At 6 a.m. each weekday, you’ll find Leslie Ramirez among a dozen others in the gym. Grinding. Doing movements like pull-ups, sled pushes and runs. Ready to attack her day ahead – with a 12 plus-hour residency shift as a family medicine doctor.
“I feel good,” said Ramirez after a challenging class that consisted of machine rowing, shoulder exercises, lunges and burpees.
Ramirez looks like a 30-something-year-old who could be found in a fitness commercial. A driven, confident and successful young professional.
But just a year ago, Ramirez walked into Crossfit Muse in downtown Los Angeles weighing 307 pounds.
“It’s hard to go up the stairs. Everything is difficult,” Ramirez said, remembering what life was like weighing that much.
Growing up, Ramirez said she was “always obese” and had an “unhealthy relationship” with food. While in medical school in Philadelphia, things got worse and her weight ballooned. Ramirez developed anxiety and depression and “turned to food as a coping mechanism,” gaining more than 150 pounds over the course of three years.
When she finished her schooling, she returned to CA to work at Dignity Health in downtown Los Angeles as a family medicine doctor. There, she started counseling her own patients who were obese on the need to make lifestyle changes.
“If things are so easy and there's something to implement, then why aren’t you doing them?” Ramirez remembers a patient telling her.
“I was a hypocrite,” Ramirez admitted. “Denial was a big part of this whole process for me. It's denial of thinking that I was healthy and was doing well when I wasn't.”
A year went by and Ramirez did nothing. In her second year of residency she finally realized it was time to change.
“I don't have to feel tired all the time,” Ramirez remembered thinking. “At this point I’m doing this to myself. I need to do something, because nothing's getting better.”
She started with some personal training, but was inconsistent.
“At least I started to get out there,” Ramirez said.
Then one night while hanging out at the home of another doctor at Dignity Health, she met Richard Kittlaus, the owner of CrossFit Muse, a recently opened gym just across the street from the hospital where she worked. There, Ramirez told Kittlaus she wanted to lose weight and change her life. Kittlaus told her that’s what CrossFit, constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity, is for.
“But I can’t do any of those things,” Ramirez said.
“Just come in,” Kittlaus said. “You’ll start where you start and it’s fine. We aren’t going to judge you on anything.”
“So I came in barely able to move anything,” Ramirez recalled.
“She had a big hill to climb,” remembered Kittlaus.
Her first class was on a Saturday, when the entire gym works out together.
“Nervous anxiety,” Ramirez said. “I wanted to walk out. It just felt really intimidating.”
But she kept coming, just as Kittlaus asked her to.
“It’s showing up and getting through it," she told her herself. "I’ll be last, but it’s fine. I’m here.”
Still, real change is tough. Two to three months in, Ramirez was on the verge of quitting because she wasn’t seeing progress.
“I was just like, ‘Ugh, it’s not getting better.’” But I think the community that we have here is really supportive. I don’t think I would have stuck with it if it wasn’t like that.”
At CrossFit Muse, people of different ages, sizes and abilities can be found working out side-by-side in the same class, completing workouts on a different scale, depending on one’s ability. One member could be found doing strict pull-ups while another might perform rows at an easier angle. “Our needs vary in degree, not kind,” CrossFit founder Greg Glassman famously said.
As diverse as the range of scaling is the makeup of the gym. USC students workout alongside seniors, Asians and Latinos. The makeup of the gym is as diverse as the city. At the down-to-earth community, Ramirez began to make friends. Other doctors from Dignity also joined the gym.
“You end up building a friendship and rapport with other members," Kittlaus said. "That’s when she started to see progress and her motivation went up.
Now, Ramirez has lost more than 90 pounds and no longer has high blood pressure.
“Her resting heart rate was extremely high,” Kittlaus said. “Now her resting heart rate is almost like an athlete’s resting heart rate.”
But for all the markers of health and fitness, Ramirez attributes her success to one thing.
“Definitely discipline,” Ramirez said. “It's discipline and consistency.”
“I had people who believed in me and I believed in myself,” she said.
Like many, Ramirez had lots of excuses before she changed. “It's such a long day. I can't eat right. I’m so tired. Why am I doing this? I could be doing more work instead.”
“I would spend hours doing silly things where I could just be here [at CrossFit], do this for an hour, and then move on with my life.”
Ramirez now has credibility through her lived experience that she can reference when diagnosing patients with obesity. Her weight is down to roughly 220 pounds and her goal is to get to the 190’s, a weight she says she felt healthy at in high school.
“I was a hypocrite and most of the time I didn't feel like they [patients] believed me,” Ramirez said. “Now I show them my badge from my first year and I show them myself now. And I tell them, it can be done. I know that.”
“I had a patient who saw me yesterday and said, ‘I haven't seen you in a year. I didn't recognize you.’”
Since social distancing measures began in mid-March, CrossFit Muse has moved all classes online through zoom. While most members are at home, Ramirez continues to work as an essential worker in the hospital.
“Home training is going,” Ramirez joked over text-message.
With just a pair of 40 pound and 20 pound dumbbells, Ramirez takes either the 7:30 a.m. or 5:30 p.m. class depending on her shift schedule. What Ramirez once dreaded she now looks forward to, even at home.
“I’ve really fallen in love with it,” she said.