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Does the Church Care About Fitness? Mt. Zion’s Bishop Walker and Dr. Walker Say “Yes!”

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Bishop Walker, Dr. Stephaine Walker, Mt. Zion, ChurchFIT

The Church is deeply ingrained in the fabric of the African-American community and has cultivated many of the most inspiring movements in our history. For many, church is more than a Sunday gathering place for praise and worship; it is also the place to find strength, hope and encouragement for everyday battles. There are so many topics and issues that affect our community, but why not health and how we take care of our bodies? This is arguably an issue that receives little attention.

A 2014 State of Obesity report states that “more than 75 percent of African Americans are overweight or obese.” So the question must be asked: When will the dinner plate be become a part of traditional discussion much like the offering plate? Bishop Joseph Walker, III, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee and his wife, Stephaine Hale Walker, MD, believe that time is now!

In 2011, the couple launched ChurchFIT, a health and wellness initiative to marry personal faith with personal fitness. ChurchFIT not only offers exercise classes like ZUMBA, Pilates, and kickboxing five days a week but the nearly-30,000-member congregation also has access to cooking classes, nutritional guidance, and health coaching. Over the past four years, ChurchFIT has grown from an event into a Biblically-based healthy lifestyle ministry.

Read our interview and discover the inspiration behind ChurchFIT and how the Walkers want to inspire pastors around the country to answer the call to make health and fitness a priority.

BFT: What exactly is ChurchFIT?

Dr. Walker: ChurchFIT is a healthy living, healthy lifestyle program that we have at Mount Zion here in Nashville. It was founded out of my husband’s heart in the basement in our home, after he started to get his health together by working out with a trainer, chef and other resources that we had here. And based on his momentum and the things that he was able to achieve, we decided to go ahead and push the similar resources to the church; but to do it for free for people. And so the ChurchFIT program is really a holistic program – we focus on mind, body and soul. We have exercise classes such as Pilates, ZUMBA, kickboxing and cardio classes five days a week at two of our church locations. We also have cooking classes that are run by two separate chefs, along with a nutritionist and they also host nutrition classes as well.

BFT: In a 2002 article by the American Journal of Public Health called “Role of Black Churches in Health Promotion Programs,” the study discussed in this piece found that there is a genuine interest in health promotion amongst the black church, but there are barriers, such as pastors and clergy feeling overburdened with this responsibility, a lack of resources, suspicion of outside organizations due to the history of research abuse and exploitation in our community. So, with all these obstacles that you may be facing, how do you push for a culture of healthy living amongst the members in your congregation and the community?

Bishop Walker: I think what we’ve been able to do is to really make [ChurchFIT] a fixture within our ministry. It now has become part of the culture in every aspect. It must be programmed within the life of the church so everyone has a buy-in. For instance, even if you came and spoke at our church about something unrelated to ChurchFIT, you will still feel the culture of ChurchFIT because afterwards you come in and you’d be [served] something like a kale salad or baked chicken versus traditional fried chicken.

We also minister to over 3,000 college students alone from eight different campuses and after church we give them a free meal and try our best to make sure it’s healthy. I think it’s also about how pastors really take the lead in teaching and preaching about it. I talk about health from the pulpit. One of the things that I attempt to do is give some theological foundation to this whole idea of health. I use the example that with Jesus Christ, there is no way he could have endured the passion of the cross if he had not been in physical shape, and I use that to suggest that our purposes are never truly fulfilled if we don’t have the energy to actually give in fulfilling them. So part of being in good health is good stewardship because you can’t ask God for more territory if you don’t have the strength to get it going and finish strong.

Dr. Walker: When we first started ChurchFIT people were curious. Bishop and I were getting into shape and they were watching his body transform right in front of their eyes…you can’t have a pastor who is out of shape but telling everybody else to be healthy. So, you have to the best example so that people understand that it’s not just rhetoric but it’s actually something that is lived out every day.

BFT: So if we can, let’s touch on your personal health and fitness journeys.

Bishop Walker: So basically, I was about 230 pounds and I didn’t really feel that I was overweight. It was just a natural thing for me. I wasn’t physically a big guy but you start learning about things like Body Mass Index (BMI) and that you don’t have to be morbidly obese – you could be obese and not look like it. So that really encouraged me and as a result I got a trainer, and started working out and changed what I ate. I used to eat pancakes, scrambled eggs with cheese, I was going hard! Every Sunday morning I was at Waffle House and I had to change. Now I eat egg whites, oatmeal, fruit, grilled chicken and fish. I think it really has helped because the weight just started shedding.

