Jillian Michaels is one of the most famous fitness trainers in the world, and has helped thousands of people change their habits, move more, and put their health first. Michaels first became famous for her tough-as-nails approach to training, and while she still encourages people to give their all, her approach to fitness has evolved over the past two decades. 

“My personal fitness philosophy has changed over the years — not with regard to the actual science of fitness — but my approach,” Michaels tells Thrive. “I realized that you have to meet people where they are, and bring them along slower. Having become a mom and having become more successful in running a company, there is no ‘perfect’ anymore. It’s about progress, and trying to move in the right direction, and appreciating that every step in the right direction, no matter how small, is a win. Even the days I just hold ground, I’m super proud, because that’s hard enough in itself.”

Now, Michaels has reframed how she regards success, and she says that celebrating small wins can lead to big progress. “When I was younger, I had way more time and way more energy to be perfect, even though that doesn’t really exist,” she adds. “All of a sudden I couldn’t do it anymore. I realized that I can tell you all the best things to do, but it won’t necessarily make them the right things for everyone.”

Michaels is now helping people fit in a workout everywhere with the My Fitness by Jillian Michaels app, with hundreds of exercises. And in the past decade, her company, Empowered Media, has grown rapidly.

She sits down with Thrive to share how failure really does help you to succeed, ways to get your health back on track, and a simple way to set yourself up to accomplish your goals.

Thrive Global: It’s hard to even imagine, but have you ever fallen off the fitness wagon?

Jillian Michaels: I’m not even really on the train! I mean, I do my best, but very fortunately I’m at a place in my life where I’m kind of in maintenance mode. This car is coasting, so I don’t need to lose weight. I’m already pretty healthy. So when my life gets really crazy and busy, I know how to manage it by eating really well, getting my sleep, drinking my water, and taking my supplements. I don’t think I’ve actually had a workout in three weeks — it’s been that crazy. But when you get yourself to a really good place, it’s a lot easier to maintain.

TG: What are some ways we can motivate ourselves to get back to the gym, or even simply motivate ourselves to make healthier choices again?

JM: It can be really overwhelming when you want to take on any goal, especially if you’re looking at it as a whole. We say things like, “I will lose 50 pounds.” Or, “I want to become president of the company.” All that can be really overwhelming, but break your goals down with something I call a goal pyramid. Put your goal at the top.

Here is an example for the goal of “I want to lose 20 pounds.” How long do you think it will take? Maybe it’s “20 pounds in five months.” Make sure the goal is realistic first, or you’ve set yourself up to fail. 

To lose 20 pounds in five months, you need to lose four pounds a month. That is your weekly goal. That’s a pound a week. How do you lose a pound a week? Set your daily goal — burn 500 calories a day. Then set your immediate goal: Do a 30-minute workout and consume 1,500 calories today. 

It essentially creates a roadmap for you that takes the unknown, overwhelming component out, and gives you a set of achievable, actionable steps that are going to yield powerful positive results.

TG: What is your perfect breakfast?

JM: I go in phases, so it could be that I’m into a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich. People think that’s crazy, but I just take two pieces of organic, whole grain bread, two organic eggs, one slice of cheese, and a slice of turkey bacon. It’s like 400 calories. Then some days, I’m into organic Greek yogurt and fruit with some granola. Then another time I might just want carbs, and I’ll have an organic whole grain bagel with some organic cream cheese on top of it. I’m not perfect. Nor do I want to be. I want to be better, I want to be healthier. I try to eat clean food, but at the same time, I want to enjoy my food. Food is to be enjoyed, and I enjoy it. It’s just eating with common sense. Don’t go too crazy. It’s simple. It’s true.

TG: In terms of weight loss you say, “Maintenance is the food, weight loss is fitness.” That isn’t the common mantra. Is there a perfect formula for weight loss? 

JM: A lot of times people ask me: What percentage is food and what percentage is fitness? It depends on the goal. So if the goal is maintenance, you don’t want to get bigger, right? We’re not talking about health and bone density. We’re talking about weight maintenance, and that’s all food. If you don’t eat more than you burn in a day, then you’re not getting any bigger. Now, if I need to lose 20 pounds, that’s 80 percent fitness.

Think of it this way: You have $25,000 worth of college debt. You have to work maybe three jobs to pay that off, but once it’s paid off, you’re no longer in debt. You don’t have to work that much. Fitness is like that. You have to work a lot harder to burn through a lot of that stored energy. Fat is stored energy. You have to create a much larger energy call to go into those energy stores. But once you’ve gotten through it, it’s a hell of a lot easier, and that’s the light at the end of the tunnel.

TG: What are some small, easy habits that can help improve nutrition?

JM: The smallest and easiest thing you can do to improve your nutrition is to trust your gut. There’s no pun intended there. I mean, quite literally, when you’re making a food choice at lunch, what do you think is better? McDonald’s drive through, or a turkey sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and mustard? It could be a whole grain everything bagel with a shmear of cream cheese versus the Denny’s grand slam. I’m not asking for you to be perfect, just trust your gut. 

TG: What are some tricks to stay hydrated? 

JM: I eat foods that have a high water content. Veggies have a lot of water. If you really hate drinking water, do a sparkling water. Get a Soda Stream. If you don’t want to pay the money and you worry about the environment, that’s awesome. Put a little fruit splash in there. If you’re looking for how much water to drink — drink until your pee looks like lemonade. If it looks like apple juice, keep drinking.

TG: How can we encourage our kids to move more? 

