Often when we think we take care of our body, in fact, we look for shortcuts.
We reach for theoretically the simplest solutions, believing or convincing ourselves that we make the right decisions. We think we are doing something good for our body, but we forget that the real changes first come from within the individual. We won't change our body until we manage to control our thoughts, attitude, and overall well-being - says Alyssa Chang, a personal trainer, and nutritionist based in Palo Alto, California. In today's interview, we talk with Alyssa about the importance of mental health for physical health and the ways to achieve happiness and peace in our life.
If you had to define all that you do in a few sentences, what would you say?
Alyssa: I help people become better experts in their bodies. I help them learn how to nourish their bodies from food, learn what movements suit their bodies best at what stage of life they are in or what stressors they’re undergoing. I also help guide them to develop better critical thinking skills that allow them to better align their decisions with their values.
When did you get started your active, healthy living journey? Why did you decide to incorporate fitness into your day-to-day activities?
Alyssa: I was born and raised in Honolulu, HI and as a kid was always playing (in sports, at the beach, with my brother and sister). Movement was a part of my life from the very beginning. I think it was less of a decision and more of a lifestyle that I grew up in. Moving seemed like the “thing” we did on weekends, in our free time etc.
As we read on your website, you graduated in Kinesiology, with exercise and nutrition being your main areas of focus. What brought you into those fields? What excites you the most about it?
Alyssa: I’ve always been fascinated by movement and nutrition. At the age of 10, I had a strong passion for competing in volleyball. I recall when I was younger that I was the last person finishing my timed sprints. It was humbling to say the least. Since that moment, I committed to myself that I would no longer finish last, even if it was second to last. So I began training. Session by session, I felt different. I felt more capable, stronger, confident on the court and I wasn’t finishing last. The exciting part was seeing change. Seeing myself move faster, get to the ball quicker and as a result gain more playing time.
In your promotional video, you discussed a long road you had to take from a fitness enthusiast, through a figure athlete, and then to a fitness and nutrition coach. What were the most important experiences and factors that had an impact on what you do and what you believe in today?
Alyssa: There were so many lessons learned through the evolution of my personal story.
One of which was, ultimate happiness did not reside in a body.
When I competed and won my competition, I recall stepping off stage feeling “funny”, almost unsatisfied and asking myself “why wasn’t I happy? I’m lean. I won, but why do I feel so UNhappy?” Through years of self-reflection, re-aligning myself with my values and challenging old belief habits (lean=desirable, competing=happiness), I rediscovered who I was apart from my body.
Another lesson learned was the brutal reality of how damaging long-term calorie restriction and excessive exercise is on a body, especially a female body. I suffered what many female competitors suffer from, which is the rebound effect of competing and what it does to your metabolism, coined metabolic damage. No matter how clean, healthy I ate and how consistent I exercised, I would not only gain weight but struggle to find the motivation to exercise. I was tired, weak, depressed and living in a body that did not feel like mine. As a result of adopting this “no gain, no pain” mentality for years I finally “broke”. From there, I was left with no other choice but to do less to gain more. I now stand by slowing down, resting and not hustling. I believe food can be extremely nourishing instead of feared. I believe exercise can be extremely healing and not punishing.
I challenged all old beliefs I had about fitness and health and re-created how I wanted movement to fit into the life I wanted to live (and not the other way around).
Another lesson was the importance of practicing self-compassion and letting go of perfection. Competing fueled my perfectionist tendencies, it left little room for mistakes. I would often do more (e.g. more cardio) in order to ensure that I was perfect at the end of my journey. However, the months after competing challenged this belief that perfection was a gateway to happiness. I failed repeatedly. Every diet, every cardio or weight training program. I failed. Failing became a norm for me.
However, each time I failed, I learned something new.
I learned that incomplete workouts create opportunities to grab an early lunch with friends, meals out were an opportunity to re-connect with family, rest days were magic!
Another lesson that I learned was the importance of living more in alignment my values and how it directly correlated to my happiness. For instance, if one of my values was self-compassion, yet every day I would walk into the gym and punish my body for the food I ate, I was not acting in alignment. I would leave feeling frustrated, overwhelmed and utterly unhappy with myself. Each day I learned to practice and instill my values. And each day I progressively felt better and better.
Lastly, I learned how magnificent the nervous system is.
Our brain is the governing system for our body.
It is constantly taking in input from the space around us: the temperature, the lighting, the people, our interactions, etc. If the input is threatening to our survival, our body will react in a way to tell us to take action! For instance, any time I did cardio with a severely damaged metabolism, my body would need 12+ hours of sleep, I would feel more depressed and gain on average 5lbs. These symptoms were clues; my brain was telling me to change something: slow down, don’t run, just walk.
Healing my body came from healing my brain.
I needed to regain the trust of my brain to allow my body to relax, heal and recover. The more I paused and listened to it, the more it was relentlessly telling me all the right things (eat more, do less, nap etc). I swapped cardio for mobility, I swapped restricted diets for foods that brought me joy and nourishment. I swapped pursuing perfection with self-compassion. I trained my vision to improve my body.
