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CHISELED ABS AND BUNS OF STEEL are all well and good. Lean, well-muscled arms and legs are lovely. And if idealized images of fitness are all it takes to get you up and moving, more power to you. But there’s something you should know: Falling in love with fitness for its own sake tends to produce a more sustainable approach to exercise over time. And it also helps you develop a more satisfying relationship with your body. Even if you begin exercising because of a weightloss or get-in-shape goal, discovering a sport, activity or athletic pursuit that you authentically enjoy is one of the best, most reliable ways to make your new fitness commitment part of a lifelong transformation.

Here are three people who prove that point, people who discovered a way to make their fitness pursuits an essential and self-sustaining component of their lives, and who came away with far more than muscle and sinew in the bargain.

Sherry Spencer weighed 297 pounds before her transformation to popular group-fitness trainer. Michelle Pauly was never athletic until she fell in love with rowing. And Brian Rell lived on caffeine, cigarettes and fast food until he vowed to clean up his lifestyle and enter his first triathlon.

Now each of them enjoys stronger relationships and more satisfying professional lives, a deeper sense of self-knowledge, and an increased enthusiasm for living. Wondering how you can ignite your own brand of fitness romance? Read on for inspiration — and ideas worth taking to heart.

Brian Rell

Age: 38

Home: Duluth, Ga.

Family: Wife, Stephanie; son Connor, 9; daughter Laura Hatten, 6; son Owen, 2

Former reality:
Underweight, Rell never worked out and was fueled primarily by adrenaline, nicotine and caffeine.

Fitness transformation: He’s now a healthy, muscular triathlete focused on preparing for his first Ironman-distance competition. Even though he’s training aggressively, he has more energy and time for all the things that matter to him.

Motivation: His 4-year-old son caught him sneaking a cigarette in the garage.

Turning point: Crossing the finish line in his first sprint triathlon.

Unexpected payoffs: A more satisfying sense of work-life balance, stronger connections with his wife and kids, and a clearer sense of focus and purpose in everything he does.

In college, Brian Rell was the consummate partier: He set a fraternity record by going out 53 consecutive nights. He also developed a serious nicotine habit. And he didn’t stop after college. His hard-partying lifestyle was compounded by an 80-hour-a-week, high-stress job in politics. “I was pretty much the epitome of unhealthy,” Rell says. “I lived on adrenaline, nicotine and caffeine.”

At 5 feet, 9 inches tall, Rell was 20 to 30 pounds underweight (he looked like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, says his wife, Stephanie). His job put him on airplanes three times a week, and on a normal day, he smoked two-and-a-half packs of cigarettes, drank two pots of coffee, and ate one meal. “When I did eat, it was a Big Mac or a Quarter Pounder,” he says. On his annual ski trip, Rell had to stop halfway down the mountain to catch his breath.

One Saturday, though, while on the campaign trail with a particularly difficult candidate, Rell realized his manic job wasn’t worth all the time he was spending away from his family. So, in 2000, he found a more manageable job in government affairs. He continued smoking for three more years, though, hiding his habit from his kids by taking smoke breaks in the garage. “One day, I was crouching down behind the car, plumes of cigarette smoke above me,” Rell remembers. “My 4-year-old son came around the corner and saw me, and I thought, ‘This is stupid.’” Then and there, he decided to give up smoking.

When he visited his doctor, he discovered that, despite being underweight at 138 pounds, his total cholesterol was an alarming 240. “I set a goal: If I’m going to quit smoking, I’m going to do something with it,” he recalls. He decided to get in shape for real.

At first, he couldn’t run a full city block. A two-mile run took 45 minutes. But still, right from the beginning, he found he had more energy, better focus and more time for his family. “After smoking for so long, you have no idea how good it felt to exercise,” Rell says. “Smoking is such a limiter: You’re more tired, you smell bad and you have no sense of taste.”

As his health improved, Rell broadened his fitness goals to include a triathlon. He arrived at his first event, a sprintdistance triathlon (400-yard swim, 13-mile bike ride and 5K run) in July 2005 without much swimming experience. Worse, he was unprepared for the shoving at the starting line and the kicking in the water. “My heart rate went through the roof,” he says. “I got to the point where I couldn’t freestyle, so I floated on my back. I was nearly hyperventilating.”

After resorting to a dignified dog paddle, Rell reached the first transition area after 40 minutes. Riding a heavy mountain bike, he didn’t fare much better in the cycling phase. “A lady passed me going uphill and said, ‘Good job, keep it up!’ I looked at her calf, which had her age marked on it — she was 67.

