Kat Zajac is the owner of Ascend Cycle in Alexandria, Virginia. Between being a mother to two toddlers and owning her own business, we can imagine that she has seen her fair share of busy days. But it doesn’t come without a good sense of balance, and that’s what we love about this interview. Kat shows us that you can do it all with a little bit of motivation and attention to your personal needs.
How did you get started with fitness?
I’ve been active for as long as I can remember. I was a competitive gymnast in high school and went on to study exercise science in college. Fitness is not only something to keep me in shape, but it is something that helps me manage my mental health. Therefore, it has always been a staple in my life. I love anatomy and physiology and thought about going into the medical field for a while, but realized that I could blend both my love of fitness and desire to help and educate others about health and fitness into one career.
I received a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. but went on to work in corporate America for 10 years after completing my Masters degree in Healthcare Administration. During this time, I was teaching group fitness classes and personal training. After I got married and we had our first child, I left my consulting job to focus on a career in fitness. At this time, I also completed a Health Coaching program through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition.
The opportunity to open Ascend kind of fell into my lap and it happened quickly. Four years later, I still feel like I learn something new each day.
Where does your motivation come from?
For my own fitness: I love how exercise makes me feel – physically and mentally. I love feeling the high after a spin class: the positive energy, dripping in sweat and the clear mind that results from just letting yourself tap into the beat of the music and ride it out! It sounds silly, but strength training allows me to feel kind of like a kid again. I love jumping around and moving my body in different ways. I love that feeling when my muscles burn and get tired when I lift something heavy or do tough intervals – it makes me feel like a bad-ass!
As a business owner: I’m a people pleaser and I want to help people. My goal is to provide an exceptional experience from start to finish. It’s not easy as a small business, but I’ve found that creating a personal connection with our clients goes a long way. From a fitness standpoint, my goal is to provide effective, fun and safe cycling and strength training workouts for our clientele. We also focus a lot on community events – we run challenges regularly, we offer health coaching and we curate content on our blog about fitness, nutrition and wellness to provide our community with education that will help them achieve a better and healthier version of themselves.
We have a community at Ascend and everything we do is for them. I’m motivated to help these people, most of which I get to know by name, achieve their health and fitness goals. Its one of the greatest rewards of being in the fitness world.
What workout routine has worked best for you?
I’ve done many types of fitness over the years, but find that a mixture of cardio and strength training has worked best for me. I’ve learned that I need rest in between workouts, so I schedule my workouts no more than 4-5 days a week. This allows me to go all out and feel recovered between workouts. At Ascend, since we have both our cycling and strength training studios, I ideally would do two cycling classes a week and 2-3 classes in our Ascend Underground studio. On busier weeks, sometimes my workouts are 30 minutes or less, because that’s all I have time for. I’ll also schedule one day of hot yoga – it doesn’t happen often but hot yoga makes me feel great! On non-workout days, I try to stay active, which is pretty easy for me chasing around two toddlers!
If you had to pick only 3 exercises, what would they be and why?
Indoor Cycling – the music, the inspiration, feeling my heart pumping and the mental clarity I achieve after class
Push ups – My favorite upper body exercise. You can do it anywhere, it can be modified and its super effective in building upper body strength.
Jumping squats – These are a staple in my workout routines because jumping squats build both strength and power in the lower body. Another exercise you can do anywhere!
What is your training philosophy?
I am a firm believer that you need to continue to challenge your body in new ways in order to maintain fitness. However, this does not mean going all out, all of the time. Right now, it’s trendy to participate in high intensity, tough workouts, and they can be really effective. But this can lead to burnout and injury when it’s not balanced.
So my training philosophy is a balance of exercises that build a foundation of strength, that build aerobic capacity, and 1-2 days a week of more strenuous, higher intensity workouts.
For example, at Ascend, we offer classes that have different goals in mind: strength building, metabolic conditioning and cycling (aerobic conditioning). Ideally, our clientele take advantage of all of these different class formats for a balanced workout program.
Last but certainly not least, it needs to be fun! This is critical to sticking to a workout routine – a solid challenge, something that feels empowering, a supportive community and some motivating music to push you through the tough parts!
Let’s move on to another of our favorite topics: FOOD. What’s your diet like?
My diet is always a work in progress! I find that depending on the time of year, I crave different foods and my dietary needs will change based on how often I am teaching, the level of stress and sleep in my day to day, and my general routine. My goal is to build my plate with a balance of healthy fats, locally sourced and pasture raised meats, and veggies. I eat grains, but in moderation. My other top goal is not to skip meals because “I’m too busy” running here and there between dropping and picking up the kids and the studio. This can happen more often than I want to admit, and therefore, I try to have snacks and mini meals prepped that I can grab on my way out the door.
Once of the biggest challenges that we are still working on in our house is figuring out how to feed the kids and feed the parents well! We rarely eat out and prefer to cook at home. Many nights that means dinner round one is for the kids, and dinner round 2 is for the parents. Our dinner is normally some kind of animal protein (we work with a local farmer and purchase our meat in bulk) and easily prepped veggies, like roasted broccoli or cauliflower. We try to make it a priority to meal prep and to have ideas in advance about meals so we don’t end up hitting 9 PM and then trying to figure out what to eat for dinner.
What’s one food you couldn’t live without?
Sweet potatoes – Diced and roasted in advance, these are so easy as an on the go snack, or to throw into a power bowl with some arugula, quinoa and veggies. Sometimes I will pre-bake them and then I have a quick side dish for a main meal, or I’ll make a loaded sweet potato with pumpkin seeds and goat cheese as a breakfast.
How do you handle “unhealthy” food cravings?
I try to understand where the craving is coming from first. Am I stressed and want comfort food? Am I craving something salty and maybe I’m dehydrated? A lot of our cravings are either a sign of something that we need to deal with emotionally (ex: stress) or it could be a nutritional deficiency. I try to be mindful of that and address the root cause of my cravings. If it means that in the meantime I need to satisfy that craving with the unhealthier option, I will do so in moderation.
What is your approach to nutrition?
Balanced, satisfying, and reasonable. Buy local when you can. Lots of veggies and nutrient dense foods. I believe in a concept called bio-individuality, which basically means that just like everyone is different genetically, our nutritional needs are different too. And they will change based on what external factors are present in your life and impacting your physical health. I believe that you should eat foods that make you feel good and remove those from your diet if they don’t. I don’t believe in following a certain diet program just because it worked for someone else.
What are 3 tips for someone looking to change their fitness and nutrition habits?
Set goals and make small, sustainable changes to work towards them.
Do what you love, or at least something you enjoy. If you hate a certain workout, don’t force yourself. Try something else.
Meet accountability-buddies. Build your tribe of workout friends – what I love about Ascend is that there are groups of people who met through the studio who workout together. They didn’t come to the studio together, but met through classes and they support and motivate each other.
What are your hobbies and interests outside of the gym?
Doing things with my family and friends. We have a 4.5 year old boy and a 2.5 year old girl. We try to make the most of living in such a cool area, whether its going to museums, Mount Vernon estate, or out 66 to go apple picking, wineries or farms. I love being outside, getting fresh air and enjoying the moments when I can disconnect from my phone and spend time with the people I love the most!
Favorite quote to live by?
“You are enough” – I am a perfectionist and I tend to take on too much. I can be really hard on myself when I feel like I am not doing a good enough job in all areas of my life. When I get frustrated or when I fail at something, I try to remind myself that I don’t have to be perfect, and to keep putting in 100% effort, be kind to myself and others, and always revisit my priorities.