Last summer, a friend asked me to join her in a six-week fitness challenge at a nearby gym. It promised weight loss, strength and endurance training, and a #squad-style community forged through group workouts.
I was skeptical at first. I’m not much of a joiner, and it seemed like an indulgence, both financially and timewise, and at a moment when I could afford neither.
I had plenty of reasons to skip it, but I was intrigued by the structure of the program, which was unlike any gym or workout program I’d previously attended.
Instead of telling us what not to eat, they gave us a list of “approved” foods, scheduled us with H.I.I.T. (high intensity interval training) workouts a minimum of five times per week, and required accountability check-ins on a private Facebook group.
At age 47, I knew I wanted to feel stronger and fitter, but as a working parent, how would I ever have the bandwidth to do it myself? The detailed roadmap of the fitness challenge felt like a relief to my overburdened brain and softening body.
I signed up and completed the challenge. One year later, I’m glad I chose to take the leap. Here are my six takeaways on what helped me succeed—and what might be helpful to anyone considering a program like this:
1. Find Your “Why”
Articulating why you want to commit to achieving a healthier self is the first step to growing that healthier self. How that looks and plays out will be different for everyone.
The coaches at my gym explained that following their nutrition plan and showing up for all the workouts could translate into 20 pounds of weight loss in six weeks; but to be successful, and stay motivated when things got hard, we needed more than a target number on the scale. Everyone had to identify their “why,” write it down on their intake forms—and keep it in mind as a motivator throughout the six weeks.
Some of my fellow challengers had signed up to reduce blood pressure or lower cholesterol levels on the advice of a doctor, others to reduce joint pain. Some wanted to look and feel their best for an upcoming wedding or milestone birthday. I wanted to get stronger and healthier for myself and my daughter—to be able to keep up with her (or at least try!) as she grows. Playing sports and being outside were a source of great joy for me as a kid, and I want to share that with her.
Having a “why” was also helpful to me in talking about the challenge with my daughter, since I didn’t want to send the wrong kind of message about eating, body image, diets and the like. Instead of saying “I’m on a diet” or “I can’t eat” this or that, I told her, “I’m eating healthier,” or “I’m trying to eat more fruits and vegetables,” or even “I want to learn to do real push-ups”—which felt like important distinctions to me.
2. Choose a Realistic Time Frame
New habits take time to create, so choosing a challenge with a time frame that works for you is important. Too short, and it won’t have lasting impact; too long, and you’re liable to burn out. Six weeks turned out to be an ideal time frame for me: long enough to establish new habits, like rising for a 5:00 am workout, drinking more water, and having the right foods on hand when I got hungry, but not so long that I felt tempted to drop out or cheat.
The first few days of my challenge were the hardest, foodwise: with no packaged or processed foods on our list, I had to bypass most of my favorite snacks and replace them with hard boiled eggs or a fruit smoothie with protein. Knowing that I had an end date not too far away made it much less difficult. Each time I was tempted to break the rules—just one cocktail, one cookie, heck, just a splash of real salad dressing on my lettuce—I’d remind myself that this was a short-term pledge, and I’d have plenty of time to enjoy those treats, after I had completed my challenge.
Over the six weeks, I genuinely lost my cravings for the less-healthy foods I once reached for without thinking. While I haven’t sworn off birthday cake or pizza forever, I do still give more thought to what I choose when it’s time for a meal or a snack, long after having completed my challenge.
3. Keep an Open Mind
At first glance, the list of approved foods during a fitness challenge may look extremely limiting. In my case, they were divided into proteins, carbohydrates, and vegetables. I wasn’t sure how I would manage six weeks of eating off a one-page menu, but I quickly discovered that there was a lot I could do by mixing and matching, as well as borrowing recipe ideas that others in the program shared online. It made grocery shopping much simpler, and once I discovered two or three lunches and dinners I truly enjoyed, I’d cook my staples in batches, so I didn’t have to think about what was for dinner when I got home from work. For people who don’t like repetition in their diets, this could certainly be a challenge. But for me, the freedom from having to plan a meal every night was an unexpected bonus. Rather than thinking of the food available to me as “restricted,” I began to see foods that I just hadn’t noticed before when I was eating on auto-pilot.
