As most overweight kids will tell you, the struggle is as real as it gets. I was never small, but at 10 years old, I peaked at close to 200 pounds. I was teased mercilessly. The worst experience was when I was tackled by kids who noticed the similarity between me — with my weight and red jacket — and Santa Claus.
They proceeded to sit on my lap and tell me what they wanted for Christmas. In that moment and others, I wanted to disappear.
My size wasn’t for lack of movement. I played football and baseball and spent a lot of time playing outside in my small-town neighborhood. I just really liked food and wasn’t exposed to many options. I also wasn’t aware of how to make the best choices for my body.
Food was a big part of our family, and we sat together for dinners — big steaks, bread, and potatoes were staples in our household. I didn’t learn how to eat or move with intention; I just went along with the flow, not knowing anything different.
That changed when I joined the football team’s summer strength-and-conditioning program before seventh grade. As part of the program, I spent three or four days a week with a supportive coach who encouraged me, helping me become stronger and more confident in my body’s abilities.
My food choices changed, too. I began eating less bread and more protein. I lost about 30 pounds. That experience gave me relief and clarity: For the first time, I realized I had the ability to change my body and my life.
Getting stronger and faster and seeing my body change led me to want more of the same, which ultimately sparked an enduring passion for fitness and nutrition that has shaped the course of my life — in more ways than one.
Hitting the Bull’s-Eye
The confidence and safety I found in exercise and nutrition became indispensable, and my dedication set me up for success. Early on, I was able to understand how my choices affected my outcomes. In fact, my time in the gym was so important that I turned down a football scholarship because I couldn’t see myself working out in that college’s fitness facility. I ultimately chose North Dakota State University (NDSU), which featured an amazing exercise space.
I excelled at math and science, so my natural inclination was to study engineering. But despite my success in class, doubts about my major began to creep in. And while working on a group project during my freshman year, I suddenly found myself dreading the career I was pursuing.
At that moment, I realized I couldn’t continue on the path I’d started. I left the lab without completing the assignment, dropped my major without consulting anyone, including my parents, and added Exercise Science and Dietetics.
Growing up in Brainerd, Minn., I’d never heard of a personal trainer. The day I stepped away from engineering, I had no clue about the career opportunities, job market, or potential compensation that would be available.
But following my passion and helping people learn from my experiences was important. It was such a strong calling, and I knew I would figure it out. I couldn’t fail, because I cared about exercise and nutrition so much. I could re-create what happened to me for other people; I could help others take a more active role in their health.
Lessons Learned — and Taught
In 2006, I started competing in bodybuilding contests, which meant that over about 10 years, I had gone from being a fat kid with no confidence to a bodybuilder with the physique he’d always dreamed of. While training, I forced myself to follow strict regimens that allowed me to control my appearance and prepare for the physical challenge ahead.
After the show, it was a different story: I quickly gained 36 pounds. No matter how much I ate, I still didn’t feel full. Any amount of weight gain made me feel like my 10-year-old self again, so my solution was to sign up for another competition. Over the next five years, I trained for nine shows and repeatedly yo-yoed between overeating and militant compliance to get ready for the stage again.
Meanwhile, I graduated from NDSU and returned to Minnesota in 2009 with a job as a personal trainer and dietitian at Life Time. Although I continued bodybuilding for a while, the ritualistic nutrition and exercise schedule took a toll on me. I put my heart and soul into training for and participating in each competition, and this often meant sacrificing relationships with friends and family.
Finally, in 2011, I couldn’t see myself going through another cycle of fatigue, hunger, and loneliness. I competed in my last show that year and quit bodybuilding. Using the tools I’d learned as a personal trainer and dietitian, I began to adopt more sustainable practices for my own nutrition and exercise.
Reining in my habits has taken years of practice and is still something I manage every day. But living through this continuum of experiences gave me the ability to empathize with clients who fall anywhere along the wellness spectrum.
My cumulative experience also positioned me to help educate fellow trainers and work with clients to change lives for the better. Today, I’m the senior director of virtual training at Life Time. I’ve learned so much about the many factors that affect people’s wellness besides weight — dietary needs, physical limitations, age — which I continue to apply to my own health journey.
Living by Example
As a 36-year-old who coaches people on healthy living, I know how lucky I am to have begun thinking critically about my health when I was just 10. At such a young age, I had the motivation to make the kind of lifestyle changes that most obese children struggle with into adulthood.
In 2015, I started dating the woman I would marry in 2019, and our daughter was born in 2020. I want a different childhood for her than I had, so modeling a healthy lifestyle as a parent is my newest priority.
Between my wife, who was a D1 soccer player and a bodybuilder, and me, raising our daughter to eat healthy and be active won’t be a problem. Her self-image will be my biggest concern. As she grows up, we’ll make sure we watch our self-talk in front of her and compliment healthy behaviors rather than a particular outcome. I know my words and actions will have an impact.
I often think about how my goals have changed over the years. When I was a young person, it was to not get teased. In high school, I wanted to be the starting varsity running back; then it was to become a professional bodybuilder. As a personal trainer, I wanted to be an expert in my field and represent what I was coaching. Now, as a husband and father, I’m motivated to prioritize health for my family.
Cliff’s Top 3 Success Strategies
- Evolve. Your body adapts to find homeostasis, so find challenges that help you progress and keep you motivated. “A person’s journey changes. Training to run your first 5K won’t be the same program as training to run your fastest 5K. You have to evolve what you’re doing.”
- Balance. You can’t be consistent if your plan isn’t sustainable. Do what’s functional. Make your health and wellness something that complements your life, not detracts from it.
- Seek progress over perfection. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and own mistakes. “If you have a rough weekend or a bad night, don’t beat yourself up or give up on the progress you’ve already made. Accept that you chose to do that and can choose to do differently.”
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This article originally appeared as “Building a Power Mindset” in the May 2022 issue of Experience Life.