It’s been 5 years since I lost 60 pounds. Since then, I’ve gained 15 lbs of muscle and a what feels like a lifetime of wisdom.
When it comes to my fitness journey, I can definitively say to my 20 year old self: it’s about what your body can do, not how it looks.
Everywhere I look, the conversations being had in small venues and global platforms alike, point to the fact that I am far from the only woman out there concluding this.
“Perhaps it’s because women are finally starting to interrogate the systems that hurt and exploit us.
Perhaps it’s because we’re driven and ambitious and we need energy — not lightheaded, leafy-greens energy but real energy, the kind that comes from eating the hearty foods men eat.”
Knoll kinda nails it. Many of us are unsubscribing from the dieting drivel we’ve been sold for centuries and writing our own stories about our relationships to and the power of our bodies.
Even with formal training in Gender Studies from the University of Chicago, it wasn’t until my early 30s that I truly did the internal work to interrogate and reframe my own relationship to food and exercise.
In 2014 I began the process of sharing publicly my journey in How I Gained and Lost 60 Pounds as an Entrepreneur — and So Can You! and in 2015, I wrote my own take on the growing trend around why Strong is the New Skinny.
This is my first blog post on the topic in nearly five years. In that time, I’ve learned even more, tried and failed at plenty, turned embers into fires for awesome habits, and continue to press on to something bigger and more meaningful than what the scale or society says about me.
My Playbook in 6 Shifts
No matter the transformational journey, we are summoned to make shifts in both our mindsets and in our methods if we are to make and sustain change.
My team and I do this in our work with large enterprises at Bionic.
And my health journey has been no exception.
Shift #1: From a What to a Why
Before: Short term thinking, superficial purpose.
- The single most effective thing keeping me motivated hasn’t been a temporary “what” — like the quest to get a summer body, six pack, or back into those jeans from college. Those are fleeting.
- And what’s more, these highly restrictive diets don’t give us the fuel we need to perform in life, at work, at home, for our loved ones, or at the gym.
Now: Long term thinking, purpose resonates with my soul.
- So what does keep me going? Being connected to a deeper “why”. A why that aligns with the woman I want to be not just in the gym, but in all aspects of my life. (Shout out to Simon Sinek for this fantastic framework that I use in life and business on the regular).
- Here’s my why:
I strive to make incremental daily progress,
no matter how small,
in order to unlock and unleash my body’s full potential.
- My why provides me with something that is rewarding in big and small ways, fun-like-when-you-were-a-kid, and without end. It keeps me coming back because I see small changes some days and big ones, others. And even if change is slow, I have friends and coaches to keep me motivated.
- Incremental daily progress also builds on itself through the ‘aggregate effect of marginal gains’ (also know as the 1% principle, discussed in #3 below). There’s a great anecdote in Chicken Soup for the Soul that also calls this the Daffodil Principle (how 5 acres of 50,000 daffodils came to be: ‘one at a time, by one woman… two hands, two feet…’).
Question: When it comes to health and fitness, you probably have a what — but have you thought about a why?
Shift #2: How I view exercise
Before: Exercise = necessary evil.
- I loved exercise growing up so long as it came in the form of a sport. But exercise as a stand alone thing? Ugh. Somewhere in my 20s, exercise went from the thing I got excited to do to a thing I would force myself to do.
- I would spend endless hours on treadmills and ellipticals ‘to nowhere’ hoping that my playlist would keep me from being bored before I burned enough calories (whatever that actually means on those machines).
- I also used exercise as a form of punishment that I would sentence my body to — for not being thin enough or for eating too much. (Thankful to Dr. Jane Baxter at PsychFit for helping me navigate those roller coaster years of binging and purging. I share a bit more about this in #4 below.)
Now: Exercise is an opportunity to explore, express, and master what my body is capable of. It’s also a chance to team up with others to go after goals I could never achieve alone.
- PROGRESS > PERFECTION. If I do something each day for a lot of days, after a few weeks… I surprise myself with a breakthrough. I will do — and have been doing — things I convinced myself were out of my reach. Pull ups, double unders, rope climbs, headstands, handstands, long rows, short rows, [insert wacky combinations of cardio-heavy lifting-gymnastics], formidable lift PRs, pretty sweet yoga positions.
