On Huge Lifestyle Changes, or My “Holy Hell, I’m Actually Doing This” Journey to Being Healthy

by Brenna Holeman

FYI, none of these photos are mine. I had no idea what kind of photos to use in this post so I just went with arty stock images of fruit and vegetables, because why not

Oh hello. How are you? It’s been a while… nearly two months, it appears, as I haven’t posted anything here since January 3rd. NOT the auspicious start I wanted for this year in blogging, but, as I’ve written about time and time (and time) again, I’m kind of the world’s worst blogger. You know how I try to write those blogging advice articles once in a while? Yeah. I should listen to my own advice sometimes.

I haven’t been posting here, that’s true. Social media has also taken a hit in 2019, as I’ve barely posted on Instagram, Facebook, or… wait, those are the only two I use anymore.

The truth is, I didn’t mean to be so quiet. As you may know, despite the fact that I straight up abandon this blog now and again, I fucking love it. It’s part of my identity, and always will be. It’s kind of like that childhood best friend that you might go a few months without talking to, but when you meet up, it’s like nothing’s changed. After 16 years of blogging, I’m not going anywhere, even if I take breaks here and there.

And the other truth is, just because I haven’t been posting here doesn’t mean I’m not writing. In fact, I’m writing tons. I’ve written dozens of blog post drafts, started putting the pieces together of a new manuscript (my old manuscript, for those wondering, is still happily collecting dust in my drawer, right beside my collection of Muji multicoloured pens and receipts from 2016), and established a few regular freelance clients.

The REAL truth is (this is getting monotonous) is that, since the beginning of January, I’ve been working toward a huge, life-changing goal. I’ve been working really, really hard, and the best part is, I’ve been succeeding.

It started as it always does, every January, when I decided to analyze my lifestyle, especially my eating and exercise habits. In 2017, I wrote a series called My Month Without Alcohol (and Men) and in 2018, I wrote My Month Without Bread, Booze, or Boys. They remain some of my favourite posts on this blog, and I had every intention of writing a similar series this January.

But by January 5th, two days after I joined a brand new gym, I had a thought that changed everything.

“I don’t want to be unhealthy anymore,” I thought to myself as I laid in bed that cold Saturday morning. It sounds like the simplest, most obvious thought to have, but this time it hit me in my core. I didn’t want to just be healthy in January. I wanted to be healthy all year round, all the time.

I’ve never thought of myself as unhealthy, but I’ve never thought of myself as healthy, either. I always thought I floated somewhere in the middle, if that makes sense.

But as I laid there, I started being honest with myself. I held nothing back. The truth – there’s that word again – was that I didn’t feel very good a lot of the time, both mentally and physically. I knew I was constantly coming up with excuses for why I didn’t eat well, why I didn’t exercise, and why I allowed my mental health to suffer when I knew there were things I could be doing to help.

Mentally, I spent most of 2017 in a very dark place, and revisited that place in late 2018. I cried often, though I wasn’t always sure why. I often felt extremely lazy, bored, and complacent. I’d lie around watching TV and then lament that I didn’t have enough time to work, see friends, AND go to the gym.

Physically, I easily felt winded, and sometimes had very little energy to even walk my dog Dottie for half an hour twice a day. I almost never exercised, never broke a sweat. On days I didn’t walk Dottie – when she was at day care, for example – I barely broke 1,000 steps. I’d pat myself on the back for a low to moderate twenty minutes on the elliptical once every two weeks at a gym I hated. I was in near-constant back pain, suffering from regular bouts of sciatica. I wasn’t sleeping well.

In terms of food, I added up my estimated daily calories and realized I was easily consuming 3,500 or more calories per day, a lot of them coming from alcohol, sugar, trans fats found in a lot of packaged food, and refined carbs such as white bread and pasta. I wasn’t drinking enough water, nor was I getting enough vitamins and minerals from food. The scale showed me that I weighed the most I ever have, and some of my favourite clothing no longer fit. My skin was breaking out regardless of my menstrual cycle.

