If you’ve ever struggled with weight, it’s easy to consign yourself a “once heavy, always heavy” mentality. But an unhealthy lifestyle doesn’t have to be your fate, says physician assistant and professional health coach Carrie Chanos. She should know—she’s lived it.

As a little girl growing up in Colorado, Chanos was always a little chubby. But by age 14, all the energy she’d expended to grow vertically shifted to growing her horizontally. Instead of chubby, she was now big.

One day, Chanos’s mom coaxed her to try on a pair of pleated pants that used to fit just fine. Chanos got an aerobic workout trying to squeeze into the pants, and when she succeeded, she’d stretched all the seams out. “That’s what I thought,” her mom said.

Skinny … at What Cost?

That incident shamed Chanos into years of calorie deprivation, binge eating, laxative use, and other body-harming weight-loss strategies. They “worked” for a while, but by the time she was 30 years old, with two young kids, she was carrying 200 pounds on her 5-foot 3-inch frame. “Some of my coworkers were working out at the gym and getting healthy, but I just felt stuck. Whenever I tried, I’d get a call from home because someone needed something,” she says.

Chanos ended up joining 24 Hour Fitness because it had child care. “I didn’t even join the gym because I wanted to lose weight or look a certain way—I just wanted some time to myself,” she explains.

A Better Way

She started with a Zumba class—which turned out to be the beginning of a gradual, but permanent, life change. “It was a way to connect to my body in a positive way,” Chanos says. “It was about moving and seeing what my body could do for me. It was about what it felt like and not what it looked like.”

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That feeling left Chanos hungry for more. A weekly Zumba class turned into three. Then she started working as a physician assistant for Marathon, a company that provides corporate health coaching. Her job was to advise others about making healthy choices—but seeing their lives change inspired her to change too.

“I hired a personal trainer,” she says. “I was counseling other people, so I didn’t feel like I should have that Costco chocolate muffin and caramel macchiato every day. I learned more about what a healthy diet was. It wasn’t the old Weight Watchers version, where it was just counting calories—where the quality of the food didn’t matter, just the quantity.”

No Turning Back

Today, you’d never guess that healthy living hasn’t always been Chanos’s modus operandi. She teaches eight fitness classes a week, plus she lifts five days a week on her own (“But I would never tell a patient they need to do anything close to that!” she says). She inspires her friends, family and coach-ees by her quiet, consistent and reasonable approach to fitness and nutrition.

Click here for more insight into her approach, as well as tips on how to start—and maintain for good—a healthy lifestyle that works for you.

Kellee Katagi is one of those strange souls who actually enjoys working out for the sake of working out. She’s spent most of her 20-plus-year writing and editing career covering fitness, nutrition and travel, as well as outdoor sports ranging from skiing to spelunking to street luge (yes, that’s a thing).