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The night after my 33rd birthday, I gathered with friends at a neighborhood bar. Everything about the evening was typical. I started rummaging through my closet, rejecting the first fifteen outfits (too tight, too unflattering, way too tight, tighter still). I finally settled on an A-line dress, blazer, leggings, and boots. Among slices of pizza, pints of IPA, and a few too many homemade cupcakes, I tugged at my clinging dress. I felt sweaty in my blazer. The room was hot, but I wanted to keep my arms, which to me looked doughy, covered. I enjoyed swapping stories and laughing with the friends who kindly came to help me celebrate.

But I also spent the evening—and most evenings—feeling uncomfortable in my own skin, encumbered by my body.

It was a typical night out in every way except one: I vowed this would be the last celebratory night I’d spend distracted by my body. I didn’t set out to lose a specific amount of weight—or any weight at all, really. I just wanted to feel confident and secure so that I wouldn’t spend a moment thinking about how I looked. I knew I wanted to change my habits and become a healthier person. I was tired of taking naps every day. I was tired of popping antacids and feeling lethargic. Years of vitamin deficiencies and generally poor nutrition were taking their toll. I wanted to take my health back. I wanted my energy, my body, my confidence.

Seven months later, I’m forty pounds lighter and a million times more comfortable, confident, and energetic. What have I learned? I’ve learned that starting a healthy lifestyle isn’t an impossible dream.

But how do you get from Point A to Point B when the distance seems insurmountable?

01. I wrote down my goals.

Setting my intentions in writing was my way of letting the universe know that I meant business. I had long-term goals, which included toning my body for my upcoming wedding. I also looked beyond at a potential pregnancy down the road; I wanted to be in my healthiest shape for it. I had short-term goals, too, such as drinking more water and getting into a regular exercise routine.

It was important for me not to focus on weight loss as a specific goal. I knew I would make myself crazy if I spent my days chasing after numbers on a scale or measuring tape. If I was going to change my lifestyle, I was going to make fun a priority. I had no interest in doing workouts I dreaded or eating certain foods just because I thought I should.

I made it a goal to try clean, tasty recipes every week and another goal to run a race every month. Specific goals carry less frustration than “lose ten pounds” because they come with an action plan. By finding healthy recipes I liked, I knew I would be less likely to scarf down the processed food that had become a mainstay in my diet. By scheduling one race a month, I knew I would keep up with my workouts.

In planning my meals ahead of time, I always had something healthy and delicious ready to eat. Celery sticks and salads were not going to cut it. I wanted to eat the foods I already loved (pizza, lasagna, grilled cheese, occasional cupcakes). So I found a plan (for me it was Fit Girls Guide) that showed me how to make healthier versions of all these foods. It also taught me how to ease into an exercise routine. I didn’t attempt to morph from sedentary to superhero and quit early from frustration. I just had to add a little bit every day until I got stronger.

02. I celebrated every tiny accomplishment.

Had I attempted a lifestyle change like this in the past, I would have waited until I’d done every single thing right for a month before thinking it was worth celebrating. Inevitably, I’d do something imperfect along the way and never make it to that day.

This time, I decided to acknowledge every positive choice I made; not just at the end of a successful month or week but each individual choice I made within each day. At the recommendation of the Fit Girls Guide, I set up a sticker system to track little bursts of activity throughout the day. Taking the stairs gets a sticker. Parking far away from the grocery store earns a sticker. Getting up from my desk and doing ten squats gets a sticker. Every time I reach fifty stickers, I allow myself to redeem them for a small reward (a manicure, a new pair of running shoes, a bubble bath, etc.).

03. I encouraged myself the way I’d encourage a daughter, niece, or best friend.

When I first started exercising, I couldn’t do even one full push-up. I couldn’t run one block without getting winded. I knew I was getting there, though, so I refused to hate myself in the process. I felt proud for doing five push-ups on my knees. I felt proud every time I ran a block, then walked a block, then ran a block. Every healthy meal, every choice to go for water instead of wine, every this-workout-that-feels-so-difficult-to-me-is-probably-easy-for-lots-of-people. I felt proud of them all.

Where I couldn’t yet see my strength, I noticed my effort. Where I couldn’t yet see my results, I noticed my higher energy. I couldn’t hate myself into accomplishing my goals. Being kind to myself was a necessary part of the process.

04. I kept pushing myself.

The day came when I progressed from push-ups on my knees to full-on push-ups. The day came when I ran a mile and still had energy for more. Though I appreciated and celebrated all accomplishments, I never let myself get too comfortable. If things started feeling easy or boring, it was time to give a little more. When the 5Ks and 10Ks weren’t pushing me anymore, I started training for a half marathon.

Challenging myself led to a tremendous feeling of empowerment. Getting through a tough workout in the morning gave me the strength to get through everything else I encountered during the day. I began to use my running time to mentally work through problems in my writing or wedding planning. My newfound physical strength spilled over into mental strength, making me feel unstoppable. I realized that I no longer needed to motivate myself every day. I just needed to keep going.

05. I had fun.

I already mentioned this, but I’m bringing it up again because I think it’s that important. I believe that silliness is a crucial part of my process. I enjoyed my food more when I made eggs in heart shapes. I enjoyed exercising more when I put on my favorite workout outfits and played music that made me want to get up and dance. I enjoyed my days more when I wrote myself encouraging notes, checked in with people on social media going through similar journeys, and allowed myself to take breaks from work to enjoy a cup of tea or a walk in the sunshine.

Taking care of myself and doing what made me happy had huge rewards beyond what I expected. That trampoline aerobics class I took with my friend sure didn’t feel like exercise. That healthy banana split I made with pineapple, cottage cheese, dark chocolate, and nuts tasted just like dessert. Meeting my friend for a hike instead of brunch didn’t feel like a sacrifice. Keeping my alcohol intake low but giving myself bubbly water with lime didn’t feel restrictive.

I didn’t reach my goals by eating foods I hate or forcing myself to work out when I didn’t feel like it. I ran to clear my head. I created photo-worthy meals. I took a deck of cards and wrote exercises on the back. I’d shuffle them and go through them each week so I’d wonder what’s next. I bought new jeans when I went down a size. At the same time, I looked for ways to inject joy into each new day.

One month ago, I married the man of my dreams. I wore a sleeveless dress and felt more confident than I’ve ever felt in my life. Just as I promised myself, I didn’t spend a moment worrying about my body. Seven months ago, I would have told you the place where I’m standing now is impossible to reach. Now I know otherwise.

You don’t need to make yourself crazy. You don’t need to deprive yourself. You don’t need to be perfect. You just need to have fun, celebrate small victories, say no to negative self-talk, challenge yourself, and focus on one step, one bite, at a time. And most importantly, you just need to start.

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