Finding My Strong: A Celebration of Values, Vulnerability and Vitality: Part 1

Nov 9, 2018

Melissa Dobbins as Rosie the Riveter


Part One

Disclosure: I want to thank the Beef Checkoff for sponsoring this blog post. My vision for living and aging ‘strong’ aligns well with the Beef Checkoff’s strength campaign and resources to help people enjoy lean beef as part of a heart-healthy diet. I’m proud to be a member of the Beef Expert Bureau.   

50 years young….50 years strong

When my son was 5 years old he lost a toy under the couch. He asked grandma to lift up the couch so he could get the toy. That’s when we discovered he thought the older you are, the stronger you are – and that meant grandma was stronger than daddy!

As I approached turning 50 this year I had a lot of thoughts and feelings. To be honest with you, mostly scattered thoughts and mixed feelings. My life is quite different than it was when I was 30, or even 40 years old. Like most people my age, I have had some significant losses. But I also have so much to celebrate.

When I thought about this milestone birthday, I thought about “healthy aging” but that seemed a little negative and my thoughts quickly evolved into aging ‘strong’ or living ‘strong’. I wanted to celebrate being strong and healthy and able to participate in my life to the fullest. I thought about physical health, but also mental health, and all the ways I try to take care of myself every day, every week, every month. I have struggled with self-care. I know I’m not alone.

What does it mean to me to be strong? To grow and age healthfully? To live life to the fullest? What health habits are important to me, where did they come from, and where do I turn for inspiration?

For me, my ultimate inspiration and goal is to be present with my family – despite work demands and other life events swirling around us. In order to do that, I need to take care of myself. When I lift weights, take ballet class or ballroom dance lessons, train for a race or triathlon, read a book for book club (rare!) or plan a healthy meal for dinner, I feel better about myself and my life and everything around me.

Melissa at the ballet barre
Cover of Rising String, by Brene Brown, on beach

As a dietitian, I know that nutrient rich foods are the foundation for my health, and my family’s health, and that being active is just as important for mental health as it is for physical health.

I’ve published many blogs and podcast episodes on the importance of protein in the diet for supporting physical and mental strength, and for promoting muscle mass maintenance as we age. Did you know that age-related muscle loss begins as early as 30 years old? There’s no doubt – maintaining muscle is critical for healthy aging and quality of life.

Beef is a complete, high-quality protein food that contains all the essential amino acids the body needs to support physical activity and a strong, healthy life. The iron in beef, which is more easily absorbed than iron from plant sources, can help prevent fatigue, and the protein in beef contains the optimal mix of amino acids for building and repairing muscle.

These resources provide more information and tips for including lean beef in a healthy diet:

I also know that sometimes, we need more than a healthy diet and exercise…we need support, compassion, companionship.

You are stronger than you think

My thoughts turned to the women in my life who have supported and inspired me, through their struggles and strength, to keep working on my self-care, to find my own ‘strong’.

I talked to some of the women in my life who inspire me and asked them to share their experiences about how they live ‘strong’ and age healthfully. What does living ‘strong’ mean to them? What do they value and how do they live those values?

What follows is the result of these important conversations. I share them with you to inspire you to find your own ‘strong’. If we pay attention, there is inspiration all around us. Who are the people in your life that inspire you?

Gail – 70 years strong

My mom and me on my 9th birthday

My mom and me on my 9th birthday

My mom has taught me more about strength than anyone else ever could. As a young mother, she had the strength to leave a troubled marriage and create a new life for us, at first surviving on food stamps and pursuing work that eventually led to an amazing career in graphic design, healthcare marketing and theater arts.

Gail at Heartland Theatre

Gail at Heartland Theatre

“I feel strong.  I enjoy what I’m doing. I love living closer to my friends and my family, making new memories.”