I’m telling you, when I was completely honest with myself, it hit me hard. I had, for so many years, thought, “Oh, I’ll get in shape someday,” or “Oh, I could eat healthy if I tried/if I wasn’t travelling all the time/if I had more time/if I had more money.” But I knew I was out of excuses, I knew that, being home in Winnipeg, time and money were no longer issues. That’s part of the reason I moved home: so that I could have more free time and save more money, both have which have happened.

Now nearly 35 years old, I didn’t want to approach my forties and do damage to my body that might not be as easy to fix later on. I’ve always said that I feel so incredibly grateful for the body that I have, and I stand by it no matter what; the fact that I am able-bodied, am not on any medications, and have been healthy enough to travel through nearly 100 countries means I’m one of the most privileged people on the planet.

Thankfully, I’ve always been pretty happy with my body image. I like how I look, despite the hundreds of thousands of ads and images in the media that have bombarded me for the past three decades. I’m very lucky in that regard, and I wish I could explain how or why I feel that way, because it breaks my heart that so many people suffer from low self-esteem regarding their looks. I definitely have days where I feel unattractive, but for the most part, I’ve always felt confident and beautiful, even as I was teased in high school or called fat by ex-boyfriends (or Internet trolls… what’s up? It’s been a minute). Bottom line, this lifestyle change is much more internal than external.

Because I knew I could do better. I knew I was unhealthy, even if I tried to tell myself I wasn’t. I knew I didn’t want to just write a series for a month that, once the 31st rolled around, meant I was no longer held accountable to healthy living. And I thought back to those previous Januarys, when I’d taken much better care of myself, and remembered how good I felt.

So I did something about it.

I’ve tried this before; I even wrote a post about it, only to break about three days in. But today, two months into this drastic lifestyle change, I truly feel as though I’ve made enough of a change in both my mindset and my fitness that I can’t see ever reverting back to that lifestyle. They say it takes 66 days to form a new habit (21 days is apparently a myth, thank you Google), so I’m right around that mark. Although I’m aware that I’m riding the new high of all this extra serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins, I know that I couldn’t let myself go back to such a sedentary life. I don’t want to write a fun series about one month trying it. I want this to be forever. Because… you guessed it…

I feel fucking fantastic. I feel better than I have in a very, very long time. I dare say I feel the best I ever have.

I wanted to write about this change because I wrote about it on a (rare) recent Instagram photo, and a few people commented that they’d like to read about my journey. I also wanted to dip my toe back into blogging and, seeing as this has been a huge part of the last two months for me, it seemed natural to write about it.


Because I am the absolute queen of brevity (*cough*) I wrote everything out and it quickly added up to nearly 10,000 words (hint: productivity and creativity may be two things I’ve seen skyrocket since changing my lifestyle). I’m assuming most people don’t feel like reading an entire novella on someone else’s lifestyle changes in one go, so I’ve broken those 10,000 words into five blog posts that will be posted within the next two weeks, this being the first. Instead of the weekly blog posts I wrote in previous years in a series like My Month Without, I’m posting them all in a row. It just made more sense to me that way.

Coming up, you can read about how I’ve approached fitness (and stay motivated, including my favourite online resources), how I’ve approached food (including a few tips that have worked to stay motivated to eat healthily), how I’ve approached mental health (AKA why the fuck I’m not online anymore), and finally, the results I’ve seen and more importantly, the results I’ve felt, both in body and mind.

Before I get started, however, I want to point out a couple of things. Firstly, I am NOT in any way licensed or certified in nutrition, fitness, mental health, etc. This is simply what I have done to feel better and to feel healthier. I also want to point out that I have never had an unhealthy relationship with either food or exercise. While I’m currently keeping track of calories and exercise, I’m also aware that these can be triggers for some people.

Secondly, I need to point out my place of absolute privilege in embarking on this journey. Part of the reason I started in January was because I realized that if I don’t do this now, I might never do it.

For the record, I have no dependents, I have savings in the bank, I work as a freelancer/blogger (meaning I make my own hours), I am able-bodied, and I have no medical issues or serious injuries. What I’m doing right now requires both time and money, so I could never in good faith say, “Anyone can do this!” Because no, not everyone can do what I’m doing. I want to be sensitive to those who have medical issues, who have children and/or other dependents, who have a disability, or who are not financially able to do the same at this moment. Or, you know, people who have 9-5 jobs and all the other shit life throws at us. I am fully aware that my schedule and career have allowed me to dedicate so much time to this. As I said… if not now, when?

