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 Lisa Desilet.
Lisa Desilet is an Exercise Physiologist and Exercise Science Professor, health and fitness writer and mother of 3. Welcome Lisa, how are you?
I am great! Life is busy with three kids (as you can imagine) but so much fun. Every day is an adventure!
In your former life you were an elementary teacher - how did you get involved in health and fitness?
After the birth of my son (#3), I remember feeling like I was losing myself to motherhood. I was exhausted and struggling to be at peace with my body, mind, and soul. Things felt disjointed. I wanted to find a way to reconnect them and I learned that healthy eating and regular exercise were a good starting point for me. I began to feel different almost immediately, though the external took longer to reveal itself.
As you decided to make a career out of your passion - what were your biggest stumbling blocks along the way?
I am one of those who wants to excel in everything I do. It was important for me to realize that I would make many mistakes as I learned this new career and industry, but those mistakes were opportunities to learn. There was no way for me to know everything all at once. I needed to have patience and enjoy the journey. I am still learning so much every day and it excites me! I love sharing my learning and experience with others.
I read online that you used to look at women who were healthy and in shape and judged them as some sort of coping mechanism - how did you go from that mindset to seeing them as thriving examples of what you could achieve?
It really originated as a lie I told myself to justify where I was and why I didn’t want to change. Once I took the focus off “them” and turned it onto myself, I realized the true desires I had. It wasn’t about a flat stomach – but what that flat stomach represented. It took dedication, commitment and the ability to say “I am important, too.” I was unsure if I was ready for that. I was afraid of failing.
But here’s the thing – I failed multiple times – everyone has. It is an inescapable part of the journey. But in those moments, I picked myself up, figured out what caused the failure, and learned from it. Each time, the picking up and the learning became easier. Then one day, things seemed to get easier. My body felt better. I had more energy to play with my kids. I started to look like those women I previously judged.
Then the connection came. I started with this notion that it was all about the physical transformation – to be thinner, sexier, better looking. What I realized on my own was that I was a new woman internally and the external changes became evidence of that. It never really was about the flat stomach.
One of the realisations you had was that they were taking care of themselves and in turn were more capable of taking care of their families while you were quote unquote surviving in your own life - what’s your perspective on the importance of self-care?
It’s quite simple. I use the analogy of the airplane. Passengers are taught to put on their own mask before assisting anyone else. The same is true of our own health. If we take care of ourselves, we are better equipped to take care of others. Can you do it without that? Yes, but not for long.
You’re a mom of three - for many women, motherhood is where they move their priorities over from themselves to their children. You decided to learn about nutrition and exercise instead so that you could better take care of both yourself and them. Tell me a bit about that?
My journey toward a career in nutrition and exercise started out as a passion, but has since morphed into a very different life for my family. I grew up thinking exercise was punishment for showing up late for practice or not doing something correctly. My children see it as a beautiful opportunity to move, strengthen and challenge your body.
Additionally, I grew up thinking food was simply a necessity (food/water/shelter), nothing more. My children now understand how the food we eat affects their energy, their brain, and their overall health. They know how important protein is to a strong healthy body, understand the importance of fat, and know carbohydrates fuel their play. They have learned to make smart food choices based on need rather than emotion. They still have treats, but they are planned and intentional.
My highest priority as a mother to teach my children their bodies are created for greatness, strength and achievement. My education and career are helping me do just that. It is just as much for them as it is for myself.
You also carry a Master’s of Science in Exercise Science and work as an Exercise Physiologist. One of the things you specialize in are metabolic diseases - what are some of the most common things you see in your work and are there any big misconceptions that you would want to make people aware of?
The most common misconception people and my former patients had was to weigh less, you need to eat less. This is grossly untrue. Most of the obese and overweight population is either underfed and undernourished or overfed and undernourished. They are simply not eating enough or are eating too much of the wrong things with very little nutritional value.
Secondly, women tend to think weight training will make you bulky. This could not be farther from the truth. The metabolic, hormonal, psychological, and overall health benefit from lifting weights (particularly heavy weight training) is irreplaceable. In reality, it takes many, tireless, intentional, and dedicated years to build a significant amount of muscle. Not to mention, our natural testosterone production inhibits anything too significant. I challenge women to try it and see.
