The (F)Empower Project Presents: Sarah X!

I first met this little bundle of love a number of years ago when I was working on the island during summer vacation. As we worked together over the summer, I remember admiring Sarah for her strong work ethic, responsibility, and true sincerity. Plus she was always so sweet. While we ran into each other from time to time at Queen's University, the first time I really got to re-connect with her was through NTC. She came to classes consistently, and always gave her all! She spent her first class in a corner, and as she progressed over the years she gradually worked her way to the middle of the front row of the class, and allowed her amazing strength and personality to shine through. Sarah has been an inspiration to myself, and so many other women, balancing her rigorous academic program, volunteering and family life with a challenging fitness regimen. I have been, and am so very proud of all that she has accomplished over the last couple years and was touched when Sarah agreed to participate in this series! So here she is, my little shining star, Sarah! 

Hello! My name is Sarah, but am often referred to many by my last name, “Xiao.” I am currently a 20-something, Registered Nurse and second-year doctoral student at the University of Toronto (UofT). While my clinical and research background is in pediatrics and mental health, I also enjoy volunteering and working with seniors in the community. When I’m not reading, writing, or studying (read: learning via osmosis while sleeping), I’m satisfying my caffeine craving and/or sweet tooth somewhere or “attempting” to cook a meal that will keep me alive for a few days.

Currently, my fitness routine consists of running, cycling, and strength training about five times a week.

Staying active and healthy is more than a routine for me, it’s a lifestyle and philosophy. But it wasn’t always this way.

I had childhood asthma growing up and recurring bronchitis every 2-3 months. Antibiotics were my best friend. In high school, I had very low self-esteem and was extremely self-conscious about my weight, often wearing baggy hoodies and sweat pants to hide whatever insecurities I had. During my Master’s, I ate 1 to 2 small meals a day, attributing it to stress and my lack of cooking skills. I often defined my weight on a scale as an indication of how healthy I was. At 5”0’, I was a mere 90 pounds and constantly lethargic. How ironic was it that I was a healthcare professional, healing sick people back to health…but did not know how to take care of myself? (The future of healthcare is in great hands, guys.)

It wasn’t until four years ago after getting my heart broken and a looming health crisis that I knew I needed to regain control of my life. I remember going to my first bootcamp class at Cardio-Go with my work BFF and not being able to differentiate between a squat, lunge, or a burpee. Exercise was like a foreign language to me and I vowed never to eat a donut again if I didn’t have to go back to bootcamp. But I did, and began working with a personal trainer 2-3 times a week. To compliment my core exercises and strength-training, I also integrated running as a form of cardio.

I didn’t know it then, but running became my saving grace and therapy. In fact, I have had the most insightful conversations with myself while running and have since found that my perspective on life has changed immensely.

Around this time, one of my friends (hello Jazzy!) forwarded me a Facebook link to participate in Nike Training Club (NTC). There, I re-met Jenny – who was one of the NTC trainers. (Side note: Jenny and I previously worked together at Centreville in 2009, both (wo)manning the kiddie rides. In 2010, I bumped into her again in our pathophysiology class at Queen’s.) It was meant to be! Shortly after joining NTC, I began running with Nike Run Club (NRC). This became my schedule: Mondays and Wednesdays with NRC; Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays with NTC; personal training on Fridays, and yoga on Sundays. Yes, I was doing something every day of the week. #howtobesingle. Running and gym-ing became my life outside of work and school, and was also where I met some of the most wonderful people, several of whom have now become my closest friends.

During the summer of last year, however, I ran a short “routine” 5K, and succumbed to the most debilitating injury in my short-lived running career. What began as a strain led to an excruciating knee pain, to the point where I couldn’t walk without limping. Several ER visits, X-rays, ultrasounds, doctor diagnoses, and many uncertain weeks later… I had a decadent combination of patellofemoral pain syndrome (PPS or “runners knee”), Bursa’s cyst, meniscus tear, and a possible hamstring injury. I had to say goodbye to running, jumping, and anything fitness-related - which might as well have been my entire life. 

I threw pity parties for myself (involving vanilla lattes and donuts, no less), became immensely reclusive and anti-social, and drowned myself in schoolwork. What I also did, and probably shouldn’t have, was run the Nike San Fran Half Marathon in the midst of all of this turmoil. Needless to say, I didn’t run the entire leg of the course. I jogged, walked, took pictures, nursed my knee, ate Cliff bars and “enjoyed” my Nuun while people-watching. When I came home from this trip, I made the decision to take more of an active role to get better - mentally and physically. I realized that I was often reckless in my previous fitness practices - not taking a “rest day”, or warming up and stretching appropriately. I was willing to give up anything, as long as I could walk pain-free again. 

In November, I began working with a physiotherapist at UofT every week. Still, looking at myself in the mirror and the thought of going back to the gym gave me immense anxiety. The thought and image of being active and happy seemed like a very distant memory and something I would never experience again. But the girlfriends who I had met from NTC never forgot or gave up on me. On a bad day (which were most days), I’d get a random text or message from someone asking for an update or just telling me they missed me and wished for a speedy recovery. Although seemingly a small gesture, it had a profound impact on my healing...

This marked a huge turning point in my recovery, and I believe is what truly captures the essence of “(f)empower”: females empowering one another to strive for self-love and to recognize yourself as your first and foremost priority. 

A notable memory was when my physiotherapist suggested that I began stressing the scar tissue in my knee. I was instructed to use the stationary bike for as long as my knee could tolerate without pain. But I couldn’t bring myself to doing it. I feared the feeling of the pain - which for me, was another setback. It wasn’t until a random heartfelt phone call from one of my fellow NTC girlfriends, Ljiljana, that I finally took the first step. She suggested that I set a goal of 5 minutes; if I felt any pain or didn’t want to continue after 5 minutes, I could go home. Fortunately, those 5 minutes turned into 10, and within a month, I was shamelessly sweating on the bike, pain-free, for 45 minutes everyday. Part of my treatment plan also included strengthening my glutes and core, foam rolling, properly warming up and stretching after exercising, and finding the most suitable running shoes for my gait.

Fitness was no longer just about the act of “doing”, but all of the other components involved in injury prevention and recovery.


Slowly but surely, I mustered up whatever bit of courage I had and began jogging on the treadmill. However, the inevitable feeling of defeat would settle in as soon as I felt a sharp pain in my knee. Yet, the key lesson here was about listening to my body, appreciating any progress made, and overcoming self-doubt. Eventually, I was able to run ~4K on the treadmill with mild to no discomfort, and recently rejoined NTC and NRC last month. Currently, I run 2-3K every other day, and have resumed most of my normal activities.

Being healthy is no longer a matter of what the scale says, or how physically capable I am, but how in-tune my mind is with my body. 

From this experience, I’ve learnt the value of self-discipline and mental resilience, and have to attribute most, if not all, of my successes and achievements to my support system. Being surrounded by a community of such strong, positive women from different walks of life has truly inspired me to better myself in every facet of my own life. My current fitness and life goals include:

  1.  re-learning how to swim
  2. taking more dance classes (I’ve been taking hip hop classes for the past several months, LOL)
  3. building more muscle (I’ve named my soon-to-be ab muscles as “Tu-pac”) and, 
  4. adding more plant-based recipes to my limited arsenal of cooking skills.

So if you’re reading this (and thinking of being more active)… It’s not too late. You are much more capable than you think you are. Take that first leap of faith, listen to your body, and everything else will follow.