The suggested meal plan I was provided prescribed a meal or a snack every 2-3 hours from the time I got up until I went to sleep. It wasn’t about cutting back on eating, but rather changing the kinds of foods I ate. Our approved foods list comprised of all whole foods: things like berries, sweet potatoes, and brown rice in the carb category; chicken, lean meat, fish, or tofu for protein; broccoli, tomatoes, spinach, bell peppers, and kale for veggies.
I considered myself a fairly healthy eater, but just a few days into my challenge, and with my plentiful water intake, I noticed a difference in how I felt—less bloated, more alert, more energized—and how much I enjoyed some of these foods.
Vegetables were unlimited, very filling, and surprisingly tasty with olive oil spray or balsamic vinegar and sea salt. The less processed sugar I ate, the more I savored the natural sweetness of all kinds of fruits—especially blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries, which became my go-to dessert.
Naturally, there were days I had to walk past a tray of donuts or bagels at the office, but instead of saying “I can’t,” “I shouldn’t,” or “I don’t eat those,” I’d tell myself, “I’ll have plenty of chances after my six weeks—I’m just not eating donuts right now.” I was surprised how becoming more mindful of my eating choices, and changing my self-talk in moments like this actually made a difference.
4. Learn Meal Prep Skills & Healthy Snack Hacks
We all have occasions where sticking to a plan like this is hard—whether it’s a weekend barbeque, birthday party, road trip, or work lunch. I managed to get through a weekend reunion with old high school friends, surrounded by wine and cocktails, and a trip to Hersheypark with my daughter, all while passing by numerous processed treats left in my workplace kitchen. I felt dorky at times, packing my own snacks, but was surprised how supportive the people around me were, when I explained my reasons.
Planning meals and snacks and meal prepping on Sundays, or even the night before, was a huge help. Frozen brown rice and quinoa became reliable staples, and even on busy weekends, I managed to roast a big tray of bell peppers or broccoli. When all else failed, or I was too tired to improvise, hard-boiled eggs were an easy mainstay for me.
I wasn’t 100% on point, but planning ahead kept me honest just about all of the time. And the tricks I learned helped me maintain healthy habits long after my challenge ended.
5. Set Small Goals & Trust the Process
My first week of workouts was physically difficult. Although I’d been a runner and recreational soccer player for years, I wasn’t prepared for the intensity of HIIT workouts. I had to try all kinds of new moves—burpees, push-ups, bulgarian squats, medicine ball slams, planks—and in the beginning, I struggled to finish some sets. Thanks to the nature of HIIT—50 seconds or so of one intense movement, 10 seconds rest, then on to something different—I was able to take it on one minute at a time, one set at a time, and one day at a time, week by week.
It was encouraging to see my strength improve after a couple of weeks, and I did master proper push-up form for the first time in my life! I still struggle with burpees, but by the end of the 6-week-challenge, I was able to do things I couldn’t have imagined on day one.
6. Find a Supportive Community
My fellow challengers and members at the gym were people of all ages, all sizes, all levels of fitness. From the start, our coaches created and enforced a truly positive atmosphere—offering help or modifications when one of us struggled while reminding us that what mattered was individual effort, not how we compared to anyone else. I came to appreciate the sense of camaraderie in the group workouts, especially the fact that no one took themselves too seriously. You may need discipline to get up at 4:30 am for a workout, but I think you’ve got to have a sense of humor as well!
By the scale, I lost 19.5 pounds by the end of my challenge, but for me, the goal was not about the numbers. It was the idea of diving in headfirst, committing to something totally different—and difficult—for six weeks without giving up. It was a great reminder that it’s never too late to try something new and that we’re all stronger and more capable than we tend to recognize. Whether it’s raising my hand to lead a new project at work, volunteering to join a community group, or leading my daughter’s Girl Scout troop on an outdoor adventure—I know that things won’t always go according to plan, but completing this challenge gave me the confidence to take more chances, and see more possibilities, in other parts of my life.
Additional Job Exiting Resources:
- Do Short-Term Fitness Challenges Really Work? – Well+Good
- 6 Weeks to Fitness for Absolute Beginners – VeryWell Fit
- Three Easy Ways to Find a Workout Buddy – Family Circle
Elisabeth Flynn is a freelance writer who lives and works outside Philadelphia. She writes about food, fitness, workplace culture, and personal finance.