This is not an article about how to lose weight. I’m not going to tell you the secret fad diet that will change your life or debate the benefits of HIIT workouts or encourage you to join Peloton.
My primary goal isn’t getting you bikini-ready for summer or teaching you how to highlight your assets and downplay your “flaws.”
In fact, I’m not even a doctor, or a health guru, or a fit-fluencer, so you can take this with a grain of salt. But in this past year, I decided to focus on long-term healthy living and it has yielded better results than any diet.
While my fitness journey used to focus on how I looked on the outside, personal health challenges forced me to focus on how my body was functioning on the inside. So, like it does for so many people, my personal health journey actually arose out of necessity.
Over the past year, I have developed some personal behaviors that have helped me live my healthiest life. I’m hoping some of these actionable goals might help you do the same.
Living a healthy lifestyle to combat chronic illness
If you follow me on Instagram, you may know a few things about me—I love to travel, I work at Disney, I’m currently pregnant, and I’m “into” “fitness.”
I always considered myself a “healthy” person because I worked out a lot and was privileged to be traditionally “thin.” But it wasn’t until I sat doubled over in pain in a small village in Morocco that I realized something was not right—and no number of burpees was going to make me better.
According to the National Health Council, almost half of American adults live with a chronic illness. Most chronic illnesses are attributed to unhealthy behaviors and sedentary lifestyle and they are far more prevalent in developed nations, where we rely on convenient packaged foods and spend most of our time sitting at desks.
In mid-2019, I finally decided to go through a series of medical procedures to determine what was causing my bouts of debilitating pain, persistent nausea, and fatigue. I was losing weight, but I felt far from healthy. The doctor confirmed what I had already deduced—I had early stage Chrohn’s Disease.
(This may be a photo of me at my thinnest--I had lost almost 15 pounds since my constant nausea robbed me of any desire to eat.)
Chrohn’s is a chronic inflammatory disease that causes inflammation of the entire intestinal tract. My symptoms comprise the mild end of the spectrum—on the severe end, it can cause ulcers, require removal of damaged parts of the intestines, and lead to cancer. Less than one million Americans suffer from this illness, which means research on treatment is still limited and the drugs available for treatment are still untested for long-term side effects.
I was distraught with my diagnosis. I did not want to have a chronic disease and I certainly didn’t want it to progress to a moderate or severe case. But I also didn’t want to resort to injectable drugs for the rest of my life.
So I decided it was time to make additional lifestyle changes to achieve remission on my own. When I thought about my health over the course of my entire life, my objective became focused on reducing inflammation, eliminating chronic illness, and providing my body the best chance to prevent disease from advancing. I want to continue to comfortably travel the world for the rest of my life.
(Traveling in Turkey at the end of 2019, after achieving temporary remission through dietary and behavioral changes.)
While I won’t propose all disease can be prevented by healthy living, I do think we have the ability to provide our bodies the best advantage possible to stave off disease or avoid it all together.
I can honestly say that following these steps have helped me feel the best I have ever felt in my life—even with a chronic disease. My husband joined in and claims he feels more energized, focused, and that he has reduced pain and inflammation around an old sports injury in his back.
(This was the day we found out I was pregnant--5 weeks along. I had had to achieve remission prior to getting pregnant to avoid complications. Though pregnancy did incite a flare up during my first trimester--which was the WORST.)
Whether you are battling a chronic illness, pain in your body, trying to lose weight (which is a worthy goal if that is the journey you are on), or just want to live a healthier life, below are some practical tips on how I started my fitness journey. I hope it may inspire you to do the same!
(*Self-management of certain diseases isn’t for everyone. I am not a doctor and this is not medical advice. The drugs for those with advanced Crohn’s Disease have greatly improved many people’s quality of life. However, in my case, the side effects seemed worse than my symptoms, so I chose to decline my doctor’s recommendation to medicate. It should also be noted that my doctor never provided any advice for self-management or lifestyle changes.)
HOW TO LIVE YOUR HEALTHIEST LIFE--Get your head in the game
Focus on your long-term goal—not your six-pack
Have you ever felt “guilty” for eating a carb? One misstep and you feel like you’ve failed your whole diet. I’ve heard people lament over their sad lunch as they eat a piece of chicken on a bed of lettuce. How many people torture themselves by going to the gym just to berate themselves when the numbers don’t change on the scale?
