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From Couch Potato To Calendar Girl: Conquering The Fitness Phobia

It's New Year's Day 2013, and many of us have either made resolutions or will make them today. Most of those resolutions will have to do with health and fitness - this year, we're going to make better diet choices. This year, we're going to run a 5K. This year, we're going to join a gym and actually go.

A few of us will keep them. Most of us will stick with it for anywhere from a few weeks to early March, which is the window during which most New Year's Resolutions go their merry way and we go back to being our old, sedentary selves.

I gave up making resolutions long ago, because they were a recipe for disappointment and a source of increasingly negative feelings about myself because I couldn't stick with whatever it was I'd resolved to do.

The seeds of change were planted in the fall of 2011. I got sick (again), and I couldn't get well. I coughed and hacked and cracked a couple of ribs. I missed six weeks of work during the busiest season of the year. I took antibiotics and over-the-counter everything and even when the coughing was over, I was chronically tired and uncomfortable. I was also fat. Somehow, between the spring of 2011 and early 2012, I put on 50 pounds and went from being a size 2 to a size 14. I don't really know what happened - it was as if my metabolism just stopped dead. But I had hit rock bottom. My immune system could take no more. Neither could my self-image.

I consulted my doctor, who was just as puzzled as I. He ordered tests, as doctors do when they have no idea what the heck has happened to you, and in February of 2012, he announced the findings: My body was completely depleted of Vitamin B12, which gives us energy and keeps our immune systems healthy. Also, my triglycerides were getting high. But instead of prescribing drugs, he did a few things that changed my life. First, he started me on B12 injections; first weekly, then monthly. He also told me to take fish oil capsules. And he reiterated the importance of diet and exercise.

He wasn't the first person to point out that, aside from having a job that required me to be on my feet, I was totally lacking in the exercise department. Nor was he the first person to point out that my diet was made up of complete junk. But for the first time, I really listened to what he had to say and I slowly began to make changes.

At first, I admit, I focused on the diet part, because exercise has always been somewhat terrifying. So I cut way back on carbs, quit drinking beer and started buying fresh foods, including fruits and veggies that I would never have otherwise eaten. Everywhere I saw a chance to substitute something healthier for something drowning in saturated fats or full of preservatives, I did it. And I began to feel better. But it wasn't enough. I was using an app called My Fitness Pal to keep track of my calories eaten versus my calories burned every day, but I felt like I needed something more. How could I find healthier recipes? How could I get a handle on what claimed to be healthy and what actually was healthy? And how on earth could I, at age 37, start exercising? Other than intermittent periods of bike riding or rollerblading through Humboldt Park, I hadn't regularly exercised since before college.

At 14, my competitive diving career ended with the first of many shoulder dislocations caused by a congenital defect in my bone structure. Doctors and physical therapists told me I'd never have upper body strength like other people. And exercises like running were boring and seemed pointless. Exercise in general seemed futile.

But I found myself wanting more. Maybe it was the extra energy from the B12. Maybe it was just time. Either way, I was no longer satisfied with my couch potato status. Fifteen days after my 37th birthday, on April 25, 2012, I did a search for the best health and fitness apps for my iPhone and stumbled across Fitocracy. It had good reviews, and, even better, it was free. I downloaded it and now, a little over seven months later, I can honestly say it was one of the best things I've ever done for myself.

Fitocracy was developed by two former self-described video game addicts, Dick Talens and Brian Wang, who met in the weight room as students at Penn. Dick had become unhealthily overweight from his years in front of the console, while Brian was skinny and weak. Both had begun to change that with weightlifting, and both had a desire to help others transform themselves.

They also both had something in common with me, and with many of the people I know: they were once couch potatoes. And, as video game junkies, they knew something that many people don't realize: people respond to the reward of scoring points, even if the points are ultimately meaningless to the world at-large.

My journey into the world of Fitocracy began in a group called "Healthy Eating," because I wasn't yet ready to tackle serious exercise. Fitocracy is set up much like Facebook, in that users relate to one another through posts, can "follow" one another, can "prop" each others' posts, can send private messages, and can get the interaction with others that our social-media crazed society seems to need. Not only did I instantly feel welcomed, I felt at home. No one made judgements. When I made good choices and posted about them, I got props and soon I acquired a few followers. I read what others wrote, asked questions, followed others, gave props, and within a week was logging what little exercise I was getting, from walking the dog to choosing to take the stairs at work instead of the elevator.

Over the past seven months, I have gone from being an unhealthy, worried, health-phobic person to being a member of a growing online community of healthy, supportive people who encourage and inspire me. I now belong to my local community center's fitness center, and the young girl who would never have any upper body strength has become a woman who strives to break personal records (I can now deadlift 90 lbs. and actually enjoy bench pressing and leg presses (PR 140 lbs), among other activities.

Yesterday, I earned the points to "level up" to level 28 (the higher your level, the harder it is to level up). I pay a monthly fee for the privilege of being a "Fitocracy Hero," which allows me to duel with friends and followers (of which I have almost 500 now!), among other things. I even have a personal trainer, Daniel Kreger, who runs his training business almost entirely online based on your goals and abilities. He writes programs for his clients on a weekly basis, and stays in close touch to make sure you're on track, or, if you're not, what he can do to help you get there. For those of you who find trainers intimidating and obnoxious, I highly recommend Dan, one of the world's nicest people. His blog and contact information can be found at

In early December I had the opportunity to go to New York City and meet many fellow Fitocrats, including much of the Fitocracy team (Talens, Wang, CPO Jared Cocken, and others). It was a terrific event that included some great discussions about health and nutrition, training, and pretty much every other topic under the sun (plus an open bar, courtesy of Fitocracy!). Realizing that the people I interacted with online were real people who go through many of the same struggles I do, and enjoying the company of like-minded people with similar desires to improve themselves, was a real coup for me.

Finally, there's the calendar. Earlier in the fall of 2012, I joined a group created by a Fitocracy member that was intended for people who were interested in seeing both male and female Fito calendars for 2013. The calendars would feature members and be free for download. There was some sort of challenge included, although I didn't pay attention to that part - I was simply interested to see what the finished product would look like.

Join Fitocracy. Join the Fitocrat Calendar Group. Check out Miss April.

P.S. I've now lost 20 lbs. of fat, can wear a size 8, and gained a surprising amount of muscle and self-confidence. I've still got a long way to go. My resolve isn't going anywhere. Bring it, 2013!


ML Van Valkenburgh is a longtime Beachwood contributor and former Chicagoan now living in Florida. She welcomes your comments.


Previously by ML Van Valkenburgh:

* Letter From Tampa.

* Booklist: A Beachwood Book Guide.

* Cab #1309.


Posted on January 1, 2013

MUSIC - Pandemophenia.
TV - NBC's Bicentennial Special.
POLITICS - Defund Private Schools.
SPORTS - Blackhawk's Life Mattered.

BOOKS - The Slave Who Escaped George And Martha Washington.


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