Get a Life! Do Boot Camp with Laura Downing and Ditch the Self-Judgement

Most friendships start with a common interest or a shared passion, but my friendship with Laura Collins Downing started with Desperation: I needed to fit into a dress.  I was barely eating yet getting larger and larger. I did not know what was happening to me, but I was NOT going to settle for “it’s an age thing”.   

I know a million gorgeous, strong and radiant women in their 50’s.  Just because a woman is close to 50 doesn't mean she is doomed to a life of misery and Mom Jeans.   I only wanted to lose weight, but instead I found in Laura a biochemistry teacher, health coach, spiritual seeker, psychologist, motivational sports trainer, comedian and cheerleader all wrapped up in one. Lucky me, Laura Collins Downing really is all that, and more: she’s an awesome friend, too.

The second-to-youngest of nine children, Laura grew up in the Berkshires, moved away and then moved back in 2012. Her parents were also "born and bred" in the Berkshires.  Her father, Bernard, was a veterinarian and, like Laura, was the eighth child of nine. Together, he and Laura's mom Ann [nee O'Connell] ran Collins Veterinary Hospital from their 36 acre family home in Lee, [which had been the summer home to Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands].

Laura's parents instilled in their children a sense of fun, hard work and meaning and their little army of nine knew how to roll up their sleeves and get to work. They all learned from an early age how to pitch in and put others - and animals - first. If you look at all of them today, you can see it still holds true, and that's possibly the greatest legacy any parents could hope to achieve.

Health and Fitness are a part of Laura's DNA as much as her Destiny.  In 1980, she was the first-ever graduate from Lee High School to earn all twelve Varsity letters [in field hockey, basketball, softball].  She's been in the health and fitness industry for 28 years, and loves what she’s doing. There is a perfect give-and-take to her life that offers her a chance to learn from others as well as to teach and inspire others to adopt new ways to find health and wellness.

Laura and me, after a 10 mile morning pilgrimage in France

Laura and me, after a 10 mile morning pilgrimage in France

Seems there is always a line outside her door.  Laura thrives in high gear so it's no wonder she bought a house right in the center of things, directly across from the Morris Elementary School. She doesn't even flinch over the morning school-run back ups blocking her drive and enjoys watching the summer Tanglewood traffic stream by.  There is a reason so many of us find our way to Laura. As a health coach, fitness instructor, and owner of Ideal Protein Weight Loss Clinic in Lenox, MA, she’s very good at what she does.

She makes sense out of the madness of losing weight. I use ‘madness’ lightly, but think about it – helping people change what they do, what they eat, and how they look at themselves and their relationship with food is nothing short of performing a frontal lobotomy. Laura gives dietary ‘lobotomies’ AND makes it fun. Now, that’s a rare gift.

From the moment you walk into Laura's “office” - a large farmer’s table in her front room - you immediately inhale the spirit of “I can.”

On your first visit, Laura spends time going through the science of the Ideal Protein Plan and how it applies to you. You leave with a powerful image of the 3 energy tanks that fuel the human body – SUGAR, FAT, and PROTEIN. Our bodies burn sugar first. When there is no sugar left to burn, then we will burn fat because fat burns faster than protein.  It’s important to keep your protein tank full so the body burns the fat off, not the muscle.

OK. Got it. Now, let’s rock ‘n roll!

1)     Empty the sugar tank [and keep it empty]

2)    Fill up the protein tank

3)    Watch the fat tank empty. *

* To illustrate this, Laura has 5lb and 20lb ‘weights,’ disgusting chunks of blubber on the table for people to pinch and get an even better image of the fat they are shedding. She also has a more palatable 20lb bag of winter Ice Melter for you to lift. It’s an amazing, albeit awkward correlation.

It’s one thing to read up on different diets, but it’s another thing entirely to read up and then know exactly which diet is best for you. That's why I needed help and Laura was THE person to make sense of it and to help me turns things around. Turns out, I wasn't eating enough. My metabolism had shut done. Now here's the kicker: on the new diet I would be required to eat more than I ever had before. At the end of the eight weeks, I didn't just lose 20 pounds, I gained my life back, and I am never going to let it go. I LOVE MY LIFE! 

Find out what is TOXIC to your system. 

