Meet a Health Hero: Sally Andersen

Read more about fitness instructor Sally Andersen, a semi-finalist in our 2012 Health Hero Challenge!

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Name: Sally Andersen

Occupation: Fitness instructor, Kendrick Recreation Center, and personal trainer.

Who or what motivates you to be healthy, and what was a turning point in your life?

Growing up, I was the kid that had every desire to be an athlete but no natural skill at one sport. I was the first to come to practice and the last to leave, but still I was never going to be an elite athlete. I had a competitive drive, heart and dedication, but thought that scoring for the team, winning the race or being the best was all that mattered.

When I headed to college, unable to compete for any sport at the collegiate level, I stopped activity all together. Between an all-you-can-eat cafeteria, a sudden lack of exercise and weekly frat parties, my health declined greatly and my weight increased.

Soon, I was on eight medications, each one masking a symptom but not one offering me the health, happiness and energy I desired. I wasted almost seven years of my life living this way. Until I woke up.

One day I was walking up two flights of stairs to my apartment and I had to pause halfway to catch my breath. I was only in my mid-20s. The very next day I went for a run. I struggled to make it a mile, but I did it. Each day I tried to go a little further than the day before.

I became a vegan and started working out again and have maintained that lifestyle ever since. The memory of what it felt like to have to take a break after only one small flight of steps motivates me to keep going.

At age 30, I now know that in the game of health and wellness, drive, heart and dedication greatly outweigh natural-born skill. Now, I am off all medications, free of asthma symptoms and in the best shape of my life. I feel as if I discovered this wonderful remedy that was kept secret from me, and it is my goal to spread the word to other people looking for change. The thought of how many years I wasted as an unhealthy person keeps me motivated to help others improve their own fitness and nutritional health.

What “policy” would you institute to make Philadelphia a healthier city?

Before creating new policies, I would focus on following up with current laws that are not enforced. Specifically, I think bike lanes need to be enforced as bike lanes. When biking across the city, it becomes clear that there is little respect for their intended use. The majority of blocks consistently have a car stopped in or driving down the bike lane. More people would get out on a bike if they felt safe. I was hit by a car in September 2011 while biking to work in a bike lane. Aside from physical injuries that forced me to take time off from competitive track running, I was left with a lot of anxiety about biking in the city. If I, an experienced, avid bicyclist, have such real fears about my safety, how are new bicyclists supposed to feel comfortable commuting?

What’s the most important part of your health or fitness regimen?

For fitness, the most important part for me is that there is no one singular important part. I train with a track and field team and also at CrossFit 215 in East Falls. Neither takes over my whole fitness routine and I still continue to mix in other forms of exercise, including biking, classes at Lithe Method, yoga, Pilates, rowing, swimming … I cold go on forever listing all of the different forms of exercise that I love.

For nutrition, being vegan is the single most important aspect of my health. I feel more energetic and lighter overall. Removing milk from my diet was the most important change I made. All of my asthma symptoms cleared up and my lung function is back to normal without dairy. I used to be on the highest dose of steroids, carry a rescue inhaler everywhere, and take ambulance trips to the ER regularly. Since seeing this change, I have done more research and found a study from Johns Hopkins University that directly connected cow’s milk consumption to childhood asthma. I don’t push a vegan lifestyle on my fitness students or clients, but I do tell them this story. My life changed for the better when I gave up dairy and it’s a secret worth sharing.

What is your No. 1 piece of health-related advice or encouragement?

You have to make it enjoyable or it will never stick. Fitness and healthy eating do not have to be—and should not be—a chore. Learn to turn what you already love into something healthy. Turn milkshakes into creamy fruit and veggie smoothies. Turn walking the dog or taking the kids to the playground into a workout. Healthy food can taste good. Working out can be fun.