- T.E.A.M. (together everyone achieves more). I also get to scratch the missing ‘team sport’ itch through group exercise classes (yoga, Crossfit) and local competitions with friends (Crossfit).
- Team means: Unconditional bursts of support and encouragement, willing you to higher heights (for example: I got my first 6 pull ups in a competition in 2017 when my Pizza Rat dear friend and partner Caitlin Sacher told me I could do it, and I did. Also hugely grateful to the co-founder of my ‘home’ Box in NYC, Melissa Leon, for all the support and conversations over the past 3+ years of my journey in the sport).
- Team means: Rounding out what you might be missing, and you for them.
- All together now: It’s the cumulative effect of these elements that make being on a team so rewarding. The feeling is one you want to replicate and so you keep coming back. And the more you come back, the better you get. It’s a brilliant flywheel that ensures you go far, for a longtime.
Outcome: While I thought I would never be fitter than when I was in high school playing varsity volleyball, year round softball, and lifting weights before school with my team — I think I could actually beat my 18 year old self at any fitness test.
Shift #3: How I approach each workout
Before: Brute force.
- “Wow you do whatever it takes. I mean, you got it up, but it didn’t look pretty.” ← Common reaction from people I worked out with, most notably one of my local Crossfit idols and Pizza Rat dear friends, Stephanie Vogel.
- “You’re my bull baby. Always have been, always will be.” ← My mom talking about my Taurus tenacity, whenever she would see me abandon all form and reason, and just get ‘er done.
- “You fly and die.” ← The feedback my Crossfit coach (Griff aka Mark Griffin) gave me after he watched me unevenly attack workouts.
- I am grateful for my body’s ability to find this intense third gear of energy to pull off physical — and professional — feats. But I also don’t want that to be my signature move, it’s more of a ‘only in emergencies, consider pushing this button’ sort of thing. Not only is it exhausting and not sustainable (see above “fly and die”), but it also puts me at risk for injury and never learning the proper form. And what’s life if not to venture to honor and explore the intricate elegance that is the human body.
Now: Virtuous movement.
- CHIRO + PT. Since January 2019, I have added weekly chiro, physical training, massage therapy, and custom orthotics to work on alignment, stability, and mobility. (Shout out to the integrative medicine team at CSC+M: Dr. Schuman, Dr. Anselmi, Anastasia, Abby, Kazuyo, and Chenita — and thank you for taking insurance). Just 6 months in and I can already see a marked difference in my posture, recovery time, and better (still not perfect) positioning in all my lifts and gymnastics. I can’t wait to see what more years of this will bring.
- YOGA. In February 2019, I added a regular yoga practice back into my routine. (Shout out to Y7 Yoga — amazing instructors guide you + dope hip hop with no lights, no mirrors, and candles). In the early 2000s, I did a lot of Bikram with my sis (she’s a certified instructor and in life, one of the most amazing humans on this planet, I look up to her immensely), but I fell away when my startup started up. And while I did a little yoga here and there in the past five years, it took being told by my doctor that I couldn’t practice Crossfit during my IVF egg freezing process to push me fully back into a yoga practice. And wow, talk about a silver lining to no Crossfit. It’s a keeper.
- FORM, THEN INTENSITY. In a phrase: I am working on going light to get it right. I work with a weightlifting coach (the same awesome one as above, Griff) who has helped me understand the importance of technique before intensity or load. I still have to wrestle with my ego and with my inner child, both of whom tell me to “add more weights! add more weights! quick before coach sees!” But when I have backed off and worked technique, I have seen significant improvement in form.
- PHYSICS. And because I generally understand the physics of weightlifting (thank you Mrs. Claycomb circa 1997), I know that the more efficient my movements are, the less energy I lose (bad form is like opening all the windows and doors when you are trying to heat a house in the winter). Good form means the maximum amount of energy goes into lifting the bar through F=MA (force = mass x acceleration). When done well, the weight is at one point actually weightless. And to pile on: the faster you drop under the bar and the more mobile you are to receive the bar in a lower squat, the less you have to lift the bar off the ground in the first place. But I digress.