The ironic thing about church is this – and you guys should understand it – when you start losing weight initially it is perceived that something is wrong. You know, “what’s wrong?” Nobody asks that when you’re gaining weight. I had to constantly get in front of my church and say “Guys, I’m well. I’m doing good. I’m in the best shape of my life,” and I had to educate our people about not making people feel guilty for that. Another thing is learning how to say “no” to the cobbler that “Mother Johnson” or “Sister Betty” worked all day in the kitchen to make, regardless of the guilt from not wanting to hurt their feelings. There comes a point when you really have to step away and say “no.” And it actually became a big issue for me to say “no thank you. I just can’t do it. I appreciate the love but I can’t do it.” So that kind of brought a whole new culture to our church and it has worked.

BFT: Dr. Walker, how did you get on your personal fitness journey?

Dr. Walker: Well, I’ve always been somewhat of a fit person but then of course my husband and I got married and going from Boston, Massachusetts to down here in the South, within three months I put on 10 pounds. And of course I walked in my closet one day and couldn’t fit much of anything that I had and I just looked at him and said “this is not going to happen to us. We are going to get it together. We are going to get back to where we know that God wants us to be,” and we started working out together. We got ourselves a personal trainer, chef and a nutritionist because it’s not just about working out but 60% or 70% of getting back into shape and good health is what you eat. People run around or they exercise like crazy and they come back home and eat whatever they want, thinking that they’ve earned the right to, not realizing that they’re really shooting themselves in the foot by erasing all the benefits of actually working out. We didn’t do it overnight but we did it in such a way that we were able to sustain it. So really, it was a complete lifestyle shift but it was one step at a time and I got back down to my normal healthy weight.

We workout fairly regularly when we can. Obviously when we travel sometimes it’s difficult but we’ve done things like put weights and other little things in our suitcases to make sure that if we don’t get to the gym, we can workout in our room. I even have DVD’s that I bought online and use to work out in my hotel room just to make sure that I keep moving. It’s not always about losing weight. It’s not about exercising for hours. It’s about doing something. Get up and be active in some way, shape or form. Sometimes just taking baby steps is good enough to at least get you started.

BFT: How have you seen ChurchFIT grow and develop over the last four years?

Dr. Walker: Wow! It’s grown and developed in such a way that people look forward to it. At first, people were just curious but now understand that it’s something that could really help to transform, not just their life but the lives of their families. We’ve seen an increase in teachers and participation in terms of our youth and children as well, not just the adults. We have seen more of our “senior saints,” (50+) exercising with us. We’ve also added classes, from two to ten. We have two cooking classes with one at each location and added additional chefs. We have also added another component in terms of education and congregational awareness such as hosting campaigns and classes regarding heart health, stroke awareness, and diabetes education.

Bishop Walker: Recently in church we brought attention on how to actually identify strokes. We had a big campaign and that was really awesome.

Dr. Walker: During kidney awareness month, we had professionals come out and do urine screening to check people for kidney disease. We talked about the kidney transplant waiting list and how some of our congregants have actually received kidneys. We also have people who have recently received heart transplants. So when we have teachable moments, we take full advantage of them and make sure people don’t just walk away with 15 seconds of information, but they walk away with a heartfelt story that will touch them. We also do blood drives and awareness campaigns around helping with the need to donate blood for our families who have children with sickle cell disease. You name it – if it’s important, especially in the African-American community in terms of a disease that we’re trying to fight – we definitely focus on those things.

BFT: Do you believe that if we change the food we serve at church functions that this could serve as a motivational tool to eat better outside the church such as at home or dining out?

Dr. Walker: Absolutely. That’s exactly what we do. When Bishop talks about “ChurchFIT is not an event” –  it’s something that has formed part of a fabric of the institution in terms of our church. When we have church functions or events in the evening, we have healthy meals that are prepared for pastors after they preach. So we basically show them that it’s possible and that just because it’s healthy does not mean that it tastes bad.

