Her weight yo-yoed for 20 years. This simple mindset shift helped stop the cycle

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Growing up in the '80s and '90s, Tara Watson, 51, absorbed some common cultural mindsets of the era — namely, that weight loss was all about the number on the scale and eating healthy fats was the enemy.

Over the years, her weight yo-yoed, and she rarely felt comfortable in her skin. She lost 40 pounds with Weight Watchers in her 20s and with Weight Watchers/Beachbody in her 40s, but she didn’t feel healthy. “I was focused on food restriction and calorie counting. I wasn’t really paying attention to overall wellness,” she said.

A long battle with Lyme disease, which went undiagnosed for 18 years, helped change her way of thinking.

“It is a tough shift when you focus your whole life on weight, to let that go and say, ‘There’s something more important — that’s choosing to live my life every day in a healthy lifestyle, not in a diet lifestyle,” she says.

“When I was at my most sick and painful time, I was lying in bed piling on the Hershey’s Kisses to make myself feel better. I went to a support group and saw all these people who were super sick. And I thought, ‘This is not my future.’ That was my turning point. I needed to do things differently,” she says.

💪🏼Transformation Tuesday with one of our amazing Start TODAY members! Hear about her journey through an undiagnosed disease, how she’s lost & maintained an over 40 lb weight loss, and how she mentally stayed committed to her health during this whole process!

Posted by Stephanie Mansour on Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Losing her strength taught her to value it

With Lyme disease, Watson felt like her body, muscles and nerves were deteriorating. She was so stressed and inflamed that it hurt to be touched. The former fitness instructor says, “I spent a whole year where I couldn’t walk or exercise because I was so fatigued. I just needed to rest.”

Finally, in 2019, she was diagnosed correctly and started holistic healing and the treatment she needed. Her regimen included four antibiotics, supplements and red light therapy to help her cells heal. She also meditated to help manage her mindset.

“My illness told my body what I couldn’t do, so I started to focus on what I could control. There was a lot I could do to take control of my health,” she said. She concentrated on movement, energy, sleep, stamina and mental health.

Tara Watson Start TODAY (Courtesy Tara Watson)
Tara Watson Start TODAY (Courtesy Tara Watson)

As she recovered and improved her stamina, she built on what she was able to do. “My eyes were opened to what health really is. If I’m up two pounds, does that really matter when I’m walking four miles, strength training, doing yoga, stretching and meditating?”

Watson weighs more now than she did when she thought she was fit. “But I’m actually healthier now. I have more energy and more stamina. I’m stronger than I was,” she says.

“I feel better at 51 than I did at 23. I’m loving the 51-year-old skin I’m in — the cellulite, wrinkles, age spots and menopause weight — because I’m strong, focused and emotionally well. I have the confidence that comes with age and wisdom and the knowledge that every day is a gift, so I better take advantage of that,” she says.

Tara Watson Start TODAY (Courtesy Tara Watson)
Tara Watson Start TODAY (Courtesy Tara Watson)

Here’s how her diet fosters health

Watson eats a high-protein, high-healthy-fat, lower-carb diet, and she’s experimenting with intermittent fasting. She starts her day with protein, has her biggest meal in the middle of the day and eats a lighter dinner. She has her carbs with her midday meal, so her body has time to burn them before she goes to bed.

To support her healthy-eating efforts, she prepares, portions and freezes a lot of her food: “If you don’t have to think about a healthy decision, it’s a lot easier.”

She’s changed her mindset on fats — growing up in the low-fat/no-fat generation, she had thought they were the enemy. But now she embraces healthy fats like avocado, nuts, seeds and fish oil.

“I eat more calories now than I did before, because of the quality of calories,” she says. “Wellness is a true gift of nourishing my body instead of depriving it. It’s about the good foods I can add in, instead of saying, ‘I can’t have this and I’m going to be hungry.’”

Tara Watson Start TODAY (Courtesy Tara Watson)
Tara Watson Start TODAY (Courtesy Tara Watson)

She focuses on nourishment, not restriction. “I used to be terrified to eat a little granola with my yogurt because I thought it had too many calories and too much sugar. I had to let go of that restrictiveness. Now, if I think a little bit of granola is going to taste good on my yogurt, I’m going to enjoy it,” she says. “I consider it a privilege to nourish my body and eat good foods instead of starving myself.”

