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I Gave Up My Gym Membership, and I’m the Fittest I’ve Ever Been

Eight realistic ways to be healthier that won’t cost you a dime.

About a year ago, I was almost four months pregnant with my second daughter when my doctors prescribed complete bed rest. A year and a half earlier, I had given birth to my first daughter preterm—a whopping nine weeks early—due to a short cervix. In an attempt to avoid a similar situation the second time around, the orders were to stay immobile—no exercise or even walking around. I could only get up to use the restroom. I even had to sit while in the shower.

At the time, I had been living in Spain for a year. I couldn’t speak Spanish well, and I was still building new friendships. So when I found out that I’d have to give up my Spanish classes, playdates, and cafés con leche in exchange for sitting in bed full time, I felt torn. On the one hand, I would do anything to keep my baby safe and healthy. On the other, I felt cursed. I’d see my toddler’s hands at the edge of my bed and hear her tiny voice begging me to play with her. It broke my heart to tell her time and again, “I’m sorry, baby. Mommy can’t today.” Although my friends made every effort to visit me, there were hours upon hours when I was all alone. I fell into depression. With that, I attempted to mute my sorrows with the one thing I could still do: eat.

And eat I did. Paella, jamón ibérico, manchego cheese, pan con tomate, patatas bravas, tapas, churros con chocolate, crema catalana. Thanks to living in the heart of Barcelona, they were all at my fingertips, so I had something different every day. After dinner, I’d watch a movie or catch up on a TV show with my husband while we—you guessed it—ate snacks. I’m 5 feet 2 inches tall. Five months later, I had gained thirty pounds more than I should have while pregnant. And most of it didn’t go away after giving birth or nursing my baby.

I’ve managed to lose close to thirty pounds in the past six months. That may sound like a lot, but it’s equal to losing a little more than a pound each week, which is what Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends as a result of a lifestyle change, not a “diet” or a “program.” I’ve also gotten much stronger than I’ve ever been. I went from only being able to do half a push-up on my knees (half!) to doing a hundred push-ups with proper form. I no longer grumble every time I have to carry groceries, two kids, and a stroller up and down three flights of stairs. The biggest change I’ve noticed from exercising is my increased energy and positive outlook.

Having lived a mostly sedentary life for a year (with six months of that spent in bed), I went from being constantly tired and moody to confident and content in a matter of days. I didn’t think it was possible until I actually did it. As a result, I have more patience with my family. I have more joy, and it enables me to be a better wife and mother. I’ve struggled with depression for most of my life, but I’m now the happiest I’ve ever been. I wish I had known sooner how eating healthy and being active would transform not only my health but all aspects of my life as well.

So how did I do it? Not with any detox juices, pills, fad diets, or even a personal trainer. We live in Manhattan, where a cup of coffee costs about the same as monthly rent in a developing country, so a gym membership is a luxury we’ve chosen not to afford. My progress comes just from exercising in my living room and eating well.

Here’s exactly what I did—no special equipment required (except for a plan, a water bottle, and maybe a food scale).

01. I wrote out my goals and stuck them on the fridge.

I’m motivated by missions I truly believe in (one reason why I work for Verily!). So I knew that I’d have to find meaningful reasons to work out and eat healthy. Otherwise, I just wouldn’t find it worth the time and energy. So I took out a piece of paper, thought about my realities and my weaknesses, and wrote down how I’d address them. I’m a work-from-home mom of two girls, ages 1 and 2. So I knew that I’d have to be realistic about my schedule and multitude of responsibilities. Here’s a sample of the goals I made that I’ve only tweaked a little bit since (by the way, they’re still on my fridge). Then read on to learn why these goals are important to my journey toward healthy living.

  1. Dedicate at least twenty to thirty minutes five days a week to working out. Stretch.
  2. Drink at least 64 ounces of water every day. (I’ve always been bad about drinking water.)
  3. Grocery shop and meal prep on Sundays and Wednesdays to avoid eating out.
  4. Stick to whole foods as much as possible. Learn portion control.
  5. Sleep at least seven hours a night. (I’m notorious for staying up late.)

Keep in mind that none of these goals are to “lose weight.” It was never one of my initial reasons for working out and eating better. I just wanted to get moving again and feel energetic. I wanted to do what I knew was best for my health, which did include working off the excess weight, but that was just a by-product of my efforts.

02. I had a short workout plan with an end date.

One of the excuses that kept popping into my head—especially when it came time to exercise—was, “I just don't have the time!” Then something magical happened. I made the time.

I identified all my personal and recreational time and figured out how I could turn it into workout opportunities. For me, this was anything from time at the playground, FaceTime with my in-laws, brushing my teeth, reviewing an article for work on my phone, or twenty minutes of weekly movie night with my husband. Then I began to gently carve exercise into my day.