Find out what is TOXIC to your system. 

“Gained my life back”? Through Laura’s help I was able to discover the single most important thing on my journey to wellness: sugar augments my pain.  The correlation was so obvious yet profoundly difficult to reach. I would never have discovered it on my own. When my sugar tank emptied, my pain went away. It was a most welcomed signpost on my way-too-confusing journey to wellness, one that I had not expected to see. What a relief to know that the cause of my pain was not something "big" like my PTSD or Hypothyroidism. It's just SUGAR, and I can control how much of it I allow into my system. 

 

Who knew a diet could be fun?! Laura’s optimism is ridiculously contagious. When you walk in the room, she lights up and blasts you with a glorious compliment. Immediately you feel good and relaxed about getting on the scale.  She’s the same when teaching a fitness class. She calls attention to what is positive in everyone there.  She will shout out your name and celebrate your strength, and because she celebrates you, it sends ripples out and everyone else in the class gives a subliminal, sweaty nod to you, too.

It's all about you. Remarkably outgoing and upbeat, Laura is surprisingly shy and has a superhuman ability to deflect attention away from her so that it shines back on to others.  When you take one of her turbo-charged classes at Lenox Fitness you can’t miss her. Her bright neon sportswear and headbands are rallying calls to Boot Camp. The class is packed and everyone is psyched for the hour of hard-core training because they know they are going to get something out of it – STRENGTH.

From the moment Laura switches on her headset and starts the class, the focus is on YOU. While she moves around the class, she keeps you focused and "in your zone."  While you're sweating to the JNL* [*Jennifer Nicole Lee] battle cries of ‘Strong is the New Skinny,’ and ‘Kiss my Abs,’ Laura bounces through exercises as though weightless and skipping down the lane with a balloon in her hand. 

Laura cracks jokes and reassures the boys that if they are wobbly with their balance they might be getting their period and reminds the ladies to wear a wee-wee pad for the jumping jacks. It’s hilarious. It’s also amazing to watch her in action and think: “Wow she is a really good teacher. I am lucky I found her. ” You don’t ever once think “oh, she is so strong. I will never be fit like her.” Laura keeps your focus right where it should be: on you, beautiful you.

No Judgement. Laura is an effective motivator in and out of class. She encourages everyone to ditch the self-judgment.  It gets in the way of everything. And she’s right.  Everyone knows I've never been to the gym, and the only weights I lift are grocery bags. I prefer to be outdoors, but Laura inspired me to push myself beyond my comfort zone and try her JNL* Fusion class at Lenox Fitness.  

JNL focuses on eight 3-minute “cycles” that are half cardio, half strength with one-minute breaks in between. Up until 3 weeks ago, I was too frightened to take an intense fitness class. Fearing my core was not strong enough, I avoided all things “muscle-y” thinking they might trigger my fibromyalgia or give me "Earl Campbell thighs," but years doing Pilates paid off. JNL Fusion did not leave me in pain for days. I was sore, but in a very good way. 

Shiny Happy Good Girls after one of Laura's class

Shiny Happy Good Girls after one of Laura's class

Whether she’s teaching a class or weighing you, Laura always focuses on the positive. Through her constructive example, you learn to look at the process of losing weight less as a schedule to follow and more as a script to learn. Soon, looking after your health becomes more natural. You learn to love your body for what it is and forgive it for what it is not.  You learn to stop and feed yourself throughout the day. You no longer blow through your body’s need to be nourished. You no longer skip meals and soon you choose to eat well. Nothing is more important than nourishing our bodies and minds. When we are strong and healthy, we live and love completely.

Laura really does stop and chill. Here she is, journalling in France and in the shade at  Le Lac du Verdon

Laura really does stop and chill. Here she is, journalling in France and in the shade at Le Lac du Verdon

Life gets hectic and sometimes we forget to eat or we don’t eat the right things.  We all need to learn how to stop and listen to our bodies and make the time to care for ourselves. I look back and wonder how I allowed myself to push to the side something so critical to life as eating the right things in the right way. Seriously, how does that happen? Like many, I was wrapped up in a rhythm of choices that breathlessly rushed me from one thing to the next, never nourishing only depleting.

