Fitness has been a part of Eileen Daly's life for as long as she can remember. She played high school and college sports, was an avid runner, and met her husband in the gym. And despite living with Hashimoto's disease, an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid, often causing weight gain, Daly never struggled with her weight.
She loved exercise for the mental health benefits. "I've battled depression for as long as I can remember and working out was one of the ways I coped with it," Daly tells Shape. "While I knew it was an important tool in my toolbox, I really didn't realize the positive effect it had on my life until I became pregnant." (Related: Exercise Is Powerful Enough to Act As a Second Antidepressant Drug)
In 2007, Daly unexpectedly became pregnant with her first child. Her doctors advised that she go off her antidepressants during this time, so she did, even though it made her nervous. "I sat down with my doctor and my husband and we created a plan to manage my depression through exercise, clean eating, and therapy until I gave birth," she says.
Photo: Eileen Daly
Just a couple months into her pregnancy, Daly was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, a form of high blood sugar affecting pregnant women that can lead to excessive weight gain amongst other things. Daly gained 60 pounds over the course of her pregnancy, which was 20 to 30 pounds more than her doctor had initially expected. Following that, she battled severe postpartum depression. (Related: Running Helped Me Finally Beat My Postpartum Depression)
"No matter how much you prepare, you never really know what postpartum depression is going to feel like," Daly says. "But I knew I had to get better for my son so as soon as I gave birth, I got back on my pill and on my feet in an effort to gain back my health both mentally and physically," Daly says. With regular exercise, Daly was able to lose almost all the weight she'd gain while pregnant within a couple months. Eventually, she got her depression under control, too.
But a year after giving birth, she developed debilitating back pain that took away her ability to work out. "I eventually found out that I had a slipped disk and I had to change my approach to working out," Daly says. "I started doing more yoga, swapped out running for walking, and just as I felt like I was getting better, I got pregnant the second time in 2010." (Related: 3 Easy Exercises Everyone Should Do to Prevent Back Pain)
This time, Daly chose to stay on an ob-gyn- and psychiatrist-approved antidepressant to manage her symptoms. "Together we felt like it would be easier on me to stay on a small dosage, and thank goodness I did because three months into my pregnancy, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes again," she says. (Related: Why Some Women May Be More Biologically Susceptible to Postpartum Depression)
Diabetes affected Daly differently this time around, and she wasn't able to manage it as well. "I put on a ton of weight within months," she says. "Because it happened so fast, it caused my back to start acting up again and I stopped being mobile."
To top it off, five months into her pregnancy, Daly's 2-year-old son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a chronic condition in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. "We had to take him to the ICU, where he stayed for three days, after which they sent us home with a bunch of paperwork that explained how we were supposed to keep our son alive," she says. "I was pregnant and had a full-time job, so the situation was just a bucket of hell." (Find out how Robin Arzon runs 100-mile races with type 1 diabetes.)
Caring for her son became Daly's number-one priority. "It wasn't like I didn't care about my own health," she says. "I was eating 1,100 calories of clean, healthy foods every day, taking insulin and managing my depression, but exercise, in particular, became more and more difficult to prioritize."
By the time Daly was 7 months pregnant, her weight had spiked to 270 pounds. "It got to a point where I could only stand for 30 seconds at a time and I started getting this tingling sensation in my legs," she says.
Photo: Eileen Daly
About a month later, she gave birth—three weeks prematurely—to an 11-pound baby (it is common for women with gestational diabetes to have very large babies). "No matter what I was putting in my body, I kept gaining weight," she says, adding that she was still shocked by how much her baby weighed.
When Daly got home, she was 50 pounds lighter, but still weighed 250 pounds. "My back was in horrible pain, I immediately went back on all my antidepressants, I had a newborn plus a 2-year-old son with type 1 diabetes who couldn't communicate his needs," she says. "To top it all off, I hadn't exercised in nine months and just felt miserable." (Related: How Quitting Antidepressants Changed This Woman's Life Forever)
Just when Daly thought the worst was behind her, the disk in her back ruptured, causing partial paralysis on her right side. "I couldn't go to the bathroom and my disk had started pushing on my spine," she says.
Mere months after giving birth via C-section in 2011, Daly was rushed into emergency surgery. "Fortunately, the moment you have the surgery, you're cured," she says. "My orthopedic surgeon told me that my life should go back to normal granted I lose a lot of weight, eat right, and stay physically active."
Daly took the next year to continue taking care of her son, ignoring her personal physical needs. "I kept telling myself that I was going to work out, that I was going to start this month, this week, tomorrow, but I just never got around to it," she says. "I felt sorry for myself and eventually because I wasn't moving, the back pain came back. I was sure I had ruptured my disk again."
But after visiting her orthopedic surgeon, Daly was told the same thing she was before. "He looked at me and said I was fine, but that if I wanted any quality of life, I would just need to move," she says. "It was that simple."
Photo: Eileen Daly
That's when it clicked for Daly. "I realized that if I had just listened to my doctor a year ago, I would have had the weight off already, instead of spending so much time being miserable and in pain," she says.
So the very next day, at the beginning of 2013, Daly started taking daily walks around her neighborhood. "I knew I had to start small if I was going to stick to it," she says. She also took up yoga to help loosen up her muscles and take some pressure off her back. (Related: 7 Small Changes You Can Make Every Day for Flatter Abs)
When it came to food, Daly already had it covered. "I've always eaten pretty healthy and ever since my son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, my husband and I have worked hard to create an environment where eating healthy is easy," she says. "My issue was movement and learning to be active again."
Before, Daly's go-to workout had been running, but given the issues with her back, doctors told her she should never run again. "Finding something else that worked for me was a challenge."
Eventually, she found Studio SWEAT onDemand. "A neighbor lent me her stationary bike and I found classes on Studio SWEAT that were so easy to fit into my schedule," she says. "I started out really small, going five minutes at a time before my back started to spasm and I'd have to get on the floor and do some yoga. But it was so handy to be able to press pause and play and do however much felt good for my body."
Slowly but surely, Daly built up her endurance and was able to complete an entire class no problem. "Once I felt strong enough, I started doing the boot-camp classes available through the program as well and just watched the weight drop," she says.
By the fall of 2016, Daly had lost 140 pounds simply through exercise. "It took me a while to get there, but I did it and that's what really matters," she says.
Photo: Eileen Daly
Daly underwent skin removal surgery around her stomach, which helped take off another 10 pounds. "I maintained my weight loss for a year before I decided to go in for the procedure," she says. "I wanted to be sure that I was going to be able to keep the weight off." She now weighs 140 pounds.
One of the biggest lessons Daly has learned is the importance of taking care of yourself first. "You need to take care of yourself before you try to help someone else. It can get tricky with mental health because there's such a huge stigma around it still, but you need to constantly remind yourself to listen to your body and mind so that you can be the best version of yourself for your kids, your family, and for yourself."
To those who might be struggling with their weight or finding a lifestyle that works for them, Daly says: "Take that feeling that you feel on a Friday or before summer and bottle it up. That's what your attitude should be every time you get on a bike or on the mat or start anything that's going to be good for mental and physical health. That's your time that you're giving to yourself and it's up to you to have fun with it. If there's any advice I have, it's that attitude is everything."