I also knew that clear end goals worked best for me. Instead of creating a workout plan with no timeline, I challenged myself on a weekly basis. I could exercise how I wanted as long as the workout fulfilled my goals. The first week, I did Yoga With Adriene in my living room with the girls. The initial inspiration was watching her do yoga in jeans. I thought, “Woah. I don’t even have to change to work out. I’m down with that!” Because who has time to change in and out of workout clothes when you’ve got potty training, meals to cook, and articles to write?

That first week, it was my goal to do the following:

  1. Complete twenty to thirty minutes of strength training at least three times a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday). Stretch.
  2. Complete thirty minutes of cardio at least twice a week (Tuesday, Thursday). Stretch.

It was a challenge. But because I knew there was an end date, and I could change it up after a week if I didn’t like it, it was manageable. And let me tell you, there wasn’t a single day I missed working out in the weeks following that.

03. I learned bodyweight workouts and did them anywhere.

The beauty of exercises that rely solely on your bodyweight is that you can pretty much do them anywhere. Have you heard about burpees, lunges, or bicycle crunches? They’re all forms of bodyweight workouts. You may have the option to add additional weights, but they aren’t necessary. Greatist lists fifty bodyweight exercises you can keep in your repertoire. I have learned about half of these so far. I learn more as time goes on and as I need more challenging workouts.

I can slip these workouts into my day how and where I am able. For example, I’ll do squats while carrying my baby or planks while my toddler sits on my back. They get a kick out of it, and I can check one more thing off my list. I’ll even do them on a phone call or at the airport while waiting for my plane to board. Even if I can’t get a full twenty-minute workout in, I have these exercises to pull out of my back pocket when I do have a few minutes to do one or two sets.

Bookmark the workouts on your phone, or print them out and stick them next to your TV. Think about it. In the time it takes you to call your mom or watch Downton Abbey, you can get an effective workout in. So what are you waiting for?

04. Cardio became my bestie.

I started long-distance running from a young age and have a few half and full marathons under my belt. I kept up with jogging with my first child, but that went out the window when I learned I had to go on bed rest. It was difficult for me to build up the endurance I once had, mostly because I was nursing an infant while trying to raise a sassy 2-year-old. If I did have a chance to run, it would be at night, which I didn’t feel safe doing amidst crazy NYC traffic. So I found other ways to get my heart rate up and my lungs pumping.

According to a 2002 article in the Annals of Internal Medicine, “High blood pressure is a major risk factor for stroke, coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure, and end-stage renal disease.” The report concluded, “Aerobic exercise reduces blood pressure in both hypertensive and normotensive persons. An increase in physical activity should be considered an important lifestyle modification for prevention and treatment of high blood pressure.” Heart problems run on both sides of my family--my grandfathers passed away from heart disease and heart failure. If jogging for twenty minutes a few times a week can save my life in the long run (pun intended), I’m all for it.

Cardio also benefits our mental well-being. The British Journal of Medicine produced a study on patients who “underwent a [program] of systematic aerobic exercise consisting of one hour of training with an instructor three times a week at 50 to 70 percent of maximum aerobic capacity.” It concluded that “a training [program] has a substantial antidepressive effect in psychiatric patients up to 60 years old in hospital.” With women at a higher risk for depression, this is reason enough to get up and move.

Cardio can be any activity that engages your cardiovascular system vigorously for a sustained period of time. The American Heart Association says, “You will also experience benefits even if you divide your time into two or three segments of ten to fifteen minutes per day.” For me, daily cardio was a ten-minute dance party with my kids before breakfast and after dinner or a brisk fifteen-minute walk to the park and back. On days when I can’t get out, I’ll fake jump rope or do jumping jacks to Taylor Swift. Not everyone loves running, so find an aerobic workout that you enjoy.

05. I became what I ate.

When it came down to food, I knew we had to change our eating habits. We ate out way too often, and when we did cook, we didn’t pay attention to quality ingredients or portion control. I had a difficult time coming up with healthy meals on the fly. So I outsourced my research and bought a Fit Girl’s Guide e-book at the suggestion of one of my best friends. At less than $25 after a discount promotion, I decided that the investment would be well worth it for me. I found the e-books fun to read. Be warned: The tagline is “The Girly Girl’s Guide to Getting Fit,” and they certainly deliver. You’ll never look at mermaids and unicorns in the same way again.

Each e-book includes meal plans, grocery lists (check out one of ours), substitution advice, and bonus recipes. I’ve been using the recipes to plan our family’s meals for the past six months. Fit Girl’s Guide works best for me because it doesn’t cut out certain food groups such as dairy, bread, or grains. Rather, you’re taught how to select healthier options. Instead of reaching for a candy bar to satisfy a sweet tooth, for example, have 80 percent dark chocolate. One of my biggest takeaways from Fit Girl’s Guide is that a little oil or butter goes a long way (I used to slather the pan). The best part is that each recipe is quick and easy to make. Someone who has never cooked before can do it. And, like me, so can a busy mom.

