Health’s editor-in-chief sits down with the fitness superstar for an authentic convo about taking care of yourself – mind, body, and soul.

When I meet Tracy Anderson for a consultation at her studio on New York City’s Upper East Side, I am expecting the hyper-focused fitness guru I’ve seen in her iconic dance cardio and sculpting videos. I anticipate that I will get a stern talking-to about my eating habits (especially my late-night chocolate ritual) and exercise routines (erratic at best). Instead, Anderson welcomes me into a conference room with a gigantic hug and for the next hour and a half, in a manner that is part girlfriend, part shrink, gently asks probing, sometimes painful questions about my past. She wants to know what meals were like in my family when I was growing up, what foods I craved when I was pregnant, when in my life I felt happiest. She wants to know my parents’ medical histories, and wonders if there has been any trauma in my life. It’s not until the tail end of our time together that we begin to discuss my eating and fitness habits, and when we do, she has already identified patterns that I’d missed—like the fact that I eat chocolate at night to relieve stress from work, just like my mother used to. When she asks me to take off my clothes so she can get a look at my body, I peel them right off—that’s how comfortable she makes me feel.

Anderson started her fitness business in her home state of Indiana nearly 20 years ago and now boasts a celebrity clientele that includes her business partner, Gwyneth Paltrow, as well as Jennifer Lopez, Tracee Ellis Ross, and scores of other A-list actresses. She has six studios, thousands of streaming subscribers around the globe, and more than 170 DVDs. With so much success under her belt, she could easily phone it in. But she doesn’t, not even close. I get to see this firsthand a few weeks later at her cover shoot for Health. While being photographed for an abs workout, she meticulously tweaked each pose until she was sure it could be perfectly replicated by readers doing the moves at home. Oh, and adorable alert: Just out of the camera frame was Anderson’s towheaded daughter, Penelope, age 5. Dressed in a pale-pink leotard and matching pink ballet slippers, Penelope was set up on a mat just like her mom’s and spent the entire afternoon emulating her every move. Between takes, mother and daughter took time out for snuggles.

After the shoot—with Penelope quietly resting on a nearby couch with her stuffed doggy Fluffy—I spoke to Anderson, 43, about her recent engagement to hedge fund manager Nick Riley, the benefits of therapy, and why healthy sex is a great form of self-care.

Congratulations on your engagement! How did it go down?

I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know when. Once you find your true love, you start to get a little anxious. Everyone was saying, “I think he’s going to propose!” I thought he might ask at Christmas, and then when that didn’t happen, I thought maybe New Year’s. Then we were in Aspen without the kids. We were walking on this street at the base of the mountain and he got down on one knee. I actually crouched down on my knees with him. He said, “I want you to be my wife. I love Sam [Anderson’s 19-year-old son], I love Penny, I love you.” It was really amazing. I’m going to try and have another child. I’m 43, but my body feels like it can do it.

What made you decide to give marriage another whirl?

After my second divorce, I spent a year in therapy with two therapists, Dr. Habib Sadeghi and Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes. I was never a therapy-goer before. Even in the face of trauma, I always felt like, “I can do this.” But then I realized, you know what? I don’t want to invite chaos into my life. I want to learn how to stand up for myself. People looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re so strong,” but actually I had a lot of things I really needed to figure out. In therapy, you have to go way back. It was the hardest work I’ve ever done. Gwyneth and I have this in common—sometimes we say, “That was so bad, I erased it from my brain.” But in therapy, you have to be radically honest.

You’ve worked with some of the world’s most famous women, as well as everyday women who are holding down regular jobs, raising kids, etc. What are some of the common threads you see among all the women you work with?

Every woman feels vulnerable. What’s interesting is that now anyone can do the trickery that’s been happening to celebrities for a long time. Doesn’t that person on Instagram look like they have it all? We can all play that game now. It’s a disservice to womanhood to make us envy one another or desire to look like one another. Everyone, whether or not they’re a celebrity, has the same fears. Except for Jennifer Lopez. She doesn’t ever hate on herself physically. I mean, she is J.Lo, but I’ve seen very beautiful women hate on themselves, and she’s really the only woman I know who doesn’t.

Celebrities who do your method have talked about doing it for one and a half to two hours a day and up to six days a week. That’s just not realistic for the average woman. What’s your advice for her?

Begin each day by giving yourself 15 minutes. Look at yourself in the mirror and be present. Check in and see how you’re feeling and then do three moves—you don’t have to have my streaming program, my DVDs, my books—find some in Health magazine. Once you’ve done that, ask yourself, “Hey, can I sit down and find 30 minutes?” and so on. You have to prove to yourself that you’re strong enough before you take the next leap. Before you know it, your body’s going to want 60 minutes of exercise a day. You will find time for it because it feels good.

How have you seen exercise transform people’s mental health?

One of my favorite ambassadors is Tracee Ellis Ross. She’s beautiful and vibrant—we need a meditation app that’s just her smiling! She looks so stunning on every red carpet, and she’s got awesome curves. She’s a really good example of being physically comfortable. When I get clients to become free in their movements, I see their mental health improve. Not just because of the serotonin and oxytocin, but because they are trusting themselves with their bodies. When people start to give their physical selves as many voting rights in their daily choices as their intellectual and emotional selves, they find what I call their “life stance” and they blossom.

You are in a relationship, have a 5-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son to take care of, you’re an entrepreneur with more than 100 employees, you teach a class every day – how do you keep all those balls in the air without crashing?

Good question. I’ve been knocked down some ferocious levels throughout my life, and Dr. Sadeghi told me, “If you were not doing what you’re doing physically every day, you truly would have been flat on your ass.” It’s not a superficial thing to want to be healthy. People equate healthy with looking your best. That’s fine—it’s a by-product. But being healthy is important so that when life throws you really tough things, you can take the hit. You’ve also got to have people in your life who help you stay sound and in check. You need community.

You’ve said that people report having better sex once they start doing your method.

Sometimes people become sexually turned off and shut down. I see it a lot. People will say, “Oh my God, I don’t even care about sex anymore,” and I say, “No, no, no. It’s important.” I always say to women, “I don’t care if you’re having sex with yourself. It’s a part of your body, your processing, your stress release, your self-love – it’s important.”

You’ve been doing this for almost 20 years. Have there been any shifts in your wellness philosophy over time?

I’m much stricter in my views about what we put into our body. When I first started doing this, I was stoked that I could make myself look so healthy and still eat junk. I now think that how you speak to yourself is key to your health. I just did a Tracy Anderson Vitality Week in Aspen. Two of the women who were in my original group in Indiana came. One of them said, “You know, this has never been a business to Tracy. She cared about each one of us. She’s the same.” But she also said, and this is proof of how much I’ve evolved, that I grabbed this chunk [of fat] that she didn’t want, and said, “This has to go.” I would never do that to someone today. Never, never, never. She was saying “This is fat! This is ugly!” to herself, and I let her say it. Now I would stop her.

Do you have any self-care rituals?

Healthy sex is better than any massage. And I feel really happy to have that.

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