I know that I need to stay involved and engaged in my life. After the death of my husband five years ago, I am still trying to adjust to living alone. I know my life will never be the same, but I can still do the theater work my husband and I enjoyed doing together. My role as Managing Director of Heartland Theatre keeps me active mentally (running the business, coordinating volunteers, keeping the facility and inventory in check, writing grants, fund development, box office, house management, mentoring others, working with committees), and physically (walking long hallways, taking stairs up and down to the basement inventory, and lifting/carrying items).

I recently moved my residence 45 minutes closer to my work and social community. Now, I am able to attend events such as the Shakespeare Festival, arts funding events and luncheons, parties, dinners and things I could never make the effort to do, living at a distance.

I stay on top of my health as much as I can. I try to eat right by buying items at the grocery store that provide the important nutrients I need. I try not to eat out too much. After losing about 45 pounds four years ago, I have maintained my weight. I used to enjoy cooking a lot and would like to get back to it, perhaps getting brave enough to have people over more often.

Sarah – 18 years strong

Me, Sarah and Mark at Wrigley Field in 2006

Me, Sarah and Mark at Wrigley Field in 2006

Sarah has more creativity and humor in her little finger than most people do in their entire body. She stole my heart the first time I met her at Wrigley Field when she was 7 years old. Becoming Sarah’s mom has taught me a great deal about strength. It’s taught me the importance of being a positive role model and being present and supportive through good times and bad. I’ve learned that it’s not about being perfect or always doing the right thing or trying harder and harder and harder. It’s about being there, no matter what, and always saying I love you.

Sarah Practicing Yoga

Sarah Practicing Yoga

Mental and physical health are equally important to me, so at college I make it a priority to get outside every day. I walk outside to get to classes, ride my bike on a nearby trail, and soak up some sun in between classes and other activities. Being outside definitely makes my mind more at ease and makes me feel peaceful.

Yoga also helps me be strong physically and mentally. I do a simple sun salute routine on my own in the morning to wake up. It loosens my body and warms up my muscles. My back also feels much better after going through several cat/cows, cobra, and leaf/child poses. Yoga gives me a good chance to plug in my headphones and connect with myself before being ready to face the world. I always walk away from a session in a relaxed state of mind, ready for class or studying. Not only am I more flexible in my limbs, my mind has more elasticity and easily absorbs information after working out.

Grace – 26 years strong

Grace, Orlando and me in 2004

Grace, Orlando and me in 2004


My cousin Grace has always seemed like a niece to me because of our age difference. I’ve seen this smart, independent young lady grow into a fiercely strong woman that I greatly admire. She’s handled more than her share of loss and yet is fully engaged in living a strong life at home, at the gym, and at work (as a lawyer).


Lawyering is hard. Lawyers have extremely high stress, demanding jobs in which the stakes are always incredibly high. Every day, we are working for clients who have entrusted us with everything they have worked so hard for and everything that is important to them. So, what the heck does that have to do with weightlifting?

I lift, first and foremost, because it makes me feel like a badass. It is the most empowering thing I have ever done. To the majority of the outside world, I’m a petite, “cute” young lady. More often than not, I find myself in a room full of markedly older males. Knowing I can probably back squat more than them absolutely gives me confidence. I would also like to think they take me a little more seriously when they shake my hand and its more callused than theirs.

I lift because it is what I do for me. The rest of my day I spend taking care of others – my clients, my husband, my dogs, and the list goes on. For those ninety minutes in the gym, I get to be selfish and completely focused on myself.

I lift for the culture. True lovers of the iron game share a type of grit that isn’t really understood outside the weight room. Some of the most loving, accepting, and supportive people I have ever been blessed to interact with never would have come into my life without our weightlifting connection. When it comes time to move big weight or set a new personal record, I think we all go to a place deep in our souls to find will power. The ability to find that and harness it makes us all stronger, and not just when we are moving a barbell.

