Why I do what I do…

I am a former fitness model. Former because I’m now focusing on my professional career as a medical writer and following my mission in life, which is to help educate doctors on the latest medical research findings (I write continuing medical education (CME) material for health care professionals) and empower people to take control of their health. Here I will tell you why...
But I stay in modeling shape all year round even though I don’t pose for the cameras any more for a living. I am constantly being asked in the gym “how do you stay in shape all the time” and “when is your show”… so I felt l wanted share my story in writing because I think it can help many people who are struggling with sticking to regular exercise and healthy eating, as well as those who are undergoing life tradegies…

My motivation

The reason I stay in shape all the time, even after having retired from fitness modeling, is that I am living my passion for health and fitness. I train because I love working out and because I find enjoyment in working out. I never trained “to get ready for a photo/video shoot”. Photographer’s used to love that they could schedule a shoot with me with short notice because they knew “she is always in shape”.
I’m “always in shape” (this is how people express it) because I have an intrinsic motivation for fitness and health promotion. Since childhood I was admiring athletes and wanted to become an athlete. I started to lift at an age of 13 and instantly fell in love with the iron in the gym. This was a profound eye opening experience for me because nobody in my family is an athlete and I wasn’t sure I could become an athlete. A few years later when I noticed how my body responded and how my performance skyrocketed, I excitedly realized that I really do have athletic capability. This further strengthened my intrinsic motivation for working out.
When talking about motivation, if I ask you “how strong is your motivation on a scale from 1 to 5” most people could probably answer easily. But if I ask “what quality is your motivation”, people go “huh”?
I am going to write much more about the mechanics of motivation and motivational quality in upcoming articles. Here I just want to point out that the reason most people are struggling to stick to an exercise program and healthy eating is that their motivation is extrinsic.[1, 2] In other words, their motivation is controlled to different degrees by external factors. When the reason people workout is extrinsinc – for example, they do it to get in shape to please somebody or to get attention etc. – exercising won’t fulfill their basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence and relatedness.[1, 2] This kills persistence and paves the way to unhappiness and unhealthy “dieting” practices, and explains the high drop-out rates in exercise programs.[1, 2]

My father’s fatal heart attack at 48…

My childhood admiration for athletics laid the foundation for my intrinsic motivation for fitness and performance. The foundation for my intrinsic motivation for health is more tragic… three days before my 7th birthday I lost my father in a sudden fatal heart attack. He was only 48… he was living a very unhealthy lifestyle. He never got a second chance. This experience had a profound impact on my development, values and life choices. I ended up with a Master Degree in Nutrition and health promotion, which has given me an invaluable insight into how exercise and nutrition impacts health. 
Cardiovascular disease - aka heart disease - is the leading global cause of death; heart disease (including Coronary Heart Disease, Hypertension, and Stroke) remains to be the No. 1 cause of death in the US.[3] Cardiovascular disease accounts for 1 of every 3 deaths in the US; about 2,200 Americans die of cardiovascular disease each day, an average of 1 death every 40 seconds.[4]
My father’s death could have been prevented if he exercised and had healthier food habits. This is why I have a very strong passion for health promotion and am on a mission to help empower and inspire people to take control of their health. I want to be a good role model and live what I preach. 

My family history of breast cancer

I have a long family history of breast cancer, which like heart disease, can be prevented.[4] My mother recently underwent bilateral mastectomy and is a breast cancer survivor. One in 8 women in the United States will develop breast cancer in her lifetime [5] and regular exercise is a strong protection against breast cancer development.[4, 6] Another boost to my intrinsic motivation for health promotion!
My near death experience… acute brain surgery
2003 I had an acute brain surgery, which was a near death experience… Apparently I have an anatomical difference in my sinuses that makes me susceptible to ear infections… and brain infections. My diagnosis was cerebral abscess, which is a life threatening condition.[7] I was hospitalized for 2 months… 
I must have had an angel watching over me; while still hospitalized I started to study for my final exam in college at the University of Stockholm/Karolinska Institute, Sweden. I graduated 1 year later - at an age of 24 - with a Master Degree and the next year I moved to the US to start PhD level coursework at Baylor University in Texas. The older I am getting, the stronger I’m feeling I have a purpose in life and that there’s a reason I am alive…

