Growing up in New Jersey as a basketball obsessed scrawny Indian kid, I felt so far removed from the icons I admired, such as Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Kobe Bryant. Beyond athletes, I have always been fascinated with people who were in peak physical condition, with their confidence and aura. As a child, I learned and played every sport my parents put me in. In high school, I focused on basketball and was blessed to play at a competitive level for both my high school and AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) teams. I felt as though I was walking in the footsteps of my heroes.
Like most teens, I experienced varying levels of insecurities fueled from peer, parental, and societal pressures, compounded by hormonal change. Adolescence was when I started making my own decisions, searched for ways to express myself, and in most cases benchmarked my “worth” against other people. In order to fight these insecurities I thought if I focused on training, eating as well as I knew how, and creating goals that would help me on the basketball court, everything else would work itself out at some point. I was obsessed with cultivating a growth mindset and optimizing my physical health to create a great life for myself so I too can be one of those people that I admired.
That all changed when I turned 16 years old. I was abruptly diagnosed with stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma — a type of cancer that forms in the lymphatic system. I was forced to forgo the remainder of 11th grade and immediately stop playing basketball in order to start a series of chemotherapy treatments followed by radiation therapy. This sudden turn in my life added to my insecurities and planted additional seeds of confusion, guilt, and fear, translating to a victim mentality where I felt my existence was a burden for most people around me.
I was also heartbroken to walk away from sports and learn that my dreams of playing basketball had to come to an end. I didn’t know who I was or who I was going to be. But, what I did know is that I had to get better first in order to find out.
I poured all of my energy into cultivating a relentlessly positive and optimistic attitude with the same obsession I had used in my training goals in order to overcome cancer. After 6 months of treatment and with the unconditional love and support of my family, friends, nursing staff, doctors, and community, I was blessed to be in the “total remission” stage where all signs of cancer had disappeared. I went back and finished my senior year of high school with as much joy as I could muster, but a part of me felt lost and empty knowing that I wouldn’t be training, attending practices, and working towards my goals as an athlete. The struggle to find a self-motivated physical goal would continue for the next decade of my life.
During the years post-cancer, from college into my early to mid-twenties, I experienced amplified levels of anxiety about who I was. I had an insatiable desire to make something of myself and not be the “kid who had cancer”, a judgment only I placed on myself. I continued to subconsciously benchmark my worth against others and their achievements. I prioritized superficial, external drivers such as money, title, parties, and socializing rather than focusing on self-acceptance, self-love, and intrinsic happiness. I was running away from myself and I couldn’t stop.
While all this continued to brew internally, I engaged in several yo-yo diets and random workouts. I would take workout supplements without any real knowledge of what I was putting in my body. This vicious cycle of actions led to varying bouts of anxiety, binge eating habits, unnecessary weight gain, and uncontrollable mood swings. By the end of 2015, I was completely burned out.
Around this time, I was introduced to principles of mindfulness and spirituality. What started as an experiment to alter my mindset for fitness would ultimately become my way of life and guiding truth. I consumed numerous books and listened to interviews and podcasts on the subject. Simultaneously, I began speaking to friends and family transparently about how to raise levels of self-awareness in order to lead a more balanced life.
These concepts taught me how to turn inward, gain insight, and practically apply what I learned. I started to see a shift where I was able to accept and release the negativity that had been inside me since adolescence. (I want to pause here and say that this practice is a life-long journey, an iterative process and I am constantly learning and growing because of it.)
The following quote by Confucius truly put my mindset around physical health into perspective.
“We have two lives, and the second begins when we realize we only have one”. — Confucious
It dawned on me that I needed to let go of all of my conditioned habits around physical health and hit the reset button. I needed to rebuild the foundation from the ground up. In January 2019, I was introduced to Akash Veghala, the founder of RNT Fitness. I was blown away by the stories of his clients worldwide and how they used online training to transform their lives. I checked my ego at the door and began working with Akash.
From January to September 2019, I committed to the process of radical physical transformation. The first 90 days were extremely difficult for me. I found the process of getting in a gym session and eating well overwhelming when I still had to continue living my day to day life, travel for work, and socialize in environments where alcohol and indulgent food were constantly around me. Workouts were extremely challenging at first. I felt weak and inadequate.