We have amazing chefs that teach our congregants how to cook with the food that’s actually in their cupboards because you don’t always have to go to the store and buy something that’s completely foreign; you can prepare what you already have but just do it in a healthier way. Cut back on the salt; cut back on the butter. Use the healthier oil. Bake it instead of frying it. Grill it instead of frying it. Prepare salads, juices and smoothies that are healthy. So, it’s just really teaching people or giving people [healthier] alternatives. I’m a firm believer that people really do want to get healthy, so it is our job as the church to help. When you think about any huge movement that has taken place in our community, it started in the church. Church was the backbone in many of those movements back in the 60s, 70’s etc. In terms of disparities and healthcare issues that we see these days, the church has to be the backbone. When people go to church they’re expecting a word but they also seek guidance from the church. Often times it’s what their pastor says that they share with their doctors. That’s why it is so important to hear the messaging come straight from the pulpit. It’s also important to see the pastors actually operating within their own lives the things that they’re preaching and teaching from a health standpoint.

BFT: How young do you start to see certain conditions in children, like a predisposition obesity or diabetes, that may point to family history or parent’s issues?

Dr. Walker: That’s an excellent question. They’re doing a lot of studies in pediatrics regarding that very thing. They are definitely showing that there are long-term impacts in terms of what our kids are doing and what they look like as adults, which is why it’s so important because people don’t really take childhood obesity seriously. But for many of these kids, if they’re obese as children, they’re going to end up being obese teenagers, which turn into obese adults. And that’s why we’re starting to see things like type 2 diabetes, which used to be seen in older adults but now you’re starting to see type 2 diabetes in kids!

Health is not just when you go the doctor, health is not just when you call your doctor and tell him that you’re sick or that you have a cold. Health is something that you need to be aware of and think about on a daily basis; a part of the everyday conversation, just not at critical intervals when you’re sick. Because by the time you’re sick, you’re really sick. If you have to go to the hospital because your blood pressure is high, guess what? Your blood pressure has probably been high for years. So just helping people understand the truth that just because you’re feeling good doesn’t mean that you’re healthy. There are so many silent killers. If you don’t know why your hands are aching or why you’re having headaches, go to the doctor. We teach people to ask questions and be proactive about their health.

Bishop_Walker_Dr_Stephaine_Walker_2BFT: In your own day-to-day lives, how do you balance your schedules and passions with healthy living or living a healthy lifestyle?

Bishop Walker: Our schedules are incredibly hectic and I think that it’s really about being very dedicated and carving out time. As my wife indicated, we travel a lot so we find hotels that have nice gyms or we take things with us, simple things, so that we can work out. When you preach three or four times a week it’s just something you have to do. I think that it’s really about being intentional. It’s about really saying “yes life is stressful and all those things” but unless you carve this time out, it can get away from you. And so it’s really about understanding how important that area of your life is and to guard it at all costs, protect it and create opportunities to exercise.

BFT: What are your favorite healthy foods and meals?

Bishop Walker: We’re creatures of habit. I like things like kale, with grilled salmon or grilled chicken — prepared with some flavor — a baked potato and vegetables or brown rice and I’m good! I’m pretty much a salmon or baked chicken kind of guy, and I love berries! So raspberries, blackberries, strawberries – I will just go for those all day long. I like some pastas as well — our chef prepares turkey pasta or something to that nature.

Dr. Walker: I’m similar to Bishop. I really enjoy foods like grilled tilapia. I’ll eat salmon like he mentioned, and I love really good, well-seasoned seafood on top of a salad.

BFT: Now, when you all have a chance to kind of relax and have that so-called “cheat meal” or just a chance to indulge a little bit, what is it that you go to?

Dr. Walker: For me, it would include macaroni and cheese. And if there’s no macaroni and cheese around, I’m from Los Angeles originally, so anything with a Mexican flair, like tacos, burritos or something like that.

Bishop Walker: My cheat meal would probably be going to Chick-fil-A and getting a grilled chicken sandwich and some waffle fries.

BFT: How do we make something like ChurchFIT becomes a staple in the African-American church? How does this become a new standard?