 

Working through an effective diet plan with Laura reversed all that for me. The experience empowered me to change the rhythm of my life - to stop and eat, to slow down to make unhurried, healthy choices so that I could reclaim my health and my life - in that order. Once fueled with awareness [and Protein], I could take ownership of my bright and happy future. 

Eating well in France [Laura has just biked a million miles on this day. We didn't] 

Eating well in France [Laura has just biked a million miles on this day. We didn't] 

We are all different, but when it comes to weight loss, “whatever works best for you” is the greatest common denominator. It doesn’t really matter what plan you choose to follow as long as the process improves your understanding and acceptance of what your body needs.

A diet is a course of action that teaches you healthy patterns of self-care as part of a no-longer-dysfunctional relationship with food. No wonder the French call it "le regime". For me, Laura Collins Downing coupled with The Ideal Protein Plan was exactly what I needed. When I started the diet, I was only thinking about a dress. I had no idea I would get a life, too.

I am forever grateful to my dear friend Laura Collins Downing whose humor, sound advice and knowledge brought me back to a place of happiness and strength and showed me that I really could have a life and live well without pain.

Sometimes you just have to slow down, to get a life. Go, Good Girl, Go!

Before Boot Camp: Fighting Chronic Pain First Before Fitness

This is Part 1 of a two-part story. Before I can write about my next inspiring Good Girl – fitness instructor and health coach, Laura Collins Downing - I first need to explain why it took years to find my way to her. I’ve written about my fibromyalgia in previous blog entries but I haven’t really explained what I needed to work through and how I worked through it. Eventually, after three years, the pain is under control but there was A LOT of trial and error before I learned what works best for me. 

What is fibromyalgia? The definition below pretty much sums it up, though in my mind, it neglects to include the drama, misery, sorrow and despair that go hand in hand with fibromyalgia. Plus, it doesn't say anything about its relationship to chronic inflammation. Prolonged inflammation can lead to all sorts of health problems including cancer so it’s important to get things under control before they spin too far out of control.

 

Fibromyalgia: a common syndrome in which a person has long-term, body-wide pain and tenderness in the joints, muscles, tendons, and other soft tissues. Fibromyalgia has also been linked to fatigue, sleep problems, headaches, depression, and anxiety * [* add: “all at once”].

‘Tenderness’ – that’s putting it mildly. My pain was so debilitating I could not go a day without a nap. I would wake every morning with one thought and one thought only: when can I get back into bed? How sad is that not to want to embrace each and every day of your life? I could no longer enjoy life’s pleasures – something as straight forward as preparing a nice meal for my family was overwhelming. I could barely unload the dishwasher let alone stand at the chopping board or stove for very long. Reaching up or bending down in the kitchen was torture.  In short, I was miserable. Pain prevented me from doing everything I loved to do. My only joy – and I clung to it like a piece of wood in the ocean – was walking my dogs.

The good news is that fibromyalgia doesn't have to be a crippling disease. In this brief video Dr. Jeffrey M. Thompson of Mayo Clinic explains how you can take charge and reduce your pain and live a happier, more fulfilling life.  His advice is spot on:

1) Reduce Stress - relax, breath, meditate, have fun

2) Get enough sleep

3) Don’t drink - alcohol interrupts your sleep

4) Cut out caffeine and nicotine

5) Exercise - find the right routine for you

6) Pace yourself - “Don’t over-do. Don’t under-do”

7) Eat Healthy Foods

But that’s just a short list – it’s far more complicated. Everyone is different, so it’s important that you follow your gut to figure out what works best for you. Here are some tips of my own that might be useful to you: 

the next chapteer.jpg

Be patient with yourself. This is not a quick fix. Ask loved ones and colleagues to be patient with you, too. You are not making this up. Your pain is real and it will take time for your mind.body.spirit to heal. When the healing eventually hits, you will be happier than ever before [I promise].

Take on one challenge at a time. Work through one item on the above list before you move to the next. Surrender and Accept that these are challenges – they are not easy and they are not fun, but it will become more fun as each success makes you happier, more positive, stronger and more confident. Eventually, you will want "the total package" for yourself.

Read up and visualize what each action means to you. Prepare yourself with ways to change your behavior and always remember that change is good and will translate to less pain and a better life.

