For most of her life, Alaska native Nicole Gerritsen was underweight. “In middle school, people thought I was anorexic because I was so small,” she says.

An active child, Gerritsen did ballet, horseback riding and cheerleading all throughout high school. She stayed active in college at Oregon State, where she was in the marching band and met her husband (at band camp!). But after graduating and starting her career as a social worker, Gerritsen contracted scabies while working at a homeless shelter for youth.

“It completely changed the makeup of my skin, which was pretty devastating to me mentally,” Gerritsen recalls. “I started packing on the weight. I wasn’t active. I was eating like absolute crap. And every time I tried to work out, my skin would rebel against me, so I used that as a great excuse not to work out.”

The stress of grad school didn’t help. Gerritsen and her husband moved back to Alaska so she could pursue her master’s degree, and by the time she graduated, Gerritsen found herself at 205 pounds.

“One day, I just woke up—in September of last year—and decided I was going to try to lose the weight, just give it one more shot. This was probably like the 50th time, and I honestly can’t tell you what clicked,” she says. “I’m a perfectionist, so when I don’t see the scale moving, if I don’t see progress, I’ll quit. And if I can’t do something perfect the first time, I’ll stop. I do that in every area of my life.”

This time, Gerritsen says, was different. The number on the scale started going down. So she started documenting her journey on Instagram. Now Gerritsen, a social worker, wife, dog mom to two pups, avid reader and fashion lover, shares her daily fitness and health routine with her followers—and she’s keeping it 100 percent real at all times in the hopes that she can inspire and help others reach their goals.

“I’m very transparent. I don’t sugarcoat anything,” she says. “You can take those perfect photos with the perfect angle and filter and present yourself as perfect and have life together and all of that. But I use my videos as a place where people really get to know me. I talk about my anxiety all the time. I talk about my stress. I talk about my work. I talk about when I was at a plateau for a month and how frustrated I was and just wanted to quit. I talk about what works for me, what hasn’t worked, and that this whole weight-loss thing is just a simple science experiment.”

Below, Gerritsen shares the steps she took during this “science experiment” and the tools she employed that have paved the way to weight loss and establishing her journey to total-body health.

Nicole’s nonnegotiables

Starting small

“Right at the beginning, I used my social-worker brain on myself and said, ‘OK, I need to set attainable goals. I can’t say, ‘I’m going to lose 70 pounds by tomorrow.’ I needed something that was attainable, so I started with small things,” Gerritsen says.

Her original goal was to lose 20 pounds—and once she hit that, 30. As of June, she had lost 40 pounds. Now her goal is to get healthy for her future family.

“I think the biggest thing is I did the weight loss for myself. I did all that for myself, but I think the cherry on top is getting a healthy body for my future child,” she says.

Gerritsen advises anyone starting out on their fitness journey to start small and change your habits a little at a time.

“Now I can write a whole list of all the habits I’ve changed, but those didn’t happen all at once or all overnight. It was a very gradual one at a time thing,” she says. “Focus on one goal, and then tomorrow set a new goal until you can reach those bigger goals. Know that those small steps will lead to that bigger goal.”

Getting to the root cause

“They say weight loss is in the kitchen, and it was so incredibly true,” Gerritsen says. “I had to get to the root cause of why I gained so much weight. Activity is great, but I knew I couldn’t continue to eat McDonald’s and work out and expect to lose weight.”

Gerritsen says getting to the root cause of your weight gain will help you pinpoint what habits to start working on changing first.

“For me it was food, and I am sure for most people, it’s the food relationship, so working on that food relationship is monumental,” she explains. “As much as I love the gym and as much as I love working out now, it’s not the end-all be-all, and I think the end-all be-all is your nutrition and having that healthy relationship with food.”

Dialing in on nutrition

For the first few months, Gerritsen focused solely on improving her nutrition—including learning to read labels for the first time and knowing what was in her food. Portion control was also a huge focus.

“I am a carb-a-holic. That is my downside. I can leave sweets alone, but you put a bag of chips in front of me, it’s game on,” she says, laughing. Gerritsen started tracking her calories and adhering to serving sizes. She also crowded in protein, complex carbs and vegetables.

Meal prepping for success

Gerritsen uses Sundays to meal prep so she can be successful throughout the week, something she says that has been life-altering.