Tara Watson Start TODAY weight loss (Courtesy Tara Watson)
Tara Watson Start TODAY weight loss (Courtesy Tara Watson)

Here’s how she works exercise into her life

As a former fitness instructor, Watson knew how vital physical activity was. But she had to take a break while recovering from Lyme disease. Allowing her body to rest was a crucial part of her healing process.

Once she started feeling better, she began working strength training and cardio into her routine. “One thing I’m really loving in my early 50s is strength training. I used to be embarrassed to go to the gym. I would sit outside the YMCA and think about going in. Now I’m learning how to lift heavy and push myself,” she says.

However, she was working a desk job for eight or nine hours a day from her Phoenixville, Penn., home. That meant on some days, she wasn’t moving enough. “One day, I decided to track my steps. I only got 500 because I was strength training that day, so I wasn’t walking much,” she says.

She joined the Start TODAY walking and strength challenge in January 2023, aiming for 7,500 steps a day on top of her current exercise. “That was difficult because I was still regaining my strength from Lyme disease,” she says.

She aims for 30 minutes to an hour of exercise a day. That could be walking, strength training, stretching, yoga or Pilates, often in 10-minute breaks throughout her day. “I used to think I had to exercise for 30 minutes or an hour at a time. Now I know that every piece of movement counts,” she says.

She and her husband also take active vacations together: “Our vacations are planned around kayaking and biking and pickleball and moving our bodies and having fun.”

Tara Watson Start TODAY (Courtesy Tara Watson)
Tara Watson Start TODAY (Courtesy Tara Watson)

She finds ways to overcome setbacks

Watson slowly increased her distance until she was walking four miles a day in the summer of 2023. Then, she hit a stumbling block — she was pushing herself too hard while still recovering from Lyme, and she got two stress fractures in her foot. But she’s doing as much as possible while her foot is healing.

“That was a transformational moment, because I told my ortho doctor I didn’t want to let this injury slow me down. I wanted to know what creative things I could do. I couldn’t believe I was telling my doctor I wanted to exercise. Before, I would have eaten myself into oblivion,” she says. “Movement is a natural part of my day, and I have to do it now. It’s part of my mental health.”

Her doctor cleared her for stationary biking, elliptical workouts and seated strength training with her boot on. “I didn’t miss a beat,” she says.

She no longer needed the boot in September and started walking for 10 minutes. Now she’s up to one hour and 20 minutes. “I’m getting myself back and that feels really good,” she says.

She connects with others for support and encouragement

Watson saw the Start TODAY Facebook group on the TODAY show and loves how it connects people. “It’s one of the most positive Facebook wellness groups out there, and I’ve been in a lot of them. I love seeing the success stories. The encouragement, consistency, accountability and fun are so good for people, especially people who need a safe space to ask questions,” she says.

Tara Watson Start TODAY (Courtesy Tara Watson)
Tara Watson Start TODAY (Courtesy Tara Watson)

She shares her non-scale victories

Making peace with her weight and focusing on her overall health rather than chasing a number on the scale has led to positive changes for Watson. Some of her non-scale victories include:

  • More energy and excitement for life.

  • More focus and clarity.

  • Better sleep.

  • Control over her mental health and her mindset.

  • More relaxation, which shows in her body. When she has a massage, she doesn’t have any knottiness or pain.

  • Better confidence. “I feel really good. I hope that radiates out and people see there’s more to me than losing weight. It’s me working on myself,” she says.

  • A sense of peace. “Peacefulness in knowing that your worth doesn’t come from your weight,” she says.

Watson still steps on the scale once weekly to ensure she’s not regaining weight: “I’m a stress eater, and I have to pay attention to my eating. Both sides of my family are overweight, so I will have this battle for the rest of my life. But if you can make that shift from weight to health, the other things like an up-and-down scale don’t matter as much as your long-term trajectory does.”

She says, “It took me forever to figure out that if you focus on health, the scale will follow. There’s no need to chase it. And if you let it go and appreciate all your body does for you, even with cellulite, lumps, bumps and stretch marks, your heart and mind can finally exhale and be at peace.”

This article was originally published on TODAY.com