You’ll also notice that there are no goals written down here, and that’s because I don’t have any. I don’t have some number on the scale that I believe will magically make me happier. I don’t have some measurement I need to reach in order to feel like I actually accomplished something. It pains me when I read that from other people; that belief that if you “just lose X pounds”, everything will be OK. That if you have a thigh gap or a round butt or a six-pack you’ll suddenly be this perfect person, which is of course a giant myth. It’s not about that for me, as I feel that’s harmful thinking.

You can’t hate yourself into loving yourself, if that makes sense. I’m on this journey not to reach a certain number on a scale, but to feel strong, both physically and mentally.

I just want to be healthy. I just want to feel good.

Giraffe Manor Nairobi Kenya

Striving to be this happy, always, regardless of proximity to baby giraffes

I hope you’ll stick around to see what I’ve changed in my life, and what the results have been so far. While I’ll still write about travel whenever I can (and I have some exciting travels coming up), I really want This Battered Suitcase to be about what it says in the header: travel, love, life… and whisky. You best believe I didn’t cut out the whisky.

Up next: how I’ve approached fitness, how many guys I have a crush on at the gym (answer: trick question, I have a new crush every single day), and why I recently googled, “pulled muscle in butt” for the first time in my life.

Have you ever gone on a similar journey, or have you considered it before? 



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Linda February 28, 2019 - 7:09 am

Holy Hell, Batwoman, you really are doing it! It’s so wonderful to hear such a candid reveal about past and present: what wasn’t working, and now what is…for you. And that’s what I love about this post: the confirmation that there’s no one size fits all approach. Very inspiring. I can’t wait to read your next instalment!! xx

Brenna Holeman March 4, 2019 - 3:51 pm

Thank you so much 🙂 Your support means the world to me! I promise I’ll eventually stop texting with all of my minor accomplishments at the gym, ha ha. xo

Candice J Walsh February 28, 2019 - 10:11 am

We seem to be on very similar journeys, right down to the serotonin! Lol. I’ve lost 20 lbs since about October and have run two 5k runs since then. I promise once it becomes a habit, you won’t even want to look at fast food anymore, and you’ll crave physical activity so much you’ll wonder how you ever survived without it. I can’t wait to hear all about it!

Brenna Holeman March 4, 2019 - 3:53 pm

That’s so awesome, Candice!! Way to go! I am shocked at how much I like running, too… I always just assumed I couldn’t do it, because even as a teenager I struggled to run 1km. Now I’m up to 3km, and I feel amazing! I hope to run a 5k this summer. And yes… I ate a burger yesterday and felt AWFUL. WTF, ha ha.

Jemma February 28, 2019 - 11:16 am

Fantastic! And I love ‘you can’t hate yourself into loving yourself’ – so simple, so true. I stopped smoking weed and started going to the gym at 24 and realised my body was actually so much more capable than I’d thought. Since then I’ve run 10 races of marathon distance or longer, including one 55 mile race, and when I gave birth last year I was confident because I knew my body had already done hard things. I think health (when it is like this, coming from diet and exercise) is a gift you give yourself. Looking forward to the next installments!

Brenna Holeman March 4, 2019 - 3:58 pm

Holy crap!! You are superwoman! I do love that feeling… realizing you are so much more capable than you thought you were. When I started at the beginning of January I could only run for one minute without being out of breath… now I’m up to 25 minutes. It blows my mind but it’s also the best feeling ever, because I know I can push myself to even more. Thank you so much for sharing your story here!

