If you are a typical Greek American woman over 35, chances are you are working full-time, managing a household, taking care of anywhere from two to four children, trying to keep a Greek husband happy (not an easy task), and perhaps an aging yiayia, pappou or pethera/o. With so much on your plate, when do you have time to take care of you? Sure you might have time for a mani-pedi or hair appointment, but to stick to a consistent work out regiment that actually gets you results? That time is squeezed into a random Saturday morning or two. (And even then, of course, your cycle hits you or you feel so exhausted that “free” time is better served by sleeping late.
Greek culture, the modern one at last, is generally gym-averse. Why sweat your “pisino” when you could spend that time smoking and downing a Frappe with friends? For women, especially women of my mother’s generation, going to the gym is a lot like traveling to Tanzania. Yes, they might have heard about the place, but they are not venturing there to find out what mysteries lie in that realm. Combine the lack of a physical role model with the pressures Greek women have as the caretakers of the universe at their homes, churches, and workplaces, and you have a prescription for a generation of middle-aged stressed-out, overweight, unfit women who rationalize their way out of getting physical for all very good reasons—“”I have no time,” “I have to take care of the family,” “I’m exhausted,” “I feel so guilty staying away from the little ones,” “I have so many other things to do before I work out.”
In this issue, we profile several women over 40 who have made the commitment to themselves to get fit–no matter what.
SOPHIA GALATOULAS: Fit at 57
Sophia Galatoulas, 4 foot 7 inches at 57, is a petite perky lady with a short, sporty Jamie Curtis hairstyle and penetrating blue eyes. She can make many a 20-year-old envy her muscular core showing through her fuschia Speedo tanktop. She started working out in her late teens, but she stepped up her regime when she was working at a desk job for Olympic Airways and felt “moudiazmeni” or “numb” from sitting all day. She has a full plate as a mother of three children, now young adults, her husband (“who is another child”), a dog and a full-time job. She is the CEO of her family’s many real estate, construction and civil organizations. Her husband is none other than the president of the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York, Petros Galatoulas.
”Just because the kids get older, life never gets lighter,” she explains. “There will always be something to do. You will always be busy. In order to take care of it all, you have to take care of yourself. “
She and her 21-year-old daughter make the Greek Zumba class offered every Tuesday and Thursday night at the Stathakion Center in Astoria a family affair. “For me, it’s all about the stress relief,” cites her daughter, a busy college student who attends the Zumba class choreographed to Greek pop hits even when she had a final exam to study for the day after.
For Sophia Galatoulas, the Greek woman represents the center of the home. She is the one doing everything. “Mothers are not allowed to take a day off—ever,” she says. “If you are overwhelmed with everything you bring the negativity to the center of your home. By working out you replace that with positivity and that positivity expands to everyone. The way I see it, if you can’t stand, nothing behind you can stand.”
She also mentions the importance of keeping good health through exercise. In fact, she fits in cardio two to three times a week with the Greek Zumba class but supplements with intensive weight training of 25 lbs. or more to keep her bone mass up in order to manage a health issue.
ESTHER NEGRIN: Make gym fun again!
And then there’s Esther Negrin, an educator in her early 40s whose Greek-Jewish roots hail from Yiannena. She is a gym addict. “I attend three or four gyms in the Astoria area,” she beams with a wide smile. She takes trains with Daniel Berrios at Unlimited Body but can be seen twirling around a red fabric drape in the Art of Fitness at the Cirque du Soliel inspired toning class called Cirque Fitness. She limbers elegantly up the fabric able to twist it around her leg and tie a figure 8 foot knot upside in the air without a safety cushion.
Her rationale? She started experiencing early onset menopause and need a way to deal with the hormonal and emotional fluctuations. “Working out helped me stabilize my hormones and actually made me happier,” she cites. “There are so many benefits to working out that really there is no good excuse to keep from doing it.”
Negrin also emphasizes the fun factor. “You have to make working out fun,” she says, “otherwise you will see it as something else to do and then not do it.” She reminisces about her high school cardio workout classes in tight leotards bouncing to Jane Fonda and Richard Simmons. “It was so much fun back then,” she states, “you have to make it fun again.”
Marina Nina Tsapelas: Transformation starts from the inside out
The third woman bears a story that is so inspiring because it gets to the core of the issue of a woman’s commitment to her own health.
Before she was nearly fatally run down by a car a week before her 16th birthday,Marina Nina Tsapelas was every bit the social butterfly– a bubbly sophomore at Hillcrest High School, all about having fun and organizing parties and beach hooky.
