Everyone’s fitness journey is different, but whether you’re just starting out or an experienced gym rat, you can probably learn something from Ella Caggiano. This UM sophomore has come out on the other side of mental health challenges with weightlifting titles and nearly 14,000 Instagram followers supporting her fitness journey.
Ella Caggiano, a sophomore at University of Miami studying media management, is something of a poster child for physical fitness and personal fulfillment. Her workout and wellness regimens are organized, top-notch and full of inspirational material. Contrary to first impressions, she may closer resemble someone from your neighborhood gym than a competitor in the CrossFit Games. But Caggiano wants peers to know that her journey to being in shape didn’t travel on an exclusive highway; anyone can start and finish on a similar path.
It hasn’t always been dumbbells and deadlifts for Caggiano. Growing up in Needham, Massachusetts, she invested much of her time into art-related ventures like choir and theatre. Her first live performance was Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” But she felt something missing from her life, affecting her mood and well-being.
“I had a very low self-confidence with my body and was not comfortable in my own skin, and really struggled with that relationship between food and exercise” said Caggiano. “I tried every sport. Nothing really worked.”
She refers to the beginning of high school as the low point of her life. She went from the child-like mindset of thinking about favorite books or movies to worrying about things like prom, relationships and social life. High school is a hectic new reality for many 14 and 15-year-olds, and Caggiano felt the pressure.
After going to therapy, she realized that joy wouldn’t come through materialistic aspirations, but natural pursuits. While traditional team sports weren’t a home run for Caggiano, she quickly realized that her best fit was—just being fit. “I lifted weights for the first time coming out of my recovery and I was like, oh my gosh, this is amazing,” she said. “A lot of times people think that they can find happiness in a smaller body, or they can find happiness in a certain weight or a certain amount of pounds on the scale, or being able to fit into a certain size clothing. But at the end of the day, it has nothing to do with that. It’s all your own inner confidence in learning how to accept and love yourself.”
Fitness wasn’t just something Caggiano did at the advice of a therapist or to pass time after school. It was her life. She would soon be living and breathing health and wellness, even at times when nobody else was. “I just became really passionate about it and started learning more. When people are watching Netflix on a Friday night or Saturday night, I was researching, reading and consuming content,” she said. “And it still is everything that I love and everything I want to do. That’s what I choose to spend my free time doing, because it really does inspire me, and I just find this stuff interesting.”
Back in high school, she started an Instagram account to share her goals, progress and results. Over time, her account, @ellacaggfitness, has garnered nearly 14,000 followers. But she has faced her share of critical comments and DMs. “Obviously, people have things to say about people who stand out,” said the UM sophomore. “I really did face a good amount of backlash, honestly. People would make fun of my account and the content I was producing… [but] at the end of the day, that was really genuinely something I don’t re-route.” But that’s not a concern for Caggiano. Instead, she focuses on how to empower others. But it takes a lot of dedication.
Instead of sleeping half of the morning away, Caggiano prefers to rise early, often around 7 a.m. Seeing the light of day before most of her friends, she looks at mornings as a head start that translates over to the rest of the day. “For the most part, my daily training, my structure, my mealtime, specifically and intentionally fuel my performance,” she said. “I’ll take pre-workout before my workout, usually about an hour before. My training sessions are usually around an hour and a half to two hours, and that’s all encompassing with my warm-ups, my cool-down, stuff like that.” As for how she ends the day, she stressed the importance of getting eight hours of sleep, even if it means skipping movie nights with her roommates.
Music is also a key component in Caggiano’s disciplined routine. Going to the gym should be fun, she says, and a favorite song should be a stimulant, not a distraction. “I love listening to house music when I work out,” she said. “I love listening to rap music when I work out just because it gets me fired up, and I love country when I’m in the car and it’s nice out. I have an appreciation for all kinds of music.”
As for her diet, she tends to eat most of her meals at home, but she also thinks it’s important to have balance. “If someone were to ask me ‘Can you eat healthy and live in Miami?’ I would say yes, one hundred percent,” said Caggiano. “There are always healthy options. There are always things you can make adjustments on.” Part of a healthy life also means having fun. Even if it’s necessary to step away from a regimen’s orthodoxy for one night. “Sometimes that means putting your fitness goals first, and sometimes that means saying fuck you to the fitness goals and doing what you want to do with your friends. That that balance is extremely important,” she said. Caggiano adheres to what she calls the “80-20 diet,” meaning 80% of her intake is strictly monitored, while the other 20% is relaxed.
For many gym enthusiasts, the pandemic has been a mere inconvenience. Others have been directly affected by the virus, and Caggiano is one of them. “I knew I was going to get it because all my friends got it. I just knew it was a matter of time,” she said. “I didn’t feel great, not going to lie. But there have been way worse things.”
Despite suffering from a number of flu-like symptoms for a few days in October, it was the disruption to her wellness plans that really threw her off. “I was not happy with the food they were giving me [in isolation]. The one thing that made me the most upset is that there was a lack of healthy options. I had to do a lot of requesting. I did some Uber Eats, stuff like that, but I also had no appetite, so it was kind of hard for me to really eat anyway,” Caggiano recalled.
She took it easy during her first few days in isolation, but as time wore on in her small hotel room, she had “bouncing off the walls energy.” She channeled that by doing 1,100 push-ups in 24 hours and working with a 20-pound dumbbell her friend dropped off.
“I’m a control freak,” she said with pride. “And so, it was hard to be out of control for a minute, but I think it’s a good practice to be thrown for a loop sometimes, because at the end of the day, I came out stronger because I got the rest that I needed, and I really did prioritize the rest aspect of fitness, which is not talked about enough.”
Caggiano bounced back and was in the Florida Collegiate State Open Weightlifting Championships less than two weeks later. She lifted the heaviest weights of her life—including a 100-kilogram squat, a 60-kilogram bench press and a 132.5-kilogram deadlift— and placed third in her division against a field of significantly older athletes.
“When you get up, that sets the tone for the rest of the day. If you can do that one thing, then you’ve accomplished a goal. Before 7 a.m. you’ve accomplished a goal,” she said. “The second thing I always tell people is to make a list. Make a list of the things that you need to do during the day and cross them off as you go. People think that their goals are going to come a lot faster, but I think that in reality, things take time. Especially major changes in your life take time. You need to break it down into small pieces so you don’t overwhelm yourself.”
Goal setting is great, but Caggiano doesn’t believe one should ever set pure endpoints. “This isn’t a short-term thing. Physical and mental fitness is a lifetime experience,” Caggiano said. “This is a lifestyle, not a 30-day crash course. This says, ‘what am I going to do every single day so that I can have a healthy, amazing life?’”
*According to bodybuilding.com
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This article was published in Distraction’s spring 2021 print issue.