Sarah Pelc Graca: “Exercise or move your body on a consistent basis”

Exercise or move your body on a consistent basis. This could mean hour-long strength workouts if that feels good to you, or it could simply mean taking walks with your dog. Experiment, try new things, and learn how to move your body in a way that feels good to you. Don’t compare yourself to what […]

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Exercise or move your body on a consistent basis. This could mean hour-long strength workouts if that feels good to you, or it could simply mean taking walks with your dog. Experiment, try new things, and learn how to move your body in a way that feels good to you. Don’t compare yourself to what others are doing. Try new ways of exercising or moving until you find what you enjoy, and then do it consistently!

As a part of my series about “5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Pelc Graca.

Sarah Pelc Graca is an online weight loss coach and NASM-certified trainer who helps her clients lose weight without giving up chocolate and wine. Her signature coaching program, the Freedom with Food Formula, teaches men and women the skills and habits needed to lose weight (and overcome emotional eating) without the extremes of fad diets.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the story about how you first got involved in fitness and wellness?

Absolutely! Growing up in Flint, Michigan, I was a dedicated ballet and modern dancer. I attended the University of Michigan as a Dance and Psychology major. While in college, I developed some pretty unhealthy nutrition habits (like late- night pizza and too many sugary coffee drinks). Upon graduating, I moved to Chicago to pursue a career in dance. However, I quickly learned that the weight I gained in college didn’t help my dance career whatsoever. I decided to make a change, but I knew that fad diets weren’t for me. I slowly began incorporating small nutrition changes (like drinking more water, eating more veggies, etc) into my daily routine. Slowly but surely, I lost 15–20 pounds and have kept it off since!

An unfortunate ski injury ended my dance career, and at the time of the injury, I thought my life was over. I had dedicated my entire life to dance and it was gone in the blink of an eye… I remember thinking, “Now what?” After some deep soul searching, I received my personal training and nutrition coaching certification. Now, I help my clients successfully lose weight without giving up their favorite foods by sharing the practices and principles I learned on my own journey and through my education.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

My entire coaching business is online, which means that I work with clients who live all over the world. While working together, all of our communication is done through my coaching app (with text messaging), emails, and zoom calls.

Last year, my husband and I went to San Diego for a quick vacation over Memorial Day weekend. One of my clients who lived in Atlanta was also going to be in San Diego that same weekend visiting family. We had casually talked about how awesome it would be to meet each other in-person, but you know how vacations go — we both got busy during our respective trips.

The last night of our trip, my husband and I went to Little Italy for dinner. We parked the car in a parking structure and started walking to the restaurant in a hurry because we were running late for our reservation. I wasn’t paying attention while walking (I was looking at my phone for directions) and accidentally bumped into a woman, and guess who I bumped into? it was MY CLIENT! What are the chances?! Of all the neighborhoods in San Diego, she and her family made a last-minute decision to eat dinner in Little Italy, too. We chatted for a few minutes and got a photo together to commemorate the success she achieved while working together.

It was special because being an online coach, I don’t normally get to see my clients living their daily lives with more energy and confidence in-person. In this particular client’s case, she lost over 50 pounds during our work, and she beamed with confidence in the dress she wore that night.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

People assume that because I’m a nutrition coach, I must be an amazing cook. This couldn’t be farther from the truth! I’ve definitely gotten better at cooking over time, but there was a point in my young adult life where I really struggled.

A few years ago, I thought the blender and the mixer were the same thing, so I attempted to make cookie dough for cookies in the blender… WITHOUT using the lid. I quickly learned from that mistake!

I was humble enough to acknowledge that although I am very knowledgeable about the nutrients in food, there was plenty I could learn about how to best prepare food so it tastes delicious! Now, when I make healthy meals (and cookies), I stick to SIMPLE recipes. I’ve learned from my own personal journey that healthy doesn’t need to mean fancy, elaborate meals!

Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fitness and wellness field? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?

So many wellness programs fuel the black and white mentality. They teach you that carbs are “evil,” or that you must eliminate ALL sugar in order to be healthy, or that you must intensely exercise for 60-minutes, 6 days a week in order to be healthy. NONE of which are completely true.

