beforeafterSQI am so happy to be writing for BodyLab.com. Ever since their team reached out to me I’ve been overwhelmed with excitement. With that excitement comes a great deal of responsibility. I want to be sure I say just the right thing. Why? This subject is incredibly important to me and very close to my heart.

“Write about your transformation.”

Sounds simple enough, right? Maybe. But there’s so much more to it.

On Monday I’ll turn 44, and I’m probably in the best shape of my life right now. Honestly. When I was 37, I was just the opposite. And it seems like yesterday. Seriously.

Let me give you a little history. Growing up, I was fairly active. I was a very outgoing teenager. I participated in everything from student body to FBLA, Drill, Jazz Choir, and sports. I loved being involved.

I worked hard to receive good grades, and I pretty much got along with everyone. I was an idealistic dreamer. All I wanted was to grow up, find the perfect man, have the perfect marriage, have children of my own, and have a career I could be proud of.

I was married before I turned 21. I found the perfect man. I had the perfect marriage. And I was well on my way to climbing up the corporate latter of my dream job. But infertility would become the biggest struggle my husband and I would have to overcome. It was a long, heart-wrenching trial. First surgery. Then wait. Then drugs for treatment. Then in vitro. Then wait again. Then in vitro again. Then wait again. And then no family.

Between the trial of trying to build a family and the business of trying to be #1 in the workplace, my sense of “well-being” suffered. I don’t think I even knew at the time what that meant. All I remember was working for years putting in so many hours at the office, traveling, skipping meals, making up for it at lunch and dinners out, and the stress and deep depression I felt at not being a “normal” woman who could carry a baby and raise a family.

Some people don’t eat when depressed. Others do. I was one who did.

I was already on an unhealthy path. When I was younger I didn’t have to work at all to maintain a “respectable” figure. My metabolism worked just fine, and I burned off calories as quickly as I consumed them.

But as the years went on, my already poor habits deteriorated even more. I didn’t work out. I ate out of convenience. I skipped meals, and when I did eat I gave no attention to what it was. I ate what I wanted to eat, when I wanted to eat it, and I ate a lot of it. It was an ugly combination that set me up for failure.

By the time I turned 37 I weighed 170 pounds. 5’5” and 170. I was well into the unhealthy range at a size 14, bordering on a 16, and I was only getting worse.

A relatively popular and confident girl in school, I found I was now shopping in the matronly departments and doing everything I could to hide myself under clothes that made me look twice my age. I hid behind rollers, big hair, and lots of makeup. I hid behind well-manicured nails. I hid behind jokes and anything to take the focus off my increasingly out-of-shape body. A picture lover, I hid behind the camera, not wanting to be in front of it.

I hid.

And I heard everything and read into everything. Seemingly sweet comments and concerns from others I took to heart. And it hurt. Looking back I am most certain that those comments weren’t intended to be painful, but they hurt just the same. Why? Because I was so unhappy with the person I’d become. I was so unsatisfied with the way I looked that it changed the person I was inside. I became quiet, reserved, doubtful, intimidated, even shy.

I tried so many diets over the years. I won’t mention them here by name, but I am certain you’d know all of them. Each had gotten results for people I knew, but I’d always give up, putting the blame on the diet: Too many rules. Too many things to remember. Too little this. Too much that. Too hard.

The reality was I wasn’t ready, and the problem was me, not the diets. I needed to change on my own terms, when I was ready.

In late summer 2007, I hit rock bottom. My closest friends were all tiny, fit, and athletic. Then there was me. More than double the sum of all their sizes. I had so many “aha” moments that summer that I couldn’t keep overlooking them. It was like I was taking gut-punches daily, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like feeling like I was the victim, the case study, or the pun of others’ jokes.

It was time.

I signed up for a gym (for the third time, I might add) without my hubby’s permission. Now, I realize I shouldn’t need his permission, BUT after signing up twice before, spending a ton of money twice before, and not going twice before, I kind of owed it to him to at least ask. But I didn’t want him to say no, so I didn’t ask. I joined. For 4 years. And I made the commitment… to myself.

It’s hard to explain the emotion I felt at that time. I knew it was either going to be a breaking point — “Oh, here I go failing again; I give up” — or a turning point — “This is the start of a new me.” I just knew it. I had the chance once and for all to determine my future, to determine my health, and to be an active part of where my life was headed. Every single time I’d tried before, I’d given up. I’d found excuses. I’d turned back. I’d let myself down. But this time, things would be different. This time, there were six key things that helped me finally find success.

#1. I Refused to Give Up

This time I told myself that giving up was no longer an option. Forward was the only direction I would move. That didn’t mean I wouldn’t allow myself to make mistakes, because of course I was going to, but I wouldn’t let those mistakes derail me indefinitely like they had before.

I jumped in feet first. I stepped out my comfort zone, and I forced my unfit, uncomfortable, larger self to go to the gym. Daily. I didn’t really have a clue what I was doing, but that didn’t matter. I went.

The first few months I stuck mostly to the cardio machines. I felt I could disguise myself there. I could read, walk, watch TV, tune out for an hour, and I wouldn’t have to talk to anyone. No one would notice me.

