When she was growing up, Danielle Girdano was hardly the picture of perfect health. In fact, she’ll be the first to tell you she was incredibly far from it. But a wake-up call in her twenties served as a turning point, encouraging the now wellness expert to retake control of her body and her habits in pursuit of a healthier self. Girdano has since not only shed her own unwanted pounds and transformed herself into a record-breaking endurance cyclist – she recently set the new record of 23 days for a ride along Route 66 from Chicago, Illinois to Santa Monica, California – but has also helped, and continues to help, countless others regain their own health with her science-based wellness program, D’fine Sculpting & Nutrition. Here, Girdano chats about her personal health journey, her first cross-country cycling trip, and how D’fine is changing up the health scene.
What was your relationship with fitness and athletics when you were growing up?
I was an obese child and I grew into a morbidly obese woman. But I was kind of always a pioneer. But I always wanted to play sports, and even though my weight kind of kept me back from that, I always tried to get involved. Like in soccer, I was the goalie, and in basketball, I was the forward because I was big. Then they didn’t have softball in my town, so I was the first girl to play on the boy’s baseball team and I eventually played on a traveling softball team, too.
Was there a point at which things with your health got especially bad?
In college, that’s when my weight really started to pack on. And that’s where I picked up a smoking habit, too, and carried that on through my late 20’s. I was a two-and-a-half pack a day smoker. But in my mid to late 20’s, I finally had a medical professional be really blunt with me. I was almost 400 pounds, and he said that I was just too overweight and that everything was out of whack, except for diabetes – he wasn’t really sure how I didn’t have diabetes at that point – and my physical bone structure was just not made to hold that weight. It scared me enough that it just came down to me thinking, “I don’t wanna die.”
So, what really was the eye-opening moment for you that made you realize you needed to make a change?
What was the journey of changing your body and getting healthy like?
At the very beginning, I knew nothing. I’m a certified master trainer now but all I knew then was, “Eat less, move more.” And that’s what I tried to do. I got my first 100 pounds off, and began realizing, “Oh my god, I can move,” or “Wow, my circulation isn’t being cut off by my pants.” That’s what really kept me motivated to begin with.
What about in terms of keeping your motivation up as you went about it? Because it can be really hard to stay on track.
I think something clicked when I got the courage to join a big gym and I went in for a fitness assessment that came along with my membership. I was genuinely excited that this would give me a kind of starting point, but of course, those sessions are really just to try to sell you on personal training. At the time, I was out of work and couldn’t really afford that, and I remember the trainer trying to sell it to me, and he went, “Well, do you want to gain your weight back? Because you’re going to gain your weight back if you don’t get personal training.” I was just devastated. I remember, I just went home and I binged, and I cried, and my amazing better half came home and was like, “What on earth are you doing?” I explained what happened, and she goes, “Well, what does he know?! Look how far you’ve come. If you don’t know where to go from here, then go learn, Danielle.” And that’s when I took my first class at the Cooper Institute and I started working to lose the weight.
So when was it that cycling came into the mix?
Well, I kept losing weight and then eventually, I did my first spin class with who ended up being a cycling coach. And my first time, I couldn’t even stand up on the bike. But then after doing it for a few weeks, I remember being like, “You know what? I’m going to ride my bike cross-country.” I picked one of the most difficult routes in the world, where we went from the tip of Canada down to Dallas, but we zigged and zagged down the whole way. This was around October, and I decided I wanted to do it by that upcoming summer, and my coach was like, “Maybe you should rethink this. Professionals train for years.” But I stuck with it, and he stuck with me. And then in the end, I beat the fastest man by three days.
In the process of going about your own health journey and getting seriously involved with things like cycling, what was it that inspired you to start D’fine Sculpting & Nutrition?
I think a big part of it was that experience that I’d had at the gym with the personal training. Because that’s one of the dark things about the industry. A lot of people go through these really high-pressure sells like I did, and they don’t go back. There isn’t a day two for them. They get discouraged and they get down, and that’s it. I think that’s the catalyst that really made me decide that I wanted to not just do this myself, but I wanted to help people.
What was your primary goal when you first started out?
I wanted something that was going to be as failsafe as possible for people who adhered to the program. So when I first started going to the Cooper Institute, I really got exposed to the science behind the muscles and the cardiovascular system, and the way that the body actually functions. And I started playing around with glucose breakdown and muscle tissue formation, and how the motor unites connect in form with the central nervous system, and so on. Then I came up with what is now utility-patented as a defined process. I wanted to make sure that people had the right tools. It comes down to this idea that knowledge is power, because it’s about understanding body functionality and building on that.
How do you think that D’fine is a lot different than some other programs out there?
I wanted to create something that was really high quality but that could actually work for everyone. So, for example, we started putting together what we call the D’fine Challenge Team in 2012 where the goal was to get everybody to a 5k in ten weeks. And normally that’s not a big deal, but I took five people who had unique challenges. One was a lung cancer survivor who only had a third of one lung left, and another gentleman had shattered his knees and ankles in a car accident, and another woman had suffered from severe depression – all five of them had some obstacle to overcome, aside from just the fact that probably none of them had really eaten anything green since green beer on St. Patrick’s Day. I really wanted to show that the process could work for everyone.
So it’s really that science-heavy foundation that makes this program effective for people across the board, then?
For sure, it’s absolutely one of a kind for that reason. I’m proud of the fact that I can work with someone who has stage 4 cardiovascular disease, or someone who’s a paraplegic, or children, etcetera. Because this is all based on math. No matter who I’m working with, 1+1 is always going to equal 2.
What are some of the variables that do still come into play, though?
Of course, the client has to have the adherence on the other side of the board. So, you know, 1+1 isn’t going to equal 2 if you’re throwing pizza and bear claws into the equation. At the same time, I am a big advocate of the saying, “Not all calories are created equal.” I’d much rather people eat higher-calorie portions of nuts than a low-calorie snack bar that has all kinds of GMOs and artificial ingredients. And I really do advocate for wellness over weight, too.
What do you think that your own unique background and experience contribute in terms of helping guide how you work with your clients?
I think it comes down to the emotions. I know what it feels like to do mountain climbers and feel your fat flapping onto your thighs, and I know what it’s like to not be able to put your knees completely together because of your thighs. And I think that’s important, because when you understand the difficulty, then you understand the person. I don’t think it matters, in the end, how good of a trainer you are or how many certifications you have if you don’t really understand what the person is going through. It comes down to having that trust.