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Lisa Samalonios at a yoga retreat

In August 2017, the house was quieter than ever before. My elder son had just left for college; my younger son was a junior in high school and was busy with school, friends, and activities. Suddenly, I had hours of unoccupied time. I had no hobbies. My few friends were busy with their families.

In the stillness, I heard my body’s cries for help. Since my divorce 10 years earlier, I’d spent most of my time caring for my sons, who were then 7 and 9. I’d go to work, tend our home, cook meals, and shuttle the kids to sports activities. I hadn’t had time to care for my physical or mental health.

Yet as the years passed, I ­noticed my weight and blood pressure ­increase. I avoided mirrors, the scale, and the doctor’s office, where my rising readings and family history of hypertension spurred talks of lifestyle changes and medications.

Over time, I experienced other concerning symptoms. I was exhausted and my neck and upper back ached constantly. I frequently suffered from headaches.

I also struggled with self-doubt, and my internal dialogue could be cutting. I chided myself for not eating well consistently or exercising enough. When I did look in the mirror, I appeared tired and worn out. My body seized with stress; I couldn’t turn my neck easily some days.

My health needed attention, stat. I’d spent years pouring all my time and energy into my sons; now, at 47, I needed to care for myself.

Wake-Up Call

As an editor with a 100-mile workday commute, I was largely sedentary — despite my life being busy. I spent most of my days working and driving to and from my office, and it had been a long time since I’d committed to a fitness plan.

I’d swum competitively in school. I’d participated in group fitness classes with my sister at a local gym before having kids. But once my boys were born, I simply couldn’t keep up the routine.

Although I belonged to a gym with cardio machines and weights, I didn’t go often. When I did, it was begrudgingly after dinner.

On top of that, my eating habits weren’t ideal. I often opted for pizza, pasta, burgers, and other convenience food; I snacked after the boys went to bed; and I indulged in ice cream on the weekends to soothe my loneliness when my sons visited their father.

At my annual physical after my elder son left for college, my doctor warned me about the risk of a stroke based on my lifestyle and health markers. I was taken aback.

My son had just settled into the next phase of his life, and his brother would continue on his own path as well. I wanted to be healthy for them and myself: How had I let this happen?

My physician and I discussed eating a more nutritious diet and creating a consistent exercise plan. I agreed to start on a low-dose medication for my hypertension. Then I sobbed in my car before I drove home. It was past time to make a change.

Plan of Action

In addition to taking my medication, I began eating more consciously. I focused on vegetables and fruits and tried to cut back on sugar, meat, and highly processed breads. I monitored my portion sizes and drank more water. When I indulged, I gave myself grace and reset the next morning.

I also looked for a less stressful job closer to home and joined the Life Time club in Mount Laurel, N.J. If I went directly after work, I could exercise for one hour and miss some of the heaviest traffic. (One year later, I accepted a new position closer to home.)

It was a win-win. I had a place to go during my newfound spare time, and I could get out of the house, which now often felt too quiet and empty, and do something to improve my health.

My goals were simple at first: I wanted to move for 45 to 60 minutes and relieve stress. Yet I found the open layout of the club — filled with people of various ages and fitness levels — intimidating. Was everyone looking at me, the stressed-out, out-of-shape mom? I tried to tamp down my anxiety and focus on myself, but it was hard. (Anxiety about being judged can lead to a fear of exercising in public settings. Try these tips to increase your confidence — and then celebrate what you can do.)

I started in my comfort zone with cardio machines. From the treadmill, elliptical, and stationary bike, I saw people coming in and out of the group fitness rooms. Remembering the classes I used to take and how much I’d enjoyed them, I decided to check out some yoga classes.

I began with a gentle flow and then a yin class — my first ever — where I laid on my mat and stretched in the softly lit room. When was the last time I’d remained still for this long without sleeping?

My mind raced through my to-do list and other worries, but the instructor’s calm voice brought me back to the simple act of breathing. As music played and I extended in the positions, I felt peaceful for the first time in a long time.

Positive Future

I started attending yoga classes two or three times each week, and the regular practice increased my awareness of my body, my tension, and my thoughts. I realized going to classes worked my mind and spirit, as well as my muscles, which had begun to relax.

Soon I was attending more classes — not to get to a lower number on the scale, but to feel better, reduce my mind chatter, and find my inner smile.

I also found my way back to the pool. I couldn’t swim laps as fast as I had in high school and college, but the sense of gliding through the water — stretching my body, moving my muscles, and resetting my mind — reinvigorated me. After swimming laps or attending a yoga class, I slept more soundly.

I tried other activities, too, including weight and strength classes, Pilates fusion, cycling classes, and water fitness. The classes were friendly and fun. I laughed with others as I tried to master the moves; I marveled at how my quads and butt ached when I sat in my desk chair two days after a strength workout.

I became more aware of my negative inner voices, and I learned to talk more nicely to myself. I realized that I don’t need to strive to be perfect.

Instead, I began to see myself as a work in progress. I practiced being as gently supportive of myself as I would be of a friend.

Now, exercise and self-care alleviate my neck and back pain, and along with the medication I take every morning, they help me control my blood pressure.

When I feel overwhelmed or am craving sweet or salty treats, I sit quietly, meditate briefly, drink a glass of water, or take a quick nap. I might jot a few notes in my journal, talk to a friend, or go for a walk.

I see a healthy, positive future for myself. Although I often miss my sons, who no longer orbit around me as they did when they were young, I have learned to savor the moments we share together. And I have (re)developed another side of myself — an active, self-caring, and happy one.

Lisa’s Top 3 Tips for Success

  1. Don’t be afraid to try new things. “I connected immediately with the people in the yoga studio and later found my other favorites, like Pilates fusion and hydro training,” Lisa says.
  2. Focus on how exercise makes you feel. “When I miss days at the gym, my body reminds me to go back,” she says. “Once I’m exercising, I feel better.”
  3. Tame your mind. “I’m an overthinker who internalizes stress and turns to emotional eating,” she allows. “Yoga and meditation helped me become more aware of my feelings and how they are connected to my behavior.”

 My Turnaround

For more real-life success stories of people who have embraced healthy behaviors and changed their lives, visit our My Turnaround department.

Tell Us Your Story! Have a transformational healthy-living tale of your own? Share it with us!

This article originally appeared as “Empty Nest, New Beginnings” in the April 2023 issue of Experience Life.

Lisa Samalonis

Lisa Samalonis

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