Working Out From Home

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by Kristina Domitrovich
Photos by Lindsay Pace

Rachel Cirilli wasn’t always into HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts. In fact, she used to be a runner. Back when she and her husband Dan first got married about 11 years ago, Cirilli remembers she couldn’t run a mile; but she would go on runs with her friend, heaved over every quarter of a mile, until they both eventually pushed it past a mile without having to stop. Then they decided to keep going for fun; next thing she knew, she was running the St. Jude half marathon.

“I just kept running and decided I wanted to run a full,” she said.

She began training to run the 26.2 miles, but along the way she suffered an injury and was out with a fractured shin.

“I was pretty bummed.”

And then, she and Dan decided to start trying to have children.

We struggled with getting pregnant, it took us almost five years,” she said. “I wanted to do a full marathon to kind of take my mind off of not being able to get pregnant.”

So she hit the road. In the dark, before the sun came up. The weekends were consumed with longer runs. Her goal was to come in close to the four-hour mark, but more importantly, she just wanted to finish.

The race finally came around in November 2015, and Cirilli was ready for Savannah Georgia’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon.

“The first nine miles were extremely hard,” she said. “I think I started out too fast.”

Coupled with some unexpected inclines, and topped off with 100% humidity that forced several runners to fall off throughout the course, things were starting to look stark.

“I just remember I was listening to my pastor’s sermon,” she said. “I was like, ‘I need somebody to talk me through this.’ I remember listening to that, and just getting to a place you can’t explain, it’s that runner’s high where I just felt great.”

She had found her second wind. When she crossed the finish line, her time was 4:16.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said.

The next year, she got pregnant.



Cirilli looks toward her home, which is visible from her glass-walled gym.

During her pregnancy with her now 3.5-year-old daughter Mila, Cirilli gained 60 pounds. All her life, she had heard that nursing would drop some of the weight, “everybody says it’ll fall off; it did not.”

She tried to get back into running, but wanted nothing to do with it.

“I was very uncomfortable in my body, and I didn’t know where to start,” she remembers. “And I didn’t have anyone to ask.”

She started doing a lot of cardio and strength training with her husband, and she lost 25 pounds. But she realized she wasn’t maintaining the muscle.

“And that made me think, ‘Well, then I’m not feeding my body properly,’” she said. “That means when I’m losing weight, then I’m losing my muscle, and I’m not burning the fat.”

She started doing some research, and she found out about carb cycling (varying the carb intake throughout the week in a meticulous manner to maximize what the body does with these nutrients). She learned about TDEE (total daily energy expenditure — basically, how many calories your body burns each day), and the role of macronutrients (fats, carbs and proteins). When she found out what her TDEE was, she realized she was not giving her body enough fuel to see the results she was looking for.

“What I’ve learned most is that we have to fuel our bodies, and that was not what I was doing,” she said. “I didn’t realize that I was not eating enough. I was eating, but I was being so restrictive. We kind of have this mindset that to lose weight, you have to start yourself basically, and that’s not the case.”

Once she realized she wasn’t eating enough, a bigger question daunted her mind: “How do I eat for the rest of my life?”

For their family, between the workouts Dan does and her HIIT workouts and carb cycling, they have a few meals they keep in rotation.

“I had to find a balance with it, and I realized that we are creatures of habit. We do continue to eat the same things over and over during the week,” she said.

As a part of her balance, dinners usually look the same: meat and a vegetable with a source of fat. Sometimes it’s chicken wings in the air fryer or maybe pork tenderloin, paired with squash, zucchini or roasted cauliflower, cooked with olive oil or butter.

“I realized first off I’m getting to eat foods that I enjoy eating, and I’m not restricting myself,” she said. “I’m actually eating more than I’ve ever eaten before. And I get to eat things that I enjoy, and that’s fine. Food is fine. We enjoy food. So it was just like this light bulb went off.”

For breakfast, she usually grabs a bowl of Greek yogurt with some fruit, nuts and granola. One of her favorite snacks is chocolate hummus rolled up in a carb-balance tortilla — Mila, who tends to snack throughout the day, is a big fan of this one, too. As for dinners, Mila enjoys pretty much anything her parents eat. Cirilli laughed that Mila may not be thrilled over a certain food, but once she takes her “no-thank-you bite,” she tends to enjoy it, and it’s smooth sailing from there.

“She tries to be picky, but we don’t allow her to be picky,” she laughed. “She just kind of goes with the flow.”

Once Cirilli started eating more and carb cycling, plus HIIT workouts, that’s when her fitness journey really took off back in August 2019. But when COVID-19 shut down the gyms, she found herself feeling lost all over again. She would do workouts in the seating room. She remembers feeling a lack of motivation and frustration. She had always left her house to do her workouts, and now she felt trapped at home. She and Dan used the living room for a bit, but that got old quickly because they were constantly shuffling furniture. They couldn’t use the guestroom, because Mila’s room was right next to it, and the noise would be too loud and would wake her up. So she and Dan took their workouts to the front porch. Initially, it worked great.

“That was really kind of our only option,” she said. “But then the mosquitos were awful.”

Once again, she was looking for something better. Cue the guesthouse.



The Cirilli’s gym and guesthouse is located behind their home.

The guesthouse has a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, living area — the whole thing. Originally, they fixed it up as an Airbnb, but soon found that wasn’t working. As their final option, she decided to go for it. She sold all the living room’s furniture on Facebook, got a little bit of gym equipment — some free weights, a box, a trampoline and some yoga mats — and committed.

For her, it felt like she was leaving the house, so she was able to fully focus on her workouts.

“At first when I started working out there, I had not fixed it up,” she said. “Walls weren’t painted, it was just kind of drab. Working out in there, I loved the comfort of being able to just pop out there, but (it was) not until I painted it and fixed it up and got it looking good did I feel better to be there.”

Having majored in art architecture and design at Mississippi State University, and since her job is to revision her clients’ spaces for remodels before calling in a crew to carry out her plan, she’s used to reimagining things. She rolled up her sleeves and got to work. First, the floor in the guesthouse is concrete, so it’s cold and hard. She researched some interlocking foam mat tiles, and assembled those. She added a few curtains for the three large windows, framed some inspirational quotes, got a few plants and other pieces, and made it her own.

Cirilli designed her home gym, opting to keep it bright and simple.

Now, she works out in the space whenever she wants to, and can feel motivated and focused. For Cirilli, part of her focus comes from what she listens to. It’s not so much her pastor’s sermons anymore, but it’s in the same vein.

“I relate working out to spiritual things,” she said. “We have to have resistance, we have to break our muscles down to build us back up, to create that muscle,” she said. “I look at that, as a believer, things that come up against us are trials that we have that it’s working for the good, and that’s building us up, and I see that. I felt that when I ran, I remember thinking: ‘It’s my mind. It’s my mind, like my body can do it, it’s my mind.’”

When she works out, she usually listens to Maverick City Music group, which has very long, “like eight-minutes long,” worship music.

She and her husband are pretty early risers, too. He wakes up at 3:15, and she’s not far behind at 4:15 every morning. They try to have their own quiet times in the mornings, and will workout before Mila gets up.

“I found that works best for my body,” she said. “I’m actually able to enjoy life and not feel restricted, and I’m healthier than I’ve ever been before.”

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