5 Philly Fitness Pros on the Life-Changing Moment They Decided to Care About Their Health

Note: You're going to want to keep a box of tissues nearby for this one.

Here at Be Well Philly, we talk to a lot of people who work in the world of health and wellness: trainers, juicers, running-club founders, and so on. (It is kind of our job, after all.) And in talking to all these people throughout the past few years, I’ve realized that most of them have a turning-point story, a story about the moment they decided to start caring — like, really caring — about their health.

Oftentimes, the story is a tearjerker, but not always. But one thing these stories all have in common is that they are really freakin’ inspiring. So we figured we’d share some of them with you. Maybe you’re looking for a little extra push to lace up your running shoes tonight or maybe you just love to have a good happy cry on the daily. Regardless, these stories from folks who work in the fitness world around Philly about the life-changing moments when they each decided to care about their health, told in their own words, will do the trick.

Jon Lyons, founder of Run215 

“My fitness story only began a few years ago. I ran track in grade school but really did not enjoy it — or most sports — to be honest. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t a fitness-oriented person at all until I became a dad. Before that, I was a young, slightly arrogant dude playing in bands without much regard for my health or longterm future.

“All of that changed when I became a dad. All of a sudden, at 23 years old, I had another life that depended on me. It was terrifying, but amazing, and the pressure got the best of me — for a little while, at least. I was in a tough relationship, I was working myself to the bone, and I was slipping into what I am now comfortable admitting was a really bad bout of depression. My remedy for this was shutting myself down from my friends and family and seeking comfort at the bottom of a bottle. I gained a bunch of weight, stopped caring about my appearance, and was absolutely miserable.

“Then one morning, I was watching TV (a regular theme at the time) and holding my daughter. She was just staring at me and smiling. I don’t know why, but at that exact moment, I just lost it. I held her and sobbed. I didn’t want to keep being miserable. I wanted to live a long life for Eden and I wanted her to be proud of me, to be her hero. I had so much inside of me at that moment and it needed to go somewhere, so I grabbed a pair of crappy running shoes from under my bed and went out for a run. It just felt like the thing to do. It hurt like hell, it was freezing cold, and I’m fairly sure I spent the entire run crying, but when I came back I felt different. Far from better, but different. Something clicked: It felt right. It was a moment that I had that was MINE. I owned it. I took the pain in myself and instead of bottling it up, I worked through it. So I ran again and had the same incredible feeling after. The miles got longer and longer, and I felt PROUD; I felt stronger; I found an amazing network in running. (Who knew that you could find such camaraderie with a bunch of strangers?)

“Flash-forward to today, and I am the healthiest I have ever been in my entire life. I am in an incredible relationship, and every time I give my daughter a race medal she shrieks and brings it to school to show the whole class. We even go out together, Eden on her bike and me with my shoes. There are millions of reasons to pursue fitness, each one just as important as the other. The effects are profound and life-changing. Notice how I haven’t even mentioned weight loss or body shape (although I’m super psyched about those results, too). The point is: I have never been happier. It’s a wonderful feeling to run into someone you haven’t seen in a while and hear ‘You look so happy!’”

Kiera Smalls, co-founder of City Fit Girls

“A turning point for me was during college. My mother passed away during my freshmen year due to health reasons and I did not want that to happen to me. I had always struggled with my weight and tried different exercises and diets that I thought could help me get in shape and on a consistent routine. But after my mother passed, I found myself very upset with the way I was (not) taking care of my body and gave myself a real good talk. I told myself then that if I wanted to live a healthy life with little to no health issues and concerns, I’d better figure it out and do it right.”

Juliet Sabella, owner of The Wall Cycling Studio

“It wasn’t the constant daily teasing and name-calling of things like ‘D.U.F.F’ (designated ugly fat fu*k) or ‘Obese Bernice’ that made me realize there was a problem here, but it was a doctor in 2003 that just stated it plain and simple in five words: ‘You need to lose weight.’ To me, that hurt more than any name people called me, because I knew it was the truth and FINALLY someone just bluntly said it.

“I’m 5’2″and at the time, I was a size 34″ waist and 193 pounds. I was an addict to food and just sad all the time, and that day was the day I hit rock bottom. I consider Dr. Smith the woman who gave me an intervention.

“It took about a year to get down to a manageable weight, but I did it. I look at fitness and my life now as me getting to relive the life I didn’t have when I was so overweight. I lost a lot of years just being sad, miserable and hating myself. I cried when people would call me names, but it has made me have sympathy for anyone I see struggling. I feel really lucky in my job to get to help people every day no matter what they’re battling that week.”

Alli Schwartz, owner of GFit Women

“My turning point happened in my early 20s when I was home for the summer. I was working out at a Gold’s Gym very consistently, five days a week. One day, a woman, probably in her 40s, came up to me and said ‘I see you here a lot and I just want to say, don’t ever stop working out. It’s even more important as you get older. Keep doing what you’re doing and stay healthy.’

“At that moment, I realized: Fitness is not an end-game thing; it’s a life journey. I had never thought of it like that before and, at first, it felt daunting. I was in my 20s and worried about bathing suit season, not a life commitment. But she was absolutely dead on and completely changed my perspective.

“Since that encounter, I have flashes of that moment that continue to inspire and motivate me. I have no idea who or where that woman is, and I am positive she has no idea the impact she had on me. Over 20 years later, I’m 43, owning GFit Women. Now, I’m training people and hopefully inspiring others to see that staying healthy and active is a life commitment to yourself, not just a way of making it through bikini season. That random encounter was a turning point that changed my perspective and my life.”

Daniel Cordua, co-owner of Palo Santo Wellness Boutique

“During my 20s, I had no fitness routine. I wouldn’t have called myself inactive but there was no discipline. I started a new career, entering massage school at around the same time the phenomenon known as ‘my 30s’ started. As I learned to keep other people’s bodies healthy, I noticed that my own body was changing — and it felt, well, not so healthy. My natural strength and energy levels started to shift, like a permanent season change … In a flash, I then knew that to practice wellness, I had to give myself wellness. I started yoga.

“The blessing was that this fitness style never felt forced: The more I did it, the more I wanted to do it even more! It became a natural outflowing of my being, without that ‘Oh, I have to get my workout in now’ feeling. This magic of yoga saved my body, and has since fortified my mind and spirit a million times over.”

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