Something that I keep running into are young women who want to lose weight and believe that not eating is the way to do it, without realizing 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?
I think first and foremost, the influences on these young women must be examined. My 12-year old daughter is excited when she gains weight (on her 5’6”, 108 lb. frame) because she knows that translates to her training and sports performance. She looks up to strong, confident female athletes – like many of the top-level CrossFit competitors, and Kerri Walsh of the U.S. Olympic Volleyball team – and strives to be more like them.
She sees herself as an athlete so she trains and eats appropriately for those goals. They eat a lot and train hard. She can’t achieve those goals on a dismal nutrition plan. It’s equally important to encourage and give positive feedback on things other than weight and appearance. My daughter hit a PR of 145lb. deadlift a couple months ago and I almost cried! She was so proud of herself.
Secondly, getting the right information in front of young women at an early age can pay dividends. The American approach to eating is a broken one and our school system does little to counteract this. Too much emphasis is put on easy access of food instead of quality nutrients. This is a priority of mine and the motivation behind a new project I am working on: #StrongerthanSocial. It is a guide for girls (and their parents) on all thing nutrition, exercise and body image. My goal is to help young women learn to unlock their body’s potential and become #strongerthansocial. Recognizing their bodies are more than a weight and a size, but created for greatness.
I get requests from so many parents wanting to know how to counteract this very thing. It breaks my heart to hear of children (some as young as 7) feeling like they need to limit their food intake for the fear of “getting fat”. There has to be a balance between fighting obesity by eating less and encouraging more quality, nutritious food and healthy development. Remember before how I mentioned being overfed and undernourished? This is where many children lie. Not to mention the influences that drive this are so off-base, it’s no wonder parents feel at a loss!
I know that helping others experience success is one of your big motivators - what drives you to wanting to help others?
I really struggled with finding the right information out there. Everyone, qualified or not, has their own ideas about how to diet, how to exercise, even how to parent! I wanted to get to the science of it. However, I realize not everyone wants to pursue a graduate degree in exercise and nutrition like I did, but they shouldn’t be robbed of quality information either. There are plenty of credible, reliable sources out there, but they don’t compare to the amount of bad information.
I want to be one of those real, relatable, and reliable sources who provides solutions for common problems we all face. I take the science of healthy living and translate it into real-life practice. The notion of being healthy is great and the list of things required to achieve that can become a mile-long. But what do you really need to do? What is essential? And how does it look in real life, not life on paper? What about a family? I parse all this down into a digestible and feasible format. It is actually less complicated than many think.
That is exactly why I developed a 12-week online nutrition program, called “Functional Nutrition”. It is a no-nonsense approach to nutrition for people who want real, lasting results. It takes you step-by-step through the process of understanding food, how it works in your body, and how it translates to real life. Because most people don’t want to drink antioxidant-rich kale smoothies 4 times a day. Sometimes we want a burger and fries! There’s ways to make that work without derailing your progress and without any guilt. It becomes about unlearning bad ideas, and relearning what works. If readers are interested in giving up dieting, they can get more information through my website.
In the past, you were focused on disease management. Since then, you've made a shift towards focusing on the "healthy population" - moms, dads, the average Joe as well as athletes - who want to become and stay healthy. How does your past experience help you in your work today?
What I’ve come to recognize is the overwhelming influence our everyday behaviors have on health. The choices we make day in and day out are either keeping us healthy or moving us toward poor health. The greatest of these is nutrition. Food is information to your cells and they learn and respond to the nutrients we provide ourselves. Surprisingly, this is also one of the most ignored pieces of health until negative consequences show up. The notion of “eating healthy” is so ambiguous that the reality of it is unclear.
Because of this, I spent the past year developing Functional Nutrition. I genuinely want people to understand how to eat for their body and their life. It is not about pills, shakes, or quick fixes, but takes the time to help people make sense of their bodies, how to eat and what it looks like in real life. There is a time and a place for chicken, rice and broccoli, and a time and place for donuts. (Yes! A nutritionist said you can eat a donut… if you know the right time!)
The basis of my entire program pushes back against traditional “meal plans”. I won’t tell you what to eat, but teach you how to eat so you can decide for yourself. You know that saying, “Feed a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” This my approach to nutrition. No one should need someone to tell them what to eat all the time in order to be successful. You should eventually learn for yourself so you can experience real, lasting results, without ever having to diet again.
