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Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho, Off to The Gym I go...

According to the caption above, if this is truly the case, I am fabulously awesome! Why? December 23, 2017, I caught the flu and was sick until the end of the first week of February 2018 - 42 days! Lost so much training time though I managed to get a hand-full of work-outs in but it almost wasn't worth the evil-eye looks from my fellow gym-mates. Who can blame them? My hacking cough and runny nose were like this bacterium beacon, proclaiming "Pathogens Found Here!" Took about 6 weeks to get back to where I left off once I recovered and I savored 7 weeks of strong make-up sessions. Thought my chances of making it to Nationals in July still looked pretty good. I guess this was just not meant to be because I relapsed and was sick for the entire month of April. So sick, I finally went to see the doc...

Had chest X-rays done and thought for sure the results would show signs of alien life brewing inside me, so forlorn was I. Doc said my lungs and chest were perfectly clear and because of my low resting heart rate (57 BPM) and blood pressure reading of 98/70, asked if I was an athlete. Felt strange to be asked about my good health while feeling ready to ask if someone could just put me out of my misery. Just sayin', because while I really hate doing cardio, this speaks volumes for proper weight training, my main squeeze! I don't like taking drugs but I got a scrip, took them all and have now returned to my love affair with Gym.

I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't lose as much strength as I expected but now after 4 days back to training, the soreness is immense! Some people like this - lets them know they really hit their muscles hard but I already know I do this - it just makes movement uncomfortable as well as remind me why I'm sore in the first place: too much time off!

No, I didn't die but I plan on killing my next workout. With Nationals now out of the picture for this year, I asked coach Rich Alvarez what my options were. He suggested doing another National qualifier and aim for the Nationals stage in 2019. Only the guidelines have been changed; one must now place 1st or 2nd to make the cut for Nationals. Okay, I did that before; I can do it again. I also know that I am going to have to work a LOT harder and step up my game big time. I feel pretty good about competing later this year though Nationals 2019 is more than 1 year away. I'll be 59 by then and while age is just a number, my body will need to be convinced that the lack of muscle-building hormones makes no difference at all...

This is where diet and lifestyle become super important. If you want to compete and you're on a budget or just believe that completely natural is the way to go (i.e., no steroids or other type of physique-enhancing supplements), be ready to make some adjustments and hold fast to them. Below are some of my favorites that have made significant improvements to my health:

1. Plan meals in advance. While this is pretty basic, if you don't make this part of your routine, you will inevitably find yourself foraging for meals in all the wrong places and/or over-spending for healthy meals you could have prepped yourself.

2. Say no to sodas, whether they are diet or not. Any drink with corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, sugar by any of its evil names, colorings, etc., is off my radar. I've also lost my taste for alcohol though I may indulge in a beer from time-to-time.

3. Pack your lunch or any other meal/snack to get you through the time away from your own kitchen and fridge. I have the perfect size cooler with ice packs and plenty of food storage containers. Besides, when you're a vegetarian who prefers organic and non-GMO and is picky about how food is prepared, then you better prepare!

4. Consider eating vegan or vegetarian at least one day a week (or more) while on other days reduce the amount of red meat. I've said it before but if you aren't aware of the commercial meat industry practices, you are doing your health a major disservice by remaining in the dark about the radical tactics used to bring meat to the table. The cruelty and suffering, the sanitation horrors, the chemicals and additives, the ecological nightmares, the ethical issues - there are a multitude of reasons why it makes sense to get over your burger and fries fixation at least once a week.

5. I always make my own salad dressings. My favorite recipe includes balsamic vinegar, Dijon mustard, fresh diced garlic, grated pepper, a pinch of salt, chopped cilantro and only 1 teaspoon of oil - either coconut or olive. I use filtered water to get the right consistency.

6. I don't skip meals. Or snacks! But I also count macros (carbs, protein, fat) and calories. Not obsessively as in "Is this a 4 ounce apple or is it 6?" Most important is the quality of food, then know portion sizes and what your daily caloric requirements are. These are topics most restaurants pay no attention to. It's interesting to note that while the restaurant industry has begrudgingly started adding nutrition info to their menus, thinking it would absolutely hurt business, it really hasn't. The general public just doesn't give AF.

7. Replace sugary desserts for healthier versions - there are some great natural sugar substitutes on the market that that make this pretty easy. My fave is erythritol; zero calorie, zero effect on blood sugar. Check out my recipe gallery for some other ideas of good-for-you treats.

