Exercise has countless benefits. Of course, there’s the weight loss and muscle gains — the aesthetic changes that people tend to notice the most. Then, there’s the physiological advantages of better sleep, more energy, disease prevention and enhanced immunity. Finally comes the mental side — a boost in self-confidence, a new joy for life, and even a drive for stronger social connections. All of these powerful pay-offs can come from taking it just one step at a time. And these seven women and men provide living proof.
Let their inspiring stories of struggles and triumph, heartbreak and resilience drive you to sign up for that 5K you’re nervous about, to take that strength class you’ve always wanted to, or even just to take a walk outside this afternoon. All you need is a little reminder about how good it can feel — for your body and mind — to keep moving forward.
7 Inspiring Stories on How Exercise Can Change a Life
1. Stephanie Laska: Small Steps, Big Benefits
“Exercise for me is not about running a marathon, it’s about those daily decisions to just go outside.”
Growing up, Stephanie Laska, 44, never worked out. She chose music class over P.E., and had Kool-Aid and Froot Loops every day. It wasn’t until her 40s, weighing around 300 pounds, that she decided she need a lifestyle reboot. A few simple diet changes, like dropping sugary soda and limiting beer and desserts, helped her lose 50 pounds. But she quickly hit a plateau and knew it was time to start moving.
“The details [of a workout schedule] stressed me out at first,” says the Californian. “When do you exercise? Who takes the kids to school? Who makes dinner?” After a few months of putting it off, she decided to just walk. Not long after, when she was walking her typical route around a tennis court, she decided to pick it up and run the length of one side. Then, she ran two sides, then three, then a full loop, until she ran her first mile in 2014.
“I was keeping it a secret at this point and I remember taking my kids to the park one day. They were on the bikes and got far ahead of me, so I decided to run to catch up,” Laska recalls. “The look on my daughter’s face when she saw me running was like she saw Santa Claus.” That’s when Laska started taking her one-mile jogs up to a 5k, 10k, half-marathon and eventually, marathon distance.
Laska ran her first 26.2 in 2015, scoring first place in her age group. She completed her second this past fall in NYC, as a member of the PowerBar Clean Start team, just one year after having major surgery.
“What motivated me to keep going was that it wasn’t as hard as I made it out to be,” says Laska, who lost a total of 140 pounds and has kept it off for four years now. “People tend to make these huge decisions — like joining a gym or signing up for bootcamp — but I just made a tiny choice to take a walk around the block. I always try to remind myself that those little decisions snowball, positive or negative.”
The idea of taking life one step at a time has led Laska to make more time for herself, and say no to responsibilities that don’t improve her well-being. This has also improved her relationships with her husband and kids and even brought on a promotion at work, she says. “People always ask the hardest thing about losing weight, and I respond that it was saying no to buttered popcorn at the movies,” Laska says. “Exercise for me is not about running a marathon, it’s about those daily decisions to just go outside.”
2. Mike Ergo: Something New to Fight for Every Day
“It’s about making peace with discomfort, and that translates into everyday life.”
A soldier in the Marine Corps Infantry, Mike Ergo served two tours in Iraq, much of which he spent fighting on the front lines. When he returned to the U.S. in 2005 having lost so many close friends, he had no idea where to go next. “I didn’t expect to come home alive,” he says, “so trying to plan a whole new life was difficult.”
Ergo ended up turning to drugs and alcohol to deal with his PTSD. “I think I was just living for that next good feeling, which for me, usually came in a bottle,” says Ergo, who married his wife, Sara, shortly after returning from Iraq. It wasn’t until July 2012 that Sara sat Ergo down and told him he wasn’t the man she married. She challenged him to make a change. “I had a moment of clarity…and just quit cold turkey,” Ergo says.
In search of something to turn his attention to, Ergo started doing CrossFit. Then, a friend asked him to join for a half-marathon, so he laced up and started running. He immediately fell for his experience on the road. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m putting my body through stress, and my body’s handling it. I have all these internal resources to deal with this — I don’t need external chemicals to regulate my mood,’” he says.
Not too long after, a friend invited Ergo to an Alcatraz swim in the San Francisco Bay. Within that same year, on vacation in Hawaii, Ergo watched the Ironman World Championships — where competitors complete a two-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a marathon-distance run. He signed up for a half Ironman as soon as he got home.
“I have a history in the Marine Corps of putting myself through discomfort, and finding satisfaction and purpose in that, as opposed to just looking for easy and comfortable,” he says. He figured a triathlon would be no different, and he completed that first race in 2015. He then did a few more half Ironmans in 2016, and by fall 2017 he committed to a full Ironman back in Hawaii.
Thanks to the tough training sessions and grueling Ironman courses, Ergo has also learned to be OK with things not being 100 percent all the time and has taken a softer approach to dealing with hardships. “At first, I think I approached it with a sense of ‘I’m going to beat this, I’m going to overcome it,’ — a really aggressive attitude. It’s more like what I’d say as a CrossFitter,” he says. “But it’s hard to crush something for 13 hours. [My new approach] was really just gratitude, and acceptance of where I am. To think about being on the finish line and being done after 12 or 13 hours, that’s mentally taxing. That means for 12 or 13 hours, you’re not where you want to be… So, I’m always coming back to, ‘This is okay. I can hurt. That’s fine,’’ Ergo says.