I trained my brain to improve my body and thus, my life.
How would you describe to your first-time client the idea of leading an active and healthy lifestyle? Why should I matter? What’s in it or me? What difference does it make to me?
Alyssa: My position as a coach is to not convince someone to change. Rather to help them come to that conclusion on their own. Maybe they’re meeting with me because they saw or read that they should probably start getting “healthy” and hiring a coach is what you should do.
Spending some time, talking with this person to truly understand where they’re coming from is a priority.
If they’re unsure why, then with full confidence, I would encourage them to spend some time reflecting on what matters before starting with me.
There are obvious health benefits to moving your body: for instance less pain, more productivity, better health markers (blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose levels and more), improved capability, more adventures.
I could list off a lot of benefits of being physically active, however, the reasons would be insignificant if it didn’t mean something to the individual.
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What’re the most common issues you need to deal with as a coach when it comes to your potential clients? Is it a bad diet, lack of physical activity, constant stress? What are the biggest concerns your clients have before they decide to take on an active healthy lifestyle path long-term?
Alyssa: Some of the most common issues surround the following: being unsure of what to eat anymore. The plethora of nutritional information is overwhelming and can lead many to question what they should eat and second-guess their own intuition. Struggling with self-confidence and body acceptance. Feeling they need to lose weight. Feeling like they’ll never succeed. Having a set belief system that they need to do “x” in order to be happy (even when proven faulty). Pain and performance. Also, self-doubting because “nothing” has worked before.
Today, you know that obesity and unhealthy habits are equally dangerous for our body and mind as the excessive training and rigorous diet. How to find a proper balance in our life?
Alyssa: Culturally, balance is typically idolized. We look at someone juggling work, running a separate business, getting to the gym, eating healthy, raising kids as someone who’s balanced; yet balance does not look like this and oftentimes looks a lot less like what we imagine.
Balance is self-determined and will ebb and flow depending on what is needed from us at different stages of our lives.
Therefore, for someone asking how to find the proper balance, I’d encourage you to first define balance for yourself. What does it look like, feel like? Then challenge your beliefs of what may have been culturally influenced as “balance”.
How to maintain habits that work best for us from a long-term perspective?
Alyssa: Habit building is a process. For many, building a habit starts with identifying your cues and triggers that remind you to move through your routine and provide you with a reward. There’s a fantastic book called “The Power Of Habit” which discusses this exact process called the “habit loop”- cue, routine, reward.
If you’re looking to achieve long term success we must break down the small, seemingly insignificant steps that require you to form new habits.
The nervous system is always looking for the most efficient path to get from point A to B. Meaning, it may not be the “best” option, but it will get the job done. Think of it this way, if we’re learning how to squat but we have knee pain, the nervous system will create compensations to allow you to still squat. It may not be the best or safest alternative path, but it will get you there.
Long term change is about creating small habits that soon enough amount to bigger change.
The smaller habits are repeated consistently and help us establish effectiveness. It’s no longer energy exhaustive. We create small change upon small change. Start small, start at the steps that seem insignificant, that’s where you’ll find long term success!
How would you describe your thought on body positivity? How do you incorporate those ideas into your lifestyle?
Alyssa: As I stated in one of my recent blog posts, "the concept of body positivity has great intent, but slightly misses the mark. If we continue to place the word “body” in front of positivity we continue to shape our world in a similar way. (...) We may consider replacing our language of “body positivity”, “body negativity”, “good body”, “bad body” with body neutrality. Body neutrality is about providing yourself a less judgmental zone for existing. A place of understanding that we are human. A space for self-compassion for bad days and a space to celebrate the good".
How does your regular day look like today as a personal trainer?
Alyssa: I wake up around 4 am to get ready for work. I commute to work with my boyfriend and listen to an audiobook or a lecture. I train clients from 5 am to 1 pm. Come home and take my dog out on a walk to the beach. Later, I finish up some additional client follow-ups, social media posts. I enjoy an early dinner at 5 pm. Usually, I'm in bed by 7:30 pm to read and fall asleep at 8 pm.
What’s your typical workout looks like?
Alyssa: My typical workout includes breathing drills, vision drills, mobility, and strength. All circuited together in a hodge-podge fashion to keep me engaged. My workout routine takes me maxium 35 minutes.
What’s your main rule when it comes to your diet?
Alyssa: To trust your cues (for instance changes in cravings, hunger) and to allow yourself the freedom to choose what you want. Eat the food that you enjoy. I am a strong believer that food enjoyment is a contributing factor to long-term success.
Do you have fitness goals for yourself? If so, what are they?
Alyssa: I currently do not. I have spent many years ingrained in a culture that I had to always goal set for my fitness/health. Currently, I am enjoying the flexibility, the lack of structure or stringency. I’m content, relaxing in a space where I move my body because I want to, not because I have to.
Where can everyone keep up with you to learn more?
Thank you for your time!
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