Elizabeth February 28, 2019 - 1:17 pm

Congrats! I can’t wait to read the rest of this series! I was exercising every day after work for a while but then something derailed that and it seems like every time I think I’ll start again I get derailed. I’m looking forward to your helpful hints. This is also very motivating. Maybe I’ll start again with March…

Brenna Holeman March 4, 2019 - 3:55 pm

Thank you so much, Elizabeth! And yes, I think it’s very easy to get derailed… but nice to know that you already had that habit once, so I’m sure you can easily pick it up again. 🙂

Monica February 28, 2019 - 5:07 pm

Yay go Brenna! It makes me so happy to hear about people prioritising holistic health for mind and body, especially if they’re one of my favourite bloggers 🙂 you seem to have a really healthy attitude towards all this which is such a breath of fresh air in a world of 60 kg women with 10 kg weight loss goals and self hate (I write this as a 60 kg woman who has struggled with disordered eating and body image issues but is in a much better place now thanks to supportive family, exercise for the love of exercise, and knowing my triggers, aka I don’t touch scales). Also I would like to add that, while I think your positonality statement about your privilege is great there is something most people can do about health, it won’t look the same for each person, but there will always be something if someone looks hard enough and wants to find it, even if that thing is as simple as sitting in the sun meditating on one’s short lunch break.

Brenna Holeman March 4, 2019 - 4:01 pm

Ugh, I agree, it’s so disheartening to read those kinds of “goals”, as if the number on the scale is the only thing that matters, or that having defined collarbones or a thigh gap is something that should be heralded as the gold standard. I’m so glad that you’re in a better place now, that’s awesome! And yes, totally re: there’s always something you can do… I guess I just meant that not everyone can eat fresh, organic vegetables every day and go to the gym six times a week. But yes, there is always a way to work on our health!

Marlee February 28, 2019 - 7:35 pm

I love to read the enthusiasm in your writing – thank-you for sharing this part of your life adventure as it’s so relatable to all of us! I’m excited to read more – you’re inspiring!

Brenna Holeman March 4, 2019 - 3:53 pm

Aw, thank you so much, Marlee! I always appreciate your support so much. 🙂

Eleanor February 28, 2019 - 8:48 pm

Good for you! I can attest to the fact that this new commitment will become a routine completely embedded in your lifestyle if you continue. I have been going to the gym on average 3x per week for an hour each time for the past 4 years or so, and I can’t imagine my life without it. I highly recommend weight lifting. I love the ways my body has changed and become STRONG ?. It’s so empowering. Good luck and I can’t wait to hear more.

Brenna Holeman March 4, 2019 - 4:02 pm

Yes! I actually look forward to weight lifting more than anything else at the gym… I usually only do 30 minutes or so of cardio (though I walk my dog for an hour a day) and then spend at least an hour doing strength training. I love it so much. I think you’re right, I think this has already become routine for me! Here’s to being strong and healthy 🙂

Carrie March 1, 2019 - 4:56 am

You’re awesome. Good for you. ? So happy to read that you’re feeling your best. And you’re still making me laugh out loud. Queen of brevity you may not be, but I love your blog and I love how you’re taking care of yourself. Keep on inspiring! ?

Brenna Holeman March 4, 2019 - 3:56 pm

Aw, thank you so much, Carrie! I really appreciate your support. I’ll try to keep you laughing 🙂

Stacey Fabien March 1, 2019 - 6:40 am

This is great! What with moving to South Africa then to Namibia and getting new jobs etc we have found it really hard to get a healthy lifestyle but after having a case of burnout at the end of last year, 2019 is a year we just focus on our health. I’m really looking forward to the next articles!

Brenna Holeman March 4, 2019 - 3:54 pm

I get that! Sometimes life gets in the way… but I’m realizing more and more that if I focus on my health, everything else falls into place naturally. Best of luck with everything this year!

Melissa Bitz March 1, 2019 - 10:13 am

Brenna, thanks for sharing this with us! I can completely relate and look forward to reading the rest of the series.
I went through a huge mental health change last year. It took therapy and a lot of thought work. After two decades (since I was 13ish) of feeling insecure about my body and my looks no matter how low the scale got from working out and eating healthy or how many people told me I was beautiful, I felt unattractive.
When I started thought work last year, I wanted to change my knee jerk negative thoughts when looking in the mirror to good ones. Doing this helped me realize I was always looking for my flaws instead of looking at my great qualities. After months of practice, I now see the attractive qualities of myself and no longer notice the flaws that plagued my mind most of my life (unless I’m having a really bad day, haha). It has been a COMPLETE life changer.
Mental health is so important. I’m glad you’re working on yourself and feeling the results!