Don’t set yourself up for failure, disappointment and self-judgment. You already feel rotten enough, so make sure every challenge you choose to tackle is one that you are ready to embrace. That way, you are sure to succeed.

Be realistic. Changing your life is the hardest work you will ever do, but it is also the most rewarding. We are hard-wired to resist change so it really helps to have a meaningful mantra to call upon when the going gets tough. 

Pain made me incredibly grumpy because, well, it hurt... but also because I could not enjoy anything in life. I could not join in bike rides with my son and husband; take fitness classes with my friends; prepare gorgeous meals; garden; host dinner parties; paint landscapes and absorb the beauty that is to be found in the normal, benign every day.  Pain was cutting off all my life lines and this is the mantra I created for my journey to wellness, happiness, and love:

because I love, and love deeply, 

I will love myself enough to change and to heal 

so that I can love more completely.

With my mantra in hand, I attacked my condition from every angle – for a complete mind, body, spirit overhaul. Here’s a summary of the past 3+ years of my life, and how I approached each challenge on the Doctor's list. I took BABY STEPS and I did not - could not - rush through this...

Reduce Stress: relax, breath, meditate, have fun

When I first embarked on my journey to wellness, I could not meditate. Not knowing an OM from an onion, I chose the closest thing to navel gazing calm and stillness that I knew – reading. Instead of taking a nap, I would read. I was resting but I was not sleeping and I was not in bed but in our sunny living room. That was my first baby step. I was doing something that I love and it was relaxing and while I was at it, I was learning how to change my life around. Doesn't sound so bad, right? 

It was during this phase that I devoured the profoundly inspiring Raising Lazarus, the Science of Healing the Soul by Blair Justice and J. Pitman McGehee. [I will definitely write about this book soon]. In short, the book uses Science and Spirituality to prove that we all have the power to rejig our brains. No pill popping required. Just dedication and focus.

Get enough sleep 

Well, this one had my name all over it, so I made sure to do it well. I set up some “rules” to safeguard my sleep… I do not watch t.v. dramas ever – the commercials, noise, violence and freaky plastic surgery jobs on actors are all deeply unsettling and would leave me twitching the whole night through.  I do enjoy BBC period dramas but even Downton Abbey got me all worked up and weepy and pining for England that I was pretty much limited to BBC World News. I've gobbled down every book in The Game of Thrones series and couldn't wait to watch it. No matter how much I love the books and adore Peter Dinklage, who I first saw on the Nikos Stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival, it was not the right choice for a good night’s sleep. I had to remain content with my own movie, the one I had made in my head as I read each book back-to-back. 

Don’t drink: alcohol interrupts your sleep

OK, OK I confess this one was NOT at the top of my list.  It was at the bottom, just above giving up caffeine. But here’s what I did to cut back on alcohol. I first lobbed off BEER as part of going Gluten Free. Oh, how I miss a proper pint and a packet of crisps, but I don’t miss the pain and cramping those wheat-y bubbles bring.

White wine, champagne and rose´ were already off the list as part of natural selection – after living in the south of France for years, too much of a good thing is…well, not a good thing.  

That left me with red wine, but it had to be a New World vintage with an aroma I found to be less “mildew-y” than Old World and the sulfates somehow less sickening [please don’t ask me about the science behind that, but I will investigate it and write about it one day]. Red Wine eventually got the chop as part of total sugar detox and was later kept to a bare minimum as part of a low-glycemic diet. Wine leads to a sugar spike at some inconvenient point in the wee hours and disrupts sleep. Honestly, I would do anything for a good night’s sleep. 

Now, it’s just down to sugar-free-gluten-free-carb-free QUALITY TEQUILLA - on the rocks, or sometimes with fresh squeezed lemon and club soda. If it's party-mode I need to bring my own to a party because it's not usually served. 

One key lesson I needed to learn and incorporate into my life is that barring total abstinence, MODERATION is the key to alcohol consumption. I now drink 0-2 portions a week and it feels just right. If there is a special occasion or a super fun dinner party or a dance floor to trance on, then I allow myself a glorious release, but I follow every big night with a detox for at least a full 7 days afterward.  It’s an equation that works for me now, but I am feeling so good that I am thinking about giving up alcohol for good. [post script: lesson learned since writing this. After de-toxing for one month at the start of the year, I continued to maintain a very low to zero alcohol intake for another two months so it was a VERY bad, and dangerous, idea when after three months detoxing I thought I could have a 'glorious release' big party night out. Guess what, my system can no longer tolerate what it used to. I know, big duhhh, but more on that in a future post that I will link here].  

