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Kayla Sanders is the cover girl who almost wasn’t. Even after training and eating clean for 90 days, losing 45 pounds, and getting compliments left and right, she debated about submitting her “after” pictures. “We all have an inner critic who instills you with doubt, and I didn’t know if I wanted to put myself out there,” she says. “Thankfully, I am surrounded by a great tribe of women who empower me because I would not be on the cover of this magazine otherwise. I also have two little girls looking up to me — Makena is 13 and Levi Grace is 17 months — and here I am doubting myself. They saw me working hard, and then what kind of example do I show them if I don’t submit my photos? I had to be bold for them as well as for myself!”
The Heart of the Matter
Sanders had signed up for Oxygen challenges before, but she had never actually completed one. But this time, she believed, was different: She had gained 60 pounds during her pregnancy, and because of her nutrition choices, she hadn’t lost much of that weight, even with breast-feeding the baby. She was horrified by the photos of herself and her body at Levi’s first birthday party, and one day at work, she had a revelation.
“I am in cardiac surgery sales, and I see patients day in and day out who are on the table having heart procedures,” she says. “There is so much we can control with diet and exercise, and it dawned on me one day that I know better. I lost my father to heart disease, and I knew that I could not be the person on that table! Something had to shift, and I had to do better.”
Decision made, Sanders purchased The Oxygen Challenge 4 because it fit nicely into her life. “With a full-time career, two kids and a husband, it can be a lot,” she says. “I needed something that worked with my busy schedule and I could do these workouts at home.”
Sanders woke up at 4 a.m. every morning to exercise. However, it was not easy: In the beginning, she could not do a single push-up, running was uncomfortable and, as she puts it, everything jiggled. “In addition, I had had a C-section and I felt like my body was disconnected after that,” she says. “But slowly, over time, I gained momentum, and as you gain momentum, you start to do more and more. Now I am not even going to say I am back to where I once was because I am better than I once was!”
Sanders can now crank out push-ups with ease and even worked her way up to running a half marathon. “I would never have thought I would do anything like that, and I used to think marathon runners were crazy!” Sanders says. “But the race was on the last day of the Challenge, and that last mile I almost started crying because I remembered how hard running was when I started and here I was running 13 miles.”
Aside from improved physical strength, Sanders is also the strongest she has ever been mentally. “Now I feel like I can do and accomplish anything I set my mind to,” she says. “My performance in other areas of my life changed because I feel so great, and these days, working out five to six days a week is a nonnegotiable. I can’t be the best Kayla, the best mom, the best wife or the best employee when I don’t get that time.”
Like any true athlete, Sanders has set herself some future goals. “I would like to run a full marathon at some point, I would like to continue to grow more muscle mass and maintain my eating plan, which is more of a plant-based focus with fish,” she says. “I also want to inspire other women. I have people come up to me all the time and ask how I did it. I am blessed to have been chosen for the cover, and I don’t want to take that platform and do nothing with it. We all just want to be our best, and for me to be able to share my story with others and see other women thrive makes me feel good.”
Birth date: March 10, 1987
Hometown: Nashville, Tennessee
Occupation: Cardiac surgery sales
Previous weight: 180
Current weight: 135
Cover Girl Q&A
Oxygen: I hear you used to do pageants?
Kayla Sanders: Yes. I started when I was 16, which is kind of late, but I am one of five kids and I needed a way to pay for college. No one other than my mom had graduated from college in my family, and I was like, I have to figure out a way to get to school. I won a fair pageant and then I went into the Miss America Organization because they give scholarship money. I came in third runner-up for Miss Tennessee, and even though I didn’t make it to Miss America, I was able to make it through college debt-free.
O: What was your talent?
KS: I was a singer — well, I still am but now just in church!
O: What kind of workouts did you do to get in shape for the pageants?
KS: I was physically fit but not the way I am now. For pageants, I would have a deadline and I would have to shed some pounds really quickly. I would work out like two or three times a day and do a crazy crash diet. Then of course, I would gain all that weight back, so it was pretty unhealthy.
O: What is your advice for people struggling to stick to a program?
KS: You have to find something you are going to do, that you like doing and that is a part of your lifestyle. You can’t do a crash diet because that is not sustainable. You have to incorporate fitness and nutrition into your day-to-day life.
O: Did your family participate in your transformation?
KS: Everyone was very involved. My husband started to eat a little bit better, and he has been working out more. I would strap my 17-month-old onto me in her carrier and would do lunges and squats in her nursery with her, and my older daughter would take runs with me and was involved in food prep on Sundays.
O: What would you tell people about your overall Challenge experience?
KS: It was extremely positive. Jen [Widerstrom] was amazing, and her check-ins throughout the Challenge in the Facebook group were great. The “Oxy Sisters” were amazing, and we all still communicate every day. It was absolutely life-changing for me, and if someone is on the fence and they need something to push them, it is worth every penny to sign up for these programs.
Kayla Sanders followed a more plant-based nutrition program to fuel her transformation. Here are two of her favorite clean-eating recipes.