Living a healthy life isn’t about reward and punishment while trying to reach a (fairly subjective) standard of outward physical fitness. People are burdened with guilt when it comes to food and exercise, which I can understand--I still find myself falling into the same trap.
The first step towards an overall healthy lifestyle is getting your mind into a healthy space. Your goal is about living a long, healthy life. Healthy living isn’t about feelings of guilt or virtue. Its measure of success is not six packs or biceps. It’s about living your healthy life for your personal motivations. This long-term focus is what keeps me motivated. Not the baseless struggle to lose a few pounds.
The first step: Determine your long-term goal. And I don’t mean an outwardly focused motivation. Who are you staying healthy for? Do you want to be able to play with your grandkids into your old age? Or do you want to stay healthy for your family? Do you want fewer medical expenses as you age? Do you want to travel or cross a finish line as a septuagenarian? Placing less focus on societal pressures or expectations of “looking fit” will make a healthy lifestyle more meaningful.
While hiking in Cape Town, South Africa, we were greeted by a 70+ year old man as he came forging around the corner. He told us that he laces up his sneakers every weekend and hikes up and down the mountain to stay healthy and active. In that moment, I realized that I want to be healthy and fit enough to travel and conquer mountains decades from now.
When I think about my heart getting stronger as I lift weights or about nutrients rushing to my joints when I have a bowl of fruit, I feel in control of my future. That makes all of this more rewarding to me because I don’t feel like I’m depriving myself of carbs, I feel like I’m giving myself the benefit of feeling great.
Getting started—go cold turkey
This may sound drastic, but I decided to commit to one month of radical change as a way to jump start our new healthy lifestyle. That means I implemented all of the following suggestions immediately and said I would try it out for a month (during weekdays, but I gave myself a break on weekends).
Commit to a plan that is realistic for you—try selecting one of the behaviors below to implement for the entire month, or do what I did and implement all of them, but only during the week.
Prepare—schedule meal preps, join a bunch of gyms on a trial basis, whatever you need to do to make sure you set yourself up for success.
Find an accountability partner—it’s way more fun to work towards total health with a friend! Andrew and I are both into living a healthy lifestyle, which makes it WAY more achievable.
Starting cold turkey helped us set attainable goals, establish good habits, and solidify a routine that we ended up carrying for the entire year.
DON'T DIET--EAT CLEAN: Healthy living starts from the inside, out
Ok, let’s talk about the hardest (but probably most important) category—clean eating.
Fad diets may be ok for a short stint, but most aren’t sustainable for the long-term health goals I envision for my life. This is a lifestyle—so think of the way you eat as a marathon, not a sprint. (Aka, I can’t fathom eating zero carbs, but all the bacon I can handle as a healthy long-term diet.)
First, let’s shift our focus again in relation to how we think about food. Food is not something to deprive yourself of or punish yourself for enjoying. Food is fuel. And we can choose to fill our tanks with poison or nutrients. That’s why I focus on eating clean. Eating clean requires avoiding processed food (most packaged food items) and avoiding added chemicals and preservatives.
Eating clean decreases inflammation—so I’m hoping my future knees, back, and gut thank me later.
It’s not easy—our fast-paced culture and the food available to us makes it almost impossible to eat completely clean unless you are very diligent (and are privileged enough to have the moohlah to do so). But here are some switches to make it more manageable:
Stick to the outside. Avoid most things that are packaged, frozen, or generally anything that resides in the middle aisles at the grocery store. This also means you may have to run to the store more often than every week.
Read ingredients, not nutrition labels. When determining how “healthy” something is, don’t rely on the calorie count as your measurement. Most low-cal “diet foods” are probably the most detrimental to your health long term. Check the fake sugar, sodium, and preservatives in the ingredients list and select foods that have the fewest ingredients (and are pronounceable and recognizable).
Hummus is something I eat almost every day, but if you take the time to peruse the 40+ brands of hummus, you’ll see that only a couple have ingredients that are free of preservatives and additives (my favorite brand is Hope). (And yes, while this is technically a packaged food, it is minimally processed. However, if you want to go fully clean, you can easily make your own hummus!) –photo from FoodBabe.com
Don’t buy “snack food,” buy whole foods.
