dehydration.  I would hate to think that these patients are also now increasing their risk for kidney stones due to their clinically vulnerable post-operative state AND the use of mislabeled protein supplements. But it’s certainly feasible.


As if that weren’t enough, another major concern I have is the fact that some companies are using creatine monohydrate as a so called “spiking agent” in their protein supplements without necessarily listing it on the label.  The most recent studies have shown that as a supplement creatine is generally safe to use in recommended dosages in healthy individuals.  However it is recommended that creatine supplements NOT be used by people with compromised kidney function.  Patients that have End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) requiring dialysis have increased protein needs due to the depleting nature of regular dialysis.  Some of these patients may decide on their own to use protein supplements to help support their body’s increased protein needs.  If such an individual were to unknowingly use a product that was spiked with creatine monohydrate, they may be putting themselves at risk for further compromise.  


Creatine supplements are also commonly used by both athletes and gym goers for their potential benefit in assisting with overall strength and performance.  As mentioned above, when used accordingly this is a generally safe practice.  However, if a person is already taking the recommended (or larger) dosage of creatine and unknowingly using a protein supplement that may have been spiked with creatine monohydrate, this could lead to a person significantly surpassing the recommended dosages and possibly increase the risk for health consequences.


When all is said and done, we as consumers have a right to know what is in the products we are buying.  Although the potential health risks associated with this “protein spiking” may be more pronounced in certain populations, I would still advise using great caution when it comes to choosing supplements.  It’s unfortunate that companies are getting away with both deceiving consumers and possibly putting consumers at risk, however you the consumer can do something about it.  Look for products that have undergone thorough third party testing, preferably by a reputable organization such as NSF or Informed Choice.  Choose brands that are known for having high quality standards.  Look at pricing schemes.  If a particular type of product generally falls within a relative pricing range among most brands and then there is an outlier that’s claiming to be the same type of product but it is being sold for much less, question it.  Check the labels of the products you are buying.  Read the ingredients.  If things don’t add up, question it.  Just because your favorite social media personality is promoting a specific brand or product does not necessarily mean its high quality.  Do your research.  Stay informed.  Because in the end it can make a big difference, and not just for your wallet, but for your health.

That little thing called “genetics”

I recently read an article that talked about how people respond differently to different types/amounts of cardio based on genetic factors.  To me this seemed pretty obvious, but I don’t know if the majority of people out there see it that way.  Let me preface all this by saying, the majority of what I’m going to bring up is based mostly on personal experience, discussion with others and observation.  My college degree is in Nutritional Science (which was in fact a “pre-med” major because I used to think I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon), but in pursuing that degree, I took one class in genetics which covered nothing about training/exercise/diet.  So that is the extent of my formal scientific training in genetics. 


Regardless, I’m going to speak my mind on own my understanding of the topic as it may or may not relate to training/nutrition based on MY experience.


Genetics is something a lot of people bring up when it comes to having a certain “look.”  Typically in physique sports the top competitors have “good” genetics, or even what we may consider “exceptional” genetics based on their natural shape/structure.  For women, this may mean naturally wide/capped shoulders, tiny waist, round glutes, etc.   The fact is everyone has a different genetic structure to work with.   Unfortunately, in the physique sports, genetic structure plays a major role.  It’s not to say we have no influence on how we look.  Proper training and nutrition can certainly help to alter one’s physique in dramatic ways.  However, we are ultimately limited by our natural structure.  I think it’s very important to accept this when it comes to developing physique based goals.  Be honest with yourself and be realistic with your own physical capabilities.  We would all love to have “perfect” structure, but it’s really not worth using unhealthy/unsafe practices in an attempt to alter your own genetic structure (i.e. wearing a squeem for hours a day in an attempt to reduce your waist size) for a placing at bodybuilding show.


Another concept involving genetics that I think is often overlooked is how it may impact our nutrition and training.  This is why there is no such thing as a one size fits all training or diet protocol.  I’m going to use my own personal experience here to explain the points I’m trying to make.  I feel like I can use myself as a valid example because I’ve been an athlete for a very long time, I’ve been training for many years, I’ve worked with many different coaches and I have employed many different training and nutrition styles over the years.  In doing so, I’ve really learned exactly how my body will respond to certain things—in essence, I’ve learned my own “genetics” when it comes to training/nutrition.  


