My Story

Definition of Healthy

Healthy means something different to everyone. The World Health Organization defines Health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”   My journey to better health was motivated by diabetes, but my destination resulted in wellness beyond physical health.

Family & Food

I am the oldest of 5 children raised in an Italian & Polish family.  Everything that was important in my life revolved around family and food.  By the time I was 13 years-old, I could prepare homemade ravioli and pierogi.  My great-grandfather was in immigrant from Italy, and he owned a tap room in Vineland, NJ, where people would come from Philadelphia, PA to eat his food.  Edited Photos

My grandmother was one of his 9 daughters, and like her father, she was a great cook.   She and several of her sisters had second kitchens in their basements to accommodate our large family gatherings.

Family Basement

My mother is a fabulous cook.  She served a variety of pasta dishes about 3 times a week and always on Sundays.  It was common for us to dunk fresh Italian bread in the sauce pot while it was cooking.  I remember smiling when my mom would offer me spaghetti as an evening snack.

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Although I enjoyed helping her out in the kitchen, it was my father’s passion for music that became mine.  My parents made sure I had a new stereo every few years and plenty of records to go along with it.  I spent hours in my room with headphones intact.

I excelled in academics, but my joy came from dabbling in the arts and the pride of being able to prepare a good meal at a young age.   I fell in love with reading and writing poetry and discovered the joy of photography in high-school print shop . I developed my own photos in class, including the one of myself pictured below.  My poems filled almost one-third of my high school’s annual publication, “The Quill.”

My first job at 16-years old was working with my grandfather in an Italian Bakery where he was the bread baker.  He was also a member of his home town’s North Italy Club.   He is pictured here preparing his weekly meal for the club’s members.  My grandfather’s parents were immigrants from Italy too, and they were also passionate about preparing large and delicious meals.  My grandfather’s brother owned his own Pizza parlor and because his mother did not speak English, she communicated with us by offering us food.  We referred to her as Grandma with the Jello.

16 yEARS OLDMy grandmother, aka “Nanny”, started a tradition of baking thousands of cookies every year at Christmas time.  My sisters, daughter, and I carry on the cookie baking tradition, as well as my Aunt and cousins in NY.  I continue to enjoy tasting these cookies; however I only eat 1 per day now. I also bake healthier cookies to satisfy my sweet tooth when I’m craving more of the sugary ones.

Holiday Cookie Bake 2014

In 2005, my cousins and I published a family cookbook in dedication to my grandmother and her 8 sisters.  We featured each woman in a section of the cookbook.  My grandmother was featured in the cookie section with a picture of my daughter at almost 2-years old.  The cookbook sales funded a catered family reunion.

Cookbook

Sara with Cookies

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Every year, my mom would host an open house on Christmas Eve.  Both sets of grandparents, aunts uncles, friends, and neighbors would gather for a Polish plus smorgasbord.  My family would spend the night and awake to a “made to order” breakfast; followed by an Italian Christmas dinner.

Home at Christmas

My grandfather was from a large family too.  His father passed away at a young age, and his mother struggled to keep her family together and feed her eight children.  As a result, my grandfather kept his basement stocked with food; like a shelter.  Food was stored on shelves that spanned from the floor to the ceiling along the entire length of the basement.  Whenever I visited, I was encouraged to take what I wanted.  He kept a list of what I took and restocked the shelves immediately.

ROSSI PICS

Every summer, I spent at least one week with my mom’s sister and my 3 cousins in Long Island, NY.  It was a non-stop party of neighborhood pools, playing cards, and pre-dinner seafood appetizers waiting for my uncle to refresh after a long day of work at his commercial landscaping business.  My Aunt’s refrigerators were stuffed more than my moms.   In 2012, my Aunt served up dozens of stuffed lobsters, clams, other meats, and numerous side dishes for a birthday party.  The food in our family is still plentiful!

Aunt Dolores

Then there were the Jersey shore gatherings.  Several of my relatives had beach “shacks,” and moved to the Wildwoods at the Jersey Shore for the summer.  My grandmother’s sister, Lena, moved to the Jersey shore and practically lived on a fishing boat with her husband and my cousin, Mark.   Our families would gather at the shore to feast on freshly caught fish and, of course, a side of spaghetti.  My cousin, Donna, taught us carbohydrate overload by making spaghetti into a sandwich on rolls.  Dang fresh Italian bread!