I lift for the challenge. I love the Olympic lifts the most because, to me, they are the purest expression of athleticism. Olympic weightlifting might be the only sport that is also used by other sports solely for the purpose of preparing for and improving performance. Having the strength, mobility, finesse, stability, and mental and emotional capacity to Snatch and Clean & Jerk demands everything you have to give as a human in one explosive movement.

So, just like lawyering, lifting is hard, too. Doing them both is even harder, which brings me to my final and most important reason for lifting – I lift to inspire. Professionals in general, and especially lawyers, and even more specifically female lawyers, are sometimes not very good at taking care of themselves. Movement and proper nutrition are how I take care of myself – both my body and my mind.

It is not easy, and it is definitely not always fun. I spend several hours on weekends preparing meals and smoothies, with precision down to the macro, for the entire week. I wake up at 4:30 in the morning so I can go train before work. Sometimes I don’t get to train because I have court, or I am traveling to take a deposition, and I hate it. Forgiving myself is something I struggle with and I need to work on that. Sometimes I wake up and I really do not want to get out of bed, but I force myself to because the satisfaction of finishing a tough training session is worth it. Sometimes I am just totally depleted, and my lifts are horrible, but those are the days I know I needed to be there the most.

Bottom line: I want other professionals – especially lawyers – to take care of themselves. If that means yoga, spin class, running, pilates, walking a dog, or anything that gets them moving, that’s great. For me, it’s weightlifting. If we can all become stronger in mind and body – by whatever means – then we can become stronger as people, and as professionals. As the adage goes, if you are no good to yourself, then you are no good to anyone else either.

Kirsten – 46 years strong

Blake, Kirsten, me and Mark in New Orleans in 2015

Blake, Kirsten, me and Mark in New Orleans in 2015

I met Kirsten and her husband, Blake, in New Orleans at the American Association of Diabetes Educators annual meeting in 2015. We became fast friends. As fellow dietitians and certified diabetes educators, we share a lot in common – but there’s so much more to our friendship! Kirsten has a spiritual strength I admire. We have stayed in touch, supporting each other through times of stress, and enjoy seeing each other at conferences across the U.S. Our husbands get along great so that’s a bonus. Kirsten and Blake were one of the first guests featured on my Sound Bites podcast three years ago! I interviewed them about their cattle ranch and how their work in the field of food and nutrition addresses “both sides of the plate.”

At Kirsten’s waterski competition in July

At Kirsten’s waterski competition in July

Kirsten does competitive waterskiing and when her competitions brought her to the Chicago area, she invited me to attend. I was excited to finally see her in action, and the experience is what inspired me to interview other women for this blog post.

Kirsten competing slalom

Kirsten competing slalom

I do competitive waterskiing during the summer months. I spend the winter months strength training and then waterskiing as long as possible between April 1st and November 1st. This year I had multiple injuries and learned that I must find a way to continue my strength training even during the busy months of competition.

As a dietitian, I follow a fairly well-balanced, healthy meal plan year-round, but I place extra focus on it during the spring months in preparation for the upcoming ski season.  During competitions I make sure to eat a snack containing approximately a 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein about 30 minutes prior to my event. This snack is usually raw almonds & craisins. As a cattle rancher, I include lean beef in my meal plans to help build the muscle and strength necessary for waterskiing.

There is no other activity for me that helps me relieve stress, relax, and feel closer to God than being outside in nature while waterskiing. It also provides an opportunity for my husband and I to spend time together, which we look forward to because of our busy work and travel schedules.

So, the circle is now complete, as being able to recharge mentally, emotionally, & spiritually allows me the physical strength to start the circle over!

Neva Cochran – 65 years strong

Me and Neva in Peru in 2016

Me and Neva in Peru in 2016

I was introduced to Neva in 2013 by a fellow dietitian and friend, Angela Lemond. She suspected we were soul sisters, and she was right! Since then, we have supported each other both personally and professionally, and enjoyed traveling and rooming together at conferences. I respect and admire Neva’s strong voice in evidence-based nutrition communications, and interviewed her about “Eating Beyond the Headlines” on my Sound Bites podcast two years ago. Neva is exemplary at sharing her strength with others – especially dietitians and students who are grateful for her guidance and generosity. I’ve also had the pleasure of meeting Neva’s wonderful husband, Don!