I’ve learned that genetically speaking, I build muscle very well.  Additionally, I hold onto muscle very well.  I used to joke that I could eat nothing but iceberg lettuce and my body would still find a way to utilize it.  But what does that mean in terms of training and nutrition.  Well, in terms of getting ready for a fitness competition, it meant I could afford to do a decent amount of cardio without a huge fear of burning muscle.  It also meant that I could be a little stricter with my carb intake and still maintain size.  (And as a quick note, it doesn’t mean that it was ok or ideal for me to be doing zero carbs and 2 hours of cardio for weeks on end- it just meant that I probably could do more than some others and still maintain muscle mass).  There are others out there that lose muscle with just the thought of extra cardio, and thus their training/nutrition should be tailored accordingly


On the topic of cardio (and I’d like to do a full blog one day on this topic as it seems to be one of great debate), I did a contest prep one time which included little to no cardio (at least, it was a significant amount less than my body was used to doing), and I really didn’t have great results with that approach.  In addition to my personal genetic response to cardio I also attribute this to the fact that growing up and through college, I was spending anywhere from 4-8 hours in the gym everyday training for gymnastics.  My theory is- maybe my body just needs a little more because of this (training adaptation).  There are plenty of others out there who can do an entire contest prep and get stage-ready lean with hardly any cardio at all– and honestly, if you can do it that way you should!  But that wasn’t me (and it still isn’t- to this day my body responds very well to certain types/amounts of cardio)


Another example would be my response to strength training.  Like I said, I build muscle very easily.  I know there are some competitors that typically include crossfit workouts (and/or a lot of heavy barbell stuff) while getting ready for a show.  In fact, I know of a fellow fitness competitor that trained for her last show using exclusively crossfit training (in addition to routine work)-and her physique is AMAZING.  However, personally, that approach would never have worked for me.  I did a lot of heavy training and metabolic stuff back in my day, which would have been similar to crossfit as this was before crossfit became mainstream (you can still see the youtube videos of my crazy training here https://www.youtube.com/user/Ergis1999/videos, but the fact is, that type of training was actually detrimental to MY “stage” physique.  It was awesome, I loved it, I got super strong and I had a blast, so I certainly don’t regret any of it, but it definitely did not help me out in terms of my physique round placings.  So why can some people train like that and look amazing, and others maybe not so much- well, for me, I build muscle quickly, I have a very wide and thick back, my traps insert high on my neck (they used to call me Marcus Ruhl when I trained with the guys) and I naturally have a wider waistline with very thick core muscles.  That type of training enhances all of those features– which is the opposite of what I wanted for the physique rounds.  But on a side note, my fitness routine kicked ass when I was training like that because it was the strongest I have ever been (you can see here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPRtGeDue2Y if you don’t believe me).


The last show I did back in 2013 was my ultimate physique to date.  The reason why is because I understood my body and I trained very specifically with that understanding in mind.  I used lighter/moderate weights with a VERY (let me repeat VEEEEERRY) strong emphasis on the mind muscle connection and focused VERY hard on feeling exactly what muscle I wanted to be targeting.  I also did a good mix of high intensity cardio, moderate intensity cardio- not a ton of steady state stuff- and metabolic workouts.  My cardio was geared towards preparing me for my fitness routine– I felt like none of it was “wasted” or “mindless” – each cardio workout had a specific purpose.  My nutrition consisted of a moderate amount of healthy carbs, fats and proteins- a very balanced approach- but I ate mostly fresh foods (fruits, vegetables, eggs, sweet potatoes, lean meats, greek yogurt) because these were the foods I responded best to, from both a performance and physique perspective.   I also limited gluten because I generally feel much better when I keep it relatively low in my diet (side bar here, I do not have Celiacs disease and I do not advocate a gluten free diet.  There is nothing inherently wrong with gluten, and I CANand do eat a modest amount of food containing gluten, I just personally feel a million times better when I keep it low—again, learn your body).  


I can honestly say I did NOTHING excessive or extreme for that contest prep.  It was really a matter of using all of the knowledge I had gained along the way, knowing how my body would respond to specific training and nutrition techniques and being smart about what I was doing.  And I was able to present my best physique.  It doesn’t mean that the way I trained is the ONLY way, and it doesn’t mean that the way I prepped will work for everyone.  


