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Jennifer Koji, 41, is a mom of four. Like many women, she struggled to lose the weight after pregnancy and held on to an additional 40 pounds after having her children. But when she lost her father, she really put her health on the back burner.
“A year and a half ago, my dad passed. ... The year after that was tough. I didn’t want to do anything. I did what I had to do to keep my kids going, my household going, but other than that, I just wanted to sit or lay and eat comfort food,” she told trainer Stephanie Mansour in a Facebook Live interview on May 9.
By January 2023, she weighed 215 pounds and felt sluggish and tired all day.
A lightbulb moment
“In December, it was a year since (my dad) passed, and it was kind of like a light switch went off. He wouldn’t want me to be wasting the days of my life being unhealthy,” Koji said.
She knew she had to make a change but didn’t know where to start. “I watched the TODAY show, but never really paid attention to the health and fitness segments; I tuned them out,” she said. When she saw Mansour promoting the January workout plan on air, she decided to check out the Start TODAY Facebook group.
“I saw it was a walking program and was like, OK, this would be simple enough to fit into my schedule," she recalled. :I’m busy enough. I want to be told what to do. I don’t want to try and figure it out.”
She joined the Start TODAY group on January 1 and committed to moving every day and making herself a priority again. Five months later, she hasn’t missed a day — and she’s lost 25 pounds and feels better than ever. Here’s how she did it.
She identified her why
“I turned 40 last year, so just hitting that point I said to myself, I need to kick into gear and start focusing on myself to have healthier years going forward,” Koji said.
She also walks for her dad.
“It was fitting that (Start TODAY) was a walking program because my dad was always in the best physical shape. He was a walking mailman for 33 years. Depending on his routes, he would walk anywhere from 6 to 12 miles a day,” she said. “That’s my main inspiration. If I ever have a day where I don’t feel like it, I say to myself, ‘He’s not here to be able to step out and do this anymore, but you are, so get moving.’ That’s all I need to tell myself, and I’m out the door.”
She found a fitness routine that works for her
A couple of years ago, Koji attempted to commit to a fitness routine and says she went “too gung ho.” She was running 3 to 5 miles day and doing arm, butt and core challenges every day with no breaks.
“I wasn’t seeing much results and ended up injuring myself and had to stop cold turkey, so of course, I lost motivation again,” she said.
She finds the walking plans much simpler and easier on her body.
“It’s such a simple plan to follow. I have been following it to a T — whatever it says for the day, that’s all I’ve been doing,” she said, adding that she does often walk for a longer period of time than the 20-minute walk some of the plans suggest. Her typical daily route takes her about 45 minutes to an hour to walk.
She’s also a member of the Step It Up with Steph app. “It’s my daily routine: After my walk, I sit down, read the daily quote, I do the daily challenge and the monthly daily challenge. It’s my set routine every day,” she said.
She makes walking a priority
Her kids, ranging in ages from 6 to 13, are now all in school, so after being a stay-at-home mom for nine years, Koji got a part-time job a few days a week.
“I only work from 8 to 12. So, if it’s a day off for me, I’ll just go out in the morning once they go off to school,” she said. “If it’s a workday and it’s a nice day, I’ll step right out of work and I’ll just walk around town — that’s 2 to 2 and a half miles — and then walk back to my car and be done for the day. Then I come home feeling refreshed and relaxed after working.”
She made small diet changes: food swaps, moderation and portion control
“I am a food lover and a carb lover. I love pizza, pasta, bread. … I don’t want to cut out the things I love to eat. That’s not sustainable. I don’t want to live like that,” said Koji. “I want to be able to enjoy things. My issue is portion control — not eating two to three platefuls of pasta or a whole pizza myself. So that’s what I’ve been trying to get in control and have been pretty successful at.”
Now, she will have two to three slices of pizza and will get chicken and broccoli as toppings. “So I figure I have my protein and a little veggie on there too while I’m enjoying it,” she said.
She’s also made food swaps like whole-wheat sandwich thins instead of white bread and plant-based legume or chickpea pasta, which she serves with turkey meatballs.
“I’ve just tried to be much more aware. I haven’t changed too much other than portion sizes. We’ve been eating out less. That was one of our issues, takeout,” she said.
Moderation is key for cutting back without feeing deprived. “One night a week, we do ‘eat what you like night,’ ... something a little more fatty,” she said.
Her job at a café and bakery makes committing to a healthier diet even more challenging. But Koji uses her once-a-week technique to prevent her from feeling deprived or giving into temptations daily.
“Every Thursday, we make jumbo cupcakes, and I bring one home and that’s my sweet for the week,” she said. “I don’t want to cut out the stuff I like, but it’s moderated.”
She also allows herself the ice cream she loves from her favorite place in town but practices moderation. “I would get my favorite peanut butter sundae twice a week before, now I’m getting it maybe once a month,” she said. “I’m still getting it if I get the craving, just toning it down.”
She built a support system
Support has been a huge factor in Koji’s success. She said that her support system includes her husband, kids, a few friends, her mother and mother-in-law and the Start TODAY community.
“I have a friend of mine who, a couple of years ago during the throes of COVID, started a little local Facebook accountability group that we post in together, which has been really helpful," she said. “But then getting into this bigger arena, I’m just taken away at just how positive and supportive everyone was. From my very first post, it was unreal. And I love reading everyone else’s stuff. It’s been really nice and just so positive.”
“The first month, I posted every day just for accountability for myself, just to get myself in the groove. Now I’ll post every so often, I don’t want to drive people crazy,” she joked.
The positive changes she has seen:
- Better sleep and more energy. “I used to nap daily. Now I feel like I have more energy,” she said. “I’ll nap once in a while, but I want to do more things during the day, especially now that the weather is nicer outside.”
- Inspiring her family to make healthy choices. Koji said her kids have been seeing her making healthy choices and it rubs off. Plus, her husband was motivated by her and started walking daily and playing pickle ball. He’s lost 20 pounds. “Other people watch you and it radiates,” she said.
- Making her health a priority. This month she has her first ever physical in 15 years. "Since I turned 40, I thought this is really something I should start doing,” she said.
- Feeling — and looking — less bloated. When a picture popped up in her Facebook feed from eight months ago, Koji was shocked at how puffy her face looked. She took a picture of herself that day and couldn’t believe the difference. “If not for anything else, that bloat is gone,” she said.
Her advice for others
- Find your why. “You have to be in the mindset to be ready. I wasn’t, and all of a sudden that one-year anniversary hit,” she said. “I think you have to find your reason for wanting to do it. It could be you got recent health information that wasn’t great, or you want to be healthier for your kids. … You have to find something to get you in that mindset to get started, or else you’re probably going to fall off if you don’t have something to motivate you.”
- Start small. “Ultimately I’d like to lose 60 pounds, but I’m not thinking about that right now,” Koji said. “Even my first goal was lofty: To get under 200 pounds was a little over 15 pounds I needed to lose, but I said to myself, however long that takes. It happened much quicker than I anticipated. So then my next goal was to lose 20 pounds, which was only 5 more pounds. My next goal is to get into the 180's. Smaller goals, it feels more achievable.”
- Stay positive. “Try to find ways every day to be positive," she said. “All the everyday junk that can come at us and knock us down … after what I went through my dad, all the little stuff is just petty and nonsense. It’s nothing. So be positive."