“It’s about making peace with discomfort, and that translates into everyday life — not needing things to be ideal all the time, because they aren’t,” he continues. “If you can have the discipline in whatever the workout routine is, and put yourself through some adversity and some discomfort, then when that comes up in other avenues in life, you’re ready for it.”
3. Felicia Hall: A Necessary Dose of Happiness
“I’m comfortable in every part of my skin.”
During the holiday season in 2015, Felicia Hall found herself looking forward to drinking more than anything else. She was battling depression and turning to wine in the early afternoons and McDonald’s late at night. “I was miserable, overeating and just not really caring for myself. I wasn’t active and I was tired — just exhausted,” she says.
It wasn’t until the New Year that Hall decided to make a change. A friend mentioned Daily Burn, and Hall decided to sign up. If it didn’t work out after 30 days, she thought she’d just quit. “I signed up and I put a reminder in my calendar to cancel the day before the free trial ended,” says Hall, 36, who kicked off with the True Beginner program. “Within two weeks, I took that notification out of my phone. I was not stopping.”
The confidence she gained from Daily Burn also got her running. “I love the sound of my feet hitting the ground, knowing that my body is capable of doing that,” she says. “[Running is] my time.”
To fuel her new active lifestyle, Hall overhauled her late-night fast food sessions, too. She started cooking healthy meals and packing portable, nutritious snacks like sliced rotisserie chicken and fresh fruits and veggies.
After five months, Hall lost 20 pounds — and gained a new perspective not just on exercise, but life in general. She consistently turns to the Daily Burn community group for pick-me-ups and cheers of support. And she even started teaching group fitness classes in her hometown of Asheboro, North Carolina. Most importantly, she learned the power of setting a positive example and gaining self-confidence.
“To be physically able to exercise and to go on and continue to grow with it and pass it on to my children — it’s an amazing gift,” she says. “I don’t have the perfect body, but I love what I have, and I’m comfortable. I’m comfortable in every part of my skin… People don’t understand what something like this can do for a person’s soul. It’s not just a physical change — it’s mental, it’s emotional. It’s everything.”
4. Katherine Lauria: A Built-In Friend Finder
“Exercise is a universal interest and I’ve learned that people love sharing it with each other.”
Katherine Lauria never gave exercise a second thought. Though her friends would go to group fitness classes on the weekends followed by brunch, she’d skip the workout and join the dining. Her only exposure to breaking a sweat was high school gym class years ago. “I think I actually got a C in it just for being uncooperative,” Lauria laughs. “It was never my hobby.”
That is, until she and a friend decided to sign up for Soul Cycle in her New Jersey hometown. “We were laughing about it, saying it was going to be so hard and we weren’t going to keep up,” says Lauria, 26. “But after that first class, I felt very accomplished when it was over. I mean it was hard, but me and my friend looked at each other and thought, ‘We just did the same thing as those people and we fit in.’”
Two years and 150 classes later, Lauria has shed 65 pounds, along with her disdain for fitness. In fact, a few months after taking regular Soul Cycle classes, she felt confident enough to give other workouts a try, like running, Pilates and personal training. But Lauria’s favorite pay-off of all that sweat: the connections she’s made with others — especially after her recent move to London from D.C.
“[When I moved to London], I’d meet a friend at a fitness studio and then make a date to go try a new workout. Exercise is a universal interest and I’ve learned that people love sharing it with each other,” says Lauria. She recalls when working out wasn’t even something she considered doing, and now it’s one of her favorite ways to spend the day. “I exercise just because I enjoy it now. It’s a great way to feel productive with your alone time or to meet other people.”
5. Heather Laptalo: Defying Odds
“When I started moving and running — even though it wasn’t fast or far — I felt free.”
Thirteen years ago, doctors told Heather Laptalo that she’d never run a mile. She had an extreme case of scoliosis and kyphosis — both of which affect spinal alignment — and had three major back surgeries because of it. The first occurred when she was 13 years old and then two more at age 19. She had played soccer up until that point, but because she was missing ribs, she couldn’t risk the contact and had to stop. What’s worse, the spinal fusions meant she didn’t absorb shock well, so even walking felt painful.
While you might think rest was in order, none of this kept Laptalo from eventually running circles around her peers. After the final operation, she got in the pool as soon as she got the go-ahead. And, after endlessly asking doctors when she could try running again, she began alternating 100 meters of walking with 100 meters of running. The push paid off: A cross-country coach from San Jose State University recruited her to join the team.
“I think growing up as an athlete and then not being able to do it [after the surgeries], made me feel weak and horrible. Walking was hard and exhausting at first and I couldn’t raise my arm to brush my hair,” Laptalo, 32, says. “But when I started moving and running — even though it wasn’t fast or far — I felt free. And the more I did it, the freer I felt. Also, the more I felt like me, instead of this person trapped in a body that only resembled me.”