The point I’m trying to make here is learn your own “genetics.”  Avoid falling into the trap of following certain protocols just because other people are using them.  Learn what YOU need to do to improve YOURSELF, whether it be performance or physique based, and tailor your approach with that specific goal in mind.  If you work with a coach, make sure you are both on the same page when it comes to your goals and your genetic response (and make sure your program is tailored to YOU).  


Furthermore, be honest with yourself about your own structural and genetic limitations.  We can’t all look like Ms. Figure/Physique/Bikini (or Mr.) Olympia, just like we can’t all perform like Rich Froning or Camille Leblanc-Bazinet (crossfit superstars if you’re not familiar with the names).  I’m not saying don’t try.  It’s not the point I’m trying to make at all.  We truly have the power to accomplish great things when we work hard, believe in ourselves and go after our goals.  However, I AM saying be realistic.  Focus on self improvement in a way that’s healthy and productive, not self destructive.  Not everyone’s “end-all/be-all” is to be a Pro in the physique sports or a crossfit games competitor, and that’s OK.  Try to be the best YOU that you can be.  Learn to listen to your body.  Learn to work WITH your body, not against it. And always keep your health as top priority. Learning your “genetics” is a process, but the outcomes will be well worth it.

They say “Love your body.” But what if you don’t (yet)?

Despite an overly vain fitness industry, we are starting to see a small subset of voices like my own spreading the positive message of “love your body” no matter your shape or size.  It’s a great message with great intentions.  But what if you don’t (love your body)? Unfortunately for people with body image issues (which is many of us), it’s not something we can just “do.”  If it were that easy, we wouldn’t have these issues to begin with.  So the question is, how do you go about learning to love your body for what it is?

Some of you might be thinking “well, it’s pretty easy for someone with six pack abs, perfectly sculpted shoulders, arms, legs and glutes- features which most “fitness icons” portray- to be promoting this message, of course they love their bodies!” Perhaps, but believe it or not even those “perfect bodies” have many of the same insecurities we all experience. But regardless, what about the rest of us?  

Let me first tell you where I’m coming from so you can understand why I’m using the phrase “the rest of us” (because yes, I’m including myself).

I am a “pro fitness competitor” (albeit retired– for now) but realistically, I have been single digit body fat percentage lean.  I’ve been one of those “fitness icons” (so to speak). 

But right now I’m about 150lbs at 5’5 (I don’t actually weigh myself so I’m not sure of the exact number, but it’s around there).  My contest weight was about 130lbs (plus or minus water)- so I’m a good 20lbs heavier. My waist is probably about 28-29 inches.  I have far from what would be considered the ideal female hour glass shape.  In fact, I think my hips and waist are about the same, measured straight across.  I naturally carry my fat in my midsection, contributing to my “larger (by fitness industry standards) waistline,” and I’ll only ever have abs if I’m in contest shape.  I am FAR from “fitness icon perfect.” But you know what, that’s OK.  I’m not trying to be perfect. Because I’m happy with myself.  And regardless of any changes to my body in the future- leaner, heavier, whatever- I’ll still feel the same way.

 It hasn’t always been that way and in fact, it took me a very long time to get here.  But I believe it’s possible for everyone to come to a sense of peace with the body they are blessed with.

So how did I get here? What do you do if you know you want to get healthy and you know it’s time to start treating your body right, but you still struggle with body image? Can you improve your health and even your overall body composition (if you wanted to) all while still learning to fully embrace and love the body you have?

The answer is yes.

But it’s not as easy as so many people make it sound.  It’s a process. It takes a lot of hard work and consistency to CHANGE YOUR THINKING. But the end result is more powerful than any diet or workout you’ll ever do.

Here are some strategies that can help.

First things first, come to grips with the fact that NO ONE IS “PERFECT.”  You are not perfect, you will never be perfect, because we are not meant to be perfect.  In fact there’s no such thing as “perfect.”  That’s what makes each of us beautiful and unique.  Focus your mind on learning to love yourself for the person you are and what you can do.  Your worth DOES NOT come from what your body looks like. Period. End of story.  