That worked for a while. I like to joke about how I read the entire Twilight series on the bike. But the more I went to the gym, the more I observed those around me and wanted to be like them.

#2. I Immersed Myself in Health

I was brought up to believe that we should surround ourselves by those people or things we wish to become, so I subscribed to fitness magazines. I started following health blogs. I started dog-earing recipes I wanted to try in books and magazines. I started taking note of those who really knew what they were doing at the gym. I was like a sponge, and I tried to soak it all in.

Information truly is power. The more I read, listened to, and observed, the more I walked the talk. Even at 170 pounds I started to live, breathe, and talk health. I internalized it. I adopted it.

It’s difficult to live in opposition to those things you are constantly filling your head, heart, and soul with. It truly helped. But I had to do more than that. Making the commitment to never again give up and to make sure I was learning as much as I could about this new, healthier lifestyle I wanted so desperately to adopt was not enough. I needed to do more.

#3. I Took Baby Steps to a Healthier Diet

I had to make some changes. After a while, training became a habit. I was very fortunate in that I learned I actually enjoyed exercising. I kind of wanted to kick myself for not doing it sooner. I really, really, really enjoyed working out. Who knew?

But my diet was ridiculously awful. Oh man, where to start? With so much that needed changing, I had no clue where or how to do it, so I decided to make one change. Just one. I could do that.

I gave up Pepsi. Then I gave up Diet Pepsi. That was hard. At one point I was chugging 64 ounces each day. Fully loaded, tons of sugar, fully caffeinated, artificially colored soda. It was a habit I enjoyed, and it was hard to give up.

I had to find an equally enjoyable and satisfying alternative. At the time it was Propel. I traded soda straight across for Propel, and soon I was filling my pantry and my food storage with cases and cases of Propel. With time, my soda habit was gone.

Making one change at a time and tackling my bad habits in bite-sized pieces helped. Just like an onion has layers and layers you can peel off, habits have layers and layers you can either break down or build upon. Switching out soda for a healthier alternative was my starting point.

I am happy to say that now I mostly drink water. Plain water. But it took some time for me to get to that point, and it had to be at a pace I felt comfortable with. But I still had more work to do.

#4. I Learned to Say No

As excited as I was to find a passion for exercise, I had to learn what worked for me. It’s funny, but once I started being more active and eating better, friends started asking me to do everything from hiking to biking to triathlons. At first (with this new lease on life) I felt I needed to say yes to everyone and everything because I’d said no so many times before.

That got old. And I was exhausted. And I didn’t always have fun.

I had to learn that saying no was okay, but I was only able to do that when I knew there was something more important for me. Did I like to run? Train at the gym? Hike? Do CrossFit? Bike? Snowshoe? Maybe I liked all of them, but in what order? I had to prioritize what activities brought me the most fulfillment and joy. We only have so much time in the day, and I needed to know I was spending my “me” time on things I truly enjoyed, not on something that was being imposed on me by someone else.

#5. I Gave Myself Permission for “Me” Time

Speaking of “me” time… Perhaps this should have been learning point #1, but I’m going to share it here. We need to know that it really is okay to take time for ourselves. As women (and adults in general — this goes for you men, too), we’re almost always busy doing things for others. We can get completely wrapped up in making and keeping commitments to everyone except ourselves. Aren’t we just as important? Don’t we deserve to give ourselves the same amount of time we give so freely to friends? Neighbors? Work colleagues? Yes! And we have to own that and believe it.

Now I fully do. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am a much better wife to my hubby, a much nicer mom to my kiddos, and so much more able to be the adult I am meant to be on a daily basis when I am eating right and training regularly. And that means I have to take some “me” time. And that’s okay. No really, it IS okay. You’re not being selfish by taking time for you, so if you feel that way it’s time to drop that guilt… now.

#6. I Had Patience

We live in a very fast-paced, get-what-you-want-now society. We want what we want, when we want it. And it better be now. I learned that changing my life, my health, and my diet would take months, even years to master. You can make the changes immediately, but you may not see results for days, weeks, or months. Patience is absolutely critical for long-term success. So expect that.

In five short days I’ll be turning 44. I am a completely different person than I was when I was 37. I am me. I now know who I am. I am happier. I am healthier. I am confident. I am excited. I am a dreamer. And I am a doer.

I can play with my kids, and I feel sexy around my husband. I feel confident in groups, and I no longer shy away from the camera. I love life. And I live it. I set goals, and then I chase them. I don’t always get what I want, but now I at least have the nerve to try.

And I continue to surprise myself. In 2014 I ran the New York Marathon. Before that I ran both the 2011 and 2013 Boston Marathons. And somewhere in between all that I’ve found time to compete in around ten physique competitions, two other marathons, a half dozen half marathons, countless other distance races, write a cookbook, author a blog read by tens of thousands, be a brand ambassador for many companies, work with women all around the world, and speak in front of many large audiences.

This is my passion: Health. Fitness. Happiness. Balance. Empowering women.

I am nearly 44, and I still pinch myself because I truly believe I have just barely begun to live my life.

Our BodyLab team would love to hear about you. Your life. Where you’re at. What has helped you succeed? What has held you back? Pop over to the BodyLab Community and tell us.

Is this your “aha” moment? I hope so.