Erica Lugo's Weight Loss Journey Makes Her a Super Relatable Trainer

Erica Lugo, a trainer on 'The Biggest Loser,' opens up about her weight loss journey and the challenging lessons she learned along the way.

I was completely unhealthy a few years ago and saw nothing wrong with it.

I'd started gaining weight around middle school, and food and fitness just weren't things my family talked about at home. My mom worked a lot, and my siblings and I grew up eating whatever snacks she'd stocked in the pantry. After meals, we'd always have dessert together. That's just how my family, like so many others, showed love: through food.

By the time I got to college, there was nothing holding me back from eating whatever I wanted. I didn't think there was anything wrong with eating fast food and pizza every day. Food aside, I also had no idea that working out and moving your body is essential (both physically and mentally). I'd never been to the gym and never really felt the need to go. Why? Because no one seemed to think there were any red flags about my health, so neither did I.

To be honest, I don't have one of those stories where I can tell you that I looked at myself in the mirror and hated myself. I was truly just oblivious to the fact that my lifestyle and eating habits needed to be improved. I knew I could lose some weight if I felt the motivation, but at 5 foot 11 inches tall, I just felt like I was a big girl and was never going to fit the widely touted societal beauty standard of having a tiny waist and small thighs.

As years passed, I continued living life the same way, not eating healthy foods or doing really any exercise, and the number on the scale climbed as a result. I got married and gave birth to my son a few years later — my whole life I'd wanted to be a mom so badly and I dove into motherhood with my whole heart. I continued to gain weight after pregnancy but still didn't really think there was a problem, since pregnancy takes a toll on your body.

My wake-up call came when my son was 3 years old and playing on our living room floor. I was sitting on the couch when he looked up at me and asked me to join him. I said no.

I vividly remember sitting on that couch with zero energy, eating some kind of snack, and not wanting to get up because doing so felt like too much effort. At that moment, something clicked. My unhealthy habits were the source of my fatigue, and that fatigue was limiting what I could do with my son. I looked at my son and realized that I brought him into this world and he deserves more than a mom who doesn't have the energy to play with him. I had to make a change, and I needed to make it fast while I had the motivation.

The Start of My Weight Loss Journey

While I still knew nothing about diet, weight loss, or fitness, the one thing I did know was that I needed to reduce my calorie intake and increase my activity level. (BTW, the weight loss concept of "calories in versus calories out" is not as simple as it sounds. Plus, counting calories is not the be-all and end-all of losing weight.)

The initial changes were small. As far as food was concerned, I was still cooking pasta and pizza, but consciously eating smaller portions and not eating more once I felt full. Then, I began eating low-calorie frozen meals. At the time, I didn't know that those came with their downsides too — but to be honest, all things considered, it was a good place to start for me. Eventually, I began educating myself on food and started learning about fat, carbs, proteins, and how to eat balanced meals that fueled me versus comforted me.

When it came to fitness, I started by joining a local Planet Fitness. I went in the mornings before my son woke up and began by just walking on the treadmill. A few weeks in, I felt comfortable challenging myself and would jog for 30 seconds a few times during my walk. I just kept building upon that goal. Soon, I was jogging for the length of one song on my playlist, then two songs. My goals just kept growing from there.

For the first two months, I stuck to cardio. I averaged about five hours on the elliptical and treadmill each week. Then, I started working with a trainer who showed me some high-intensity interval training (HIIT) drills. While I could feel that I was losing weight, I also wanted to build muscle, and HIIT was a good way to work toward that goal. Once I adopted this workout strategy, I discovered what "good tired" meant and I became hooked on that feeling.

The Importance of Internal Growth

In the first month of my journey, I lost 45 pounds. At the end of the first year, I was down 122 pounds. Every month, I watched the weight come off my body. My clothes stopped fitting me, but more importantly, my energy levels shot up.

The biggest transformation for me was internal. During the early stages of my journey, I began documenting my experience on social media, and I saw that it was resonating with people. They noticed that I was carrying myself differently and was just happier overall, and they wanted to know how I did it. That helped me realize that I was ready to commit to fitness outside of myself. I became a certified personal trainer and created Erica FitLove, an online training platform. Now I'm able to work with people one-on-one no matter where they live and help them reach their own goals.