Ok so now that we got that cleared up, here are a few more tips to keep in mind-

1.  When it comes to workouts, focus on function rather than a specific look.  It’s an unfortunate fact that, no matter how much work we put in, many of us just don’t have the genetics for that “ideal” physique.  So stop killing yourself trying to attain it, and stop beating yourself up for not looking like someone whose entire livelihood is devoted to his/her physique. 

Instead, focus on the amazing things your body is capable of.  Set performance and strength goals rather than “looks” goals.  Embrace how awesome it is to be able to lift more weight, or run faster, or master a new yoga pose.  And give yourself credit for making progress in these areas, regardless of what the scale or tape measure says.

2.  As I alluded to above, stop comparing yourself to the fitness icons.  Understand that for the majority of these people, their body is their livelihood.  Many are personal trainers or fitness models and their businesses are built based on their bodies.  Not to mention, they are able to spend a lot more time in the gym than most of us with jobs outside of the fitness industry.  I know I can speak for myself when I say competing got a whole lot harder after I finished school and jumped into a job that had nothing to do with fitness.  And this is not to say there is anything wrong with the fitness icons working in the business.  All I’m saying is FOCUS ON YOU, and what’s realistic for YOU to accomplish, within the realm of your own time constraints and personal responsibilities. 

3.  When it comes to nutrition, focus on health, not weight loss.  Shift your mindset toward eating healthy foods for the benefits they bring to your body, not for the amount of fat they may or may not help you lose.  Work on eating a variety of fresh foods and a balance of all the nutrients.  Treat your body well by fueling it with as much good stuff as you can.

4.  Try using positive affirmations to reinforce your belief in yourself.  Positive affirmations are simple phrases you can repeat over and over to yourself, that help you to “convince” your mind of what you want it to believe.  Try not to use any negative words.  For example, instead of saying “I will NOT say negative things about myself,” try saying “I WILL only speak of myself in a positive manner.” By using positive affirmations everyday you can help increase positive self image, even if you didn’t believe it at first (“fake it til you make it”). And you can google “positive affirmations” and find tons of examples.

5. Believe in your ability to make positive changes, even if they are small, and give yourself credit for any step in the right direction, no matter how large or small.  Focus on behavioral changes, not measured “number” outcomes (ie your weight).  The more capable and successful you feel in your ability to make positive changes, the better you will begin to feel about your own body.

6. Focus on other fulfilling aspects of your life that have nothing to do with how you look.  Friends, family, church, work, other hobbies, volunteering, teaching– find the bigger purpose in your life.  Because the truth is there is SO MUCH MORE to life than what your body looks like. And if your biggest focus in life is how your body looks, you’re truly missing out on all the joys life has to offer.

This totally sounds cliche, but remember, this is the only body you get.  You are unique.  You cannot have anyone else’s body, and no one else can have yours.  Do your best to treat your body with kindness and respect.  Be grateful for the body you have and what it can do .  Believe in yourself, stay positive and consistent, and follow the tips above, and you will be on your way to a better body image and a happier outlook, no matter your size or shape.

The solution is NOT another diet

So its been awhile since I’ve written, I’ve had a million and a half things going on, including an exciting move and job change, amongst other things. But with the New Year upon us and resolutions in full effect, I’m feeling it very necessary to write this post.

Your solution for happiness is NOT another diet. It’s not another fad, or cleanse, or diet pill, or Dr. Oz miracle product or any other promise of rapid weight loss and a “new you.”

In my experience, this is one of the hardest concepts to truly internalize. We all want the quick fix, because we believe that weight loss will be the key to our happiness. The paradox is, in order to truly be happy and healthy we must already accept ourselves. If you are unhappy, weight loss in and of itself will NOT bring happiness.

In other words, if you’re dieting or exercising to lose weight because you hate your body and you believe that when you finally lose weight THEN you will be happy, you will not get the outcomes you’re looking for. It does NOT work that way. In order to become healthy you need to focus on being happy NOW.

You must learn to disassociate weight and food from your self esteem and happiness. Find worth within yourself regardless of your weight and regardless of what food you choose to eat and believe in that worth with all your heart.

So how do we go about doing that? I think one of the first steps is to let go of the dieting mentality. The fact is: Diets fail. And in turn they have this way of making people feel like they’ve failed. People do not fail, diets fail.