From a diet perspective, I found portion control to be impossible. I have always and will always be a “foodie”, so the concept of limiting how much I ate felt ridiculous. During the initial months of the program, I was constantly fighting decision fatigue. I was overwhelmed by when to eat and what foods to consume, especially in situations where I was forced to eat out. Once I got over the 90 day adjustment period, I began to visibly see my physical condition improve. After each workout, I felt a new sense of energy, excitement, and vitality. I also learned how to map out when to do workouts or get some sort of physical activity in while socializing and traveling by eating my macros before events and ensuring I worked out before doing anything. I also trained myself to stick to a 2 drink maximum and drank slowly. I learned a lot about macronutrients, different types of foods, and how my body felt when I ate certain things in specific portions. This helped me create simple rules and strategies which immediately reduced decision fatigue no matter what situation I was in. I saw the benefits of regularly eating in portions but also made sure to give myself days where indulged in a favorite meal or snack without judgment.
The program culminated in September 2019 with a classic RNT photoshoot where I was able to showcase my transformation. I had achieved my goal of having an athlete’s body composition, agility, and strength. Those 9 months of grueling hard work and dedication paid off and I understood the personal formula needed for my body to be in optimal condition. Since September, I have been focused on transitioning into a maintenance stage and creating a sustainable more long-term regimen.
To break it down simply, there are four main principles that have led me down the road to radical, healthy change. Whether it was overcoming cancer, being persistent with my college crush (now wife), non-linear growth in my career, and finally, physical change, I consistently apply the following principles.
- The WHY
- The GAME PLAN
- The TEAM
- The MINDSET
The WHY constitutes the reason for your goal. It’s something tangible that you can hold on to even in your darkest times when motivation seems bleak. My “WHY” for physical transformation was two-fold. First, to prove to myself that even after having cancer, I could inhabit the discipline, focus, and work ethic needed to achieve an athletic body composition like my childhood heroes. Second, I want to be able to serve as a mentor for adolescents who are in remission transitioning back into their regular lives.
I openly stated my goals and my “WHY” to family and friends to gain their support and understanding. I used visual representations and had constant conversations to keep me going day after day, through the ups and downs.
The GAME PLAN
The GAME PLAN is about taking your WHY and putting a plan of action around it. I had to create a roadmap of how I was going to get from point A to point B effectively. I collaborated with Akash and used the practices of RNT Fitness to bring structure and accountability during my physical transformation. I shared my plan with my wife, family, and friends and was transparent during my journey so that my game plan wouldn’t be questioned or encumbered by activities and events in my life. I also used affirmations on a daily basis, many times multiple times a day, to motivate myself whenever I questioned my “WHY”. And, ultimately, staying true to the game plan is what helped me achieve my goal.
The TEAM is a group of people who help you actualize your goal. If I wanted to make a groundbreaking shift in my life, I needed to surround myself with the right team to hold me accountable and lift me up when I needed it. My wife, my family, my coach, Akash, were all north stars guiding me through the journey. It’s important for your team to know your “WHY” and “GAME PLAN”. They need to understand the lifestyle habits that may be changing and the length of time you are dedicating to achieving your objective. This understanding frees you up mentally to focus wholeheartedly on your goal.
The MINDSET is the way in which you mentally prepare and execute your goal. One of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths is that life involves suffering. You can either choose to let life drag you to your fate, or you can decide to view life through a more grateful lens. I used the power of journaling, visualizing, and feeling to cultivate a positive mindset. Journaling about my goals daily cemented to me the truth and conviction from which I was operating. Visualizing my goals involved intentionally picturing myself in my most ideal state: having achieved my goal. In turn, I was creating a feeling of happiness and contentment that my mind wanted to naturally work towards. All of that contributed to sustained positive energy and led to consistency and discipline in carrying out my daily systems and habits.
My greatest lesson with physical fitness is that the journey never ends. It was important for me to go through the different trials and tribulations during the fight against cancer and the years after in order to fully understand how my mind, body, and spirit work in alignment to make extraordinary change. The mental tools and self-love I have cultivated in each chapter of my life stay with me as reminders to have courage and belief in myself no matter what life throws my way or how I may feel. As the great Kobe Bryant said,
“Everything negative — pressure, challenges — is all an opportunity for me to rise”.
To read my about my trainer, Akash Veghala’s, perspective on my journey, please visit www.rntfitness.com/vishal-shah-transformation