Bishop Walker: Well, I think what we’ve been very blessed to have a ministry that supports, has some resources and the platform to elevate the production and really capture the attention of other churches to take health and fitness seriously and make it a priority. My wife and I represent a different dynamic for a pastor and a first lady, particularly in international reformation. We’re able to influence thousands of churches and millions of people with an agenda that includes health as one of the pillars. We really are able to effect change at the full gospel level within the Kingdom worldwide. It’s something we are very passionate about advocating. Every time that we can talk about we do, we know full gospel is a part of the shift in healthy lifestyle living and others watching see that.

BFT: Have people reached out to you to say “Hey! Bishop Walker, Dr. Walker, how can we do something like this at our church?”

Dr. Walker: Yeah. Definitely. We’re actually in the process of putting together what we call a “toolkit” in order to help other churches, ministries or programs understand what we have done at Mount Zion. Our goal is to create a fairly in-depth toolkit. One of the things we’re not selfish with is information. It’s not ours. It’s for the people. And I think you often times run into that when it comes to research and grants. Things like that, in terms of people being very protective – which is understandable – but with ChurchFIT it’s an open book. You want our information; we’re more than willing to tell you exactly how we did it. Our goal is to try to figure out “ff this is how we did it, then possibly you can try to implement it in your organization or in your church in this way.” But you may need to make some changes because it can’t be cookie cutter. Your needs may be totally different than ours and that’s okay but we can definitely help you figure out a way to make it work for you.

BFT: What are your plans for the future with ChurchFIT?

Dr. Walker: Our goal is to continue to expand, continue to add more classes, continue to branch out in the community in terms of expanding to Full Gospel Churches all over the country, expanding to local churches across the state and internationally. Clearly, we would hope to attract sponsorship to work the programs because again, Mount Zion is doing it but we’re doing it all for free. It doesn’t cost anyone a dime. We know that the real cost of exercise programs can be the thing that’s prohibitive for people in terms of being able to get into shape and being able to reach their health goals. And so, one of our major goals would be to show people “Hey! This really works, come aboard,” and sponsor some of our programming so that we can reach even more people.

Want to know more? Visit Mt. Zion’s website for all things ChurchFIT!

Ilen & Lauren Bell are the husband and wife team behind Black Fitness Today, born, in 2011, out of their motivation to change culture, build a platform and lead the charge. Their purpose is to help change the culture towards health and fitness in the African-American community, showcase those who are making an impact, and promote healthier living. They also aim to serve as a platform for African-American fitness and health professionals and enthusiasts who are otherwise overlooked in traditional fitness media.

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Interviews

Bernie Mac’s Widow, Rhonda McCullough, Talks Regaining Health after Loss

“In October of 2016, I made up my mind. I said, ‘This was it,’ and I’ve been committed ever since.”

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Rhonda McCullough, Bernie Mac, widow

Rhonda McCullough, Bernie Mac’s widow, has dealt with so many life changes over the years. After losing her husband, then her father and mother last year, Rhonda’s eating habits became increasingly unhealthy and her weight skyrocketed. It wasn’t until last year after her mother’s death, that she decided to change her eating habits, and shed the weight. Today, Rhonda has lost over 70 pounds by eating healthy and keeping a regular exercise routine. She’d like to let others know, that if she could do it, so can you!

Black Fitness Today caught up with Rhonda McCullough, to learn more about how she turned pain into triumph and how she kick-started her weight loss journey!

Describe yourself as you can remember while you were with Bernie Mac:
I was a young mother, a young wife and a stay-at-home mom for a while. That’s where I came into my weight issues; being at home, a little bored, and having a baby… I’d eat a dozen of doughnuts, then I’d say, “wow I can’t believe I ate all of that.” It was always the sweets.

So your weight problems started as a young mother, even while Bernie Mac was still living?
Oh absolutely. The weight issues started after my pregnancy. I gained close to 80lbs. After I delivered her, I lost 20lbs, then I went on a strict diet. I ended up getting back down to my original pre-pregnancy size, and I maintained that weight for a while.

How long were you able to sustain that post-pregnancy weight loss?
I was able to lose the weight, but I couldn’t sustain it for very long. Bernie Mac worked 4pm to midnight, and I’d wait for him to come home before eating dinner, and you know, you can’t eat late like that, plus I wasn’t active. As African-Americans, we’re not taught that you must exercise daily to sustain weight loss. You have to exercise, you have to move, and I didn’t do any of that. So as life went on, I ate, and I gained the weight back, especially once Bernie got sick.

