This interview is part of the Real Talk Real Women interview series, where we bring you the life-changing, heart-warming and inspirational stories behind the most successful women in health and fitness. Make sure to follow us on Instagram for the latest interviews! For this installment, we are joined by Kelly Combs.
Let’s start off with a general introduction. How would you describe yourself, what are you all about and how did you get involved in health and fitness?
Well first of all, I am currently a senior at Penn State University Park studying nutrition with minors in Psychology and Kinesiology. Basically, I live and breathe health and fitness, but not necessarily in the way that most fitness idols do. I am a huge advocate for mental health, which I think oftentimes gets neglected by diehard fitness addicts.
I got involved in health and fitness about 4 years ago when I was a senior in high school. After living my whole life as a very naturally skinny girl who could eat whatever she wanted, I experienced some unwanted weight gain. Wanting to find a way to lose it quickly, I began following fitness accounts on Twitter and Instagram.
These accounts told me to cut carbs, increase cardio, lift weights, do cleanses, eat 1200 calories per day, etc. Eventually, I found myself working out for 4 to 6 hours a day between dancing, swimming, and weightlifting, as well as eating only about 1200 calories and doing weekly cleanses. After a few months, I had lost about twenty pounds (that I didn’t really need to lose) and I was down to my lowest weight ever as an adult.
I constantly felt exhausted and sick to my stomach, so I knew something wasn’t right. But every time that I looked in the mirror, I felt that I wasn’t as good looking as the people I followed online. Eventually, I snapped out of this obsession with counting calories and working out, but it wasn’t without a few bumps in the road.
I have been a vegan, gone gluten-free, competed in bodybuilding competitions, competed in powerlifting competitions, counted macros obsessively, etc. as means of controlling my weight. However, I have found that I am my happiest with my life and my body when I am eating mindfully and completing workouts that I enjoy.
Where does your motivation come from?
I think the biggest question for people in this industry is “how do you stay motivated?” The simple answer is that I don’t. Not always. Motivation is a constant and active effort, but sometimes it just isn’t there. Sometimes you just have to get up and go do the damn thing even when you don’t want to. It helps to think of the end goal.
For example, when I am feeling unmotivated to write a paper or study I consider my GPA, my graduate school applications, the end goal. Sometimes, it’s hard to stay motivated in all aspects of life. I definitely prioritize my studies over my fitness, even when I am unmotivated for both. Sometimes I’m very motivated to go to the gym, but I know the smart decision would be to stay home and do schoolwork.
In regards to staying motivated for the gym, it helps to think of where I am currently as well as where I’ve come from. I have to remember that in regards to fitness and health, it’s an everyday process. There is no end goal because you have to continue working at it. Fitness is something you can lose if you don’t practice it frequently.
It is also motivating to be around people who are successful. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself competitive in this regard, but I am encouraged by other people's’ work ethics. Success breeds more success, and if you surround yourself by people who are stuck and going nowhere, you will become one of those people, too.
As you decided to make a career out of your passion - what were your biggest stumbling blocks along the way?
Honestly, there have been so many stumbling blocks and barriers to making a career out of fitness and nutrition. I think one of the most important to note is that many of the people online who have built a business or a brand based on fitness and nutrition lack a scientific background or true education in the area. While being self-taught is admirable, sometimes the information being spread is inaccurate.
As someone who intends to obtain a Bachelors degree in Dietetics, sit for my exam to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, and obtain a Masters degree in a related field, I will be competing with these people. It is difficult to attempt to debunk every false tip or trick spread throughout Instagram, so the best I can do is spread accurate info to my own followers.
There have also been times when I thought I had to be super lean to be relevant. I thought people wouldn’t care what I had to say because I didn’t look like all of the famous girls. I’ve thought that maybe I should just drop out and get a personal training certification and a “nutrition certification” because that’s what these popular accounts have.
I’ve thought that what I’m doing isn’t worth it. These have all been mental blocks that I have had to overcome. I have had to remind myself that it does not matter what others are doing because I will make a difference regardless. I’ve learned that you have to be the change you wish to see. I want more accurate info to be spread online, so I know that I have to begin spreading it.
What’s your perspective on the importance of self-care?
Self-care is one of the most important things in the world. It’s been something I’ve been emphasizing recently. It is truly possible to run your body into the ground. It does not matter how you look or what you have achieved if you feel awful all the time or you can’t perform everyday tasks. You have to take care of yourself because no one else will.
