Nikki Staab was not athletic growing up. After experiencing some health problems in her early 20s, however, she realized she needed to make a lifestyle change. Now 41, she’s the owner of Tacoma-based Fitness for Life, where she dedicates her career to helping clients discover the joy and power of exercise — and ditch their scales and tape measures in the process.
I could not have been further from healthy when I was younger. There was a lot of difficult stuff happening in my family, so at an early age I started partying, drinking, and smoking. In college, I only ate processed foods and made fun of people who worked out. Now I’m a personal trainer, so that’s kind of funny.
I was probably 19 or 20 when I got diagnosed with a stomach ulcer. Then I was diagnosed with an eating disorder and was going through treatment for that. That’s when I started doing martial arts — Muay Thai kickboxing — and I totally loved it. It was so helpful for me, dealing with stress and all these things going on in my family.
There were so many things happening around me that I just had no control over. My doctor had put me on antidepressants, but right after that I started kickboxing, and he took me off of them. Endorphins are the best antidepressant on the market. For the first time I was exercising because it was fun and felt good and not because I needed to burn calories or lose weight.
I wanted to get stronger and faster and healthier, so I hired a trainer. But for me, having that eating disorder background and working with a trainer — I mean, he was a great trainer, but there was this huge block of information that he was missing, so a lot of the things he suggested — writing down food, counting fat and calories — were really triggering for me.
We’re up to almost 75 percent of the population being overweight or obese. I just think that most of those people are uncomfortable in a gym or have been treated badly in a gym. I wanted to do something different, create an environment where people feel comfortable and exercise can be more fun.
I got certified as a trainer and built a small gym in the house where I lived and did mobile training. Then I opened up this studio in Tacoma, Fitness for Life, in 2009, and I’ve been here ever since.
We do things a little bit differently here. We don’t weigh or measure anyone. We don’t consider weight loss a goal — it’s a side effect. We work on strength as a goal. That will change how they interact with the world. People feel a lot happier a lot faster that way.
People have to address the problem of how they got into their unfit state in the first place, why they didn’t want to work out or don’t like nutritious food. We work on that so that fitness, and cooking, and food hopefully just becomes something that is an enjoyable part of your life. You’re not on a diet — you’re just eating food. You’re not doing a workout — you just lead an active life.
It doesn’t have to be a real formal thing. People tend to think of exercise as all or nothing. But do you have five minutes in the morning? Then you can get started. It matters more to establish the routine, then add to what you’re doing because the mental block is gone. If you have five minutes, you have 10. You have 15. It just builds over time. And it’s far more likely to stick over the long haul because you slowly integrated it into your life.
A lot of my clients have a habit of weighing themselves regularly. I love to challenge that: Why do you need to know? They’re usually afraid they’ll lose control. My response is always, “What if you were just more familiar with your own body? Do you feel powerful? Do you have enough energy? Are you sleeping well? How are your stress levels?” I can show you five pictures of myself at 210 pounds, and every picture looks different — so why are we so attached to a number if it doesn’t even really dictate appearance?
I want to encourage larger-bodied people to be trainers. I think there are so many people who want to be trainers but feel like they need to lose weight first. But fitness should be about empowering people and making space for all bodies, so nobody is intimidated or shamed. That’s what I hope I’m doing here, with my studio. That’s why I do what I do. — As told to Writer Zoe Branch