With the accident came a year of home-schooling, immobility, and a steroid regiment that made her balloon to over 100 pounds. While she was never ever“skinny” she clocked in an average weight helped by the home-cooked meals of her yiayia. But after she returned to school from a year of being bed bound and consoled by well-meaning friends and family with platters of baklava and galaktobouriko, it was as if she had become a different person. Weighing in close to 300 lbs, the reaction from her schoolmates was shattering, “What happened to you?” Some did not even recognize her. She plummeted into a depression and forced herphysician’s hand into giving her another year of home schooling. She could not facethe reaction of her one-time friends after the massive weight gain. She secluded herself. The once gregarious outgoing life of the party became a stay-at- home recluse.
“I know what it is like to live on both sides of social fence,” Tsapelas states. “You are used to having people respond to you in a certain way because of your image, and then you are made to feel like a monster. Society does not realize how much it is responsible for making heavy people into monsters.”
She never attended her graduation ceremony preferring to be home schooled till the end. On looking back at her life, she admits that school was an easy thing to be successful at.
It was only after taking a course in psychology at Queensborough Community College that she was drawn to the field of counseling. Eventually she went on to receive a Masters in School psychology rom St. John’s University and became a full-time guidance counselor for the New York City Department of Education.
“Counseling was my dream job,” she admits, “because I loved what I did and I was good at it, and most importantly because it was for the underserved population of urban children.”
It was this field and its need to look within for answers that changed the course of her professional life into the fitness industry.
She had never planned on becoming a personal trainer, nor an owner of a gym and wellness center. In fact, she was not even toying with the idea of weight loss. After all, she had PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome) a condition that makes losing weight almost impossible if not incredibly difficult. But she met a woman who started teaching her about nutrition and the reasons why eating the types of food that we do in the US makes it difficult to maintain a healthy weight. She read the book Skinny Bitch, an eye-opener into the world of nutrition and fitness. She began “eating clean” and hired a personal trainer. She made a commitment to her health. That, she claims, is the answer.
“It’s all about prioritizing, and health must be on the top of the list. It does not make sense that you can spend thousands of dollars in Coach bags that rot in your closet but people say you are out of your mind for dishing out $1000 for a personal trainer. It does not make sense that you have time to watch The Sopranos, but not enough time to prepare clean food that will keep you on your weight goals.”
Tsapelas through her own realization and the insights she has gleaned from a background in psychology and counseling that the answer comes from within. It is the mind that must change before the body. It is about goal setting and staying true to yourself that brings about lasting change, she posits.
She lost 120 pounds in two years; another 20 to 30 pounds in the third year. She stopped counting about she lost 150 pounds, almost double her weight. As people started seeing the results she was getting with her trainer, they started to approach her about helping them as well. She began working with a small group of women with her personal trainer at a local park the summer of 2014. He would train them and she would help them with their diet and motivation. At the end of that summer, when it started to get cold, they found a local church to rent, but when the space at the church they rented became too expensive, they decided to look for a dedicated meeting place. By that time, The Daily News wrote a story about her transformation. Then Dr. Oz invited her to his show. Rachel Ray filmed a segment with her to air in the fall.
Eventually her side business of fitness coach, blew up. It became apparent that she would have to make a decision–hire someone to run her newly found dream or leave the dream of the obese broken girl of the past. Last September, she quit her full-time guidance position to serve another vulnerable population: the overweight and obese.
“Overweight people are such easy targets for scammers.” She had found another avenue to use her guidance skills. “Health, self-esteem it is not something someone can sell you,” she says. “Everything you need is within you.”
Tsapelas’ mix of counseling skills, keen insight into human motivation, and personal risk-taking led her to start a personal training center in Little Neck with her personal trainer two years ago. “I never planned to be an entrepreneur or be a personal trainer,” she states. “The journey just unfolded.” To accentuate the idea, she brings up a quote she read: “An entrepreneur is someone who jumps off a cliff and builds a plane on the way down.”
Tsapelas’ inspiring story goes beyond the borders of her NYC home. Her posts have been resposted on various sites and motivational weight loss Instagram account including IGWeightloss, an Instagram account boasting 2 million plus followers and has fans as far as India that communicate their progress with her often.
What is her advice to the busy professional women with families regarding their own fitness?
“Do what you can when you can. But be honest about what ‘when you can’ really is. You have to get to the point where fitness is part of your life. Changing your mindset about what is the most important thing to you, then it will happen.”
While her critics claim it is easier for her to work out as a single woman without children, her response is, “My business is my screaming infant.”
She gives examples of working mothers who get up an hour earlier before their day begins to fit in exercise. “Your constant excuses do not reflect the reality of your circumstances. Don’t let it go to shit because you can. If I did not call out of work, I would not call out of my gym appointment.” Sticking to your goal is as successful as how well you stay true to your needs. That sometimes means you might part company with those who do not support you in your goal. You cannot say, “Oh, just one drink/bite” or“it’s my birthday; I can have a piece of cake.”
“If you don’t have health,” she says, “you are not living.”
To find out more about Marina Nina Tsapelas, visit her website
Alternatively, follow her on Instagram at PoloPrincessNYC and Facebook:www.facebook.com/PoloPrincessNYC