Besides my husband’s penchant for KIND bars (which, if you read the ingredients, are actually pretty good—they just have more sugar than I care for), we have very few snacks in our pantry. No crackers, cookies, pretzels, etc. Instead I snack on what are called whole foods—foods that don’t really have a list of ingredients because they are just that food. That includes fruit, nuts, hard boiled eggs, avocado, veggies (with hummus), and my little bit of a cheat—cheese (but not that processed singles junk).
Avoid most bread (and it’s not because of gluten or carbs).
Probably the hardest processed food of all to avoid is bread. Y’all, our bread is TERRIBLE—it is over-processed, devoid of any nutritional value, and full of SUGAR. Take a look at the ingredients in bread (and don’t let “whole wheat bread” fool you, if the first ingredient is “enriched flour,” run away!). If we eat bread, we get sprouted grain bread (like Ezekiel brand) from the frozen section. I have no problem with gluten (or carbs!), but most bread products are devoid of any nutritional value AND contain tons of junk you don’t want to eat (a double whammy). Instead of bread products, we eat quinoa, couscous, and rice.
Cut out added sugars
Added sugars are in about everything we eat—especially if it’s packaged and/or processed. And it is generally known that “added sugar is the single worst ingredient in the modern diet.”
The suggested daily amount of sugar varies, but is typically less than 50mg or the less, the better.
In my first month of kickstarting my new lifestyle, I decided to cut out anything that had added sugar.
This meant no ketchup, no processed breads, no cocktails, no ICE CREAM. It was tough.
Read your labels—you might be surprised how many “health foods” contain almost your entire daily recommended amount of sugar
Try weaning yourself off sugar gradually—you’ll find you actually can like foods without it. For sweet alternatives, try adding agave, fresh fruit, or organic honey to your tea, oatmeal, yogurt, etc.
A dessert alternative I love are organic acai bowls (no sugar added!) with tons of fresh fruit.
Just drink water. Plain water. Nothing but water. Soda (obviously), juices, smoothies, coffee, and milk all have sugar (or fake sugar, which is worse). I flavor my water with peppermint extract for a little flavor and extra anti-inflammatory properties.
When I started looking at the sugar counts of my favorite yogurts, I realized I was surpassing my sugar intake in my first meal of the day! But yogurt is full of calcium, protein, and probiotics—all great things for your body! I switched to vanilla Greek yogurt first—though I didn’t like the texture as much as the delicious Yoplait Whips, but at least I was getting more protein. Then, I made the switch to plain non-fat Greek yogurt—but added a little bit of organic granola with agave nectar for some crunch and sweetness. Finally, I eliminated the granola all together and added sliced organic almonds, chia seeds, and organic blueberries and I haven’t missed the sugar at all!
One of the best results from my first month of eating clean was learning that I didn’t crave the stuff I used to crave—and actually finding cleaner alternatives that I really enjoyed.
News flash: meat is not the only way to get protein
Ok, carnivores I’m not attacking you. I really enjoy meat, and I still eat it on occasion. But, contrary to what meat companies have told us in their marketing for years, we don’t need as much meat as we think.
Not only is our over-consumption of meat a strain on the environment, but it may also be detrimental to our health, especially when it is mass produced
I actually decided to reduce my meat consumption a few years ago for environmental reasons, and as someone who enjoys meat, I haven’t missed it as much as I thought I would. And despite what some people may think, I have not withered away due to lack of protein.
Other delicious meat alternatives that contain protein:
Black bean burgers
Lentil soup (Trader Joe's homemade is my favorite)
Hummus (or anything with chickpeas)
Falafel (aka fancified hummus)
Organic almond/cashew butter (just watch the sugar!)
I have even come to love veggies more since I’ve been forced to try new recipes that don’t involve meat. And I’m healthier than ever, even without meat as a primary part of my diet.
You don’t need to become a vegetarian to benefit from the effects of a more plant-based diet. I still eat meat periodically—perhaps a couple times a week. I just make my choices more carefully. Grass-fed, farm to table, or organic meat is my typical MO.
My secret weapon: home delivery meals
This is honestly my biggest life hack and the biggest behavioral change I implemented when focusing on my healthy lifestyle.