Mark FIsh

Grocery shopping with my mom was an event. There were always two carts overflowing with food for “big shopping,” but my mom shopped daily!  I would spend more than five minutes unpacking meats from the cart.  Even after her children moved out, my mom’s grocery receipts would extend the length of my daughter’s school bus.  Our home was the central gathering place for our neighbors and our friends.  No matter what day of the week, my mom always had enough food to serve extra last minute guests.

Despite all that eating, I remained fit because I was very active. I played baseball with my brother’s friends, jumped rope, rode my bike for miles, played recreational volleyball, and marched and twirled a flag in my high-school’s competing band.

youth

On My Own

My parents raised all their children to be responsible, but I became fiercely independent.  Unlike my friends who married or enrolled in college immediately post-graduation, I decided to get my own apartment and explore life.

Michele Graduation

I landed a full-time job at a hospital at the age of 19 as a result of attending a vocational school as part of my high school education.  I also trained to be an independent beauty consultant selling skin care products and giving woman makeovers several nights per week. This second job provided the funds I needed to eventually buy my own home.

I also partied as hard as I worked.  My friend, Millie, had taken dance lessons and taught me how to dance before I was a teenager.  I was a regular Thursday through Sunday nights at the local pubs and clubs for almost a decade, having a great time dancing at least 3 hours each evening.  Music kept me moving.  During a trip to Bermuda in 1987, I was picked from the audience by the Steel Drum Band to participate in a Limbo contest.  I came in second place!

Michele Cruise1

During this time, I was so busy working and partying that I lived on popcorn, pizza, ice-cream, and late night Howard Johnson grand-slam breakfasts unless I was on a date or entertaining.   My relationship with junk food had begun.  At one point I gained 15 pounds, but lost the weight going to a fitness club.

pizza popcorn

For fun and because of my love of music,  I became a DJ playing at a few anniversary parties and weddings.  I was surprisingly offered a DJ job by a manager of one of the private clubs.  I was told that I was better than most of the professional DJs, but I needed to talk a bit more into the microphone.  When I love something, I put my heart and soul into it.  I believe my passionate personality eventually contributed to improving my health.  I was still on the move, fit, and following my heart with no particular plan.

DJ

Taking Care of Business

Over these years I began taking on a lot of responsibility.  I bought my own home at the age of 23.  I was promoted to a Hospital Quality Manager by the age of 28, and became a single mom to a beautiful baby girl by 29.

RESPONSIBILITY

I became less physically active and did not lose my extra pregnancy weight.  I was spending a lot of time sitting at a desk and then driving in a car to take my daughter to dance lessons several times a week.  This routine spanned from when she was three years-old until she could drive herself to dance lessons.  I began eating fast food for dinner in the car on the way to her dance class.

Michele Hat

By the age of 36, I was promoted to a Hospital Department Director, and by the age of 47 I had landed my first Corporate Director position for a Health System.   I began to focus on the needs of everyone around me.  I never said no to any request for assistance from family, friends, or colleagues.  I continued to gain weight and was unaware of the toll it was taking on my health.

Ms before

My life did not lack for fun.  I took vacations every year, traveled with my daughter, who danced on a Caribbean cruise ship, at Universal Studios-FL, and Hershey Park-PA.  I also enjoyed the company of wonderful friends and family; however, I did not realize that my artistic and adventurous soul had taken a backseat.   I thought I was being responsible, but I was not being personally responsible for me and my needs.  I believe this is common for most women when their lives become busy with domestic responsibilities.

My Diagnoses

By my early 40’s, I had been diagnosed with high-blood pressure, high-cholesterol, and told that I was pre-diabetic. I was shocked by the news.  My physician did not provide me with much education on the disease, and my health insurance did not pay for diabetic education.  I knew that foods like pancakes, donuts, breads, and biscuits were not good for me because starchy carbohydrates turned into sugar.

So, I chose the Atkins Diet, which was low in carbohydrates.  The diet initially worked because I lost 50 pounds and my lab results were improving; however, there was one problem.  I hadn’t really changed my lifestyle.  I was following a diet that I couldn’t live with for the rest of my life, and I was not exercising.  As soon as I started eating breads and other starchy foods again, I gained weight.  Over the next several years, I gradually got heavier, developed full-blown diabetes, and began taking medications to control my diabetes, blood pressure, and cholesterol.

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Getting Sicker

In October 2010, my then 94-year old grandfather had to be moved from his senior apartment to a nursing home close to me and my siblings.  I was his financial power of attorney and care coordinator.  He was in and out of the hospital often due to his chronic conditions.  At one point, he started having fear when he went onto hospice, and he asked me to stay with him at the hospital and in the nursing home.  So I slept in those facilities until he felt better, but I started to realize I was getting ill.