JM: When it comes to helping your kids be healthy, there are some obvious answers. Get them out and have them play. My daughter loves dance and martial arts. My son loves parkour and gymnastics. Have them play with their friends. Make their social network happen outside with play dates at the park. Kids should not work out, but active play is fantastic.

Also, educate your kids as best you can as they get a little bit older about why one food choice is better than another. Teach them balance. I’ll be totally honest with you, my daughter, as she’s gotten older, food is her thing. I see it in her because I have that tendency. I was an overweight kid, and I utilize food as a coping mechanism. So I can help her with it by saying, “OK, baby, you know what? I have an idea. Why don’t we stop at two pieces of pizza? Take a minute. Let’s go do something, and then see if we’re still hungry when we come back. I get it, I want another piece of pizza too, but we probably shouldn’t have one. We’re probably full and we’re probably going to feel like crap if we have a third.” So I give her these techniques to help her manage those feelings of anxiety and stress to help her recognize them. Don’t use words like diet. Don’t make any reference to their body shape or size.

Make it an entire family affair, and work with them to recognize feelings of fullness, give them techniques to walk away from the food, to get them engaged in other activities, and to talk to them about their feelings. “Hey, what’s going on sweetheart? Are you really hungry or are you feeling stressed?” Talk to them. Get them to talk because they’ll try to eat their feelings instead of expressing them. 

TG: Is there anything we can do as adults to help with stress eating?

JM: Look, there are a lot of reasons people do it, but the bottom line is that it’s comforting you in one way or another. It’s providing you with something, right? So how can you comfort and nourish yourself in a way that doesn’t have anything to do with food? I don’t care if you’re like, “You know what, I’m just going to stay home and I’m going to binge this show, and I’m not going to do anything. I’m not going to answer my emails tonight. I’m not going to go out with my friends. I’m going to take a bubble bath, and I’m going to put my headphones in, and I’m going to let my husband deal with the kids tonight.”

Be selfish. There’s nothing wrong with that. Selfish is not a dirty word. It doesn’t mean you’re a jerk. It means you’re taking care of yourself. Engage in a hobby. Put a face mask on. Whatever you need to do to nourish yourself, love yourself, and show that you care for yourself. 

TG: How do you keep technology from taking over your life and your children’s?

JM: I hate devices. So for me, it’s not hard. Tech doesn’t take over my life because I’m just not of that generation. I resent it. I use it for work, and that’s it. I don’t actually enjoy social media. I don’t like to see my friends out when I’m not there. I don’t want to see other people having an awesome vacation when I got the norovirus on mine. So for me, I’m not tempted. When it comes to my kids, they’re on a screen diet. So they get an hour of screen time a day. They can use it however they want. Then the rest of the time they have to be playing, using their imagination,or  engaging in an activity or a hobby. I just teach them to use it in a balanced fashion. These are the rules.

TG: How do you sleep?

JM: I sleep great. I sleep eight hours a night, and I don’t compromise that. I will actually choose sleep over a workout. That’s how important sleep is. I get seven and a half hours a night, sometimes seven, sometimes eight.

One of the things I do when I’m feeling anxious or I can’t sleep is I make a to-do list to get all the stuff that’s swirling around in my mind on paper. Then I know exactly what I need to do tomorrow, and it takes the anxiety out of it. I listen to books all the time when I’m sleeping. I put it in my little AirPods, and it keeps me from obsessing and stressing. I set the timer for 10 minutes, and I rarely hear the end.  

TG: What are some easy ways to sneak in more movement into the day? 

JM: If you have a crazy day, and you absolutely cannot get a workout in, stand instead of sit. It burns one and a half times the calories as sitting. It’s better for your circulation. It’s better for your posture. It’s better for your bones. Take the stairs. Is it enough? No, but it’s something, and something’s better than nothing.

Something that I do that has worked for me is over the course of this day I’m going to do 100 squats, 100 lunges, 50 pushups, and 100 situps. I’ll also throw in mountain climbers. Then, every 20 minutes or so I’ll rip off a set. 10 squats, boom. Five more minutes, 20 lunges, boom. You’ll find that you will get this 20 minute workout in, but in a burst of little two minute segments throughout your day. This is my new thing. 

I don’t care if you look like a weirdo. Squat at your desk. Sit in your chair, stand up, sit in your chair, stand up. Do 20 lunges, get your coworkers doing it. 

TG: How do you course-correct and not give up when you might miss some of your check-ins with your goal?

JM: I find that people get so discouraged when their goals don’t play out exactly how they envisioned. It’s like, oh, well, I was supposed to hit the 20 pound mark by month three, and I’ve only lost five. All this means is you need to analyze what’s going on and reapproach more intelligently. So for example, this is why we use the scale, right? Because the scale’s going to tell you if it’s working or if it isn’t working. If it’s not working, go back and check. Ask, where did I go wrong here? Was I not counting my calories correctly? Was I not hitting the gym four times a week like I know I’m supposed to? Or if you were, maybe the workout isn’t effective enough. Maybe you need to make the workout more intense. 

Look at where you went wrong, take ownership of it, and then simply course correct it by reapproaching that issue more intelligently. Look at where the problems are and address them. That’s it. 

Nobody’s meant to be great at something from go. You only learn by failing. Failure is the number one teacher. You’re supposed to fail. That’s how you learn. That’s how you improve. See your setbacks and your course corrections, not as validation of your incompetence, but as opportunities to learn, fine tune, and grow. It needs to be a perspective shift.

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