Yummy Kale Salad With Fresh Lemon Dressing
Makes 4 Servings
- 5 cups kale, chopped
- 2 tsp olive oil
- 1/8 tsp salt
- ½ cup sliced almonds
- ½ cup cheddar or feta cheese, optional
- ¼ cup dried cranberries
- 2 cups broccoli, chopped
- ½ cup shredded carrots
- ¼ cup red onions, diced
- ¼ cup olive oil
- 2 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- ½ tsp dried oregano
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1/8 tsp ground black pepper
- 1 tsp honey or sugar, plus more to taste
In a large bowl, mix kale with olive oil and salt. Rub with fingers until leaves begin to darken and tenderize. Add almonds, cheese (if using), cranberries, broccoli, carrots and onions, and stir to combine. Whisk together dressing ingredients in a small bowl. Adjust sweetener, salt and pepper (to taste). Pour about 1/3 of dressing over salad; reserve the rest for another day. Toss to coat.
Makes 4 Servings
- 2 lb salmon fillets
- ¼ cup honey
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tbsp reduced-sodium soy sauce
- 1 tbsp seasoned rice vinegar
- 1 tbsp coconut oil
- 1 tbsp freshly grated ginger
- 1 tsp Sriracha, optional
- freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 2 green onions, thinly sliced
- pinch sesame seeds
Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet with foil. In a small bowl, whisk together honey, garlic, soy sauce, rice vinegar, coconut oil, ginger, Sriracha (if using) and pepper (to taste). Place salmon on prepared baking sheet and fold up all 4 sides of foil to make a packet. Spoon honey mixture over salmon, then fold foil overtop of salmon and seal packet closed. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until cooked through. Open foil and broil 2 to 3 minutes, or until caramelized and slightly charred. Garnish with green onions and sesame seeds.
Kayla Sanders may have won the cover, but in truth, all our Oxygen Challenge 4 participants are winners. Here are some of our fabulous, notable women whose stories inspired us and made us laugh, cry and celebrate.
Ending weight: 155
Total Inches Lost: 17
I did not grow up in a healthy household. My parents were both smokers, and I smoked, too, for many years. I found fitness in my senior year in college, but it was always an all-in or all-out endeavor for me: I would be super hardcore, and then one little slip up and I would be thrown completely off. I had no balance. My goal for this challenge was to come to a place where I could slip up and get right back on track with no hang-ups. I am happy to say that I found that place and I’m not going back.
Now I can finally do pull-ups, and my squat increases every couple of weeks. But I have to say the Facebook community really made this challenge come to life for me. It’s so nice when women can support other women instead of cutting them down, and it was great to log in every morning and get inspiration and support.
Also, thank you to Oxygen: Yours was the first magazine where I saw somebody on the cover that actually resembled me. I have given up on jeans ever fitting right — I have bigger quads and I love them! — and I have become a healthy role model for my boys as well as an example of a strong, smart woman to my students.
Carmen C. Pacheco
Ending Weight: 101
Total Inches Lost: 6
The first day of OC4, I almost had a meltdown. My fiance was away and my 11-month-old cried through my whole workout. I almost had another meltdown when I took my before pictures and saw what my body had become. After having my second baby — my oldest is 17 — I had a hard time getting back in shape, so I decided to sign up for OC4.
I was able to do all the workouts at home with limited equipment and time. I got rid of my post-baby belly and actually got amazing abs! I went from a 30- to a 26-inch waist, and my body composition completely changed. I aim to continue working out consistently and am excited to see what other changes my body can make.
Ending Weight: 109
Total Inches Lost: 14
I am so thankful for the Oxygen challenges — they have turned my life around not once but twice. The first challenge helped me regain the healthy lifestyle that I had lost, and this challenge helped me recover from emotional eating issues I developed due to a bulging disk and a diagnosis of arthritis. Now at 49, I feel like me again.
I could not have done it without my Oxy Sisters on the Facebook group. Through the last four challenges, I have shared the adoption of my two children, the pain of the loss of my son, and the joys and fun of life. Thank you all for your open hearts. You are truly incredible women.
Ending Weight: 138
Total Inches Lost: 9
This year has been the most beautiful and the toughest of my life. I gave birth to my son in late 2017, and when Gage was just 6 weeks old, my wife and partner of 13 years told me she no longer loved me. We separated in June 2018.
Some women love being pregnant, but that was not the case for me. I struggled mentally and physically. The fertility drugs caused me to gain 20 pounds in six weeks and made me lethargic and unmotivated. I had been a personal trainer and nutritionist since age 17, so I knew what to do to feel better, but I could not get it together. I was a mess.
One day while scrolling through Instagram, a cover contest for Oxygen magazine popped into my feed. It was like a sign from God. Being on the cover of Oxygen was a goal of mine 20 years ago as a young fitness enthusiast, so I signed up.
Flash-forward 90 days and I have regained so much more than my physique: I have health, posture, clarity, peace and a boatload of new friends. I will forever be grateful for Jen [Widerstrom] and the ladies on our team. The social support network quite literally saved me, and I could not have done this alone.