After Bernie Mac got sick, how did that affect your weight loss?
Bernie was diagnosed with sarcoidosis in the 80’s. As his sickness progressed, it just got worst for me. I was here taking care of him. After he died in August 2008, I could only think, “What am I going to do now?” I just didn’t care about my diet after that. Nothing was healthy, nothing was good. I remember saying to myself, “I’m going to be fat the rest of my life.”

What happened between 2008 and now?
After Bernie died in 2008, my dad died months later. In 2010, I joined Weight Watchers and ended up losing 70lbs. I got remarried at the end of 2010 on New Years Eve. From 2010 to 2013, I don’t know how, but the weight crept back on me. In 2016, my mom got sick. She was in and out the hospital, it was just so stressful and I didn’t care about my diet again. I was at my highest weight that I’d ever been. I just couldn’t stay focused on the weight loss.

What was the turning point for you?
I have a good friend, he told me, “You know what Rhonda, you’re a beautiful person, no matter what size you are. Stop talking about yourself… if you don’t like how you look, change it, only you can change it.” I’ve been a yo-yo dieter my whole life. So this time around, because I’m turning 60 this year, I said I wanted to be healthy, and I wanted to look good. So slowly but surely, I started making changes. After my mom died, months later, I knew it was time for a major change. In October of 2016, I made up my mind. I said, “This was it,” and I’ve been committed ever since.

How has your diet changed?
I cut out sugars, white foods, potatoes, sodas, I only ate lean meats and vegetables, and I did that for four months. I got tired of that so I decided to incorporate some foods back into my diet, but in moderation. You just have to learn how to compromise.

Are you happy?
I honestly am. I love the way my shirts and blouses fit; I love the way my jeans fit. I’m a size that’s suitable for me. I want to lose maybe 10-15 more pounds but I honestly am happy with the way I look now.

What are some words of encouragement that you would give someone going through the same thing you went through?
Right now in this moment, no matter how you feel, or how you look, you still have to love yourself. We always show compassion to other people, but we never show that same compassion to ourselves. Within loving ourselves, we can make a change. Start small, it doesn’t have to be big. Don’t make goals that are too big and overwhelming. Take something away for a week. Start walking everyday for 10 minutes, until you can build up and do more. Baby steps. Rome wasn’t built in a day. It’s not a diet, this is a lifestyle. Not to say you can’t enjoy some things, just not every day. We have to learn how to love ourselves and not let the food consume us. Eat to live, don’t live to eat.

Rhonda McCullough plans to continue her weight loss journey while living on purpose! Follow Rhonda on IG at @mcculloghgilmore.

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Living Fit The Civil Way – How A Healthy Lifestyle Powers Karen Civil’s Success

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karen civil
Photo credit: Noel Daganta

Karen Civil, Live Civil, Black Fitness Today

It’s another beautiful November day in Los Angeles, and it’s shoot day. Karen Civil is en route, and the team is preparing for her arrival. You can feel how the atmosphere changes when she walks into the studio. She brings an aura of confidence, yet calmness. Even while she’s ironing out details of her schedule for the rest of the week, she’s in lock step during shoot prep. Karen is like a chameleon who can rock many different looks and shine bright while doing it.

Everyone has their own method of preparation for photo shoots. We can imagine that in being a cover girl for a fitness mag, she wanted to be ready. But, her lifestyle, work ethic, and commitment to maintaining good health and a solid physique proved to be a perfect return on investment on shoot day.

The Elizabeth, New Jersey native now residing in Los Angeles is one of the best digital strategists in the game.  Even if you still don’t know who she is by now, you probably know her work and have seen her footprint. Check some of her most notable receipts:

Remember when Weezy went to prison? Karen was responsible for the creation of his fan site weezythanxyou.com, that kept his fans connected and brand intact during his incarceration. This was crucial because it was before social media gave us all direct access to our favorite celebs and entertainers.

You know all those Beats by Dre ads with notable athletes and entertainers wearing the headphones while getting a glimpse into their journeys? She spearheaded that campaign.

The booming success of mainstream artists like YG, Nipsey Hussle and Dave East and more, link back to her, as she has elevated these artists into formidable brands.

One of Karen’s platforms, karencivil.com, which kicked off in 2008, has been unique in the hip-hop industry because it is credited with introducing now global superstars to the world before anyone else including Drake, J. Cole, and Nicki Minaj.