Me today

After I retired from modeling I had an interesting experience… I am now enjoying my workouts so much more because I feel I go to the gym because I want to (i.e. I feel completely autonomous), not because I have to (as when I was modeling and under external pressure to look a certain way). I workout seriously because I enjoy it, to prevent cardiovascular disease and breast cancer. And to celebrate being alive! I am grateful for everything I have been though because it strengthened my psyche and changed my outlook and direction in life.
I’m thinking, there’s a clue here… if I can feel this enjoyment from working out and living the health/fitness lifestyle, there must be a way I can help others feel the same... I started to study health psychology and found an impressive line of research on the self-determination theory [1, 2]… I was awestruck how well it explained my own experiences!
The take home message to everybody who is struggling to stick to an exercise program and healthy eating: “change your mind and your body will follow”. Don’t make “get in shape” your primary goal. Exercise for your health and well-being. For your own good. Not for external pressures. Stop looking for the “most effective exercises”; find the exercises you enjoy. Because even the most effective exercises won’t do you any good if you hate them and won’t stick to them. Don't make "get in shape" your end goal; make "get in shape" a means (one of several) to a far more valuable and profound ultimate end goal (such as taking control of your health and increasing your healthspan, be a good role model for others and contribute to make this world a better place).
Set up the game - on your own terms - to win! Start do regular blood work and health checkups and monitor improvements in your lipids (cholesterol and blood fat), glycemic control, blood pressure etc etc. Don’t obsess about the bathroom scale, go get a DEXA body composition analysis and focus on what really matters. For health promotion, you want to lose fat and gain muscle. DEXA will tell you how well you’re doing in that regard. Your body weight in itself in isolation provides no useful information whatsoever, and can very misleading. Women are particularly susceptible to fall for external pressures and become enslaved by their body weight and the number on the bathroom scale.
Also, as I explained in a previous article, sticking to an exercise program will carry over and make you more successful in other areas in life that require self-control and “willpower”, such as healthy eating, stress reduction, brain function, sexual function etc etc. 
In upcoming articles I will tell you more about motivational quality, give you validated questionnaires so you can check yourself where you stand and what your “motivational risk factors” are, and help you transform your extrinsic motivations for exercising and healthy eating into a more intrinsic motivational form that is enduring. When that happens, when the focus is on more profound outcomes than merely a superficial body, you will “get in shape” – and importantly – stay in shape, automatically. My body and appearance is a bi-product of me living my passion and walking my talk! Stay tuned…


1.            Deci, E.L. and R.M. Ryan, The "What" and "Why" of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 2000. 11(4): p. 227-268.

2.            Ryan, R.M. and E.L. Deci, Self-Determination Theory Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness. 2017: Guilford Press.

3.            Benjamin, E.J., et al., Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2017 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association. Circulation, 2017.

4.            Howell, A., et al., Risk determination and prevention of breast cancer. Breast Cancer Res, 2014. 16(5): p. 446.

5.            DeSantis, C., et al., Breast cancer statistics, 2013. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, 2014. 64(1): p. 52-62.

6.            Friedenreich, C.M. and A.E. Cust, Physical activity and breast cancer risk: impact of timing, type and dose of activity and population subgroup effects. Br J Sports Med, 2008. 42(8): p. 636-47.

7.            Muzumdar, D., S. Jhawar, and A. Goel, Brain abscess: an overview. Int J Surg, 2011. 9(2): p. 136-44.

Last modified on Friday, 07 July 2017 23:02
Monica Mollica

Medical Writer & Nutritionist

MSc in Nutrition

University of Stockholm & Karolinska Institute, Sweden 

   Baylor University, TX, USA

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