My previous experience is disease management has helped me make connections with students to help them see the patterns that can eventually lead to poor health. No one wants to be sick for the rest of their life - to struggle with managing heart failure, type 2 Diabetes, or heart disease. But these are the outcomes of obesity and poor choices over many, many years. If I can help people stop from sliding down the scale to poor health and optimize their training and ultimately, their bodies, I have done my job. I want people to experience vitality, energy, and passion. I want them to experience optimal health which leads to an optimal life.
You're no longer competing today and now train for fun and health - also involving your own family. Tell me about this shift and how you set goals without having a competition to work towards?
I gave up training as a National-level figure competitor about two years ago. Competing at that level (for me) required a sacrifice, I was not willing to provide. Bodybuilding can easily become very selfish. This can be true of any high-level competition. Between the hours at the gym, the demands of the diet, and the ups and downs I experienced, I was no longer living as the mom and wife I wanted to be. I felt in conflict… yet again! I really struggled with saying “No, kids, mom needs to train.” when they would ask to go do fun things together. Some of our family vacations were influenced by this as well. I eventually had a “come to Jesus” meeting with myself and got very clear about my goals and priorities.
Would it have been amazing to become a Professional Figure Athlete? Yes. Was the sacrifice it required worth it to me? No. Plain and simple. So, I made adjustments. I think it is important to reflect on goals and priorities to ensure you don’t compromise a short-term gain for a long-term loss. This can apply to so many aspects of life, not just training. After letting go of that goal, I found myself dreading the gym. I lost motivation to go other than I “need to”. The desire, the want was faint. A random occurrence brought us into the doors of a local CrossFit gym, Snake River CrossFit. I was incredibly apprehensive and decided if I couldn’t learn anything on my first visit from this place, it wasn’t for me. Talk about narrow-minded!
Needless to say, I did. And no one there knew who I was or my background. It was great to be anonymous. I was humbled by the training and continue to get my ass handed to me each time I go. Since that day, I have watched my fitness evolved immensely and feel much more well-rounded. CrossFit has a way of bringing you face-to-face with your weaknesses. This alone is motivation for me to continue to train. I track my workouts, log my results, and know what I need to target. It really helps to not blindly follow a plan, but to know what my strengths and weaknesses are. This helps me create a target to aim for with each workout.
Additionally, I watch my training transition from being independent, to be part of a community. For the first time in 17 years, my husband and I train together. We train with our friends. Our children are involved in the CrossFit Kids program and train with us occasionally. The “constantly-varied” piece keeps it interesting for me. Not to mention, the science of it blows me away. There are some great minds out there challenging the human body to do things that don’t seem possible on paper. I know everyone hates when CrossFitters talk about CrossFit, so I’ll keep it short. But I definitely drank the punch!
The last thing I will say about this transition is our family has never been so united around something as this. I get teary-eyed regularly watching my children embrace physical activity, challenge their bodies and minds, and overcome! They are building within themselves powerful forces that will not bow to the world. I am certain they will do great things because they know how to work through the physical and mental struggle that CrossFit puts in front of them regularly.
Exercise Physiologist, Certified Personal Trainer, Nutrition Expert, Mother of 3 - people listening will be wondering... how does she balance it all? What’s the secret behind your productivity and how do you find balance?
It really is all about balance. I’ve learned that everything comes at a compromise. As mothers, we know this too well. We give too much to our families, so our own bodies suffer. We devote too much to our training and our relationships suffer. A pendulum swing happens in life. Recognizing how far you go in one direction will ultimately end up with an equal swing back the other direction. The goal is to eliminate those big, extreme swings and find that place in the middle. There, a little juggling back and forth is all it takes to make progress or reach goals. That is what creates real, life-long, sustainable change.
The other thing that works well for me is running on a schedule. If I don’t have a plan (even if it’s just in my head) about how the day and/or week will go, I find myself incredibly unproductive and relying on my emotions to drive behavior. That is never a good thing! Because when do you really feel like doing laundry or going to the grocery store? But that stuff has to happen in order for things to keep moving. So I make plans – from meals to work to the gym – and I do my best to stick to them.
Where can people go to learn more about you online?
Stay tuned for the next interview of Real Talk Real Women!
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