I believe my unique contribution to the wellness world is that I teach wellness in a way that still allows you to LIVE and ENJOY your life. Let’s be honest — completely eliminating all carbs and all sugar and intensely exercising 6 days a week isn’t realistic for most of us long-term. You have to develop the skills and habits to lead a healthy life that still allows for fun indulgences in moderation. This is exactly what I teach my clients.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My husband has been at my side through every step of my career. We began dating while I was dancing in Chicago, so he’s supported me through numerous changes in my own life. Every decision I’ve made, from dancing to returning to school for nutrition/personal training to starting my own business, he has fully supported my decisions.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, exercise more, and get better sleep etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

This is a great question! The three main blockages that prevent us from DOING what we need to create a healthier life include:

  1. Implementing too many changes at once. So often, we try to eat more veggies, drink more water, exercise five times a week, cut back on sugar, etc., all at once. This leads to nothing but overwhelm, frustration, and burnout. Instead of trying to be “perfect” and incorporate many healthy changes at once, start small. Focus on ONE healthy lifestyle change at a time, and stick with it until it becomes a regular part of your daily routine. At that point, you can add in another small change. Be patient with yourself.
  2. Making a healthy lifestyle change that’s too challenging for your current habits. This is a common mistake that I see many people make. They attempt to go from eating no vegetables a day to eating 5 servings of veggies daily. Or, they attempt to go from taking one walk a week to five hour-long, intense workouts a week. Making a drastic or extreme change seems appealing at first, but isn’t realistic for your current skill set. Instead, focus on creating small habits that are challenging yet doable, and expand upon them as you succeed. For example, if you struggle to eat veggies, aim for one or two servings a day. Once you’re consistently eating one to two servings a day, then you can challenge yourself to eating three to four servings per day.
  3. Allowing one struggle or mistake to derail your progress. We are all human, which means we will make mistakes from time to time. Oftentimes, people let one nutrition mistake lead them into a downward spiral of bad decisions where they “fall off the bandwagon.” Remember that you are human and that mistakes are chances to learn. Instead of allowing one poor nutrition choice to lead to an entire day or week’s worth of self-sabotage, commit to getting right back on track with your healthy habits after making a mistake.

Can you please share your “5 Non-Intuitive Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”? (Please share a story or an example for each, and feel free to share ideas for mental, emotional and physical health.)

  1. Exercise or move your body on a consistent basis. This could mean hour-long strength workouts if that feels good to you, or it could simply mean taking walks with your dog. Experiment, try new things, and learn how to move your body in a way that feels good to you. Don’t compare yourself to what others are doing. Try new ways of exercising or moving until you find what you enjoy, and then do it consistently!
  2. Find ways to process stress and emotions that don’t involve food or alcohol. Whether it be journaling, drawing, crying, dancing, or ANYTHING else, challenge yourself to find ways to process stress and emotions that don’t involve food and alcohol. This may feel uncomfortable and difficult at first, but being able to FEEL and process your emotions without relying on food will dramatically improve your wellbeing.
  3. Honor your body’s hunger and fullness cues. It’s easy to want to eat when you feel tired, bored, stressed, or emotional, but food never helps in those situations. Begin paying attention to your physical hunger cues (like your stomach growling, feeling irritable, etc.), and only eat when you feel true hunger. Then, stop eating when you feel satisfied, before you reach the point where you feel stuffed.
  4. Plan and prepare most of your meals ahead of time, and include protein and fruits or vegetables at most meals. This doesn’t mean you have to spend 5 or more hours every Sunday meal-prepping and cooking for the entire week. However, creating a weekly menu makes grocery shopping and eating healthy meals even easier. When in doubt, plan most of your meals around a source of lean protein (like chicken, turkey, eggs, tofu, lean beef, greek yogurt, etc.) and fruits or vegetables.
  5. Mindfully enjoy your favorite foods on special occasions. Mental and emotional health is just as important as physical health. Following a diet that’s built around restriction or shame for eating certain foods (like desserts or pizza) doesn’t promote optimal mental, emotional, or social health. Be honest with yourself, and learn which non-nutritious foods are worth it to you to enjoy. Would you rather eat manufactured chocolate chip cookies from the grocery store shelf? Or fresh, homemade chocolate chip cookies that you baked with a friend? Wellness doesn’t mean eating “perfectly clean” all the time. Create a balanced, healthy life by indulging in your favorite non-nutritious foods at special times.

