Once I started practicing daily gratitude for my health, the rest just fell into place, says Jess Glazer of her 13-year journey.

By By Jess Glazer as told to Julia Malacoff
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Fitness has always been my "thing." I started competitive gymnastics when I was 7, and by the time I was 10 I was spending 30 hours a week in the gym and competing internationally. My interest in the human body and how it works started around then, too, since I was a frequent visitor to physical therapy, which comes with the territory as a gymnast. Looking back, it's not even a little bit surprising that I ended up as a trainer and fitness professional, although the road to where I am today wasn't exactly obstacle-free.

I had been planning to continue competing in gymnastics in college, but when I fractured two vertebrae before my senior year of high school, my plans changed. While I didn't compete at the collegiate level. I stayed true to my athletic roots and started working at the campus gym. I'd gotten my group training and personal training certifications when I turned 18, so I was teaching about 15 group fitness classes a week in addition to one-on-one training. So since I was 18, I've never been anything but a trainer-I'm 33 now. However, that wasn't always the plan, and a lot about my approach to health and fitness has changed since then.

It might sound like I was on top of my health game-I was super active, following a vegan diet, and pursuing my dream of becoming a physical therapist. But that's not the whole story. Going back a bit, somewhere around age 13 to 14, I began struggling with bulimia and addiction to diet pills. Things got worse when I stopped training after my back injury in high school, and my body went through a lot of changes. I ended up gaining a bunch of weight, and as a result, by the time I was headed off to college, my bulimia had gotten really bad. Because I was alone for the first time, and I wasn't being monitored, I got very, very sick. I was an over-trainer, but no one thought anything of me being at the gym for four hours a day. They didn't know exactly what I was doing there, but I was often teaching a 1-hour class and then working out on my own for another three hours. (Related: Orthorexia Is the Eating Disorder You've Never Heard Of)

I was skilled at hiding my illness, but things eventually got to a breaking point. My junior year, my roommates caught me binging and purging a couple of times, and called me out-but I was very much still in denial. It wasn't until I caught wind of a gymnastics friend from home who was shipped off for six months of inpatient treatment for anorexia that something clicked for me. That was my lightbulb moment when I thought, "Wow, you need help." So I went to our campus psychologist and eating disorder clinic, and for the remaining two years of college, I went to outpatient therapy.

By the time I started my grad school program, I realized I needed to focus a little more on healing myself before I could help other people, so I put my physical therapy career plans on hold. I hadn't quite found an ideal balance between my food and my workouts yet. I moved home to New Jersey, got a job at my local gym, and soon after got a job as a physical education teacher.

This ended up being the best way for me to prioritize my recovery process-which was very long-and pursue my passions for teaching fitness at the same time. During that time, I set the goal to do a fitness competition by my 30th birthday. The first time I tried training for one, I joined the incredible Cathy Savage Fitness team and had an amazing coach. But as soon as I had to start getting ready for the show and "dialing in" my nutrition, I noticed some bad habits creeping back in. I pulled out of the competition and waited a whole year to try again. The following year I felt ready, and that's when I finally competed. The first competition I did was three days after I turned 30. Preparing for the event went smoothly, and I didn't have any issues with my recovery. I was healthy and happy and proud of what I'd accomplished.

So what finally made the difference for me? First, I started eating more intuitively. When I initially went plant-based, especially in college, I was definitely a junk-food vegan. You get excited when you see things like vegan mac 'n' cheese, vegan pizza, or even just pasta, because it's really easy and quick to make, and it checks off the vegan box. Now, I pretty much just eat fruits, vegetables, and grains-hardly any fake meats or cheeses, although I do indulge every now and then. But I find that my body responds best this way. (BTW, here are 10 nutrition mistakes vegans make, and how to fix them.)

Second, I started realizing how valuable my health was. Between my illness and two ankle surgeries that left me in a wheelchair for months afterward, I've come to realize how lucky it is to be healthy. As soon as your health is taken away from you-even if it's just a head cold-you find yourself wishing you felt like you did two days ago. Practicing daily gratitude for being healthy has shifted my mindset to be less about how I look and so much more about what I can do. Once I started doing that, the rest just fell into place. I know that's not the easiest thing to hear when you're on the other side, but I'm perfectly confident now in the way that my body looks. I don't focus on it at all. There's nothing better than feeling strong and accomplishing something that you thought you couldn't do.

Lastly, I changed how I think about myself. It started in an outpatient program where I was learning to love myself, and then it transitioned into becoming a self-love junkie I've read every self-help book ever and I go to events and listen to podcasts every single day. When I was younger, I compared myself to everyone else, thinking I needed to look a certain way to "keep up." Part of getting older and wiser for me was learning that that's not where your worth comes from.

Going through the experience of having that "goal body" for fitness competitions also taught me a lot. You lean out and get the fake tan and the hair and the nails, but I learned that it didn't make me feel more worthy. It didn't make me more successful or more important, and I didn't love myself any more in those few moments of having that body that I always wanted. While I'm glad I did it, I realized my self-worth came from within me, and I no longer needed a fitness competition to validate that.

So what am I doing now? With the support of my husband, family, and friends, I decided to step away from teaching in a school and move to Manhattan to focus on my company, FIT Trips, aka Friendship Inspired Training, which organizes workout outings where women can build muscles and memories. I'm also back to teaching fitness (to adults) full-time like in my college days, albeit with a totally new perspective on fitness-and on life. It's been a crazy journey so far, but I'm excited to see where it leads.

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