Find out how this gym hater turned into a marathon runner and helped heal her heart and mind.
side by side before and after images of woman's health journey

Johanna Chesser is a kindergarten teacher who found exercise and eating healthy helped take care of her heart and manage her depression and anxiety. Now she's running a marathon (and then some) as part of the Dopey Challenge at Disney World next year. Find out how she stays motivated and still makes room for pizza and ice cream.

Q: How did you get started on your journey to getting healthier?

My weight-loss journey began when I started teaching. I was having unexplained chest pains and trouble breathing at night. I went to see a cardiologist and discovered I have a heart murmur and mitro valve prolapse. The cardiologist told me I should lose weight, because the extra weight was affecting my heart and my overall health.

I also live with depression and take medication daily. My psychiatrist advised me to start exercising to help my depression. Being overweight, depressed, and then finding out about my heart made me change my life. Simply put, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.

Q: How have you made your healthy habits stick and what keeps you motivated?

My journey began in my early thirties. I will be 42 in August. It took at least a year for me to get used to my new healthy habits. I hated going to the gym and meal prepping when I first started. (Just getting started: try our Beginner's Guide to Meal Prep.)

I stayed consistent and it got easier. I believe consistency is the key. You must do this even when you don't want to. Meal prep is also very important. I pack my meals for work and I get to pack foods that I enjoy.

A healthy lifestyle shouldn't be a punishment. Waking up daily healthy and happy keeps me motivated. Life is a gift, our bodies are our temples and we must take care of ourselves-body, mind and soul.

Q: What have been the biggest benefits to changing your lifestyle? (beyond the scale)

The biggest benefit beyond the scale has been my chest pains and shortness of breath have pretty much gone away. I truly believe changing my lifestyle has helped my heart. My depression and anxiety are managed. The research is out there to prove living a healthy lifestyle helps depression and anxiety.

I feel better mentally after working out. As stated, I take medication for my depression, however I feel working out and eating well has a major impact on my mental health. I have the stamina to do my job. I am a kindergarten teacher and I need to have lots of energy to keep up with demands of my job.

Q: What are some of your favorite healthy meals?

I love food. Some of my favorite healthy meals and foods are salmon and broccoli, fish tacos, oatmeal with sliced bananas, egg whites, chicken, spinach and quinoa. I love a nice salad with a vinaigrette dressing. I love fruits and veggies. I eat almonds, protein shakes and cheese packs for snacks.

Q: What are your favorite ways to stay active?

I love the gym and I run. I recently ran my first full marathon. I love weight training. The gym has become a second home to me.

I used to compete in figure competitions when I was younger. That was an incredible journey. I was in the gym 6 days a week 3 hours a day. I had to split my workouts morning and afternoon because of my work schedule. I did very well.

Out of nowhere, I had unexplained weight gain and my waist went from 27 to 32 inches. I was having back pains. I went to the doctor and I discovered I had three pounds of uterine fibroids. I had them removed. I recovered and my body began to feel better. I resumed weight training and then decided I wanted to run.

Now I enjoy running. I ran my first 5k in 2014 and never looked back. I've met some amazing people running and competing in bodybuilding. I am currently training for the Dopey Challenge in 2020. Four days of running. A 5k, 10k, half marathon, and full marathon (editor's note: wow!).

Q: What is your biggest challenge to maintaining your healthy lifestyle?

It can cost a little bit of money. You prioritize what is important in life and my health is important to me. I must budget to make certain I can buy my food, supplements, pay for races, shoes, clothes, etc. I make it work because it's my passion.

Q: What's your biggest indulgence?

Cheese, chocolate, ice cream, pizza and cereal. Because I love these foods, I make adjustments to my diet, so I can have them when I want them. I don't fear food. I workout too much not to enjoy cereal when I want it. After my full marathon, I was hungry. I ate two cheeseburgers and tater tots and a cupcake. Of course, that is not something I do every day and I have no desire to eat like this daily, because I allow myself to have foods I like when I want them.

Q: What's something you wish you knew when you got started that you would tell people now?

I wish I knew I didn't have to give up foods I enjoy cold turkey in order to lose weight. Yes, the diet is important however it is OK to enjoy what you like in moderation. I've been doing it for 10 years now. You won't gain 10 pounds enjoying a slice of birthday cake. You can eat good food, lose weight and keep it off. It is not easy, but it can be done.

I would also tell people to not to compare themselves to people we see in print or online. You are not them and you have to focus on yourself.

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Find out how the Cooking Light Diet can help you lose weight and still eat foods you love.