In 2013, Chelsea Chen was 25 years old and ready to tackle her first executive-level job at a Philadelphia-based accounting firm. Then tax season hit, and Chen found herself working almost 80 hours a week. She knew how to manage balance sheets, but not her own work-to-life ratio. The stress took a toll. “The nature of my job was to work with teams and get reviews after each project,” says Chen. “There was a lot of pressure to get good feedback for the team and for my own performance.”
Ingesting a steady diet of takeout food and snacks, Chen gained 20 pounds. “I wasn’t focused on what I was eating,” she admits. “I never had to pay attention to it in the past.”
Once she did pay attention, Chen lost weight by making better food choices. Mindful eating came naturally thanks to a childhood spent in China, far away from processed foods. She also enjoys exercise, so she took up hiking in Valley Forge National Historical Park, walked on the Radnor Trail and joined a gym near her apartment in Wayne.
As her weight went down, Chen’s career took off. In 2016, she landed a job at another accounting firm, which required commuting from Wayne to Center City and juggling more stress. She was on her way back to square one. “All I did was work,” she recalls. “I ignored everything else.”
That included exercising and paying attention to her diet. She also stopped dating a man she’d been with for a few months. Within a year, Chen packed on 65 pounds.
Chen’s story is not unusual. “The Health of Millennials,” a 2019 report issued by Blue Cross Blue Shield, surveyed 55 million Americans with commercial health insurance who were born in the early 1980s through late ’90s. The study concluded that one-third of them have conditions that reduce their quality of life and life expectancy.
In fact, millennials have higher prevalence rates for nearly all of the top 10 health risks than Generation Xers did when they were in the same age range. Dr. Richard Snyder, chief medical officer at Independence Blue Cross, emphasizes the “importance of encouraging people at younger ages to take a more proactive role in their preventive care and managing their physical and mental health.”
When she turned 30, Chen decided to take control of her health. In 2018, she enlisted the help of certified personal trainer George Holifield, fitness manager for Philadelphia Sports Club in Radnor. Holifield created an exercise routine that fit Chen’s schedule, and she was soon working out five days a week for one hour.
But as it turns out, Chen’s schedule wasn’t the root issue. She simply hadn’t made her health a top priority. “People make time for what they want to make time for,” says Holifield. “To make that time, we have to let go of what isn’t worthwhile and doesn’t serve us. That’s true in fitness and in life.”
Cardio was the first thing Chen let go. Contrary to popular opinion, weight training—not cardiovascular exercise—is the key to maintaining long-term fitness. Once she stopped wasting time doing cardio, Chen was able to focus on weight training. Now, she does cardio only one day a week. “Weight training builds lean muscle mass, increases bone density and activates the metabolism to burn fat, not just water,” Holifield says. “Sustainable results are achieved when your body is composed of muscle mass, not fat mass.”
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Chen also stopped dieting. Instead, Holifield focused on nutrition and portion control. “Most people don’t eat enough of the foods that stimulate the metabolism to burn fat, not store it,” he says. “Quality consumption is key.”
While that may sound overwhelming to some, Chen says the changes were gradual. “George started me with basic things and didn’t ask me to start or stop anything that was too difficult,” she says. “He just asked me not to quit.”
And she didn’t. Three months into the program, Chen started to shed fat. But weight loss was Holifield’s secondary goal. “Most important is the mind-body connection,” he says. “You have to first train someone’s mind to be positive, energetic and excited. If you focus on that, you won’t have time to be negative.”
It took Chen a year to hit her goal weight—but the number on the scale isn’t her biggest achievement. “I’m happy,” she says. “I got my life back.”
That includes a new job in Wilmington, Del., a new apartment in Chadds Ford and a new man. Chen is sharing her story with other people, hoping to spark positive change. She started with her family. During a four-month visit from China, Chen’s 56-year-old mother trained with Holifield and lost 15 pounds.
Further proof that it’s never too late to make positive change, Chen says.