8. Allowing myself freedom to eat and experiment with a wide variety of foods, not just food I once considered diet-worthy which was pretty much carrots, celery, lettuce, non-fat plain yogurt and skinless chicken breasts. Boring! I have discovered a plethora of foods due to becoming vegetarian and have learned to prepare food in so many different and delicious ways. Limiting foods to a narrow few that you feel you have to eat to lose weight will never work for the long haul and will only intensify cravings and the severity of the resultant binge.

9. Learning that having an occasional treat is not a reason to completely abandon a diet and that I really wouldn't gain fat by eating a few bites of something not on the diet plan. Slowing down to enjoy it also helped. Instead of scarfing food down by the handful so fast as though it might disappear completely from the face of the earth, I learned that I really can be satisfied with a small portion by eating mindfully!

10. I stopped weighing myself. There was a time that I was so completely obsessed with my weight that I never thought this would be possible. I prefer to go by how I look in the mirror. NAKED.

11. Learning to be patient. Changes WILL NOT happen over night. Accept this. While we certainly can gain weight faster than we lose it, think about it: it is easy to over-indulge and eat a lot of whatever your favorite food is. The reality is that your body will put all those calories to use and some of that will be in the form of stored fat. Calories-in happens faster and easier than calories-out. We have to move and work for the loss of stored energy while also reducing additional energy in. It's easy to sit and eat and enjoy the sensations. Not so much fun to undo those indulgences. But, it is ALWAYS your choice.

Pretty simple suggestions though some may be a challenge to initiate and stick to. The greatest challenge for me was the sugar move (excluding sodas, as I was never hooked on those) but it has been more than worth the effort to change and I have followed through.

Of course, exercise cannot be left out of the equation when it comes to health and fitness improvements. My biggest challenge in this area has been to take time off from weight training and feel okay about it. A cycle of three days on/one day off/2 days on/one day off works pretty well for me. This doesn't mean that I sit still on rest days - I love to get out and kayak, ride my bike or hike - but if I need to rest and do no physical activity, I'm okay with that.

This has been one of the best ways to stay motivated and in love with training as well as beat plateaus due to giving my body a break. While proper rest has helped my motivation levels stay high, I also:

1. Get excited for others that are either beginning their journey, or are making or maintaining gains. For example, seeing a new person in the gym - especially someone who may be extremely out of shape - and welcoming them, can make a world of difference. You may be providing a needed boost with this genuine approach. I could be having a rough day, and this keeps me focused on the good, and helps me power through. It's nice to surround yourself with a positive environment filled with others who will truly welcome your presence. I also love to give shout-outs to really fit people as who doesn't love a compliment for accomplishments? Besides, too often jealousy is the response and that is just negative.

2. Continue to learn! Think you know the gym inside-out? There is always a new way to do something; at the very least, I like to continually research proper movement mechanics. Be very aware, however, of where that advice is coming from! Even the simplest of moves, like a bicep curl, can be made more effective by understanding the essentials of the move and then putting them into action. This brings me to the next point:

3. Embrace the mind/muscle connection! It is truly all about form. This is absolutely one of the best ways to break a plateau that I know of. For every rep of every set, keep your mind completely immersed on what you're doing. No thinking about your home or work to-do list or other distracting details. While this is just your body's way of trying to cope with how not-fun exercise may be, chasing after the burn will bring you great results. Great results bring big fun!

4. Fight boredom. Even if you truly love to exercise, it can become tedious if you do the same thing ALL THE TIME. This is one of the most common things I see people do and these people will typically tell you they aren't getting the results they'd like. Main reason for this is:

Even simple changes like altering the order in which you do your workout can cause significant changes. This is such an easy adjustment and one of my favorites.

5. Goals, goals, goals! If there are no goals, motivation levels for working out can quickly shrivel up faster than a lone drop of rain in the Sahara Desert. Be they short-term or even years out, they are crucial to staying motivated and productive. Currently, I'm working towards my next figure competition in September 2018, while short-term includes upping my chin-up count per set.

My final tip is don't compare your physique or fitness levels to anyone else and particularly not to someone who is much younger than you. Great physiques rarely just 'happen' and everyone has a starting point. It's all good to seek motivation - just keep it real. Know that they also had to start somewhere and while you don't know what their somewhere was - what specific challenges they faced of both the mental and physical kind - know that commitment and determination are universal in the attainment of that which you seek.

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