I hate grocery shopping, consider cooking a chore, and then don’t get me started on the cleanup. Typically, we would go out for food or make frozen pizza.
Enter my ultimate secret weapon and clean eating salvation—Hello Fresh. Or really, any home delivery meal of your choice.
Having meals delivered to our home takes away most of the stuff I hated about cooking—I don’t have to source recipes, I don’t have to shop, and cooking and clean-up is fast and easy. Plus, the meals are REALLY GOOD and they are almost totally clean with fresh ingredients. They aren’t perfect, and you need to select meals strategically, but I’ve found more vegetarian recipes I’ve liked (and replicated on my own) AND eaten more fresh vegetables, since almost every meal includes them.
Now, I wouldn’t consider this option inexpensive, but with the time it saves me and the improvement to my life, I’d say it’s totally worth it. We’ve tried almost EVERY company, and still consider Hello Fresh our favorite for the variety of recipes and the easy instructions. If you want $40 off your first box, use my code here.
Some of my favorite meals from Hello Fresh include:
Chickpea Powered Mediterranean Couscous Bowls
Tunisian Stuffed Peppers or Zucchini Boats
Korean Beef Bulgolgi Bowls
ANY of the taco recipies
The ingredients with Hello Fresh are all…fresh, so the meat is quality meat, almost all of the ingredients are whole ingredients, and there are vegetables incorporated into every meal. Dinner was always the time when my healthy eating would get derailed, but with Hello Fresh, I am able to eat well and feel satisfied.
Get back to basics—incorporate natural supplements into your diet
Now, I’m not some anti-science conspiracy theorist. I believe in medicine and I am grateful for the scientific advances we have made that improves our lives and health. But on the flip side, I am also aware that the medical/pharmaceutical/insurance complex is driven by money—which means there is sometimes greater incentive to maximize profits than do what might be best for our health. And sometimes the best course for our health are supplements that have been used for centuries instead of prescribing the newest, super expensive drug.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the importance of supplements in my recovery from my inflammatory disease. In theory, most of your nutrients should be coming from your food, but there are some that are just difficult to get in large quantities.
My specific regiment of supplements are targeted at inflammation, so feel free to do your own research to find what may be best for you.
Metagenics Golden Fusion tea (aka Curry Tea)
Qunol Turmeric Liquid Supplement
HempBombs CBD oil (great for nausea and anxiety as well!)
Organic peppermint extract (in my water)
My mom always said that your body is like a car—if you put bad fuel in and neglect its maintenance, it won’t perform as well. But if you take care of the one body you have, you can stay in good working condition for a long time.
YOU'VE GOTTA DO THE WORK (OUT): Maintain your body now so it performs well later
Exercise 101--How to begin a fitness routine that works for you
This may sound obvious, but it’s worth mentioning. Moving your body is necessary.
Now, I’m not saying you need to purchase a Peloton bike or join Orange Theory. While I love working out, I also recognize that we are a workout-obsessed culture, focusing mostly on external results—and that can be exhausting at best, demoralizing at worst. After all, external results aren’t always indicative of your health levels.
Start by doing something you enjoy (ok, or maybe don’t hate) to get your heart rate up and your breathing a little heavy a few times a week.
I’ve had to adjust my intense cardio workouts during pregnancy, but I am amazed that a lot of the weight training workouts I follow on YouTube (and even some of the strength building yoga!) really get my heart pumping! Start by focusing on low-impact workouts that target your heart rate.
Some other practical tips:
Don’t compare your fitness journey to others’—you may be on your chapter one and someone else is on their chapter ten. It takes time and as long as you are working towards overall health—aka feeling good—that’s what’s most important and that can’t always be seen.
Try to incorporate something you enjoy into your routine. When a new album drops from an artist I love, I take the opportunity to go for a nice jog for the sole purpose of zoning out and listening.
If you don’t have the money (or desire) to join a gym (which can be intimidating), you don’t have to! I follow all my workout routines from home. BeachBody on Demand is only about $30/month and has TONS of workouts! Or just follow a YouTuber. I follow FIT by Laurie and GlowBody PT for my pre-natal workouts and Boho Beautiful for yoga.
