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Three days before Halloween in 2014 I did something a little scary: I finished my first 5K. It was a rainy night in Novi, Mich., and as I rounded the last corner, I was surprised to see the other participants waiting for me near the end of the course.

I’d come to know all of them over the previous three months, as we all had worked and sweated and grown together through Life Time’s 90-Day Challenge. As they cheered me across the finish line, I didn’t even care that I was one of the last to complete the race. It was as though I’d been at the front of the pack.

This experience was vastly different from the life I’d been living three years earlier. In September 2011, a brain aneurysm — and subsequent monthlong stay in the hospital — prompted me to reevaluate my health.

My lifestyle had changed drastically in the decade leading up to the aneurysm. The hours at my retail management job were stressful and erratic, and my physical activity was at an all-time low. My weight crept up as a result.

Out of Step

For most of my life I’d been a dancer. I studied dance arts in college and even spent quite a few years performing with a regional company. My husband, James, had played college football and continued running and weightlifting after we graduated.

We both loved being active, but between our son, jobs, and shifting schedules, that lifestyle fell by the wayside over the years. I wanted to get it back.

After my aneurysm, it was a challenging time for me. My doctor recommended a physical therapist who worked with me at home to improve my strength. Because my brain was recovering from the trauma, I was still regaining my memory, and my movements were often uncoordinated. I hardly recognized my own body.

Over the next year, at my neurologist’s suggestion, I took water-fitness classes at the Life Time near our home to continue building my stamina. Those sessions were my salvation. In the pool, I felt relaxed and supported — both by my classmates and the water around us.

I also started practicing Pilates. I had attended similar classes when I was younger as part of my dance training, and returning to those familiar movements was like coming back into myself.

By the end of 2013 I had figured out how to balance work (I returned to my job in late 2011) and my recovery. I was proud of myself for taking it at my own pace, but I was still overweight. Realizing I was ready to address that, I signed up for my first 90-Day Challenge.

A New Tune

Though I loved the group fitness classes, it was easy for me to make excuses for not getting to the club. But with the Challenge, I was surrounded by people who wanted to change their lives for the better, too. We were in it together, so it was easy to stay accountable.

Our trainers encouraged us to think about our goals, both for the next three months and over the long term, and to keep journals to track our progress. I went home from the first session and flipped through a magazine, thinking about how the new me would feel living her healthiest life. When I landed on a photo of a smiling woman in jeans and a sleeveless top, I thought, I want to be able to wear something like this and feel confident and comfortable. I ripped the page out and taped it inside the front cover of my journal.

The following week, our group went to a supermarket with a nutritionist. We walked the aisles together, picking up packages and reading labels, talking about ingredients and portion sizes. That was an eye-opening experience. This wasn’t just about working out; I was reframing my whole lifestyle to serve my health.

James, who has always loved to cook, supported me by preparing more nutritious meals. We started incorporating healthier fats and more lean proteins into our diets. We also took a hard look at our portion sizes and sugar intake, and we scaled back on both. It was easier to stay on track because we were doing it together.

It worked in ways I didn’t anticipate. After the Challenge, I couldn’t wait to eat a slice of cake and some potato chips, but nothing tasted the way I remembered. The cake was too sweet, the chips too greasy. I may have a treat every now and then, but my appreciation for healthier food has literally changed my taste buds.

I wasn’t wearing jeans and sleeveless tops by the end of the program, but I had lost some weight and was more comfortable in my skin. I also felt stronger and energized by the new friends I’d made, many of whom were signing on for the next Challenge. I knew I had more work to do, too, so I decided to keep going. Over the next four years, I completed 12 Challenges.

The program gave me the courage to try new things. Before, I was intimidated at the gym. I felt like I couldn’t use the treadmill, or go to strength or cycling classes. But with each session, I realized that I was capable of more than I’d thought — I’d just been standing in my own way.

I’ve tried something different during each (now 60-Day) Challenge: a new meal-prep technique, an unfamiliar vegetable, or an intimidating workout. Now, I take a wide variety of classes, including barbell and cycling, with my workout partner, Millie, who’s been with me since the first Challenge. I’ll hop on the treadmill to warm up without a second thought. I’ve even walked a few 5Ks.

My success came with taking my time. I didn’t lose tons of weight with each program, but I always made a bit of progress to help propel me forward. Now, I’m more than 70 pounds down from where I started, and I know the effort I’m making to live healthfully is worthwhile — so I won’t slide back into bad habits.

I’ve found the active life I was missing before my aneurysm and the focus and the supportive community to help me keep going.

And one day in December 2016, having actually forgotten about it, I found myself wearing my goal outfit. More importantly, I realized I was living my goal lifestyle. I felt just as confident and carefree as I’d always imagined I could.

Phyllis’s Top 3 Success Strategies

  1. Find support. “Being part of a community made all the difference,” Phyllis says. “We’ve traded tips, cheered each other on, and shared our successes to keep one another motivated.”
  2. Mix it up. Getting back into Pilates helped Phyllis remember what she’d always loved about dancing, and conquering new obstacles such as barbell and cycling classes kept her engaged and excited.
  3. Go slow and steady. “Realizing that I could do what was best for my health one step at a time was a real game-changer,” Phyllis explains. “I didn’t have to rush through it.”

This originally appeared as “Challenge Accepted” in the July/August 2018 print issue of Experience Life.

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