Cut out caffeine and nicotine

My husband and I quit smoking together, years ago, leaving the much dreaded caffeine detox last on my list. I have written about the misery of it in Good Girl GoGoGo Facebook posts and in my Daily Smalls section and in a blog post. It wasn’t easy, but I am very glad I did it. Eliminating caffeine leads to a good night’s rest, effective pain management over the long term, and a more balanced Acid:Alkaline ratio.

Exercise: find the right routine for you and don’t rush it

It’s really hard to exercise when it causes so much pain. For me, one work out could set me back for weeks. The posture of Grief had really taken its toll on me and I was not aligned and injured easily. It was critical that I start off ‘nice and easy.’ I had a wonderful and caring pilates teacher [Karen Lee] who brought my body back to life from the inside out. After two years on her machines and in her care for two private sessions every week, I finally had a core to engage and the confidence to move into more challenging work outs with Bridget Ford-Hughes. After three years, I did my first Boot Camp with Laura Collins Downing [my next story covers the joys of Boot Camp – yes, JOYS, something I never expected]. 

Pace Yourself: “Don’t over-do. Don’t under-do”

This is really important. Be kind to yourself. Keep striving and don’t give up, but don’t expect too much. I ran into trouble on my “good days” – there was no pain to stop me from doing anything and everything, so I tended to over-do it. I have since learned that “good days” are just that - “good days” and not “days to cram everything in.” 

Eat Healthy Foods

This is more complicated than it appears and requires some dedication to figure out what dietary choices are right for you. For me, it first translated to Gluten Free but I soon discovered that so many Gluten Free products are loaded with Sugar so I knocked them out completely. My diet then morphed into a Complete Sugar Detox [no fruit, sugar, carbs, booze or lentils for 8 weeks. I will write about this in my next blog]. I now happily maintain a low-glycemic-low-carb-gluten-free diet, with only occasional fruit, grains, and lentils. Basically, I eat protein and greens – TONS of GREENS - but let me reassure you, I eat well, very well. Everything is delicious and I am never-ever hungry or craving.

Keep your eye on the prize! Life for me is so different now. I don’t feel as though I am missing out on one single thing and that’s because Pain is no longer cutting me off from living my life. All of these changes, difficult though they were to make, have made me happy again, and that’s a fact. 

I hope this article helps you or someone you love confront and tackle the pain of fibromyalgia or other chronic pain condition. Perhaps it will inspire you to find ways to relieve your own pain or to help another who is in pain. Don't ever give up trying - it really is possible for Brightness and Gratitude to take Pain’s place.

Modern Day Mythology: Bridget Ford Hughes Rocks the Hero's Journey through Mind, Body, Spirit

When Bridget Ford Hughes emerged in 2008 from four years of breast cancer treatment and a double mastectomy before she got the “All Clear,” the first thing she did was to get married and celebrate Life and Love and the tremendous support she received from her husband and close friends.

The second thing she did was to set forth on yet another journey... 

With singular focus, Bridget began to manifest her cancer-fueled and inspired dream: to find a way to help other women through their journey with breast cancer.

When you first meet Bridget it’s really hard to tell she’s been through a battle. Standing at over six feet tall, all muscle and no fat on her, her strength and positive attitude are the first things you notice…after her smile. Since 2009, she’s applied all her strength, positive outlook, and that winning smile to setting up and maintaining a fund to improve the lives of women with cancer by enabling them to nurture their strength and wellness

In 2010, she launched The Women’s Cancer Wellness Fund at The Pastures, the home she shares with her artist husband, Jonathan Prince.

Practice what you preach, indeed… The fund’s mission is at the core of Bridget’s life and practices. She lives and breathes strength and wellness. Every morning starts with an Ayurvedic cleansing of her five senses; every day allows for reflection from daily prayer, meditation, and dog walks; and every week clocks in over twenty hours of physical exercise playing tennis, teaching group classes, and personal training - her own and private client sessions.

