As a former indoor cycling instructor and accomplished marathon runner, my days were once filled with hours and hours of heart-pounding, relentless cardio workouts that left me sweaty and breathless. The endorphins were real, and the adrenaline was incredible. Yet, no matter how much time I spent on the bike, the treadmill, or running all over planet Earth, my body simply never changed. While I wasn’t necessarily looking to lose a ton of weight or make any dramatic alterations to my figure, I thought the hard work would have paid off. But no matter how many calories I burned, I never looked any different.
It took me many years, a few career changes, and some self-discovery, but to all my cardio queens out there: I finally figured it out. You know those women who spend way less time at the gym than you but appear more confident in their bodies and straight up look like they work out? I figured out their secrets, and I’m going to share them with you. Here are five changes I made that actually made a huge difference in my body composition and confidence.
1. I prioritized strength training
Many of us grew up believing that cardio equals weight loss. However, while cardio has many benefits, overdoing cardio can put stress on your body and have the opposite effects. The true fitness secret to getting toned is to start building muscle. Afraid of getting bulky? Don’t be. Women don’t have enough testosterone to support that kind of muscle growth, so women with extra-muscular physiques have to eat and train in a very intense, specific way. In other words, unless you’re quitting your job to train for multiple hours a day and eat a very calculated caloric surplus, bulking won’t be an issue for you. (But also, let’s stop worrying about taking up more space, shall we?)
If you’re not sure where to begin, start with the basic lifts: squat, deadlifts, bench, overhead press, and row. Start with a weight that feels challenging but manageable, and increase by 10% as the weight begins to feel easier. When in doubt, always check out local trainers, coaches, classes, or online programs. Having correct form is the most important aspect of targeting the right muscles and preventing injury.
2. I cared more about the food I ate
While fad diets and nutritional misinformation are still running rampant on social media, the tried-and-true methodology of a balanced diet (protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats) is always a safe bet. Protein helps repair muscle tissue and keeps you feeling satisfied for longer. Carbohydrates give the body fuel to perform physical activity and basic functions of life—like breathing or thinking. Fat helps the body absorb vitamins and provides it with fatty acids that provide energy and support cell function. For your body to function at its best, all three of these macronutrients must be present in your diet in the right balance.
The golden rule that changed everything for me: If it isn’t going to help my body perform a function, improve my training, or aid in recovery, it’s not a part of my everyday diet. While there are always exceptions, 80% of the time, I eat to fuel, and I’ve never felt (or looked) better.
3. I put more importance on sleep and recovery
We all have those times when work causes major stress, social obligations wreck our sleep, and the physical ramifications of being spread too thin take their toll. Stress, lack of sleep, and not enough focus on physical recovery (such as stretching, foam rolling, Epsom salt baths, and other self-care practices) truly impact how our bodies perform and, ultimately, how we feel in them. When we don’t sleep or recover fully, we cannot perform at our best in the gym. Plus, we’re more likely to mindlessly binge on junk food, alcohol, or snacking when we’re stressed or tired.
If you want to improve the way your body looks, you’ve got to improve how your body feels. Getting 8-10 hours of sleep each night and giving your body what it needs to recover after a long day or a grueling workout must be a top priority. Also, rest days are just as important for your health as workout days.
4. I spent time with the right people
In the past, my friendships revolved around drinking wine, gossiping, charcuterie boards, and late-night parties. Nowadays, I surround myself with people who enjoy eating right, being positive, supporting one another, and taking care of themselves, so they feel their best. The old adage is true: You really are the sum of the five people you spend the most time with, so make sure that your circle of friends is pushing you in the right direction.
I saw massive changes in my body when I started spending time with people whose habits I wanted to emulate. Now, instead of drinking and partying, I meet my friends at the gym for a fun, butt-kicking workout, followed by a delicious and healthy lunch. While we aren’t immune to the occasional movie night with chips and popcorn, we definitely enjoy making feel-good decisions most of the time. If your group of friends isn’t helping you to become the best version of yourself, it might be time to rethink your friendships.
5. I learned that consistency is key
You’re not always going to be motivated. You’re not always going to feel your best. You won’t always be excited, and you’ll probably have plenty of days where you simply don’t feel like it. However, real change takes real time, and staying consistent—with your fitness, nutrition, and positive habits—is the only way you’ll see real results. Nothing happens overnight. So, if you really want to see a change in your body, you’ve got to stick with it. Sure, bad days are inevitable. No one can be perfect all the time. But if you can commit to being consistent at least 80% of the time, you’re bound to see changes.