Michele Sick

I suddenly began falling asleep mid-afternoon; almost feeling like I was drugged.  Then I got bronchitis, which would improve and flare up a few weeks later.  Prior to this, I did not feel sick, so I  stopped taking my diabetic medications and testing my blood sugars.  It had been several years since I had seen my doctor, so I made an appointment.  My lab tests indicated that my diabetes was poorly controlled, and it started to affect my kidneys.

Type 2 Diabetes1

My doctor said that, with proper care, I could reverse what was happening with my kidney function, but he also stated that I would need insulin if my blood sugars did not get under control.  I understood how diabetes affected the entire body.  My Aunt had lost her legs from the disease.  I did not want my daughter to be burdened with a sick mom at an early age, and I wanted to feel better and save my life.   It was time to get serious about my health.

Taking Charge of My Destiny

I bought a book titled, How to Outsmart Diabetes, and began to make small changes in my eating habits.   Despite these attempts, I could not control my blood sugar levels after dinner, so my doctor put me on a third medicine.

Changes

My three conditions, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes put me at high risk for heart attack and stroke.  I knew I needed expert support, and my new employer offered health coaches as a benefit. I called my health insurance and requested to speak with a dietician.  I was fortunate to have this benefit, and it is one of the reasons that I am passionate about supporting others through their own wellness journey.

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keep educating yourself

My health coach taught me about proper nutrition, how to keep my metabolism and blood sugars balanced, and she encouraged me to begin a weight loss program by setting short and long-term goals.  Obesity is detrimental to overall health, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, gout, and breathing problems, such as sleep apnea (when a person stops breathing for a short episodes during sleep).

Goals

Prior to each monthly call with my coach (over a period of two years), I wrote down questions related to my diabetes and weight, such as how to deal with plateaus in weight loss.  I also sought support for dealing with the emotional aspects of my journey related to changing relationships with family and friends.  Because I had to fit healthy habits into my everyday life, my time to do for others was decreasing.  I made a choice to put myself first before everything and everyone in my life.

Puzzle

Making Healthy Fit

I know there are many people who have always valued a healthy lifestyle.  I’m not sure what factors in their lives created those values or inspired their motivation.   What I do know is that MAKING HEALTHY FIT  is all about motivation.  Losing weight, becoming fit, and managing an illness takes persistence, patience, and time…You’ll need time for yourself and time for your efforts to show.

Motivation

I previously stated that my journey was motivated by diabetes.  While that is true, my illness was not the factor that kept me motivated.  Initial motivation usually doesn’t last for long periods.  It is important to find ways to re-motivate yourself.   I found three things that kept me motivated.  I refer to these triggers as Talk, Walk, and Rock.  Here is why:

#1 – Talk :  While internal motivation is necessary, the support and encouragement of others is important to your success.  Even though your friends and family love you, discussing your lifestyle changes, challenges, and successes may not be their favorite topic of conversation.  Talking with someone with common interests or goals is motivating and emotionally healthy!

My health coach helped to motivate me.  She educated me, challenged me, and made me feel good about myself throughout my journey.  I’m hoping that the Make Healthy Fit community provides one of those outlets for you.

journey 1

My loving grandfather watched me transform over the last few years of his life, but even he was pessimistic about my ability to keep my weight off.  If he saw me eating something unhealthy, he would say, “I know you are going to gain your weight back!”   I’ll be glad to prove him wrong.

Me and Grandpop

#2 – Walk: I did not start walking until several months after I changed my eating habits.  Walking became my only form of exercise for the next 6 months.  I began walking only 10 minute three times a day.  It took me 6 months before I could walk four miles.  I incorporated strength training into my fitness routine about one month prior to my halfway mark to achieving  my weight loss goal.

Halfway

Walking resulted in significant changes in my physical appearance, which motivated me to step up my fitness.  My legs were getting toned and slimmer, and my stamina continued to increase.

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I was no longer focused solely on managing my diabetes.  I was down about 60 pounds and began to see the possibility of a fit body. Re-motivation kicked in.  Without any hesitance, I figured out how to fund a personal trainer for a couple of months to learn proper exercise.

Dumbells

My trainer became another wonderful coach who challenged me in the area of fitness.  She believed that my weight loss goal was aggressive for my age; however, my persistence and patience took me beyond my goal.