- 1% BETTER EACH DAY. This is what I aim for. Each. And. Every. Day. The concept of aggregated marginal gains comes from business, but increasingly, coaches and athletes are applying it to their approach to sport. Most famously, the UK cycling team set an audacious goal of winning Olympic gold and the Tour de France (spoiler: they won… a LOT). By mapping all the little things that went into their fitness—from redesigning the seats for more comfort and heating up leg muscles, to hand wash protocols to avoid sickness and optimal massage gels for recovery, to replacing mattresses and pillows for better sleep, to how they ate and interacted as a team (very Navy Seals). In the words of Atomic Habits author James Clear remarks of these moves:
“As these and hundreds of other small improvements accumulated, the results came faster than anyone could have imagined.”
Outcome: Through all of the above, injuries from decades ago are finally getting worked through. Stories I told myself about not being able to do things turned out to be false and that, with the right coaches, professionals, form, and commitment, I get 1% better each day and can do more than I ever thought possible.
Shift #4: The way I treat food
Before: Reward / punishment.
- From age 18 to 32, I put myself on so many diets, I lost track. To name a few: Atkins, Weight Watchers, 17 Day Diet, Volumetrics, The Plan, South Beach Diet, the Diet Coke Diet, and the Master Cleanse. And thanks to my tenacity (#brute) and discipline, I “won” at all of these. For a time. And then? At best I would drop the restrictions and settle back into eating whatever I wanted. At worst, I would rebel against the restrictions through some sort of multi-thousand calorie binge, followed by a purge of low calories (< 1,000) and exercise (> 3 hours per day).
- I once ran 37 miles without stopping, after a night of eating and drinking way too much in college. I started on the South Side of Chicago at 57th and ran up past Northwestern before turning around and coming back down. The waterfront recreation area was my sanctuary — and punishing grounds — in college.
- I regularly would “treat myself” to trips to the candy store when I was bored out of my mind in my first job out of college. This became a habit anytime I was bored. Or stressed. For the rest of that job -and- anytime I find my mind not fully challenge at work -or- when my mind was totally overwhelmed. It’s a part of how I put on 60 pounds building my own company and it’s a watch-out for me to this day.
Now: Fuel to perform.
- FRAMING MATTERS. It’s about eating to perform incredible physical feats, not to limit the space you take up. It’s also a lifestyle, not a diet. There’s nothing short sighted about it, it’s giving your amazing body what it needs to kick ass and take names.
- PROGRESS > PERFECTION. A theme across the board… with food, if you have a day that you take in more than you reallllly needed, you never punish yourself. You just start from the beginning the next morning with a clean slate. This really changed the game from me, getting me off the binge / purge rollercoaster that thwarted my 20s.
- MACROS PLANNING & COACHING. To get to this point, I have done a great deal of intentional work with my nutrition coach Kat Yiannakis of Macros, Muscles & Mindsets, in fact we just closed out week #109 of working together. Her content, attention to the demands of my life and the unique aspects of my body / metabolism has shown me just how critical the nuances are.
Outcome: When you eat to perform, and not to restrict, you unlock your full potential. You’ve got what you need to bring to your family, friends, work, exercise, hobbies, and whatever life / mother nature / others throw at you.
Shift #5: The role of recovery
Before: Infrequent tactics.
- I would rely on the warm ups from coaches and instructors. Maybe stretch a bit on my own. And take lots of epsom salt baths. Maybe a massage here or there.
Now: Deliberate protocols.
- ACTIVATE. I am setting a goal to get to the gym at least 15 minutes before class starts and do my activations — mostly for my glutes and my hips. Work will always be there when I get done, but activating my muscles in the right order before asking a lot of my body has to be done in order of operations.
- PHYSICAL THERAPY. I try and do my PT at least 2–3x a week outside of seeing Anastasia at CSC+M. Sometimes I count yoga as my PT or add in more moves during the ‘third flow’ at Y7. I even sneak PT in at work and in between meetings.
- MOVE. I walk. Everywhere. As much as possible. I take less cabs and more subways. I credit my orthotics for helping my arches feel better, as well as Apple Health step counter for helping me gamify my commute. Also grateful my office has moved downtown, so I can get a nice mile-plus walk to and fro.
