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Stephanie Mansour helping women achieve wellness, fitness goals

TV fitness show host /lifstyle coach Stephanie Mansour photographed at HiFi Personal Fitness in Chicago on Monday, March 13th, 2017. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Stephanie Mansour’s message to women is clear and concise: Feel good about your bodies, lose the weight and make it last.

The certified fitness/lifestyle coach speaks from experience.

“Growing up [in Michigan] I was a tomboy, and we always ate healthy,” Mansour said. “I was in great shape. Then I went to college and I gained the “Freshman 15,” though it was more like the ‘Freshman 25.’ I was up late studying all the time and using food, especially extra desserts, to keep me company. I’d reward myself with pizza if I got good grades. And of course, I wasn’t exercising.”

Mansour said she soon was overweight, suffering from back pain, migraines, anxiety and exhaustion. So she got to work getting her health back, beginning with exercises she could do in a dorm.

“I would do bicep curls with laundry detergent bottles, for example,” she said. “Then I started doing aerobics and that morphed into an aerobic TV show on access television at the University of Michigan. I wasn’t certified in fitness at that point, but I started losing weight, I got a following and the show became very popular. It lasted about two years, in fact.

“It wasn’t until I was able to lose weight that I was able to really focus on the anxiety and the insomnia I was suffering with. As I lost weight and started feeling better and eating better, suddenly I was sleeping better and the anxiety started to diminish until it was gone. Same with the migraines. And it wasn’t until I found yoga that I started accepting myself, feeling more connected with myself. It wasn’t until I started doing Pilates that my back pain went away. It was a gradual process because getting in shape and feeling better about yourself is a gradual process. It’s a lifestyle change.”

Mansour  majored in communications, psychology and women’s studies, determined to pursue a career in television that would focus on key issues about lifestyle and wellness that were paramount to women.  (She’s currently also a women’s lifestyle issues online contributor for the “Today” show.)

“I didn’t want to be a [general assignment reporter]. I wanted to report on issues that created positive messages for women, that you didn’t need to be a certain size or look a certain way like all those TV shows were portraying women to be,” Mansour said. “I wanted and still want women to live healthy lifestyles on their own terms. Find the [exercises] that work for you and your fitness goals.”

Mansour  eventually moved to L.A. where she landed a job booking guests for “The Dr. Phil Show.” The job was great, she said, but not the career path she wanted. She got her personal training certification, along with her Pilates, yoga, and life coaching certifications, and in 2008 started Step It Up With Steph, her fitness/wellness company that has transformed her life.

In January, PBS stations, including WTTW-Channel 11 in Chicago, began airing her “Step It Up With Steph” series, a weekly show geared toward women, chock full of health, fitness and lifestyle advice, as well as exercise and yoga — for women of all ages and body types. It was the first such show for PBS, and though its run recently ended, Mansour is hoping it gets picked up for another season. (Reruns are slated to start April 1 on PBS).

At HiFi Personal Fitness on Noth Orleans Street, Stephanie Mansour demonstrates a modified push-up that starts in a plank position, then lowers down into a push-up. Mansour says it’s a great exercise to incorporate into your outdoor running regimen; it can easily be done utilizing a park bench. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

“It’s not a weight-loss show, or a workout show or a lifestyle show. It’s a combination of all of those elements. Losing weight and being fit is both a physical and mental process,” said Mansour, who believes in an holistic approach to good health. She has a four-pillar approach to weightloss that lasts: physical, nutritional, emotional and spiritual.

“I tell women all the time that it’s about the mindset you have, it’s about feeling good about yourself and then getting into the gym. You can’t commit to a heavy gym workout and [healthy] eating plan if your mind is not on board.”

A scene from Stephanie Mansour’s PBS series “Step It Up with Steph.” | SUPPLIED PHOTO

With the arrival of spring hot on the heels of a milder-than-usual winter season, there’s one physical fitness activity that Chicagoans are flocking to in earnest: outdoor running.  But if you’ve not kept up with your running over the past few months — indoors or out — there are steps you can take to ease into the outdoor running season that could help avoid injury or a plethora of aches and pains, Mansour said.

“You need to prepare mentally and physically for the outdoor running season, especially with the all the 5Ks and 10Ks on the horizon this spring and summer.”

Mansour shared some tips for women (they’ll work guys, too, of course) to warm up and cool down physically and mentally, to help get the most out of your running goals:

Dynamic Stretching: At the beginning of a workout, I suggest a good 5 minutes of stretch, usually a hip flexor and hamstring stretch, especially from a lunge position, leaning way, way forward. Butt kicks [tapping your butt with your ankles while running in place] is also a good warm-up.

To get the most stretch out of a lunge, lean forward as far as you can without letting your knee go past your ankle, says Stephanie Mansour. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Static stretching: Be sure to do stretches and hold that stretch, not the dynamic stretches where there’s twisting. Hold a lunge for 10 to 20 seconds. Feel that stretch. This type of stretching should be done at the end of every workout.

Breathing: Learn to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, this is key to a good workout. It’s not like yoga where you breathe in and out through your nose. This is ideal for your respiratory system while exercising and may help you actually run longer.

Pump up the jams: Research shows that more upbeat and faster-paced music can lead to more intense workouts. Find some songs that you really like, and this will make you feel not only more motivated on your run, but also more motivated to actually lace up your shoes and start to run.

Run time: Skip the all-or-nothing mentality. Beginners should run twice a week for two weeks, then move to three times a week for two weeks, then bump that to four times a week. Remember, running can be very tough on your joints. If you start to ache, give your body a rest. Whether or not you’re pounding the pavement, you can also try swimming or the eliptical bike to keep your cardio workouts effective. Keep in mind, walking 20 minutes at a brisk pace is a good way to start and in many cases as equally fulfilling as running, and it’s a great way to ease into full-on running. And never compare yourself to another runner. You’ll see all levels of runners along the lakefront paths. Their goals are not necessarily yours.

Stephanie Mansour demonstrates how you can do squats using a park bench (or a chair at home) to incorporate strength training into your cardio workouts. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

If you find you’re loving running, you can increase the cardio benefits by adding small weights to your run.  Also, stop after 5 or 10 minutes to do some squats, too, so you’re integrating strength training into the run. Stop and do some push-ups off a park bench. It then becomes more of a full-body workout.

The gear: Get fitted for good running shoes. There are great stores in the area that will help you find the right shoe for your level and goals  — and your specific feet. They’ll help you learn about your gait and your stride, and the shoe style needs to correctly take all that into consideration.

Eating well: I’d recommend protein with one vegetable or fruit every three to four hours. Try five smaller portions throughout the day if you can. It helps keep your blood sugar levels steady, and your energy level up. It also helps cravings go away. Try one or two hardboiled eggs for breakfast with a handful of berries, for example, or a two-egg omelet with fresh spinach. Snacks, and yes, you can have snacks, should be just a handful of nuts and berries or one apple. I’m not a proponent of counting calories; it’s the portions that matter. Keep a food log if you like, but don’t obsess over it.

Water: You should drink half your weight in ounces of water each day. So if you weigh 200 pounds, you should drink 100 ounces. If you’re seriously working out and sweating a lot, drink a little bit more. And if you’re drinking coffee, drink a glass of water ahead of the coffee because that cup of coffee is way more caffeine than you really need in a day. Or try green tea instead of the coffee.

You can find out more about Stephanie Mansour and her approach to women’s fitness/healthy lifestyles at stepitupwithsteph.com. Always check with your physician before starting any exercise or diet program.