Karen and her team launched the LiveCivil playground in Haiti, the place of her roots, to create a safe place for children to be able to play and express themselves.

Karen Civil is not only holding her own in a male-dominated industry, but is setting the path that women — and men — want to follow.

What enables Karen Civil to be the powerhouse that she is goes beyond her knowledge, experience, and connections. It is often said that our health is our greatest wealth. How can we live out our fullest potential if we aren’t healthy enough to do it? This is an idea that Karen takes very seriously; it gives her balance and a solid foundation.

Self-care has enabled her to successfully fight her battle with anemia, and maintain not only a solid body, but a solid mental state – something so crucial in the industry she dominates each and every day.

Flip to the next page to read our interview with Karen to find out what fitness means to her, why she felt it was best to let go of her vegan lifestyle, what keeps her grounded, and advice she has on brand-building.

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Hollywood Stylist and Former WAGS LA Star Ashley North Talks Healthy Living

The Fashion Maven Dishes Juggling Motherhood, Career, and Personal Fitness In Style

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ashley north, black fitness today, home decor, celebrity stylist
Photo credit: Shannon Laurine

Black Fitness Today got a chance to catch up with fashion maven & stylist to some of Hollywood’s most dapper actors, Ashley North. Ashley, formerly of E! Network’s WAGS LA and fiancé to one of the toughest players in the NFL (Dashon Goldson), shares her workout regimen and how she juggles both worlds of motherhood and staying fit for the fashion!

As a busy mom, how do you incorporate fitness into your daily regimen?

It’s hard, but I have to do it!!!  My girls are so active and in order to keep up I have to be in shape!!! (laughs)

Why is fitness an important part of your life? How does it help you?

Fitness is important, I mean I’m a fashion girl at heart and to look good and feel good I have to work out. It helps me with feeling strong inside out, there no better feeling than being fearless and knowing your body’s capabilities and strengths.

Tell us about your workouts! What are your favorite exercises and why?

I do some classes at my gym but mainly circuit training with my trainer, every session we focus on something new and it keep me on toes and most importantly it makes my workouts fun! My favorite workout… is anything that has to do with ABS!!! I’m trying to get bikini ready and keeping my tummy tight is so major.

Since your fiancé is NFL Pro baller, Dashon Goldson, do you all enjoy any workouts together? (Share Detail)

LOL (Laughs) Honestly Dashon is such a professional I can’t hang with him in gym. He will try to work out with me but he gets intense and I just can’t keep up! We have a membership at the same gym and he’s so encouraging and really tries to help me but there’s no competing with a pro baller.

How does your diet impact your fit family?

I really try to stay as healthy as possible and try to create innovative ways for the girls to enjoy eating heathy, but my fiancé is Jamaican so it’s tough! His mom taught me some amazing recipes and I always incorporate a veggie with our meals. For snacks, we eats lots of fruits and I’m always down for a good smoothie or protein shake.

ashley north, celebrity stylist, black fitness today

Photo credit: Shannon Laurine

How do you make sure your family stays fit and healthy?

Our oldest stays in sports, she’s very active, basketball, soccer you name it she’s in it. We maintain our workouts, Dashon trains every morning so he’s GOALS for us all. With him being an athlete it makes it easier for us to stay on track.

What’s on your workout playlist?

Anything rachet I LOVE IT!!! (laughs)

What is your gym bag?

Uhmmm, this is a good question… bottled water, towel, misted water, a hair tie, and an oversized hoodie for sure!!

What your favorite way to cool down from an intense workout session?

Honestly, I literally lay on the floor and pass out. I push myself, so when it’s over I collapse. But I’m good at listening to my body and a good protein shake to help with muscle recovery.

Tips for mothers juggling family and work?

Find the time for yourself. I’ve noticed I feel most confident when I feel fit and look good in my clothes. When I’m working out that’s MY time to really focus on ME (we all need that). So, finding the time to do something for yourself is KEY!

What is your favorite gym outfit? Favorite fitness clothing brand?

Right now, I’m loving CARBON38, they have really cool fit/leisure wear and everything is high-waisted and really on trend. The materials are luxe and I’m a complete fan of this brand.

For more on Ashley follow her on Instagram @ashleynorthstyle!

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