Only a handful of years ago, just how much cover athlete Kelsey Wells prized an ultra-fit physique was more than evident. When this Fitness Star first appeared on the cover of STRONG in 2019 as an up and comer gaining a notable fanbase on social media, Kelsey says it was at the leanest and most ripped she’s ever been. But no matter how beautiful and positive the experience felt at the time, that uber-dialed-in look came at a price this now renowned Sweat Trainer and champion for mental health prefers not to pay.
“I remember my first shoot with STRONG vividly. I was very nervous, I was exceptionally insecure,” Kelsey admits. “I was struggling mentally, I think. I didn’t really know it at the time, but some body dysmorphic thoughts were creeping in. I was holding myself to an insane standard.”
The celebrated creator of the PWR (power) Workout programs, and the Redefine Fitness Strength and Mindfulness series says that although she walked away from that cover shoot incredibly happy, it was quite a contrast to the way she’s felt this time around. “When I think back about how I was in my head that day versus how I have felt now, how I have thought about myself and my body today… That’s strength, that’s growth, and that’s progress… Because I feel good in my skin—and it doesn’t have to do with how much muscle mass I have, how lean I am, or how much I can lift. It’s a strength that comes from knowing who I am and being okay with that. So it’s been a really beautiful full-circle experience.”
“I was struggling mentally, I think. I didn’t really know it at the time, but some body dysmorphic thoughts were
creeping in. I was holding myself to an insane standard.”
Over the past four years, Kelsey says she’s changed. A lot. “I’ve been through so much. It’s emotional to look back because even at the beginning of my career, I was talking about my postpartum mental health issues and I would share my journey almost as if I had arrived at a space that was healthy… But with my evolving career in fitness came a whole new package of struggles,” she says. Layered with the pandemic, motherhood, and growing into who she is, it’s become another journey altogether.
Kelsey’s Instagram following is nearly three million now. A mind-blowing reality that’s the result of her sharing not only effective workouts, but an unfiltered account of her perspective on fitness and how it shapes us in every capacity. Which she credits to the birth of her son Anderson, now almost nine years old. Kelsey originally began exercising consistently for the very first time during adulthood after Anderson’s birth to cope with postpartum anxiety, depression, and her struggle with a sense of self. “It was the first time I attempted to implement regular exercise to try to help my body heal, instead of using fitness out of hate for my body—and that made all the difference for me,” says Kelsey. Having Anderson was, unexpectedly, the catalyst for her finding her career—and calling, which Kelsey describes as, “Helping as many women as possible redefine fitness for themselves, by shedding all the toxic, harmful narratives that unfortunately fitness has been packaged and sold in for a long time.”
As a result of her experiences, Kelsey is driven to continue putting mental health at the forefront with fitness. “I have a very personal and professional understanding that our mental health matters the most. Our health is not separate, so we can no longer afford to allow our efforts with eating and nutrition and exercise and training to be a detriment to our mental well-being. Unfortunately, sometimes that’s the case. I experienced that firsthand in my life in many different ways, and coming out of that and really healing and arriving at this place, I want to do everything I can to help other women understand that exercise can and should be a tool for self-empowerment and a way to care for and strengthen your mental well-being instead of take away from it.”
"I won’t ever put myself and my truth aside to please anyone else. Not in my personal life, not in my career, not in my motherhood. If I had to say one definitive non-negotiable, it is that I have to live true to myself first. I’m going to make mistakes, it’s going to look messy, but I know that if I do that, I’m going to be okay."
Kelsey’s commitment to mindfulness has been her biggest shift, and it’s prompted her to release a three-step program that can be applied to any fitness routine. Using the acronym, I AM, Kelsey’s Redefine Strength and Mindfulness program infuses classic, proven mindfulness techniques with lifting weights so that effort and time spent exercising and training is fortifying the mind. “You can take these three tools and plug them into any type of workout, any type of fitness, and they will ensure and teach you how to make your movement mindful.”
The first, set an intention.
“Just take 30 seconds at the start of your workout, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and in your mind say your intention for that session. Such as, I am doing this workout out of love for my body, to celebrate my body. And if you can’t get there yet, simply tell yourself, I am doing this session to care for myself and my health, or I am doing this out of respect for my body. Even if you don’t believe it yet,” says Kelsey. “You never will unless you get really intentional by shifting out of those more toxic reasons, so set that intention.”
The second tool is using affirmations.
“This one is huge because what we think is very powerful. When you are working out and your body is under stress, you have that feeling of your heart pumping, your palms are sweaty, you’re out of breath—that is a gift you give yourself,” explains Kelsey. “Money can’t buy it, no one can gift it to you, you are doing that work for yourself. And if you choose in rest period, instead of getting on your phone or tearing yourself down, to take those moments and reaffirm to yourself the truths, I’m strong, I’m powerful, I’m capable, it is amazing what it can do for you and how that can even fuel you to go further in your workouts.”
The final one is a moment of gratitude.
“At the end of every session, take another minute and place one hand on your belly and one hand on your chest and feel your breath rising and falling. Tell your body thank you; it is so powerful. This can feel a little bit foreign at first, you may be rolling your eyes thinking this is so cheesy I can’t do this—I used to think the same way,” Kelsey admits, “but I promise you, the more aversion you feel to those kinds of things, probably the more you need it.”
“I AM” is something Kelsey is proudly taking into the next stage of her life. She’s marking her 34th birthday this month, and she says she just doesn’t look at herself or at life the same linear way she used to. “I’m so grateful, to be alive, and for my body from a health perspective. That just takes such precedence over any aesthetics or training goal. Our physical health, our mental health, that’s all we have. I have an acute awareness of that now and I’m proud of that. And I’m proud of the way that I’ve handled and continue to handle the hardships that allow me to just be present in my life and more in tune with myself.” A reflection of her greatest goal.
“Sometimes I feel
like in our industry it’s not addressed, it’s not prioritized. So I’m on a mission to put mindfulness and mental health at the forefront. To me fitness is so much more than just physical, it’s mental, emotional, even spiritual.”
“If you asked me at my last cover shoot, I would have had a pretty long list of goals that I thought I wanted to accomplish to prove myself, from a personal level to a professional level and everything in between. But now, my biggest goal is to be more present. I want to be more aware of myself, my feelings, and my thoughts in any moment. I want to be with the people that I’m in front of. I want to enjoy the food that I eat. I want to feel my body move, and connect it to my self. It’s really that simple, because life goes so fast. That’s one thing motherhood has taught me. But if I can be present and if I can keep that as my center and my underlying goal, I know, even though I have no clue where I’ll be in five years, I’ll be where I’m meant to and I know that I’ll have joy.” Perhaps by sharing her journey, you will, too.