Finally, two-and-a-half hours after the start, he crossed the finish line, dehydrated and limping from a calf cramp. He scooped up his daughter, who said, “Daddy, what took so long?” Nevertheless, Rell says, it was a magical moment. And he knew he was never going back to the way he’d lived before.?

So bought a road bike and joined the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training. Nine months later, he completed his first Olympic-distance triathlon (1,500-meter-swim, 25-mile bike rid and a 10K run) in two hours, 36 minutes. The next month, he finished his first half-Ironman in five hours, 41 minutes. With weight training and a diet that includes five healthy meals a day, he now maintains a svelte racing weight of 162 pounds. Not only did Rell quickly grow to lover exercising — especially cycling — but he’s found his improved health and fitness helped him be more proactive and focused at work. Now he finds time to teach Sunday school, lead his son’s Cub Scout pack, coach soccer — and spend quality time with his wife. “He’s not the same man I married,” says Stephanie. “And that’s a good thing.”

Michelle Pauly

Age: 53

Home: Medford, Ore.

Family: Jim Harper, partner of 15 years

Former reality: Went for occasional walks and participated in aerobics classes sporadically

Fitness transformation: She’s now a competitive rower devoted to improving her performance.

Motivation: Became more physically active as a way to cope with her father’s death

Turning point: Her first rowing race

Unexpected payoff: She feels more confident and outgoing.

Michelle Pauly is no stranger to accomplishment. As a deputy district attorney, she’s prosecuted child abusers and rapists; as a violinist with the Eugene Opera Orchestra, she’s played alongside renowned musicians. But the idea of becoming an accomplished athlete had never crossed her mind.

After her father’s unexpected death in January 2006,Pauly was having trouble eating and sleeping, and she had been working out only sporadically. As a remedy for her emotional distress, she thought about hitting the gym with more intensity, but she knew she needed some kind of focus.

She read about the Ashland Rowing Club in her local newspaper and decided to sign up. It was a perfect fit. “I loved the technical and physical demands of the sport,” she says. “And it was very affirming to participate in a sport with women in my age group with similar fitness backgrounds — or lack thereof.”

In the rhythm of oars slapping the water, Pauly found solace. Working in sync with her teammates produced a satisfaction similar to playing in the orchestra. She also discovered she liked the quiet concentration that rowing demands. “You only hear the sounds of the boat,” she says. “It’s beautiful and peaceful, even with eight people.”

That’s part of what Pauly’s trainer, two-time FISA Master world-champion rower Andy Baxter, calls rowing’s “spiritual” element. “[Rowing] is dynamic,” he says. “You never really perfect it,” he says. “It’s a lifelong process.”

In April 2006, Pauly started getting serious. She’d been measuring her performance on the rowing machine and began to realize how far she’d come. That summer, neglecting her normally well-tended garden, she devoted herself to improving her strength, form and technique. Saturdays consisted of a morning power hike followed by a rowing session with her club. Some days, she hit the gym twice: once for weights, and once for a cardio session.

When her coach offhandedly referred to her as an athlete after a regatta that October, Pauly knew she’d crossed some kind of threshold — an entryway into a world she intends to inhabit for the long haul.

Though she’s still too modest to call herself a “rower,” Pauly certainly looks and acts the part. “Her fitness is still improving by leaps and bounds,” Baxter says. “Rowing is a good outlet for her attributes: She’s very driven, but also willing to learn.” Meanwhile, Paul’s formerly size-16 body has become an athletic size 8, and her body fat has decreased from 33 percent to 18 percent. Still, the rewards of her physical transformation are secondary to the sense of joy and purpose her new sport delivers.

“Without rowing, I’d just be dragging myself over to the gym, trying to cut calories and not making headway,” she says. “Some folks can go to the gym and really push themselves beyond their comfort levels, whether it’s on the treadmill, the stationary bicycle or in the aerobics room. But not me. I realize now that I could not discover the limits of my physical prowess without the desire to do well in rowing.”

Pauly’s looking forward to the day when she can call herself a rower without even a trace of reservation about having earned those stripes. “I am striving,” she says. “I am in love with the sport, and I am totally immersed in the endeavor.”

Sherry Spencer

Age: 36

Home: Brooklyn Park, Minn.

Family: Husband, Steven; sons Gaven, 10; Nolan, 7; and Mason, 6

Former reality: Spencer used to drop her sons off at her fitness club’s childcare center and read a book in the café or locker room.

Fitness transformation: She’s now a popular group-fitness instructor who inspires others.