Bridget’s journey with cancer taught her a new way of looking at herself and looking after herself. She learned through hard work and struggle how to make good choices about her care and long-term well-being. Profoundly eased by the healing power of alternative care, Bridget made it her mission to make sure other women knew about the growing number of alternative healing methods out there. She also wanted to do her part to make them available to women with breast cancer.

Bridget's Healing Hands - the Gentle Touch

Bridget's Healing Hands - the Gentle Touch

Complementary medicine and alternative care are not, as a rule, covered by health insurance, yet we can no longer under-estimate the importance of that “gentle touch.” As individuals and as communities we need to embrace the process of learning new ways to approach health problems from multiple angles - and open up to the union of Mind, Body, Spirit. Alternative methods have been proven to contribute positively to wellness. As awareness grows and scientific data in support of alternative treatments mounts, the list of healing modalities increases, too.

Bridget made sure the fund was set up to support the ever-growing list of healing pathways such as: Acupuncture, Ayurveda, Chinese/Herbal Medicine, Chiropractic, Fitness Instruction, Homeopathy, Hypnosis, Kinesiology, Massage Therapy, Meditation, Movement Therapy, Naturopathy, Nutrition Counseling, Psychological Services, Physical Therapy, Reflexology, Reiki, Spiritual Counseling, Yoga.

Entrance to the studio at the pastures

Entrance to the studio at the pastures

Bridget is warm and welcoming, just like the huge St. Bridget’s door mat on the steps leading to her studio. She is completely open about her journey with cancer and this transparency helps others to open up, too. It is then that Bridget is able to flex one of her strongest muscles, and it’s a strong one – her ability to listen to another person’s story.

Bridget understands that cancer is a personal journey. A treatment that works for one woman might not work for another, but through constructive dialogue Bridget is able to help, and to reassure and to offer suggestions that support healing, strengthening and overall wellness.

Light n Brite - class in the studio

Light n Brite - class in the studio

In talking with my friend, I can’t help but be reminded that when we think of the archetype mythological hero and his journey, we intuit a man, his journey and his struggles, and his ability to impart wisdom to others upon his return home.  The key to this myth is that throughout his travails the hero [actually] stops along the way to ask for directions from wise guides who make his journey more…meaningful.

It is this ability – to ask for guidance as well as to share knowledge - that turns a mere mortal into a Hero because he is both able to listen and learn as well as to teach and help others.

But what if we fast-forward to modern day and that archetypal hero is a breast cancer survivor, a woman who acknowledges that through her own journey with cancer she has learned many lessons and is capable of sharing her knowledge for the greater good?

This is the beautiful under belly of breast cancer, the silver lining, the soft part that despite its innate frailty and vulnerability grants a woman with cancer the courage to open up and ask for help and when, in the end, she is possessed of strength and gratitude can help others become Heroines, too.

Like folklore passed down through the ages, the stories and wisdom these women share make them all modern day Heroines, key witnesses and chroniclers of a battle just waiting outside one out of every eight doors to a woman’s home. But every so often, a breast cancer survivor takes the dialogue a step beyond the sacred journey and sets up a fund to help others, to ease their journey and to bring those touched by cancer closer to wellness.

Strength and wellness are gifts we cannot fully comprehend until we find ourselves struggling to regain them. There are many paths to wellness, but no path can lead back to wellness without the gentle touch of Love and Encouragement and Reassurance.  Mountains of Gratitude have been built upon the power of a gentle touch and its ability to calm and sooth and ultimately - to heal. 

Like a true Heroine returned home, Bridget's own words describe how her experience taught her how very much “we need the support of well-informed, dedicated people to assist us at every level of healing — physical, emotional, and spiritual — so we can focus on hope and recovery…”

When you remember the many blessings in your life this Christmas and holiday season, please also think about the many women with breast cancer who are clinging to theirs.  A gentle touch can bring a woman with cancer one step closer to becoming a Heroine, and this belief is what lies at the heart of the network of support that Bridget Ford Hughes has lovingly established at the Women’s Cancer Wellness Fund.  

Feeling Blessed: B Chillin' with her good friends

Feeling Blessed: B Chillin' with her good friends