Laptalo continues to break through her so-called limitations. Despite limited lung function due to her missing ribs, she started skiing and climbing mountains, and prefers trail running to taking on roads. “It makes me feel powerful and confident that I’m getting to see a part of the world that people don’t get to see unless they have this physical ability,” she says. She even hiked to the Everest base camp at nearly 18,000 feet. “I was in awe of my body — just really excited to be alive and energized.” And just this summer, she ran 50 miles doing the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim.
“I still have a lot of pain and discomfort, but I feel like when I’m active, the pain disappears. Maybe I don’t notice it, because I’m enjoying the experience so much,” she says. “But when I’m having a bad day, when my body is bothering me and I’m struggling physically or mentally, I just realize how lucky I am to be able to do this — even when I wasn’t supposed to.”
6. Nicole Schuman: Feeling the Self-Love
“For the first time in my life I love my body.”
It wasn’t until Nicole Schuman had her baby daughter in 2015 that exercise crossed her mind. A self-proclaimed exercise hater, she decided keeping up with her kid at the park — and not worrying about people looking at her — was a solid reason to start moving. “I wanted my daughter to know she can do anything and if I can’t prove that, who’s going to?” says the 26-year-old. “[That would be like saying], ‘You can do anything you want to, but mommy can’t lose weight.”
After trying a few Pinterest fitness challenges, she came across Daily Burn and decided to sign up for a free trial. It only took a few sessions for her to get hooked. “[Daily Burn 365] is just fun to watch — it’s like reality TV, but not,” Schuman says. “You know the people in the background and the trainers. My husband even knows most of the trainers because I talk about them all the time,” she laughs.
Ten months since she started — and post 60-pound weight-loss — Schuman still tunes into DB365. But it’s the benefits she’s noticed off the scale that have really stuck with her. While depression and anxiety used to stop her from being social, she now seeks out ways to get involved in her community. She also feels more energetic and positive, and less achy and stiff.
The best part about her newfound love of fitness, though, is how she feels when she catches her reflection. “Today, I woke up and looked in the mirror and thought ‘wow,’” Schuman says. “Not because I spent hours getting ready, not because my hair looked good and not because I put makeup on. I stood in my mirror with no makeup, normal clothes, no shower — I have a one-year-old now! — and I just thought ‘wow.’ For the first time in my life I love my body. I think I look amazing and I feel so good about what I have accomplished.”
7. Krista Meinert: A New View on Life
“The effects of exercising and mountaineering is that I actually have a life now.”
Krista Meinert never exercised regularly, though in her adult life, she started adding daily yoga sessions to her schedule. She loved the mind-body connection and how it seemed to slow things down, while also strengthening her core. But that all changed on January 10, 2010.
While her son, Jake, was serving in Afghanistan, he stepped on an explosive device and died. “Nothing is the same after that. Jake’s death changed many aspects of my life,” Meinert says. “My firstborn was gone. I didn’t know who I was anymore. At the same time, I didn’t want to be labeled as the mother of a dead son.”
Fast-forward a few years when Meinert found herself looking through old photos. “I noticed in the pictures I was in since Jake’s death, that I had been smiling in them, but it was an empty smile — there was no feeling behind it,” says the 47-year-old. She did spot one photo, though, from 2013 with her daughter and niece, standing on the top of Mt. Cloundry in Colorado. “That was the first real smile I had after [my son] died.”
Not long after finding that photo, Meinert received an email from TAPS — an organization that offers support to people who lost a loved one in the military. They were hosting an expedition with REI Adventures to Mt. Shasta in California. Meinert knew she had to go.
She started researching training plans to prepare for her trek. Upper and lower body workouts soon became a regular to-do, and she began carrying a 40- to 60-pound backpack wherever she could. “It got me out of my comfort zone and thinking about other things besides how miserable I was,” Meinert says. In 2016, she reached the top of Mt. Shasta.
Besides the beauty of seeing the stars at night and the sunrise as she reached the summit, Meinert made life-long friends during that climb and found something that brought her real joy. “I love the planning of it and I love the experience of working with a team and the focus on survival,” she says. And because she was with a group of other TAPS members, she had great listeners to share her story. “I think we all felt really comfortable talking about our broken hearts,” she says.
Since the Mt. Shasta climb, Meinert has summited 19 of the 50 U.S. state high points. And she has no plans of stopping. “The effects of exercising and mountaineering is that I actually have a life now. After I lost my son, I felt like I wasn’t living,” Meinert says. “Exercise and mountaineering let me be in the moment. If I miss my step, I’m going to slide. So I have to make sure I’m present, not in the past being sad. I’m not in the future, wishing things were different. I’m right there and I’m excited and I’m nervous.”
Meinert says this has translated into her being a better mother to her other children, too. “Even mothering my other kids, I was in a haze, a grieving haze,” she says. “The climbing got me out of that haze. It got me out of that dark place and it made me be back to who I was. It’s also gotten me excited about a future.” Two things she has to look forward to? Summiting Mt. Hood in Oregon and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park this summer.
Source: DailyBurn/Mallory Creveling