Dress to impress—this may sound silly, but sometimes if I have a cute workout outfit, I feel extra motivated to actually go workout. Some of my favorite brands are Outdoor Voices, Pact Apparel, and the Girlfriend Collective (for sustainable choices) or Fabletics (for the bargain hunters—wait until they have their 2 leggings for $24 deal!)
Remember, when you shift your focus from getting a thigh-gap or a six pack (which, honestly, wouldn’t get me out of bed in the morning) to building a strong body that will allow you to walk upright and without pain years down the road, it completely changes your motivation.
Stretch, baby, stretch
Even when people are hitting the gym (or the trails or the living room), it’s easy to focus on the cardio or weights and to forget one of the most important parts of fitness—stretching.
The healthiest people I know who are over 50 have some kind of stretching routine. Stretching protects your joints, increases flexibility, decreases the risk of injury, increases blood and oxygen flow to other parts of your body, and releases toxins. As you age, stretching may be one of the most important practices to keep your body loose and functioning at its best.
Yoga on vacay. This was also when I was 7 months pregnant. Gotta keep moving!
We practice yoga. We started by following Boho Beautiful on YouTube and now we love to incorporate yoga into almost all of our vacations. It’s relaxing and keeps us feeling great. I started when I had a terrible pinched nerve in my back and Andrew used to have a weight lifting injury that gave him horrible shoulder and back pain. Yoga has relieved both of our bodies in addition to helping me calm anxiety (you know, all that deep breathing).
Even if it’s just for ten minutes a day, try incorporating these easy yoga classes into your day a few times a week:
Easy 15-minute stretch:
10-minute yoga before going to bed:
Intro to yin-yoga 20 minute class:
IT'S A MARATHON, NOT A SPRINT: Find the lifestyle that works for you long-term
Life is all about balance. I am by no means prescribing some militant lifestyle where you have to measure every portion of food, stick to the strictest workout regiment, and deny yourself dessert (goodness knows, I love my ice cream). Once you start to calculate every aspect of your life, or feel “guilty” for falling short of some self-imposed rule, you lose the joy of healthy living and you’ve lost your focus.
Each of us is different, with different bodies, different needs, different financial and time constraints—which means a healthy lifestyle might look differently for each of us. The most important thing is starting somewhere and focusing on progress, not perfection.
Eventually, this all starts to feel natural. It feels better to eat clean than eat junk. You seek out opportunities to be active (yes, even on vacation). It becomes a lifestyle. But it doesn’t happen overnight and you have to find what works for you.
This is what works for me:
Throw away your scale. It’s about how you feel—the numbers don’t tell the whole story and it can ruin your focus.
Don't count calories--If I'm hungry, I eat until I'm not hungry. I know as long as I am eating food that is nutritious and providing good fuel for my body, then that's all I need to worry about.
I follow these guidelines about 80% of the time Monday through Friday. I’m not perfect and I don’t expect myself to be.
On weekends, I LIVE. I eat (and drink) what I want. (Interestingly, I’ve found the longer I’ve practiced clean eating, the less “bingey” my weekends are.) Knowing that I’ll be able to eat foods that may not be the healthiest, but are enjoyable, helps me not crave them during the week.
I work out 5-6 days a week, but sometimes I go easy if that’s what feels right. Maybe it’s a light jog instead of intense cardio, or maybe on my sixth day, it’s just some slow yin yoga and meditative breathing
I commit to a time for me and honor it—for me, that means waking up early so nothing can derail my time to focus mentally for the day and get my sweat on
By following these healthy habits, I have achieved remission from my chronic illness, felt consistently energized (with zero caffeine), and increased my overall wellness (I haven’t been sick the entire year).
And, yes, I guess I also dropped a few LBs in the process.
We have one body and one lifetime to use it. And since my diagnosis, I’ve been motivated to reevaluate my relationship with “dieting” and focus on what’s most important--my long-term health.
Decades from now, I hope you will see me hiking up mountains, free from achy joints. I hope to be enjoying my family, without battling a chronic illness. I hope I will be able to walk on my own without the assistance of a cane or electric vehicle. I hope my mind will stay sharp and my memory will stay clear. I hope I can enjoy a long, happy life filled with laughter with my husband. These goals will be my motivation. And while I can’t control all the outcomes, I can control how I treat my body now. What will be your motivation?