As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for the public. Aside from weight loss, what are 3 benefits of daily exercise? Can you explain?

There are plenty of benefits of exercise aside from weight loss!

  1. A strong, healthy body! As we age, we tend to lose bone density and muscle mass. Exercise helps prevent osteoporosis and promotes optimal muscle health. Plus, exercising helps keep your GI system working properly.
  2. Stress relief! Moving your body is a great way to relieve stress and process your emotions. Exercise releases hormones called endorphins, which are chemicals found in our bodies that relieve stress and cause happiness.
  3. Better sleep! Research from Johns Hopkins University suggests that exercise helps you to fall asleep more quickly, and helps to improve the quality of your sleep

For someone who is looking to add exercise to their daily routine, which 3 exercises would you recommend that are absolutely critical?

As I mentioned earlier, I think the best exercises for you are the ones you enjoy doing. The exercises that you’re going to do consistently. However, there are some exercises that give you the best bang-for-your-buck in terms of caloric burn and muscular strength. Here are 3 exercises I recommend for total body strength: Burpees, Planks and Squats.

In my experience, many people begin an exercise regimen but stop because they get too sore afterwards. What ideas would you recommend to someone who plays sports or does heavy exercise to shorten the recovery time, and to prevent short term or long term injury?

Proper recovery is key to help minimize soreness and prevent injuries! I recommend drinking plenty of water and eating protein within 30 minutes of finishing an intense workout to help repair and rebuild your muscles. In addition, stretching and using a foam roller to gently massage muscles can help release muscle tightness and treat muscular imbalances that often lead to injury. Last (but not least), gentle yoga or even walking can help relieve soreness in muscles.

There are so many different diets today. Can you share what kind of diet you follow? Which diet do you recommend to most of your clients?

I don’t follow any particular “diet,” but rather I follow more of a healthy lifestyle. I try to eat nutritious foods (lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, complex carbs, healthy fats) about 80–90% of the time, and allow myself to enjoy my favorite non-nutritious foods (brownies, ice cream, pizza, wine, etc.) 10–20% of the time.

This is the exact same lifestyle that I recommend (and teach) to my clients. Diets that eliminate entire foods (no dessert, no alcohol, etc.) or entire food groups (no carbs, etc.), aren’t sustainable for anyone long-term. I teach my clients how to make nutritious choices most of the time, while enjoying their favorite non-nutritious foods occasionally.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

Atomic Habits by James Clear is a book that made a significant impact on me. In the book, he shares strategies to help break bad habits while building new, healthy habits in a sustainable way. I highly recommend this book for anyone looking to create a healthier life without knowing where to start or without feeling overwhelmed!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would start a movement called “The Moderation and Self-Trust Movement.” I speak with many men and women who struggle with finding the balance between trusting themselves to eat healthy most of the time while still enjoying their favorite foods in moderation. They believe they must eliminate all unhealthy foods or starve themselves in order to lose weight and be healthy.

In today’s world where fad diets are prevalent, I find that many men and women simply don’t trust themselves to enjoy one cookie without eating the entire box. Or, they fear that eating one piece of pizza will lead to “falling off the bandwagon” where they can’t stop themselves from eating unhealthy foods. It’s my mission to help spread the word that you CAN trust yourself to enjoy one cookie or piece of pizza without ruining your progress, as long as most of your nutrition choices are healthy.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

One of my favorite life-lesson quotes is “Focus on the mile you’re in right now.”

Aside from coaching my clients, I love running marathons and half-marathons. While running marathons and half-marathons, it can be overwhelming and daunting to think about how much longer I have to go until I reach my goal and cross the finish line. Instead, I try to stay present and focus on the specific mile I’m running at any given moment.

The same quote is applicable to wellness, too. Instead of focusing on how many healthy habits you want to build, choose ONE healthy habit and focus on implementing it until it sticks. In a similar way, instead of feeling overwhelmed at the thought of losing 30 or more pounds, take small actions and focus on losing the first 5 pounds.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Michelle Obama! I am inspired by her Let’s Move initiative to help reduce childhood obesity and encourage children to live a healthy lifestyle! It seems she truly cares about the wellness of future generations, which is important to me.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

You can find me on Instagram here (@strong.with.sarah) or you can join my free Facebook group here.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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