When I meal prep on Sundays and Wednesdays, I cook a ton of everything. I’ll freeze some for last-minute meals and eat the rest over the week with my family. The Internet has a wealth of healthy recipes. But if you can’t be bothered to do a scavenger hunt for new recipes every week, there are plenty of free meal plans out there that focus on wholesome foods and recommended portions. Speaking of portions . . .

06. I learned portion control.

When it came to portion control, there was none. I’d eat until I was stuffed. I was never taught what the appropriate ratio of proteins to carbohydrates and veggies should be on my plate. It took me a few months to finally spring for a food scale. Fit Girl’s Guide recommends using it to help take the guesswork out of portioning out proteins, namely cheese, meat, chicken, and fish. When it comes to protein, WebMD reports, “Adult women need about 46 grams a day (71 grams if pregnant or breast-feeding).” If you don’t know what 46 grams of tofu looks like, it may be worth it to shell out a few dollars for a basic scale. After measuring different proteins only a handful of times on my food scale, I’m much better about eyeballing how much I should pile onto my plate. WebMD provides a useful portion control guide that you can print out to keep in your wallet or on your fridge. I keep a screenshot handy on my smartphone for days when I want to come up with my own meals or make healthier choices while eating out.

So do I count calories? I like to think of it more as keeping track of my nutritional intake. To better educate myself, I’ll look up the nutrition information for certain foods using the MyFitnessPal app. WebMD recommends that the average female between the ages of 19 to 30 with a sedentary lifestyle should consume about 2,000 calories a day. I’m petite, so I start by consuming at least 1,500 calories a day and work my way up. If I feel hungry, I’ll drink water and wait twenty minutes. If I’m still hungry, then I’ll have a snack. Except for special occasions (birthdays, anniversaries, Sunday brunch with friends), I hardly ever find myself overeating. Yet I never find myself hungry. I’m always satisfied, which is exactly where I’m happy and proud to be. It’s all about finding out what works for you and your body’s unique needs.

07. Water is now my elixir of choice.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends that women drink at least 9 cups of liquid daily. With many beverages containing sugar and other icky stuff, it’s best to go the au naturel route: water! The USDA reports that women drink an average of 4.7 glasses of water a day. I think I was doing even worse than that. To combat my poor water intake, I bought a 20-fluid-ounce water bottle from Target. I sip on it throughout the day and make sure I have at least three bottles. At 60 ounces, that’s still not where I ought to be, but it’s a far improvement from the measly cup or two of H2O that I used to have each day out of sheer dehydration.

Why is water so important for good health? Mara Z. Vitolins, R.D., Dr. P.H., assistant professor of public health sciences (epidemiology), says in an interview for Science Daily, “It is hard to distinguish between being thirsty and being hungry, so try drinking water and waiting twenty to thirty minutes to see if you’re still hungry.” Apart from appetite, hydration (or lack thereof) significantly affects physical performance; endurance; fatigue; motivation; cognitive performance; and gastrointestinal, heart, and kidney function, reveals a study in Nutrition Reviews. Excuse me for a moment while I stop, drop, and chug.

08. I hid the scale.

Like most women—nay most people—I know, I don’t have a very friendly relationship with my scale. I didn’t weigh myself when I started to turn my health around because (1) I knew that in the long run, how much I weighed really wouldn’t matter and (2) I didn’t want to be discouraged on the outset by an arbitrary number. I’ll admit that about six weeks into this new lifestyle, I stepped onto a scale. I was blown away. I won’t bother you with the details of what I saw, but it was a number I hadn’t seen since before I was married.

I thought that the scale and I could be friends again. But two weeks later, I weighed myself. Lo and behold, I’d gained two pounds back. And, for whatever reason, I felt bad about myself. My self-esteem told me it was nice to know me--then it walked out the door. Forget the fact that by then, six weeks in to my plan, I had worked out a total of eighteen hours and only eaten out a handful of times.

After moaning about and wondering what I’d done “wrong,” I reminded myself that how much we weigh tells us little about our physical strength, endurance, or body composition. I am much more than a number. And there are far better ways to measure your health without a scale.

CNN diet and fitness expert Dr. Melina Jampolis explains that weight fluctuation can be due to a multitude of factors. Among these include mild dehydration, building muscle, consuming carbohydrates, daily water fluctuation, and increased sodium intake. So instead of worrying about a number, I focus on making time for a bit of exercise and eating healthy meals. I focus on limiting my sodium and increasing my water intake. That blasted number can change however it wants. As long as I know that I’m doing right by my body, I have peace of mind. I haven’t weighed myself in almost three months. And I feel awesome!

If you’ve ever told yourself that you can’t do something, especially when it comes to your health, you can. Trust me. I made excuses long enough, and I suffered for it longer than I needed to. My only wish is that I had started sooner. If you have any questions or health and fitness tips, please share them in the comments below. I’d love to hear how you’ve made healthy living work for you.