Brenna Holeman March 4, 2019 - 4:05 pm

Thank you so much for sharing this here, Melissa, and it’s so important to emphasis mental health when we’re discussing physical health! I read a blog post by someone recently that was all about their fitness goals with nary a mention of their mental health, and it made me question what the real goal was: to feel good or to “look good” in the mirror. I know which one I’d rather have in my life. I’ve made some huge mental health changes too (I’ll post about it very soon!) and it’s so awesome that you’re also feeling great these days!

Clair March 3, 2019 - 5:24 pm

Hi Brenna,

Love your blog! Your advise about India was immensely helpful for my first time there and traveling alone as a woman 🙂 I saw San Francisco was on your 2019 goals and as someone who lives there I wanted to offer to be a local guide/fellow traveler meetup if you like. This small city is so fun, but has its layers of crazy complexity.
Any who, I’m off to Bangalore and southern Thailand soon, but feel free to hit me up any time 🙂 IG @sfclair

Happy Trails!

Brenna Holeman March 4, 2019 - 4:02 pm

Aw, thank you so much, Clair! I have no idea if I’ll actually get to California this year but I’m really hoping to be there soon. Have an amazing trip!

Andi Talha March 4, 2019 - 6:24 am

Lovely inspirational and so honest! X

Brenna Holeman March 4, 2019 - 3:54 pm

Thank you so much, Andi! 🙂

Jackie March 4, 2019 - 3:36 pm

I love this so much. I’ve been following your blog for years and I don’t care if you don’t post often, when you do it makes up for the wait. Yours is the only “travel” blog I still read… I had to give up all of the other originals for various reasons (too many sponsored posts, too much arrogance). Thank you for your honesty and your amazing writing. As long as you’re blogging, I’ll be reading. Lots of luck on this new journey. x

Brenna Holeman March 4, 2019 - 3:56 pm

Wow, what an amazing comment, Jackie! Thank you so much for sticking around, it means the world to me. 🙂

Kiye Sic March 6, 2019 - 9:45 pm

Good blog. Thanks for sharing..

Brenna Holeman March 7, 2019 - 1:27 am


Sarah Willats March 13, 2019 - 5:04 am

I’ve seen your blog posts and social media off and on over the years but I don’t think I’ve ever commented. Your struggles in 2018 sound similar to mine at the end of the year and beginning of 2019. I’m an American freelancer living in Spain (with a work permit) and while my journey to the work I do now hasn’t been easy, it’s caused a lot of stress and discomfort to my body. I haven’t been very kind to myself but I also haven’t ever had a bad relationship with food. My main issue is being more active. I feel like I could spend all day working on various projects on my laptop (and sometimes I do) but I know deep down it’s not good for me. I had a similar thought that you had but I related it more to exercise. So, I’m striving to get more sun each day (you’d think in Spain this wouldn’t be a problem but freelancers work inside so much :P), stretching and getting my heart rate up more often. I have no excuse because physically I do look the way I want to look but I just lack strength and flexibility. Newly 30, I’m not getting any younger either!
Thank you for being open and giving a refreshing account of how you’re going to make your new habits into your new lifestyle. I look forward to following along and cheering you on! 🙂

Brenna Holeman March 13, 2019 - 5:13 pm

Thank you so much for commenting, Sarah! I really appreciate you sharing your story here as well as your support 🙂 And yes, I think as freelancers we can struggle a lot because we a) don’t have regular hours and b) can easily stay in our homes all day just to get work done… it’s not like we’re walking to an office, for example. Since being more active I find that I look forward to my work more, and when I sit down in front of the computer I actually work instead of wasting time. I hope you accomplish your goal of getting more sun… that’s a great goal to have! 😉

Zalie March 13, 2019 - 5:58 pm

I am SO proud of you sister! Thank you for sharing your story and being so honest about your newest journey( I usually don’t like using the word journey but I do feel it is fitting in this situation)! You are an inspiration!

Brenna Holeman March 18, 2019 - 11:58 pm

Thank you so much, sister, and thank you for all of your amazing support! xoxo


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