“When I have something healthy in the fridge that’s grab-and-go, I will be successful,” Gerritsen says. “If you put it in front of me, I’ll eat it, so if I have my vegetables already cut up or I already have my lunch prepped and my breakfast prepped, I’ll just grab it, throw it in my lunchbox and go to work, and then I don’t even have to think about it.”

Stop eating at night

Over the last few weeks, Gerritsen says she has also established boundaries for how late she will eat in the evenings.

“I’m not doing intermittent fasting or anything like that, but I have a cutoff at 7 p.m. to stop eating because I love to read, and I will sit in my bed and mindlessly snack on candy and chips and all that kind of stuff,” she says.

Gerritsen adds that since she has stopped eating after 7 p.m., she’s noticed that it has significantly helped quell her cravings.

Moving her body

In December, Gerritsen decided to take her weight-loss journey a step further, which meant starting a workout program.

“We live very close to a 24 Hour Fitness, so I had done all my research on all the different types of gyms, and the 24 Hour Fitness by us had a pool; it had everything I was looking for if I was going to spend money on a gym,” she says. “So I took the leap of faith and just fell in love with it.”

Right now, Gerritsen goes to the gym three to four times a week—and weekends are nonnegotiable gym time. Her husband has also started to join her on the weekends, and she has started incorporating weight training into her cardio-heavy routine (which does not include running because “if I’m running, I’m probably running away from something,” Gerritsen says, laughing). On days she can’t make it to the gym, Gerritsen bikes at home.

“I love working out at the beginning of the day because when I know I’ve got my workout, I can do whatever the hell I want for the rest of the day because I don’t have to have that looming over me,” she says.

Shifting her mindset

Though her physical change is impressive, Gerritsen says the biggest change she has seen in herself has been mental.

“Even when I was at my thinnest, I never really appreciated my body. I always had something to nitpick about. I think most women can identify with that,” she says. “And I’m not saying that I don’t have that now. I definitely still nitpick myself, but it’s a different mindset that I have. I actually like the person I see now. I feel good. I feel confident.”

Gerritsen’s husband and co-workers also have seen and commented on this internal shift.

“Even my husband a couple of months ago said, ‘You look confident. You hold yourself in a different manner. I can tell that you feel good,’” Gerritsen recalls. “That was mind-boggling to me when he said that. That definitely has helped my mental health and has helped me stay motivated.”

Shifting her mindset around food also has helped her keep the weight off. As a kid, Gerritsen says she didn’t live to eat but ate to stay alive. She didn’t crave things or obsess over food.

“I completely changed the relationship I have with food,” she says. “I don’t see it as this thing that needs to comfort me anymore. I got to a point where I was craving certain foods; I had to have it. I was always looking for the next meal or centering my whole life around it, and I think I’m slowly getting back to the old Nicole that used to eat to live.”

But, she says, it’s also about learning to live your life and do all things in moderation, especially food.

“My followers have commented and said, ‘Oh, well, you have to get rid of all the pizza and donuts and all that stuff.’ And I say you don’t. You just have to do it in moderation,” she explains.

That means Gerritsen doesn’t consider any foods off-limits. “Food isn’t bad. It isn’t going to hurt me,” she says. “There’s smarter choices I can make, but there’s nothing bad. I want to lose weight, but I ain’t giving up french fries. It’s never going to happen.”

She also refuses to let her eating habits dictate her plans and outings, like going to dinner with her family or her husband’s family, both of whom she’s very close to.

“I’m not going to not do something because I have weight-loss goals I want to meet,” Gerritsen says. “I’m going to just pick smarter foods, I’m going to have fun, and I’m going to relax and have a good time.”

Tracking her progress

Gerritsen’s No. 1 tip for anyone starting a fitness journey is to track your progress with photos.

“I never believed anybody, she says. “I thought they were full of crap, and now I wish I had taken all the photos back then because I never wanted to be in front of the camera at my heaviest. I don’t have that many photos, and that’s probably my biggest regret is that I don’t have those photos.”

You don’t have to post them or share them, but save them for yourself as motivation for days when you’re just not feeling it, she says.

“On my really hard days when I feel like I haven’t gotten anywhere and nothing’s changing, my pant size isn’t changing, I’ll scroll through my Instagram and I’ll look at things that I’ve posted and think, Damn, I actually have done something,” she says. “I know it seems stupid right now, but it will be life-changing once you have something to compare it to.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of Nicole Gerritsen