How Emily Learned to Overcome Bad Habits and Put Herself First

Macaela Mackenzie
by Macaela Mackenzie
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How Emily Learned to Overcome Bad Habits and Put Herself First

Welcome to our “Moments of Will” series, where we’ll feature community members who have faced adversity on their health and fitness journeys, only to come back stronger and better than ever. While they could have let their challenges keep them from their goals, each of them found the will to fight for their physical, emotional and mental health.

Emily Abbate is hobbling the week after the Boston Marathon — her sixth full marathon. “I can hardly walk,” she laughs. The certified personal trainer, UESCA run coach, spin instructor and host of Hurdle, a podcast all about the power of overcoming setbacks through wellness, has built her life and her career on fitness. Getting to this point, however, has taken a serious amount of willpower.

THE STARTING LINE

Abbate was not a natural-born runner. Growing up in Connecticut, she stayed active playing soccer and volleyball and dancing regularly — all of which helped her keep a lifelong struggle with her weight at bay. “I was yo-yo dieting all throughout my adolescence and my teenage years — just up and down,” she says. “I’d lost 30 pounds, I’d gained 30 pounds, I’d lost 30 pounds. My God, it was a whole roller coaster.”

But before college, Abbate got involved with a youth program, traveling to conferences and eventually becoming the president of her region; the time commitment left less and less time for the sports that had kept her active. “By 18, I was well beyond a healthy weight and BMI — just completely off the deep end in terms of my overall wellness,” she recalls.

Then came college, which proved to be an even bigger health hurdle. Already accustomed to putting other people and causes before her own health and well-being, her unhealthy habits started to solidify as taking care of herself fell lower and lower on the list of priorities. It was adding up far beyond the freshman 15. “I was very aware that I wasn’t a skinny girl,” says Abbate. “I was conducting my life in a way where I was trying to avoid looking at my body as much as possible.”

THE JOURNEY

One night, alone in her dorm room, her eye fell on the scale — long buried under a pile of books and unused since she’d started college. “In college there’s so many things in flux. You’re trying to figure out what you’re going to do with your whole life and a lot of that feels so out of your control,” she says. “I think I was looking for something that I could control, and I knew that getting on the scale was the first step to taking back control of my health.”

So, Abbate took a deep breath and stepped on, ready to cringe at a number she feared would be in the 180s. It wasn’t; she weighed 204 pounds.

“To get on that scale and see 204 pounds staring back at me, it was just like, ‘How did I get here? What did I do wrong? How did I let this get so out of control?’” she says. “I’m standing there in my dorm room with tears streaming down my face, wondering, ‘Why me?’”

The reality of her unhealthy habits had finally caught up to her. “I knew instantly that I had to make a change,” says Abbate. “I wasn’t going to continue playing a victim or being like, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ I did that to myself,” she says. “It was finally time, in that moment, to be accountable — I needed to take accountability.”


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At this point, it was late in the evening so the campus gym was closed. But Abbate had had enough — she needed to prioritize her health right then. “I immediately just did the only thing that I knew at the time, which was so uninstictive to me: I put on some sneakers, ran out of my dorm and started sprinting down the road.”

After about a minute of running, she collapsed in the grass, totally exhausted. “I was so beside myself,” she says. “I just knew it needed to change. Something needed to change, and it needed to start then and there.” After that night, she began by overhauling her eating habits, which had devolved in the presence of dining halls that offered tater tots and ice cream at every meal.

Within a year, she’d lost about 35 pounds and wanted to keep the progress going. That summer, she decided to give running another try. “That was really frightening because I had such a negative history with running,” she says. “I didn’t make my JV volleyball team in high school because I couldn’t run a mile in under 10 minutes. So I stopped playing. Before that, when I was 13 or 14, my dad and I decided to run a 5K in my town, and I kid you not, we were the last two people to finish.”

“Overcoming a major weight loss taught me to be grateful for the process. I learned that I am who I rely on. If anything gets in my way, I’ll be able to handle it — that was such an important lesson.”

Determined to maintain her progress, she committed to running just a half mile every day. “It took me 14 minutes every single day to run a half mile — I don’t know how that’s even possible. You could walk a half mile faster than that,” she laughs. “But I did it. That experience taught me to love running and embrace that time with myself.” Finally, she was starting to prioritize her health.

When Abbate got back to campus, she kept running. A mile, then a 5K and finally a half marathon. “That was something I never, ever thought I would do,” she says. “Which is crazy, because I’m sitting here talking to you after my sixth full marathon.”

THE FINISH LINE

Standing at the starting line in Boston earlier this year — facing 26.2 miles of icy rain and 50 mph headwinds — the mental and physical strength she’d gotten from overcoming a lifetime of bad health habits made all the difference.

“I could have looked at Boston as a huge failure,” she says. Over the past several months, Abbate trained for a PR, pouring hundreds of hours into running the fastest-paced mileage she’s ever run. “I can look at the fact that I didn’t PR as a fail, or I could look at the race and understand that I did the best I could,” she says. “Overcoming a major weight loss taught me to be grateful for the process. I learned that I am who I rely on,” Abbate says. “If anything gets in my way, I’ll be able to handle it — that was such an important lesson.”

About the Author

Macaela Mackenzie
Macaela Mackenzie

Macaela is a writer based in New York City with a passion for all things active. When she’s not writing about the weirdest fitness trends or nutrition news, you can find her conquering her fear of heights at the rock climbing gym, hitting the pavement in Central Park or trying to become a yogi. To see Macaela’s latest work, visit macaelamackenzie.com.

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