After Melissa Smith’s rheumatologist diagnosed her with Sjögren’s Syndrome three years ago, she decided to take her health into her own hands. At the time, Melissa was 290 pounds and struggling with the symptoms of the autoimmune disorder: dry eyes and mouth, serious fatigue, and inflammation all over her body.

“I was working two jobs and couldn’t get myself up to go to even one of them,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m overweight, and this has to be messing with my body and making things worse.’ I wanted to feel better. I wanted to be an integrated part of healing myself.”

The first step was not physical but nutritional. She started researching inflammatory foods and immediately cut out soda, sweets, and certain carbs. Within six weeks, she saw serious results.

“It was gradual change at first,” she says, “but I went back to see the rheumatologist who diagnosed me and he noticed a dramatic change. He said, ‘Educate me. Tell me what you’re doing so that I can share with others.’”

Melissa, 45, now weighs 160 pounds and maintains a dedicated food and exercise plan inspired by her trainer, Kristy Fenster Avery of Fenster Fitness. The pair met when Melissa scored a last-minute spot at Avery’s annual PINS Fit Camp in Destin, Fla. It’s an intense three-day boot camp that combines physical activity with community building and spiritual growth for 32 women from across the country.

“There were moments where I thought I couldn’t push through and complete the workouts,” Melissa says. “But my coach offered me modifications, and the women supported me at every turn. I walked faster, ran faster, and jumped more. They were helping me to do things I never thought I would do. The experience showed me not only what I could overcome physically, but also what internal pain I could overcome with that support system.”

PINS Fit Camp stands for Physical Internal Nutritional and Spiritual, four pillars of wellness that Melissa lives by daily.

“I have to get my PINS in every single day. It’s something very intentional and purposeful. That’s been the key to unlocking the secret of what my body needs,” she says.

In terms of diet, Melissa eats up to six times a day, keeping her total calorie consumption between 1200–1400 calories. Her favorite protein-packed foods include oatmeal, egg whites, salmon, and broccoli. Every once in a while, she incorporates hummus, sweet potato, or cauliflower.

As a mom of three and a full-time hairdresser, Melissa has to prioritize exercise. She does cardio five to six mornings a week, runs at least three miles per day, and incorporates high-intensity interval training with her trainer. Weights are also part of her routine, which she does five times a week at the Bartlett Recreation Center.

“Initially, it was a challenge trying to find a balance with timing and coordinating with my family’s habits, but things have leveled out now. My husband and kids are so incredibly supportive. I’ve got them eating healthier and working out more too. I love that we can do this together.”

Melissa also draws strength from the women in her online accountability group, many of whom she met for the first time at PINS Fit Camp.

“I am constantly communicating with them, especially my friend who is a 55-year-old NPC champion. She encourages me every day and has been an integral part of my growth in the fitness world. I hope I can give that strength and courage to others. I know it doesn’t matter how much I weigh, but if I’m healthy and I’m fit, then I’m worth it.”


By India Nikotich

Photos by Tindall Stephens