Self-care tends to get neglected when people are busy. We all live busy lives, but self-care should be a priority. It should be planned into your day. Whether you define self-care as going to the gym, cooking yourself a healthy dinner, taking a bath, painting your nails, or performing your skincare routine, it needs to be planned into your day.
Everyone defines self-care differently, but it’s important to prioritize whatever it is that makes you feel good. These tasks seem small and unimportant, but I am sure everyone can relate to how awful it feels to be so busy we neglect these small things, to be so busy we forget to go grocery shopping or to be unable to find the time to wash our hair.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about women lifting weight?
Obviously, the biggest misconception is that women who lift weights will become bulky or look like men. Honestly, we belabor this concept too much. I think that it is becoming more commonplace for women to lift. I think that this notion that women who lift are bulky or manly is decreasing in popularity. I think that the fitness industry is actually doing a great job of debunking this myth.
I do think that there is a big misconception that if you lift weights, you don’t need to do any cardio. Again, this is an example of an extreme. Both lifting weights and cardiovascular activity are beneficial to the body. Personally, I hate performing traditional cardio and I love lifting weights, but I know how important both are to my health. As an industry, I think now is the time to find the balance between emphasizing both forms of exercise.
Many young women who want to lose weight believe that not eating is the way to do it, without realising the consequences of that kind of behavior.
Why do you think this is and what’s your perspective on educating society on healthy nutrition habits?
As I mentioned above, I’ve been one of those young women. I know that I fell into this behavior because that’s what many of these big “health” accounts post online. There is a whole culture of thinspiration/fitspiration that promotes the thin ideal and promotes these unhealthy methods of eating 1200 calories or doing hours of cardio to obtain a smaller or leaner body.
Additionally, there is society, which promotes the thin ideal through magazines and fashion ads. They choose girls who are size 0 or 2 to model their clothing, and while this is not bad, it does not reflect the majority of the population, but it leads girls to thinking it does. It leads girls who are bigger than size 0-2 to believe that they should not be. It causes girls difficulty in finding clothes that fit right or look good. It leads girls to believe that they have to become smaller to fit society’s ideal.
In addition to this, there is a more “serious/dedicated” side of fitspiration that promotes competing in bodybuilding competitions. These girls are incredibly lean, many of whom are using performance enhancing drugs, and they promote this look to their thousands of followers without disclosing their drug use. They promote tracking each and every calorie or macro, they promote weighing yourself every day, they promote staying “consistent” or “staying on track” all the time. These are all extremes. Many of their followers are vulnerable and will think that they have to take their body and their lifestyles to these extremes in order to be considered fit when this is not the case.
My perspective on educating society stems from a mental health and physical health perspective. Through my online presence, I like to promote myself as someone who is fit but does not sacrifice anything to look the way I do. I like to promote lifestyle changes rather than “diets.” The things that some people promote are not lifestyle changes because they cannot be maintained. This is what needs to change.
I am always using my twitter to educate people, women specifically, on the harmful effects of dieting. I do the best I can to share what I have experienced so that others do not fall into the trap. I am obtaining my education in nutrition and psychology in order to learn and spread accurate information in regards to these things.
It is so sad to me the amount of people I have met online and in real life who experience the same thoughts about their bodies and their diets. They have the same notion in their head that they have to avoid carbs and over exercise when they eat poorly, and it’s because of the things promoted online and by society.
I just want to be a different voice. I want people to understand that fruit is not dangerous just because it has sugar. I want people to know that fresh vegetables are better for you than fiber one bars. So many of these fitness idols eat like crap because it “fits their macros.” They starve all day and then eat a giant bowl of ice cream with Oreos and Pop Tarts and protein powder at night. None of that is real food, but they look great. This needs to change.
What are the most unexpected lessons you’ve learned on your health and fitness journey this far?
There have been so many lessons learned, starting out with understanding that my journey is different from everyone else’s journey. When starting out, I expected that if I ate and exercised the same way as my fitness idols then I would look like them. There is nothing further from the truth!
