Aimee, Liz, Sonya and Meghan. These four Western New York women are 40 and over with families and leadership roles in health-related professions whose work weeks far exceed 40 hours.
And all of them count workouts as appointments not to be missed.
These aren’t superwomen. They don’t have entourages to handle their have-tos. They’ve just been relentless in their pursuit to prioritize exercise and healthy eating to make them enjoyable, essential facets of their everyday lives — to the benefit of themselves, their families and the organizations they lead.
For Aimee Gomlak, 48, vice president of Women’s Health Services for Catholic Health, variety keeps exercise interesting. She alternates her early morning, daily workouts between rowing, TRX, spinning, and 3-hour pre-dawn hikes (sometimes with a weight vest). She walks to the grocery store to carry her groceries home in a backpack. At work she takes the stairs to her 5th floor office. Sleep is also a huge priority — she says without seven to eight hours of rest, you just can’t think straight. Fresh, unprocessed food is crucial, especially as she gets older and sees her metabolism slow down.
Perhaps most important to Gomlak, though, is cultivating a healthy mindset around self-care. She points out that women are willing to help others, but tend to feel guilty if they dedicate time to work out or make a healthy snack for themselves.
"I have to think of myself as a friend of mine. If I think of myself as my friend Aimee, I’ll do something for her," said Gomlak. "Don’t feel selfish when you feel selfish — it’s not a negative. If you don’t take care of yourself, you’re not able to take care of family and friends."
Liz Kahn, 54, is the executive director of Susan G. Komen Upstate New York and someone who considers exercise a "have to."
"My brain is sharper and my demeanor is better when I work out," says Kahn. "I enjoy it, but it’s not always easy – sometimes I’d rather go back to sleep. I need so much energy to get through a day. You’d think exercise would make you tired, but it’s the opposite. You have to have positive energy to do what I do."
She tries not to repeat a workout two days in a row to reap the benefits of cross-training, to avoid injury, and to keep things exciting. Her go-tos include spinning boot camp, running, and power yoga, usually super early in the morning. She admits that having a husband who also gets up before dawn to work out makes it easier; if he slept in, she might, too. As she ages, exercise has taken on a different meaning.
"As you get older, your body does things you can’t control," Kahn explains. "Exercise is the part you can control; it makes you breathe easier, feel strong. I grew up in a time when it wasn’t attractive for women to be doing pushups, that being strong wasn’t something to be admired. It is now, and that’s great."
Dr. Sonya Noor, 47, a vascular surgeon and co-owner of Buffalo Endovascular Surgical Associates, uses exercise to de-stress and keep her body ready for long hours. Her picks are early morning power yoga, tennis, boot camp strength work, and active time with her 9-year-old son. She just completed her first Tough Mudder. Exercise isn’t about dress sizes or looks, she says, but something that helps her feel good.
"I used to be a gym rat — if I missed one day, I’d be really hard on myself even if I was on call all night," she says. "But that hurt me more; that’s not how you get healthy. You have to know your limits. I’m a single mom with unpredictable hours. Sleep trumps the gym; if you’re constantly stressed, that cortisol isn’t helping you be healthy. You’ll have more injury and less recovery. It took me a while to figure that out."
Along with exercise, Noor believes good health starts in the kitchen. She bought a scale to better understand what appropriate portions actually look like, and brings lunch every day so she doesn’t have to think about good choices at work. But even as a doctor, healthy eating is something she had to work at.
"There’s almost no emphasis on nutrition and diet in medical school — it’s shocking," says Noor. "In trying to learn more about nutrition for my patients, many of whom are overweight or diabetic, I learned for myself. Medical schools really need to address that."
Meghan Cavanaugh, 40, founder of the Western New York chapter of Girls on the Run and a researcher at the University at Buffalo who focuses on childhood obesity, combines social time and exercise by running six days a week with friends and family. She and four girlfriends meet at a different person’s house each morning at 6:10 a.m. sharp; the host house picks the 4-mile route for variety. On the weekend she goes for a longer run with a research partner from UB, and will sometimes put her sons (ages 4 and 7) on their bikes and she and her 9-year-old daughter will jog alongside the boys.
Nutrition is a family affair, too. She keeps plenty of healthy snack options in the house for her and her kids and lets them pick what sounds good. Her daughter packs her own lunch. The family tries to eat at home as much as possible instead of going out. When plans call for going out, she works around them — if there’s a party on the weekend, for instance, everyone eats healthier leading up to it.
"My kids know that eating junk makes you feel lethargic and grumpy and gross," she says. "They understand that if we go out, it can’t be all mac ‘n cheese — they know how to pick a balanced meal."
All four women are quick to point out that they’re not experts in exercise, and that every person is working around a different set of circumstances when it comes to kids, schedules, budget, and comfort level with being active and preparing healthy food. But all of them are adamant that with enough trial and even more error, finding a way to better your body is something that any woman can achieve when she wants to.
Real women share helpful advice to fit in good food and fitness
- Really look at how much time you’re spending on social media — 10 minutes easily becomes 30 or 45 several times a day. That’s a lot of time.
- Hire help if you can afford it. It’s less expensive than you think to get a cleaning or lawn service and someone else can use the job.
- Invest in a washing machine with a fast-wash cycle; a lack of clean workout clothes can’t be an excuse.
- Sleep in your workout clothes — they’re comfy, you can sleep longer because you’re already dressed, and there’s one less change of clothes (pajamas) to wash.
- Shop where produce turns over quickly; it’s fresher and lasts longer, so you can buy more at once and cut the number of grocery trips.
- Showing up is the most important part. The hardest part is getting there, but once you’re there, it feels great. The same applies to the rest of life.
- Eat only when you’re hungry, fuel when you need it. Don’t feel guilty about snacks if they’re healthy.
- Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t get a workout in every day — we could all stand to be a little easier on ourselves. Stay in it as much as you can; you’ll still benefit.
- Be realistic and do what works for you. Make small changes, maybe one change a week. You didn’t gain weight right away; you won’t lose it all right away.
- Ask for help — have another mom share driving duties to school so you both can have mornings to work out.
- Drink water. Two to three liters a day is ideal.
- Find a gym that’s close to home or work so that exercise is feasible long-term.
- Find a friend or a few friends who keep you accountable for exercise. Ask them, “Will you meet me at whatever time works for your family to go for a walk or run?”
- Pick a goal that’s motivating, maybe running a 5k or a regular activity with your child.
- Try to exercise in the morning — you’re too tired and there are too many excuses after work, especially with kids.
- Look ahead to the rest of the day, week, month for junk food pitfalls and plan for and around them.
Story topics: Wellness