Michelle Bergen never imagined that a health scare three years ago would lead to social media stardom.
On top of being a mother, wife and caregiver, Bergen, 51, has a demanding job as a businesswoman. After years of putting others ahead of herself, including her chronically ill husband, Bergen was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes three years ago.
“(That diagnosis) scared me. August 2019 was my wakeup call.”
Tired of feeling run down, Bergen knew it was time to show up for herself. Incorporating a gym routine into her lifestyle de ella was only one component of getting her life on track — she also quit smoking and drinking, began tracking her food intake and joined Weight Watchers.
“I’ve been overweight the last 25 years of my life and have always searched for how to lose the weight. I previously joined Weight Watchers 10 times but was never successful. I’d get to a certain point and end up quitting,” she says. “But this time I was determined and motivated — giving up was not an option. I knew it was up to me to make a change.”
There are two main kinds of diabetes: Type 1 and Type 2. The former typically shows up early in life and occurs when the pancreas is unable to produce insulin, a hormone that allows your body to process sugar from carbohydrates for energy or to store for future use.
The latter develops over many years due to lifestyle factors. People with Type 2 diabetes can’t use the insulin made by their bodies effectively or their bodies aren’t able to produce enough of it.
If left untreated, Type 2 diabetes can lead to blindness, kidney failure, heart problems, neuropathic pain and amputations. According to Diabetes Canada, there are more than 5.7 million Canadians who have been diagnosed with either type and, every 24 hours, more than 20 Canadians die of diabetes-related complications.
As a newly diagnosed diabetic, Bergen researched nutrition to learn how best to fuel her body.
“I started to read a lot about different foods. I wanted to understand the science behind weight loss and what I needed to be successful.”
She also started going to the gym regularly and fell in love with physical activity after noticing changes in her body.
“I started getting muscles. I’ve never had that before,” she says. “Slowly I was seeing success. First five pounds, then 10 pounds. I actually cried when I first lost 20 pounds.”
The combination of physical activity and healthier food choices led to a 50-pound weight loss in six months. But the benefits didn’t end there. Earlier this year, she found out she’s diabetes-free, although, she still tracks her sugar intake to ensure she stays on track.
“My doctor is so proud of me. She saved my life and gave me the wakeup call I needed,” Bergen says. “I still test for diabetes just to make sure my sugar levels are under (the threshold) but I’m off all the medication and everything is good. I’m no longer diabetic.”
Research shows that Type 2 diabetes — which accounts for 90 per cent of those diagnosed, according to Diabetes Canada — can be “reversed” by a dramatic change in diet and activity levels. Researchers who have studied diabetes remission found that the people most likely to go into remission had Type 2 for less than 10 years.
“If somebody loses weight, initially, it’s possible to reverse (Type 2 diabetes) and send it into remission,” says Dr. Harvey Lee, an endocrinologist at Rossmere Medical Center in Winnipeg. “You’d be surprised how much exercise and nutrition are capable of remitting somebody who has developed it.”
The reality check, however, is that diabetes is an ongoing disease, so remission doesn’t mean you’re cured. Even if you aren’t taking medication and your blood sugar levels stay in a healthy range, there’s always a chance that symptoms will return, Dr. Lee says.
To help keep herself accountable, Bergen began documenting her journey on Instagram. Since she started her account for her three years ago, she has amassed more than 27,000 followers.
“So many people reach out to congratulate me or tell me how I’ve inspired their journey and it’s the absolute best feeling. I talk to people all over the world,” she says. “I post all of my fitness routines, recipes, things like that. Sometimes I’ll get 1,500 followers in a day.”
Now armed with a popular fitness account, brands and influencers have begun reaching out to Bergen wanting to work with her, including a global giant.
“Somebody (from Weight Watchers) reached out to me and said, ‘We love your story. We’re interested in working with you.’” says Bergen. “They asked if I’d be interested in joining the Canadian ambassador team. I said ‘Absolutely.’ I don’t think people would know who I am or what I do if it wasn’t for Instagram.”
Despite gyms shutting down during the pandemic, Bergen didn’t just persevere, she thrived. Today, she has lost more than 120 pounds.
“When the pandemic hit, I just kept going through my journey. I ordered a bunch of equipment online and worked out in my house every morning. I didn’t quit.”
One of the motivations for Bergen to take her health scare more seriously was her husband, Bob. He suffers from Berger’s disease and recently had his leg amputated. As a result of their lifestyle changes, he has also lost 70 pounds.
“When he had his leg amputated, losing that weight really helped him recover,” she says. “He used to be so resistant to change but now he loves the food I make.”
Giving up alcohol was a crucial lifestyle change. Happy hour used to be an almost daily ritual, Bergen says. Now, she prefers going out for coffee on a Friday night and incorporates her physical activity into her daily routine. She says her relationship with food has changed and she continues to watch her sugar intake.
In addition to her full-time job, Instagram has become a passion project.
“I go to the gym in the morning, come home and get ready to go to work all day,” she says. “At night when I’m in bed, it’s all Instagram. What I post, how to tag, what people are looking for, what’s trending. It’s kind of become my side hustle.”
Through her Instagram account, Bergen has found a community of people with the same mindset and similar goals — she says those connections are important. And for anyone considering a similar health journey, Bergen has a simple tip: don’t give up.
“It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a journey, not a race. Be patient with the process,” she says. “Life is too short and happiness is rare. Don’t ever give up on you.”