Motivation: Turning 31 — she decided this decade would be different from the last

Turning point: Finding energizing group-fitness classes she actually enjoyed

Unexpected payoff: Becoming a fitness role model

Once a pixie-thin gymnast, Sherry Spencer had somehow become a 297-pound stay-at-home mom who avoided airplanes and movie theaters because she feared she wouldn’t be able to fit
in the seats. And after two decades of struggling with her weight, she decided she didn’t want to spend her 30s hiding her 5-foot-5 frame in size 30/32 clothes. So in April 2003, she decided to undergo gastric bypass surgery.

On a diet of sugar-free liquids, Spencer lost 27 pounds in the two weeks following the surgery. But she was still miserable, particularly when she realized that the surgery was not going to be the cure-all she’d hoped.

“As with any quick fix, you assume it will answer all your problems,” she said. “I counted on that.” Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for Spencer to discover that she still could — and would — find ways to overeat. For several months she pouted, feeling frustrated and helpless that things weren’t going the way she’d hoped.

Eventually, realizing she’d exhausted all her quick-fix options without success, Spencer knew she had a decision to make: “I could learn how to do it the right way or accept the way I was forever.”

That fall, she wrote down every bit of sound nutritional and fitness advice she’d ever heard: Eat smaller meals more frequently. Choose whole foods. Drink water. Exercise daily.

She was diligent, but her new routine mostly felt like a chore. “It was a checkmark, just like brushing my teeth or taking a shower,” she says.

She did lose weight, though, and after about a year, she got up the nerve to try a group-fitness cardio class at her gym. To her surprise, she found she liked it — really liked it. So she tried yoga, step aerobics, kickboxing. She enjoyed them all. “I couldn’t wait to get to class,” she says. “There was so much energy from the people around me.”

By then, she had lost the bulk of her excess weight, and the classes were helping her get toned. Yet, in April 2005, she still didn’t feel satisfied. “I would look in the mirror, see that I’d lost weight and wonder, ‘Why do I still not like me?’” she remembers.

Finally, something clicked — a deep realization that she had to make a commitment to her own happiness. “I realized losing weight was just a band-aid,” she says. “I had to consider myself just as important as my sons and my husband, whose needs I’d always put before my own.”

She stopped feeling guilty for carving out time away from her family to work out. She even joined the church choir, which she’d wanted to do for years. Soon, she was stepping to the front in her fitness classes, mimicking the instructor’s moves so well that other students sometimes followed herinstead. “People came up to me after classes and thanked me for being there,” she says.

When a favorite instructor left the club, her fellow students encouraged her to apply for the job. She followed through — and got it. Now she has such a loyal following that she maintains
an email list so her students always know when and where she’s filling in for someone. Best of all, Spencer has learned how much her success has inspired others.

One night, an overweight woman on her way out of the gym stopped to ask Spencer for advice. She had seen Spencer at the gym and noticed her weight loss. So, Spencer showed her a photo of herself at 297 pounds. The woman thanked her, turned around, and went back into the gym to finish working out.

“Now, instead of hiding, I get to help feed into others’ positivity,” says Spencer. And her pouting days? They’re over. “All of a sudden,” she says, “I find myself smiling.”

Sheila Mulrooney Eldred finds her fitness joy in running, biking and swimming.

Feel the Love

Having trouble getting excited about any kind of activity? Here are a few ways to grow your fitness affections, courtesy of Heather Rider, a Los Angeles–based fitness instructor who specializes in mind-body training.

INSTEAD OF STEPPING ON THE SCALE, ask yourself how you feel, and how you’d like to feel. Rider doesn’t take measurements of new clients — she talks to them about their fitness state of mind.

INCORPORATE FUN STUFF. “Dancing classes can get your body moving; kickboxing can get your aggressions out; yoga can relax your mind and body,” Rider says. Not sure what you’ll like? Visualize yourself doing a variety of individual and group activities in different settings until you have some sense of what might click. Then experiment to find out for sure. Feeling bored? Try mixing an MP3 playlist with fresh tunes or taking your workout to a new locale.

LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. Notice how it responds to different kinds of activity, when it needs challenge and when it needs rest. Back off or shift gears when you need to. Otherwise, you risk injury and burnout.

BUILD IN BALANCE. Rider advises clients to engage in a complete fitness program: cardio, strength, flexibility and relaxation. “Don’t just do the hard part and skip the meditative part — the relaxation at the end or the stretching at the beginning,” she says. If you’re a strict treadmill-and-weights person, Rider advises, consider adding a yoga class to your weekly routine.

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