The program I created offers a variety of workout styles including strength training and HIIT. Even though HIIT can sound and feel intimidating, I focus on scalable drills. They start with one-minute cardio intervals: either 15 seconds of hard work and 45 seconds of rest or vice versa. This flexibility makes my workouts great for people who are just starting out and have never really delved into fitness before. Plus, the quick intervals are a great source of motivation — they're over so quickly so it deters you from quitting. My program also offers a calendar with weekly reminders and a private accountability-focused Facebook community with direct access to me to help keep everyone motivated.

How I Handled Hitting a Plateau

My personal weight loss journey didn't come without some setbacks. After losing the initial 122 pounds, it took me another two years to lose an additional 35–40 pounds. Some of that is totally normal — when you're going through extreme weight loss, you are going to hit a wall — but I also learned the hard way that you can't keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect the same results.

I adopted a trial and error method to figure out how my body was going to reach my goal weight. What ended up working for me was reevaluating my diet and diversifying my workouts to challenge my body in ways it hadn't been challenged before. In 2018, I reached my goal of losing 150 pounds, and I finally felt like all of my efforts over the past three years had paid off. But I quickly realized that losing weight was about so much more than the number on the scale.

My Challenges with Body Image and Health

Despite the weight loss, for the first time in my life, I began dealing with body image issues. When I was at my heaviest, I never struggled with my body image. I never spoke harshly about myself and didn't feel insecure. But now? It's a daily battle. As the weight started to come off, I became my own biggest critic. When you work in the fitness industry (and are on social media), everyone has an opinion, and everyone is showing their highlight reel versus what's really happening behind the scenes. That's really challenging.

Even still, I didn't really understand how intense my body image issues were until I got sick.

Three years ago, I was diagnosed with Epstein–Barr virus (EBV), also known as human herpesvirus 4. EBV is a very common virus that can cause other infectious diseases such as mono and is spread through bodily fluids. I experienced serious brain fog and low-grade fevers. Even though it's under control now, it's something I will live with for the rest of my life.

The biggest thing I had to learn to deal with was the feelings of exhaustion that came with the illness. It was like nothing I'd ever felt before. I had to really scale back my HIIT workouts because my body just couldn't handle it; I went from doing HIIT every single day to just two to three times a week. Learning to cope with the illness combined with the change to my workout routine caused me to gain some weight. Though it was nowhere near the amount that I had lost, it took a huge blow to my self-esteem and brought some of my body image issues to light.

As if that wasn't enough, in November of 2018 I was diagnosed with stage 2 thyroid cancer. I underwent radiation and surgery and ultimately beat the disease, but my body went through hell and back in the process. I remember coming home from treatment, looking in the mirror, and thinking, "I look terrible."

It's something I deeply regret. My body had fought through and triumphed over so much, but all I was focused on was the way I looked. It was heartbreaking, but it forced to me confront my lingering body image issues head-on. It's something I'm still learning to deal with today.

Looking Ahead, Personally and Professionally

One thing that's really quieted all the negative thoughts about my body is having conversations with myself. A part of that involved me tallying how many times I said something negative about myself on any given day. Looking at that number was a huge "holy crap" moment for me. There were some days when I said 50 negative things about myself! The comments could be a result of feeling self-conscious in my clothes or how parts of my body didn't look "perfect," whatever that means. Keeping tabs on my negative thoughts made me realize how quick I was to pick out my flaws and how unfair that was to myself and everything my body had been through.

Today, working out and eating healthy isn't about how I look. It's about inspiring people to realize that neither illness nor your weight defines you and that you're so much stronger than you think. That's what I'm trying to bring to The Biggest Loser as I work with contestants who are starting their own fitness journeys...just like I did.

I want them to know that truly loving and appreciating your body is an ongoing journey, and it's something you have to work hard toward every day. I also want to prove that losing weight and transforming your life doesn't have to be complicated. My story is proof that taking it back to the basics works. I didn't make any crazy, drastic changes to my life. I just took things one step at a time, and the results followed.

Yes, there will be barriers. I, for instance, have always struggled with binge eating. I still need to plan a weekly "cheat meal" because if I splurge on a whim, I worry that I won't be able to bounce back. But the key is being in tune with your personal challenges, being honest about them, and choosing to make the healthiest decisions.

At the end of the day, your health shouldn't feel like a chore. It should be looked at as an opportunity to elevate your life and motivate you to be the best version of yourself. The journey is ongoing, but if you're on the path, you're doing something right.

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