Around this time of year, the post-holiday sale commercials are replaced by New Year's-themed advertisements encouraging us to lose those pesky pounds by dieting or joining a gym. After all, who doesn't want to show off six-pack abs in a new bikini Memorial Day Weekend?
Like many Americans, I'd sign up for a gym membership in early January and stop going after a couple of weeks. I tried yoga for a few months in 2010, but I was mentally focusing too much on my to-do list to care about maintaining the downward dog position. Yup, I quit that, too.
At 31, I've been at both ends of the scale.
My pediatrician put me on a strict diet when I was 8 -- he forbade any processed and fried foods because my cholesterol was skyrocketing. During my anorexic teen years, my weight plummeted to around 60 pounds. My Cuban exile parents acknowledged their ignorance about my "American disease," as they called it, and it paved the way for me to starve myself in secret. As a result, I spent most of 1997 -- including Easter and my 14th birthday -- in an eating disorder hospital in Northern New Jersey with a nasogastric tube pumping high-calorie supplements into my body because I wasn't gaining weight fast enough.
I was around 75 pounds when this photo was taken during Christmas 1996. My weight plummeted to around 60 pounds by the time I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and hospitalized three months later. Photo: ©Magaly Pacheco-Cusido
I finally recovered in 2000, but I haven't weighed myself for more than a decade because I'm fearful that seeing the number on the scale could trigger a bad relapse. Still, I usually can gauge if I'm maintaining a certain weight (I was 118 pounds back in 2004) based on my dress size, which typically fluctuates between a six and an eight.
That changed in 2012 when I was diagnosed with asthma and had to take some steroid-based medications. The diagnosis coupled with the fact that I switched birth control pills caused me to swell two sizes. By the end of that year, I was at my heaviest, but it still wasn't enough for me to put down Cuban delicacies like pastelitos de guayaba y queso (Cuban guava pastries) or get up from the couch and go for a run.
At my heaviest, during the summer of 2013. Even size 12 clothes were fast becoming tight around my waist. At the end of 2014, I'm back down to my old size eight dresses and skirts. Photo courtesy of Carmen Cusido
Fast forward to early February 2014, when a good friend began a rigorous fitness boot camp program at JCF Health & Fitness in Jersey City, N.J. and encouraged me to attend with her. To say that fitness boot camp -- and prolonged physical activity in general -- was outside my comfort zone is an understatement, as I confessed in a LinkedIn blog a few months back.
During my first one-hour session, I was sweating, sprinting, lifting weights and performing sit-ups and burpees (full body aerobic exercises where one begins in a standing position and then drops down to a squat position before jumping back up and clapping once at the end).
By the end of the night, my face was ashen my stomach was gurgling and I was about to black out. It brought back uncomfortable memories from the late 1990s when I'd frequently faint after weekend-long fasts and spending several hours on a treadmill to burn off a bagel.
But with some gentle nudging from my friend, I resolved to return for a second session and a third and soon after, I signed up for a year-long membership with JCF Health & Fitness.
Our instructor Daris Wilson inspires us to push ourselves even when we're ready to give up. You can always do another burpee. You can "dig deep" and run fast when your body is screaming at you to slow down and jog. The intensity of boot camp works for a type-A personality like mine because there's no other option than to focus on the present (How many squat jacks do I have left? Let me save some of that energy for the high knees and butt kicks).
"Get your mind right" is one of Wilson's most-used phrases. He asks that we remove the obstacles we create in our minds and replace them with long-term goals.
Two of the goals I accomplished in 2014 were to replace processed foods and carbohydrates with fresh vegetables and home-cooked meals. I also opted not to become obsessed with exercise (I've gone to no more than three sessions a week for the past 10 months). And there was another unexpected life accomplishment: I participated in the City Challenge Obstacle Race with several wonderful and strong women and men who are part of the JCF family.
Every time I run a little faster, stay in an exercise a little longer or otherwise "dig a little deeper," like Wilson likes to say, I'm becoming physically and emotionally stronger. I may not have the sick-pack abs yet, but I finally have confidence in my body and a desire to continue with my fitness goals.
For folks who are unsure about how to start an exercise program in 2015, find a workout buddy and seek plenty of encouragement and guidance from friends. It's more than just about getting a bikini-ready body (though that's nice, too). It's about starting a lifelong commitment to health and fitness.
If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.