7 Things I Did to Finally Get in Shape After College

POPSUGAR Photography | Cera Hensley
POPSUGAR Photography | Cera Hensley

While I was in college, I was convinced that I was living the best years of my life. And I was . . . at that point in time! Studies, parties, exploring a new city, "finding myself," making friends, and living in a house of 64 of my best girlfriends really was — at the time — the best time of my life. Everyone told me, "enjoy this; these are the best years of your life!" insinuating that the years after would be a slow and sad decline.

Little did I know that the opposite was true. For me, things continued to get better. Much of that was because when I was in college, despite having a blast, I totally neglected my health. I didn't work out, had no idea what a burpee was, ate pizza 99 percent of the time, drank alcohol like we were on the precipice of a vodka famine, was unfamiliar with the term "sleep," and had no idea how to make my own doctor's appointments.

Obviously this all changed, and here I am as a fitness writer, and here you are waiting for my tips (I'm getting to them, I promise). If you're a recent grad, or trying to get your healthy journey in motion, trust me: I was right there with you not too long ago. Here's how I began my own journey, got in the best shape of my life, and changed every aspect of my life for the better. Even if you have zero athletic background or hand-eye coordination or endurance, you can follow these tips (I didn't have any of those either). Start with a handful of these at a time, or go gung-ho and implement them all at once. Choose your adventure!

1. Find Movement You Love

This took some trial and error, especially since I had zero fitness experience coming out of college! I started with walks along the boardwalk of Manhattan Beach, the first place I lived after college. From there, I dabbled in jogging and yoga and eventually started training for a half-marathon and going to yoga (anything from Vinyasa flows to power sculpt classes) almost every day.

I wrongfully assumed that not being athletic or good at sports (or even interested in sports) meant that I'd be bad at fitness. Well . . . I wasn't good at fitness at first. But I started slow, kept working at it little by little, and before I knew it I was running my first half-marathon. By taking a chance on a kind of movement that I might enjoy, I was able to transform my life and get in great shape physically and mentally.

Maybe you hate running — try yoga! Bored with yoga? Sign up for a dance class. Uncoordinated? Maybe HIIT is for you. Or weightlifting. Or swimming. Not into indoor workouts? Hike, or pick up kayaking or SUP. Keep experimenting. Find a form of movement you love, and don't give up until you get there.

Coming from a girl who was terrified of anything fitness-oriented who now goes to Barry's Bootcamp once a week and SoulCycle once a week, runs half-marathons yearly, loves Pilates and Megaformer, tries boxing on the weekends, and is down for pretty much any form of exercise you throw at her (except CrossFit — CrossFit still scares the sh*t out of me), TRUST ME. You can find something that works.

2. Start Learning *Easy* Healthy Recipes

Start small, and go recipe by recipe with this one. I dove into Pinterest after graduation and started learning about mystical things Gwyneth Paltrow talked about like "green juice" (which I have since regretted) and quinoa bowls.

The first healthy recipe I fell in love with? Basic chia pudding. To this day, it is a staple in my healthy cooking arsenal, and it stuck because it's SO. DAMN. EASY. The easier you make healthy eating, the more you'll eat healthy. I took this time after college to really educate myself about the best food for my body. By making better choices 80 percent of the time, I can freely indulge in Domino's when the mood strikes.

Aside from making sure my recipes were easy, I also needed to ensure they were cheap, because student loans. Surprisingly enough, inexpensive healthy food actually exists, and if you strategize, you can have a pantry full of quinoa and chia seeds and coconut oil and not go broke.

3. Prioritize Zzz's

Somehow, your college body is able to run on fumes of cheap vodka and late-night Domino's Cinnastix — not sleep. A big change I made post-grad was making a major shift to my circadian rhythm and getting to bed earlier.

This might seem crazy, but today I schedule my entire evening around ensuring at least eight hours of restful sleep. The results have been fantastic; it helps with stress levels, gives me that "me time" that I don't often get with a 9-to-6 office schedule (plus an hour commute on each end of that), and also powers my body with the energy I need for 6 or 7 a.m. workouts.

In fact, sleep is one of the top weight-loss tips from celebrity trainers like Harley Pasternak. And while my main goal wasn't weight-oriented, I can absolutely see why this benefits someone on a weight-loss journey. The energy I have now is unparalleled, and I feel like I'm taking excellent care of my body.

POPSUGAR Photography | Cera Hensley

To this day I am bewildered as to how I could be so happy on a run.

4. Say Adios to Tequila Shots

Stop rolling your eyes at me — I can see them through your screen! This is a big, scary change for some people but honestly probably the best advice of any of these tips that I could give to you. The moment I started cutting alcohol out of the equation was the moment I started seeing real changes.

I am not suggesting you eradicate alcohol from your lifestyle completely (unless you want to), but eliminating most alcohol from your weekly eating will create real changes for your body in multiple ways. For me, pounds fell off. My skin cleared. My energy was better. I got sick less. My mood improved.

One healthy choice begets another, and this shift in lifestyle opened me up to new opportunities with health and fitness, thus creating a healthier me overall.

5. Bring Mental Health Front and Center

College can feel stressful and like a competition at times (even if you're only in competition with yourself). It's all about who has the best grades, who's landing the best internship, how many extracurriculars you're involved in (and how are they going to get you the best job). It's also about that midterm or final, that group project, that side job hustle, and so on and so forth.

In my case, I suppressed that stress and kept it packed away so I could focus on fun things like . . . you know . . . sorority formals and rooftop pool parties and trips to concerts downtown. Why focus on the stress when you can focus on the fun?

When things settle down a bit in "the real world," you come face to face with those stresses. I had no idea all throughout college (and most of my life, actually) that I had (and still have) anxiety — I didn't even know what anxiety was!

Part of "getting in shape" after college was getting my mind right so I could be a better person to my friends, my family, my colleagues, and the rest of the world. I started going to a great therapist, who taught me natural anxiety remedies and encouraged self-care practices like journaling and saying "no" to things every now and then for my sanity.

This might sound silly or counterintuitive, but don't be afraid to face your fears. Dig deep, focus on introspection, and let it drive you to be better. Work on taking care of yourself, because that personal improvement will bleed into all other areas of your life, including your health and wellness.

6. Swap Nights Out For Sweat Dates

This part right here was one of my big lifestyle changes and falls in line with the sleep and no-booze tip. I started switching up my social life and trading those wild nights out with my girlfriends to SoulCycle and brunch dates with my girlfriends (and not the boozy kind of brunch . . . most of the time).

This way, you'll still feel social and connected and won't feel like you're making a sacrifice by prioritizing your health. Lean on friends for support, and commit to this healthier journey and lifestyle together. You'll both feel amazing.

7. Take Control of All Aspects of Health

Remember that point about not making my own doctor's appointments? Well, being a grown-ass woman and all, I had to start taking control of my health after college.

Going through different medical experiences has shown me that there's not a cure-all for anything and that we're on a constant journey with all aspects of our health. I have learned to seek treatment in forms of acupuncture and naturopathic medicine as well as going to my regular check-ups with MDs.

No one is responsible for your health or the condition of your body but you. Growing up, and even through college, our parents play a huge role in ensuring that we're happy and healthy, and while in most cases they're still there for us regardless of age, it's up to us to take control. Make your workout schedule, buy your own healthy groceries, schedule those doctor's appointments, try different kinds of healthy treatments — while it may seem daunting, try to think of it as an exciting project. You're working on being your best self, and you have the power to create the healthiest version of you.