I’ve learned that my body is a unique entity and has to be treated as such. No cookie cutter plan will give me the same effects as someone else. I’ve also learned that I will never be 12% bodyfat. Shocking, I know. Despite doing all I can to diet and exercise, I will never be that lean. I will never diet on 1200 calories again. I will never obsessively track macros. I will never prep for a bodybuilding competition. I will never be a cookie cutter fitness idol, because I am me. Because I have different ideas and goals. Because there is more to life than diet and exercise.
What do you do to maintain balance in your life?
Although I plan ahead, I still take each day one day at a time. If there is a day where I am slammed with work and I cannot make it to the gym, that’s okay. It’s important not to stress. Balance means not running yourself into the ground. Balance means allowing yourself a cookie when you want one so that you don’t eat the whole jar later on. Balance means that if you have been completing projects all day long and you need a 2-hour nap instead of a trip to the gym, that’s okay.
How do you stay productive?
I set goals regularly. I plan out my schedule during the beginning of the week and identify areas that need my focus the most. I have a very Type A personality, so planning and to-do lists come naturally to me. I actually use a Passion Planner, and have been using one since I began college. It’s very conducive to staying productive, and it is full of motivational quotes, areas for reflection, areas for focusing, etc. I don’t know if I would be able to stay productive without it honestly.
Can you give a breakdown of your current diet, training and supplementation regimen and the thinking behind it?
Right now, my diet, training, and supplementation regimen is very lax. I have had the craziest semester of my college career thus far, so training has been low priority. Prior to starting the semester, I was on a strict 6-day per week powerlifting program and counting macros to cut for a meet, but I haven’t had the energy to continue that program throughout this fall. Right now, I do a combination of hypertrophy lifting, plyometrics, and some light cardio. I would say I get to the gym on average 4 to 5 days per week.
As for my nutrition and supplementation, I just eat real food. Because I have been paying attention to my food intake for so long, I have a pretty good idea of the calorie/macronutrient distribution of my daily diet. I make healthy choices throughout the day, ensuring that I get enough protein. Sometimes I cook, but usually I am so busy running from one place to the next, so I buy prepared proteins, veggies, and soups from my local Wegmans. This allows me to make healthy choices even when running around.
Ultimately though, I eat when I’m hungry until I’m full. Our bodies are very smart, and they know what we need. I find that when I am in the middle of dieting, I lack control around food. I overeat when I get the chance to eat yummy foods. Once you get away from all the dieting/volume eating crap, your body can recognize what it needs and how much it needs. You no longer binge on cookies or cake because you haven’t had it in a month. You can have a bite or a slice and be satisfied. You get out of that all or nothing mindset.
As for supplementation, I don’t take anything crazy. I know this entire answer sounds so different from everyone else in the industry. I just take a multivitamin and calcium. The calcium is because I don’t eat a lot of dairy, and I want to ensure I am building strong bones. Additionally, because it is winter right now, I take Vitamin D3.
If you could only choose one thing, what would you tell your younger self?
Wow, is that a loaded question. If I could tell my younger self one thing, it would be “don’t compare.” Don’t compare yourself to anything or anyone. Don’t compare your diet to anyone else’s. Don’t compare your training to anyone else’s. Don’t compare your place in life to someone who may be 10 steps ahead of you.
You are you, and you will never be anyone else. You have qualities that other people do not. You are a unique individual who contributes unique ideas and perspectives. Just because you do not have the body type, the diet, or the lifestyle of someone else does not make your body type, diet, or lifestyle bad. Another person’s beauty does not detract from your own. There is room for success, beauty, and happiness for everyone.
What are your life goals?
My biggest life goals are to graduate from Penn State in May and to obtain a Dietetic Internship. In order to be able to sit for my exam to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I have to complete a 1200-hour supervised practice through a Dietetic Internship.
My priorities right now include gaining experience in the field, studying for GREs, and kicking my own butt in undergrad so I am a competitive applicant.
I would also like to compete in a powerlifting competition in 2017. I competed at a USAPL competition this past August, and I enjoyed it so much. Unfortunately, my semester at school was so crazy that I didn’t have time to dedicate to a powerlifting program. I would love to prep again in 2017 and qualify for nationals.
My short-term powerlifting goals are a 275# deadlift, 225# squat, and 135# bench. Although these numbers are not crazy, they are just out of reach for me. I’m excited to see what I am capable of in 2017.
Where can people go to learn more about you online?
Stay tuned for the next interview of Real Talk Real Women!