By all accounts, I had a happy, idyllic childhood with a nice home in the suburbs and a loving family; I was a good student and had a lot of friends. But even though I was always enrolled in sports — softball in the Summer, soccer in the Fall, swimming year round — I was still an overweight kid.
The term "childhood obesity" wasn't thrown around much back then, but I was definitely larger than most of my classmates. I was self-aware about my size from a young age; I remember being in first grade thinking I needed to lose weight. By fifth grade, my mom enrolled me in Weight Watchers, to little success. My parents did the best they could and we always had home-cooked meals, but it was the '90s, so there was a lot of refined carbs (think: spaghetti and garlic bread, white rice, and fried potatoes).
Even though I was always playing sports, I wasn't exactly athletic; running the mile was a challenge for me in middle school, and I could never meet the right results for the Presidential Physical Fitness Tests we had to do in gym class. I was always picked last for dodgeball and I couldn't do a push-up to save my life. I was fortunate that I didn't experience much of the bullying and name-calling that a lot of overweight kids undergo, but I did have my fair share of teasing and mean-spirited comments. I was unhappy, and by sixth grade, I had suicidal thoughts.
In an effort to help me adopt healthier habits, my mom had me meet with a personal trainer the Summer before my eighth-grade year. Jennifer Cobb was a former NFL cheerleader and a petite, upbeat ball of energy. She was already training my grandma and my mom, and they thought she would be a positive role model for my sister and me. But not only did she help me learn how to lift weights and get comfortable in the gym — she totally changed my life.
She Taught Me Fitness Is a Lifestyle
Before training with Jen, I had viewed eating well and exercising as a means to an end. I figured if I logged so many hours in the gym and ate healthy, I would lose weight and then I could go back to the way my life was before. Jen always talked about how fitness was a lifestyle, not something that's to punish your body or an endeavor for the short-term. You should work out to move your body and feel stronger and eat well to fuel yourself and have more energy. Her motto was "it's not the food that's the problem; it's the habits." Having a cookie every now and then is fine; eating a half-dozen cookies every night before bed is unhealthy.
I Became Comfortable in the Gym
Before working out with Jen, my exercise was limited to the pool or soccer field. Even when we did calisthenics for practice, it was only using our own bodyweight. Jen showed me how to lift free weights and maintain proper form. She had me use a variety of the weight machines around the gym so I knew what muscle groups each machine targeted and how to use them properly. By the time I got my driver's license and could go to the gym on my own, I had no problem navigating the weight room and getting my reps in.
She Helped Me Lift Heavy
When I started working out with Jen in the early 2000s, health and fitness magazines were still focused on cardio for fat loss. Most of the workout tips available emphasized burning calories through cardio and to only lift heavy weights if you wanted to bulk up. Instead, the media insisted, women should do multiple reps of light weights to get lean. This was a myth Jen debunked early on and she reminded me that you get a better workout in if you do a mix of cardio and strength training instead of just cardio alone. Although I started with smaller weights, we eventually worked up to heavier weights and I became impressed with my own strength. I noticed not only muscle definition, but also that I was able to lift heavier objects and carry my books with ease. In college, I was one of the few women who used the weight room, unafraid to chest press or deadlift.
She Was There For Moral Support
Working out can be an incredibly emotional experience, especially when you're first starting out. And since I was already a teenager with hormones all over the place, it wasn't uncommon for me to shed tears during and post-workout. If I couldn't finish a rep or just had a bad week at school, Jen was there to listen to me and offer me guidance. I was much more willing to open up to her than my own parents about my personal problems, and she offered feedback with no judgment. At times, she felt more like a therapist than a trainer.
She Instilled a Love of Fitness in Me
If I hadn't started working out with a trainer at such a young age, I'm not sure I would have ever grown to love fitness — after all, I was the chubby, awkward kid who despised running and couldn't even do a push-up. Getting comfortable in the gym and developing a routine during my formative years had such an impact on me. I worked out with Jen almost every Saturday from the Summer before my eighth-grade year until the Summer after I graduated high school. As soon as I got to college, I implemented a regular workout schedule at my campus's rec center and made fitness a top priority. While my peers were struggling for the first time navigating a gym or trying to undo years of unhealthy habits, I already knew how to made good choices in the dining hall, get a quality workout in at the rec center, and dodge the dreaded freshman 15.
More than 15 years later, Jen is still a family friend and we keep in touch regularly — she was even a guest at my bridal shower and wedding! Although she no longer trains, she has used her love of health and fitness to run a charity in the St. Louis area called Team Gateway to a Cure, which raises money and awareness for The Michael J. Fox & Muhammad Ali Parkinson's Center Foundation. And while I'll break up my fitness routine with a boutique Spin or HIIT class every once in a while, I usually work out on my own at the gym, armed with the experience and confidence to crush it (almost) every time.