These Before-and-After Stories Are Way More Inspirational Than Weight-Loss Ones

Jenna Hollenstein didn’t appear to need a health transformation — she was already living an “after” picture. She was a grad student at a top dietetics school, thin and “looked like someone who knew what the hell she was doing,” Hollenstein recalls.

Cut to about 10 years later, and some might think a curvier Hollenstein more closely resembled a “before” picture — her aunt even thought she was pregnant when she wasn’t.

But in reality, the pictures were reversed. Hollenstein’s grad school self drank too much, ate too little and was struggling with depression, loneliness and uncertainty about what to do with her life. Her more recent life is rich with a husband, children, confidence, a business and the right amount of food and drink for her body (which, when it comes to alcohol, is none).

“I saw so many things as flaws that I now see as strengths,” says Hollenstein, a non-diet dietitian and meditation guide in New York City whose book, “Eat to Love: A Mindful Guide to Transforming Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Life” comes out in January.

Hollenstein’s before-and-after story, which is more like an ongoing balancing act, isn’t as easily captured in photos as many weight-loss transformations celebrated on social media (and in traditional media as well), but it’s a whole lot more honest.

[See: 6 People You Need to Stop Following on Instagram to Improve Your Mental Health.]

“While your body size may shrink, you’re definitely not (always) healthier,” Hollenstein says. “I always wonder: What’s going on with their neurotransmitters and their cortisol? Are they feeling more themselves sexually, or have they withdrawn? What are their thoughts like? Are they using supplements that could cause organ damage? Has (maintaining a certain body size) become an addiction in its own right?”

Contrary to popular perception, too, health transformations aren’t rare. In fact, up to 90 percent of people who’ve dealt with alcohol, cocaine or heroin, smoking and gambling problems moderate or stop their unhealthy behaviors as they age, research on “self-guided change” suggests. The exception, not surprisingly, is weight-related: Only 20 percent of people who try to curb overeating maintain weight loss.

What’s more, health transformations aren’t typically facilitated by outside interventions, the same review of “self-guided change” found. “The reality is that most people get better on their own,” says study author Michler Bishop, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York at Old Westbury in Long Island, New York. Yes, that’s even the case with heroin.

Here, four more people share their real “before and after” stories:

Liz Lajoie, 42, chief financial officer and business strategist in Center Conway, New Hampshire

Before: Lajoie was working 60 hour weeks — on top of caring for two small kids and earning an MBA at night. She exercised regularly and drank wine regularly too. She began suffering from body aches, brain fog and “complete and utter fatigue,” which, despite trying everything from conventional treatments to diet changes to yoga, lasted for more than three years.

After: “I’m truly healthy on all levels now,” says Lajoie, who has since built a business and written two books about financial management for entrepreneurs. “I have a lot of flexibility around how I spend my time.”

How: A Lyme disease diagnosis led Lajoie to experiment with different types of self-care and work environments (office versus home) to see what best supported her body. Today, she spends two to four hours daily on techniques like meditation, light exercise and mineral baths. “It’s important for me to check in regularly to what my system is telling me … to be able to show up for my family and clients the way I want.”

[See: 14 Ways Caregivers Can Care for Themselves.]

Erin Donnelley, 29-year-old strategic consultant in New York City

Before: Donnelley lacked confidence and avoided social and physical activities. She gained weight, which fueled her low confidence, which triggered deeper isolation, and the cycle continued. Trying expensive workouts, “fancy doctors” and a personal trainer didn’t help. “I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror, nor could I accept the physical challenges he was giving me,” says Donnelley, whose trainer eventually walked out on her and refused to work with her until she changed her attitude.

After: “I make healthier choices in all aspects of my life,” Donnelley says. She makes a point to take the stairs in buildings, and to say yes to new health and wellness activities like electrical muscle stimulation and cryotherapy. “I am more open-minded, determined and positive than I have ever been before.” Though she has lost 80 pounds, that’s only reflective of — not the cause of — her newfound confidence.

How: Donnelley’s wakeup call came when her trainer cut the cord. “What I immediately thought was, ‘How embarrassing is it that I can’t pay someone to work out with me?'” she says. So she went to community classes, where she was inspired by people working hard without elite one-on-one attention. She realized it was her mindset — not the wrong doctor, trainer or class — that was holding her back. She stopped complaining, and began appreciating what her body could do and what her trainer had offered. “I learned a valuable lesson to be thankful for people’s time and commitment towards me,” she says.

Nina Camille, 32, yoga instructor, life coach and author in San Diego, California

Before: “I was the perfect example of ‘work hard, play harder,'” Camille says about her 20s, when she traveled the world working on yachts. “I had a lot of fun, but always felt like something was missing” — namely energy, creativity and focus.

After: “I wake up every morning excited to be alive, to serve others, to experience life full of creative energy, vigor and love,” says Camille, who teaches yoga, offers nutrition and other types of health coaching and leads retreats all over the world. “I get to feel fully me.”

How: “Using my ability to become the ‘popular party girl’ to recover from a heartbreak at 31 made me quickly realize how damaging that lifestyle is to my spirit and service to the world,” says Camille, who gave up alcohol and learned to tune into and work through her feelings more healthfully. She also adopted a vegan diet and distanced herself from relationships that were only fueled by partying. Today, when making a decision, she asks herself, “Is this the most loving choice for me and my body?”

Anna Szarnicki, 34, psychiatric nurse practitioner in New York City

Before: Every Sunday, Szarnicki, would come down with the “Sunday scaries” in anticipation of the week ahead, which involved working at (and traveling to) five different sites around the city, and not much else. “I really love my job,” she says, “but it can get pretty intense sometimes.” While she’d sometimes see friends or dabble in art projects at night or on weekends, those activities never fully recharged her. She took medication for depression, but still had some mood, concentration and energy problems.

After: Szarnicki has the same job, but no longer feels a pit in her stomach about tackling it on Monday morning, thanks to her i nvolvement in a community theater program. “The added commitment on my schedule has actually helped me re-prioritize,” says Szarnicki, who has found that doing something she loves with a new group of supportive, creative friends eased her depression enough that she doesn’t need to take additional medication. “I’m busier, but I’m happier.”

[See: 10 Ways to Break a Bad Mood.]

How: After attending a friend of a friend’s show, and learning that she didn’t need to audition to join, Szarnicki enrolled in the program, AfterWork Theater, herself. In retrospect, her mood boost makes sense: “I’ve seen with my own clients how their moods can greatly improve after becoming involved in a job, hobby or activity they enjoy,” she says. “I suppose I finally started practicing what I preach.”

More from U.S. News

How to Make Healthful Dietary Changes Last a Lifetime

8 Tiny Lifestyle Changes That Deliver Huge Health Rewards

8 Resolutions Health Experts Want You to Make

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