Neva and her husband Don with their dogs

Neva and her husband Don with their dogs

My husband, Don, and I have been walking together in our neighborhood two miles per day, five days a week for over 20 years. We have several routes plotted out so it’s not the same every day. He is such a great walking partner – he is always up and ready to go early so we get our exercise in before breakfast. And for the past 3 ½ years we have also been working out with a trainer two days a week. This has made a big difference in our strength, coordination and balance. And when we are on vacation, we try to do walking excursions vs. riding on a bus or laying by a pool! Don has also been doing yoga for several years to improve his flexibility for golf. I want to join him in that activity, too!

Staying active and fit definitely shows in our health and physical status. We act and look younger than many of our contemporaries. And exercising together, especially walking, gives us time to talk without other distractions. It also helps me keep my weight down and allows me to have a few more calories to eat and enjoy every day!

Finding YOUR ‘Strong’

I hope you enjoyed these stories and are inspired to find, connect with, or reclaim your ‘strong’ and also reach out to other women in your life who are strong, or who need support. Share your thoughts with them and share this post if you think it will help them.

I’ll leave you with this thought and image from an artist who captured a recent beef council brainstorming session:

How do you define strength?

Please share your thoughts and comments below or on social media. And check out Part Two of this post!

Click on image to enlarge

Defining Strength



  1. Amee on November 12, 2018 at 8:56 pm

    This is such an amazing post Melissa! Thank you for sharing all of these inspiring stories!

    • Melissa Dobbins on November 13, 2018 at 8:33 am

      Thank you, Amee! That means so much coming from you – such a strong and inspiring woman!

  2. Gita Patel on November 15, 2018 at 12:31 pm

    Such an inspiring stories of strong and brave women. I love your blogs

    • Melissa Dobbins on November 15, 2018 at 2:19 pm

      Thanks Gita!
      I’m so glad you are enjoying them!

  3. Janice Newell Bissex on November 15, 2018 at 12:55 pm

    Inspiring post. I do yoga and strength training to stay strong, but it’s my community of family and friends who give me strength every day. 🙂

    • Melissa Dobbins on November 15, 2018 at 2:16 pm

      Thanks Janice!
      You are one strong woman, that’s for sure! Glad to call you friend 🙂

  4. Christine Palumbo on November 15, 2018 at 2:52 pm

    These are such lovely stories to read, Melissa! 50 years strong look GOOD on you! May you have many more strong years ahead of you. 🙂

    • Melissa Dobbins on November 15, 2018 at 5:14 pm

      Thank you so much, Christine! And thank you for being one of my go-to strong women friends!

  5. Michele Redmond on November 16, 2018 at 8:40 am

    An important topic since aging exposes you to new vulnerabilities & physical compensations. Diversifying activities helps keep me engaged & strong but learning is empowering and reduces fear, so I’m focusing on becoming stronger by tackling fear through learning improv comedy acting & practicing gratitude more often. My mom was my greatest model for being strong, so that’s in my back pocket too.

    • Melissa Dobbins on November 16, 2018 at 11:38 am

      Michelle – thank you so much for sharing your ‘strong’ with us. I love that you’re doing improv! Gratitude and moms are both powerful, too!

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ABOUTI’m the Guilt-Free RD® – “Because food shouldn’t make you feel bad!™”. So, on my Food for Thought blog I’m exploring the secret ingredients needed to enjoy your food with health in mind.  I’m also a “Dietitian Enthusiast” so I’m showcasing interviews with dietitians.  My “How To” Series shares practical advice to help boost communication skills and gain more visibility, influence and success.

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