Ending Weight: 189
Total Inches Lost: 13
I am a former 250-pound, 58 percent body-fat chick. I committed to losing weight after my father passed due to complications from obesity in 2012. By the end of 2013, I had lost 100 pounds — and kept it off. However, in 2017, I injured my Achilles. I was very limited with my lower-body activity and didn’t adjust my nutrition accordingly. As a result, I started gaining the weight back and it petrified me.
Over the last 90 days, I have regained my perspective. I learned how to adapt my routines to work around my injuries and how to adapt my nutrition to suit my exercise level. I have proved to myself how strong I really am inside and out. I can and will keep going because now I have the tools and the confidence to make it happen.
Jasyra Santiago Hines
Ending Weight: 102
Total Inches Lost: 12
I used to be the girl who complained that I didn’t have time to work out, that I was too tired. I was an ICU nurse and was working crazy shifts. I let myself go and eventually was 30 pounds overweight. It wasn’t until I put on a bathing suit in 2013 that I said, WTF happened to you, Jasyra? So I decided to work out. However, I didn’t know how to do it properly: I ate like six doughnuts after a workout one time because, you know, I worked out! My weight yo-yoed and I tried every fad diet to try to feel happier in my skin, but nothing worked — until I signed up for OC4.
What I love about the Oxygen challenges is that we get exactly what we need to transform — exercise, nutrition and motivation. I have never felt so confident and balanced. I used to sabotage my results every time life got hard, but this time around, I truly feel like there is no stopping me.
Ending Weight: 143
Clothing Sizes Lost: 4
I am a mom of two boys — 15 and 2 — and have been an Oxygen subscriber for eight years. I wanted to be the “skinny” girl my whole life until I found weight training; I was addicted on day one. I got the email from Oxygen about OC4 and watched Jen [Widerstrom’s] video. Something clicked. She spoke to me like a friend. I signed up immediately.
Since having my second son, my fitness and health took a back burner. It was more difficult to get the results I was after (yay hormones!) and I never had enough time. But once I signed up for OC4, I made a commitment and promised myself I would succeed. I got up before my kids every day at 4 a.m. and made the time for exercise.
I have never felt as proud and confident in myself as I am today. I know now that I will never be the “skinny girl” because I am me and I am awesome.
Ending Weight: 165
Total Inches Lost: 15
OC4 is my third Oxygen Challenge. For OC2, I joined both teams, but ultimately I followed Christmas [Abbott’s] program because it was different from anything I had ever done, and I had great success with it. For OC3, I joined both teams again, but shortly thereafter I found out I was pregnant. No Cover Contest for me, but I continued to work out to have a fit and healthy pregnancy.
I had my baby girl on January 15, 2018, and exactly one week later, my brother passed away unexpectedly. I experienced one of the best things in my life immediately followed by the worst. It was an emotional tug of war between being happy and enjoying my new baby and being sad and grieving over my brother. I gained weight from eating my feelings, and I felt as awful on the inside as I looked on the outside.
I knew OC4 would be great for me. I joined both teams again, and my goals were to get back to working out regularly and eating healthy. But being a new mom, there is no such thing as scheduled workouts. You have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice and be prepared to be interrupted several times. Meal prepping is a must because you have to scarf down your food while standing or driving in the few seconds you have.
My new baby definitely made things more challenging, but at the same time, it made me feel like Super Mom. I hope I can inspire other new moms out there. Just remember that what might feel impossible or out of reach is completely possible if you go for it and do the best
Ending Weight: 137
Total Inches Lost: 8
I’ve never been a particularly athletic person, and when I started OC4, my fitness level was terrible. My weight had gotten out of hand and so had my blood pressure. Once I began exercising and eating clean, my blood pressure dropped along with my weight. My doctor even reduced my medication three times! The workouts made me feel strong, confident and healthy, and I loved the Facebook group and the supportive women out there. For any older ladies reading this — it’s never too late to get fit!
Ending Weight: 199
Total Inches Lost: 28
I am a paramedic and mother of three children and two stepdaughters. My first pregnancy, I almost died. I had HELLP syndrome with acute gestational hypertension and proteinuria, and my daughter was born via emergency C-section to save my life. Four years later, my son was born seven days overdue, and he fractured my pelvis. Another four years and I had my third child 11 days overdue. However, after delivery, I kept gaining weight. Maybe because I was classified as “geriatric” and because of hormones? I still don’t know why. By July, I weighed 238 pounds. I was weak, overweight, out of breath and feeling hopeless. I was also nervous going back to work as a paramedic — I was fearful of hurting my partner, my patients and myself. What if I couldn’t lift my patients or equipment properly? I felt like I could be a patient myself!
I saw this challenge as the perfect way to give myself a good kick in the butt, and I am so thankful I did. I never could have imagined such great results — I am 30 pounds lighter! And though I still have a long ways to go, I am encouraged to keep going knowing it will only get better!