One of the inherent flaws in the concept of diets is the “on or off” mentality. We’re either “on” the diet or we’re “off.” When we’re on, we’re severely restrictive with food choices, to a point where it becomes impossible to maintain. Many of us start out with good intentions and strong wills but we have the unrealistic expectation that this level of restrictive eating is maintainable. And then we quickly find out, it is not. And then we go “off” the diet, and boy do we go off. Typically we go “off” out diets and head straight for the opposite extreme, binge eating and consuming large amounts of foods we would not even normally consume, just because we’re “off” the diet and we can. And then any weight loss achieved with the initial restrictive period is usually gained back and then some. And then the cycle starts over.

I myself am guilty of planning shows (fitness competition) in an effort to force myself to diet to get back into what I considered acceptable shape for the fitness industry. I was one of those competitors that dieted 100% strictly for weeks and months on end, only to rebound pretty significantly in a short amount of time following my competition season. This would lead to very poor self image and of course, the inevitable plan to start dieting again. And unfortunately, I was very competitive, and would end up taking it to the extreme again to get in shape for the next show. And the cycle would continue.

Its only more recently that I’ve realized how destructive this behavior is. And the mentality is really no different than the yo-yo dieter.

So no dieting. But then you may ask, so how do I lose weight/get in shape/get healthy? First of all, let me start by saying weight loss does not equate to health (nor happiness, as I’ve mentioned above) but I’ll save that for another post.

If you’re doing a contest prep, of course that requires some form of structured eating. But my advice is to maintain a healthy, well balanced approach, as much as possible. Continue to include all food groups throughout the entirety of the prep and give yourself plenty of time to achieve the level of leanness you’re aiming for. And most importantly, approach a competition prep with the right mindset. Always keep the perspective that “competition lean” is not necessarily “healthy, real life lean.” Be prepared for a normal amount of healthy weight gain after your show and be prepared for the emotional rebound that can occur in the post-show period. Understand what’s realistic and what’s not, and always keep your health as top priority.

And before even starting a competition prep take the time to really evaluate whether or not you are physically and emotionally ready to take on all that the competition prep and the post competition period can entail. And if you’re not sure you can handle it, then DON’T do it. There is absolutely no shame in deciding NOT to compete.

As for the rest of us that will not be getting ready for any physique type competitions in the near future, here’s some additional advice.

✓ Try to avoid classifying foods as good or bad. All food has a purpose. Some foods serve our health and some foods serve as enjoyment/fun. And realistically, its healthy to include a certain amount of both in our everyday lives.
✓ Try making small changes to your everyday habits. In order to be successful, you must approach health as a lifelong commitment, not a quick destination. Slow, manageable changes will produce longer lasting results than extreme restrictions. The key is to accept this truth and stop seeking the quick fix, it doesn’t exist.
✓ Focus on something other than food. Obsessing about what you eat and what you think you “should” be eating will only lead to unnecessary stress and often stress eating. Its counterintuitive, but often we relieve our food related stress by eating more food. So stop worrying so much about it and focus your attention on other, more fulfilling things.
✓ When it comes to nutrition, aim to consume more fresh, wholesome, natural foods as opposed to processed/packaged stuff. Stick to the perimeter of the grocery store- fruits, vegetables, lean meats, dairy and whole grains. It doesn’t mean packaged stuff can’t be healthy too, but generally speaking the fewer ingredients the better. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t incorporate some of the more fun, processed foods into your daily eating.
✓ Try to consume SATISFYING meals and snacks. If you’re forcing yourself to eat foods because you think you “should,” or because you think they’re “healthy” but you don’t necessarily like them, you’re not going to get very far. Choose foods that you enjoy. There is always a “healthier” version of all your favorite foods. Look for recipes and experiment!
✓ Create balance- use all 3 macronutrients at meals- carbs, proteins and fats. Do NOT eliminate whole food groups for the sake of weight loss.
✓ And most importantly, work on your own body image and outlook. Let go of the diet mentality. Break the cycle. Learn to love and accept your body for what it is and what it can do. Your self worth is NOT tied to how you look or what you eat. You deserve better than that, so treat yourself accordingly.