Finding Balance as an Achiever by Heather Neisen


Heather Neisen is a Residence Director at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. She completed her graduate work at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas and has completed 6 half-marathons and 2 full marathons. Follow Heather on twitter at @HLPie or read her blog on the mental process of running at


The conversation surrounding health typically emerges out of a need to “clean up” our behaviors and routines. We aren’t getting enough sleep or exercising or eating well. But my story is a cautionary tale about what happens when we go too far into the extreme of just the opposite – when we are too focused or legalistic about our health to the point of unhealthy behaviors.
I am an StrengthsFinder identified achiever and carry with me all the attributes it describes. It was a no-brainer for me to go on to graduate school after completing my bachelor’s degree, because it would be another accomplishment to check off the list and because I loved the field and working with students. I entered into a graduate cohort of similarly ambitious peers. If you could set a big goal we could accomplish it. All it took was a little discipline. Thinness has always been a big goal that I never seemed to be able to attain. Thinness to me wasn’t about health. It was about appearances – and I never seemed to care how I got there. I had struggled in undergrad with my appearances and never felt that I was measuring up, but every time I tried a new diet or tried to workout harder, I inevitably failed and never really gained or lost any weight.

In graduate school, I wrote out my goals and realized that I should make it a goal to lose 15lbs. That seemed reasonable. I weighed in at 125lbs. and being 110lbs. seemed “healthy.” I was at a point professionally where I was constantly advising students about how to take big goals and break them down into little, tangible daily goals. For the students? Read 30 pages a day for 5 days and you have your 150 page assignment finished. For myself? Eat 500 calories below your daily allowance and eat back any calories you workout and you will lose 1 pound per week. It was a harmless goal at first-limiting what I ate, working out a little more, and it was something that I could incorporate into my overly packed life with little thought.

Working in Residence Life and eating in the cafeteria, you’d think I’d be quick to fall off the bandwagon, but I was focused. Breakfast? A bowl of oatmeal topped with berries. Lunch? A plate of every vegetable in the salad bar plus pita and hummus. Dinner? A basic protein and maybe a carb. Still hungry? Grab hot water or green tea and maybe a an apple. And to no surprise, the pounds started melting off. I lifted weights from time to time, but the scale soon read 121lbs. Then there was the day I broke 120lbs and so on. I was so high on the numbers dropping that I honed in even further. At 115lbs. I decided to try out running – I had heard it torched calories and my lighter frame felt easier to move. I went outside one evening and ran 4 miles easily. I ran 7 miles that weekend to prove I could do it. I lifted more weights and realized that muscle would make me more slender. After 5 months of intense focus, I weighed 109lbs. I signed up for a full marathon and basked in the endorphins of long runs. I was a robot. I remember the pride I felt when classmates would tell me I looked thin. I loved feeling invincible. I wasn’t getting sick like I usually would, I was able to manage my nightly cravings by drinking hot tea, and I felt like a master of the cafeteria’s often-tempting food choices.

After 4 months of training for a marathon, I suffered lowered energy levels. I went to an on-campus nutritionist and brought my logs (mind you, I was keeping track of every thing that went into or out of my body from fluids to food to exercise). I thought the nutritionist would praise me for my detail. She looked at the logs, aghast. She asked if I was under stress. I remember thinking “I’m in graduate school, about to job search and take comprehensive exams, my boyfriend lived 600 miles away and we are beginning to talk about marriage – of course I am stressed!” But she shook her head, told me that I needed to eat more fats and more carbs. She told me to stop keeping track of food and to stop weighing myself.

I left that office visit feeling frustrated. I thought I was being healthy and balanced. It was the first day on my journey to understanding how very wrong I had been. I ran that marathon, cried out of happiness as I crossed the finish line and enjoyed my day basking in accomplishment. The next morning I bought donuts for my class and felt like I was on top of the world. The day after that? I had a haunting feeling that I was gaining weight again and went back to counting calories. I tried running three days after the marathon (a running no-no). Good friends told me to stop, and I hardly listened and then went to the computer to find my next race to run.

Looking back, I was neurotic about calories in, calories out. I loved it when people noticed my slimness. I valued all the things I knew I shouldn’t be valuing. And then, as in most stories of human power, I got injured. I strained my IT band and it was painful to walk or run. I tried to start training several weeks later and barely could run one mile. I was humbled and very mad. I was still calorie conscious, but I was finally grasping my body’s limits. It didn’t happen overnight, it took months to know gaining pounds was okay, that a couple of calories here and there extra were going to make me have more energy.

The redemptive part of my story? Learning that I had never listed out my values. In working with college students, I challenged them daily to sort out their priorities and their values. I had never done myself the same courtesy. I sat down and realized I wanted to be a good friend, a trustworthy mentor, a motivating coach, and a loyal employee. I realized I wanted to be healthy, fit, and energetic and while yes, I did like the look of being slender, it was not worth the health risks. Accomplishments did not need to be so rigid. I realized that I love marathoning, but it was taking me away from friendships and investing in community the way I wanted to. I realized that I needed to eat good, hearty meals that fuel me. Raw veggies are great, but so are bread and and mashed potatoes (not to mention a cookie or two!)

More than that, I realized that affirming, loving friends and family are priceless. I know that people love me no matter my weight or size of my jeans, they love me for who I am and the talents and abilities I have been given. It is hard to admit that, even after 1 ½ years of embracing the new me. However, those days of calorie counting and running for hours will always haunt me and entice me back into negative thinking.

Balance is all about not too much and not too little. We have to remember that includes both ends of the spectrum. You won’t find me sitting around eating junk food and forgetting to exercise, but luckily, you won’t find me starving myself or running for 3 hours every day either. Being healthy is about finding that sweet spot. Nowadays, you’ll find me running 2-3 times a week, anywhere from 3-10 miles. I love the sport and it keeps me healthy. I weigh just shy of 120lbs, am full of energy, and love finding new recipes to bake and to try. I hope that my story encourages you to be healthy, but cautious to not to overdo it. Set reasonable goals and surround yourself with encouraging people. Also, take time to figure out what you value in life. I am running a half-marathon with my father-in-law on October 6th and our plan is run slow, steady, and to enjoy the process, what could be a better goal than that?



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