- MICRONUTRIENTS. Vitamins, Pedialyte, electrolytes, magnesium, and other supplements that replenish my body when I ask a lot of it. I LUSM, body.
Outcome: I have more flexibility and mobility, I am sore less / for less time, better posture, and am setting myself up for many decades to come.
Shift #6: Added more strong role models
There’s nothing more inspiring than following women, POC, and LGBTQ+ leaders in business and in life who are breaking barriers, making a path for others, and sharing their insights—all while also keeping it real.
But to add to the inspiration, my shift #6 is more of a booster to what I am already absorbing and amplifying—as the saying goes, we cannot become what we cannot see. I also believe we have an obligation to help enable more expressions of what it means to be alive, through who we follow, support, include, hire, promote, and look up to.
So with that, here’s my booster…
Now: Female masters of their sport / fitness domain
- UNSUBSCRIBE TO EMPTY “IDEALS”. I unfollowed most all fashion magazines on Instagram. And I haven’t purchased a women’s magazine at the airport in, gosh, 6…7…8 years? (I think the last time was when our Breaking Glass & Kicking Ass ‘Lean In’ Circle was in Cosmo in 2013; s/o to the always inspiring women I live to collaborate with: Becca Colbaugh, Sheri Cook-Sandve, Tracey Carl, Jenny Karn, Lydia Wallbaum). I unfollowed a lot of actresses and women in the media that made me feel bad about my body’s shape, and stopped following and shopping with brands that, frankly, just don’t fit my body or what I stand for.
- STRONG WOMEN. I want to see strong women front and center, in my life and in my feed. Mental strength, physical strength, professional strength. Along side vulnerability, too. It’s not an either/or, it’s a “yes, and”. Focusing on the sport side of things for the sake of focus, Fleo does this incredibly well and so does NOBULL and Beastworx. And I revel in the way Under Armor did the Time Square takeover with Misty Copeland and when Nike did their neighborhood billboards with Serena Williams. Not only are these women out there achieving greatness and committing to striving for the highest expression of their craft — but they are also all sorts of real: funny, feminine, tired, defeated, victorious, alone, supported, building family on their terms, and everything in between. I also admire greatly the women who have talked so openly about their own struggle with the societal reactions to their strength, body types, and exercise regimens.
- WOMEN WHO STAND FOR ‘PROGRESS > PERFECTION’. I’ve followed a few hundred (yes, hundred) women on Instagram because they are so good at what they do, so committed to the process, unafraid to show failure, all while being so open about what they struggle with. A few of these women that popped recently on my feed (and I could list out so many more:
- Lifters / crossfitters / bootcampers: Megsquats, Jamie Hagiya, Dana Linn Bailey, Jordan Shalhoub, Mattie Rogers, Simone Anderson;
- Adaptive powerhouses: Natalia Volya and Krystal Cantu from Crossfit and activist/model Jillian Mercado, who overcome more than most could imagine to get after it with the heart and strength of a lioness;
- All the mamas who have shown the world how fitness and motherhood can work together, including through pregnancy. I’ve been drawn to the real content and conversation coming from women like Kara Saunders, Quiana Welch, Gabrielle Mamani, Lindsey Valenzuela, Dani Miles, and Miranda Alcaraz — and the woman who not only used to help me run J3 but also brought me to Crossfit in the first place, Jenny Karn… the same Jenny from the Lean In Circle above.
Outcome: I look at my muscles and say “go team Leslie, we worked hard for those… they represent discipline, hard work, failure, commitment, and new abilities.” I still struggle with wanting to tweak this or that, here and there, but that’s when I can go to this virtual community of strong women and be reminded by a card Crossfit East River / dear Pizza Rat friend Liz Fine gave me: ‘Lessons from a mountain: it is our birthright to take up space and look fucking majestic.’
“When you replace the aspiration for slimness with a body that can physically do a lot, it makes you realise how absolutely useless everything you think you know about female body standards actually is.”
Here’s to you and your amazing body. Let’s get after it together.
I am an Entrepreneur in Residence at Bionic, where I am focused on building exceptional teams and disruptive companies. I recently froze 22 eggs with the help from an all-female team at the female-founded Kindbody and will be covering this topic in my next blog post in July.