Strength

Me WalkingWalking continues to motivate me.  I look forward to my time alone, but I also enjoy walking with a partner on occasion.  The time flies when your enjoying conversation.  I usually walk four miles – three to four times a week.  My walks take 90 minutes.  If my schedule is crazy, I’ll fit in at least a 30 minute on those days.  I put fitness first and MAKE THE TIME; even when I’m overwhelmed by my “to do” list.  I typically burn 400 to 600 calories during a walk; depending on the length of my walk and the incline.  In the winter, I walk on a treadmill at my local gym setting it at a 10% incline.  I am able to complete four miles in one hour.  Walking on the treadmill takes less time, and I burn more calories, but I prefer the beauty of walking outside.

I alternate strength training on the other days; giving my muscles at least a day of rest.  Now that I’ve reached my health goals, burning calories allows me to eat larger portions of nutritious foods and indulge in moderate portions of pizza and other occasional treats.  Keeping active helps me maintain my weight and control my blood sugar levels.  I am committed to strength training, but walking is part of who I am now.  I can’t wait to go outdoors and feel the warmth of the sun, clear my mind, enjoy my favorite songs, and take in the sights, which I often photograph.

 #3 – Rock:  Yes, I am going to talk about music again!  I spent almost a decade and a half of my life watching television at the end of my busy day because I was tired and just wanted to “veg out.”

I discovered that listening to music during my walks quickened my pace, and it reminded me of the influence that music has on changing moods.  I began turning on music instead of the TV.   The music motivated me to get up, clean my house, and provided me with enjoyment while preparing meals.  When a song came on with a great beat, I took a break to dance!  So, rocking is fun and it motivates me to move and burn calories too!  I rarely watch television now.

Music

In my younger years, I loved going to concerts, but I had not taken in live music in a very long time.   So I bought myself concert tickets, and got re-motivated once again.   I met new people who shared my love of music and had the same band interests.  They were kind, fun, and included me in all their pre and post-concert activities.  I was like a child with a new toy.  I discovered a new joy that made me feel young again and remember how much I really LOVED music.   I felt more alive then ever and wanted my healthy body back.  I am still a young woman.  That’s right, age is a just a number.  My motto has always been work hard play hard, and I found my play.  I am grateful that my father instilled in me a love for music.

Styx Fans

The Journey Within

Although Making Healthy Fit is about incorporating healthier habits into your life, it is also about your overall well-being.  Love yourself.  Put yourself first. Find time to enjoy activities that you love.   Fit small changes into your life and watch where they lead.  That is how I Make Healthy Fit.  This journey is a joy for me now; it is not hard.  I have actually become a foodie and enjoy eating more than ever.  I learned more about nutrition and fitness after reaching my health goals.  I conduct research for  Make Healthy Fit, and read the posts of other healthy lifestyle bloggers and from health websites.  Many blogs are grounded in research and others provide inspiration and tips from people who share their own challenges and journey to wellness.

Health and Wellness

More importantly, I am also free of diabetic and blood pressure medications.  All of my laboratory values are within normal range.  My results are not even in pre-diabetic range.  Any doctor who would look at my labs would not even know I have Type 2 diabetes.  I never have blood sugar spikes, my kidneys are fine, and I feel AWESOME!  I am compelled to “Pay it Forward.”  I want others to feel the same.

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Perhaps the things that motivated me will not be the same for you, but there is evidence that support, walking, and music increase the chances of success.  It has been proven that athletes who listen to music perform better.  It increases intensity.

I also stated earlier that my destination resulted in wellness beyond physical health.  I had been moving through life letting it lead me to the next stop.  I had not reflected on what I valued or made the choices that aligned with what was important to me.   I was a poet, a dancer, a photographer, a make-up artist, and a DJ.  It’s no wonder when I started walking that I brought my camera along.  I bring it everywhere with me now.  So here I am writing again, taking pictures, and dancing.

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Then,  just when I thought I had become self-aware, I had to submit to a battery of self-discovery tests in my first course back in college.  The purpose of the tests was to guide students to their best career path.  My results indicated that I was artistic, social, and enterprising.  My career recommendations were Music Director, Choreographer, Stage Manager, Coach, Teacher, and Religious Worker.

The Reward

It is important to understand that the journey to improved health is not a destination.  For instance, weight loss is only a goal along a continuous journey or “lifestyle.”  The journey is the reward of taking control of your life and creating the opportunity to be the best and happiest you can be.  Becoming healthy is the best decision I ever made.  I may never be a Music Director, Choreographer, Stage Manager or Religious Worker, but I do believe I can provide you with resources and information to facilitate your learning in the achievement of your wellness goals.  Keep Educating Yourself.  It is KEY.  Everyone of my career recommendations placed me in a leadership role.  I hope you will follow my lead or your own!

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   Be well, Michele