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How This Mom Recovered From Major Surgery to Become Stronger Than Ever

“Everyone likes a good comeback story, and I’m going to give you one hell of a story,” said Michelle Tee.

Michelle Tee shown in front of her Tonal.

“My life is chaotic, but whose life isn’t?” laughed Michelle Tee.

The 40-year-old mom-of-three is also a graphic designer, certified personal trainer, and nutrition coach based in New Jersey. Between her career, school drop-offs and pickups, running errands, shuttling kids to after-school activities, cooking dinner, and cleaning up, Tee still makes sure to prioritize her fitness. In fact, she starts her day at 6 a.m. with meditation and stretching, fits in workouts while her kids are at school, and gets in a yoga session to wind down in the evening–all from the comfort of her home.

“This is me carving out time for myself as opposed to me giving my time to everyone else,” she said. “There’s no word to describe the feeling that I get after having an awesome workout. It’s like this natural high that I’m on, that no one can bring me down because you know what? I did the work. And when you put the effort into something knowing that only you did it, there’s no greater feeling.”

After a health condition almost took away her ability to not only work out but to do simple, everyday tasks, that feeling means everything.

“Everyone likes a good comeback story, and I’m going to give you one hell of a story,” she said.

Michelle Tee flexing in front of Tonal.

Gym Rat Turned Tonal Power User

Tee’s rollercoaster fitness journey began 11 years ago. After giving birth to her second child, she started focusing on cardio to melt off the postpartum weight. 

“For two years, I was all cardio, cardio, cardio, more cardio,” Tee said. “I lost so much weight, but I was what most people would refer to as ‘skinny fat.’”

What she really wanted was to look—and feel—strong. She started strength training and fell in love with it, becoming a self-described “gym rat.”

“Strong can come in many shapes and forms, but you can look at me [now] and know that I work out,” she said. “I wanted someone to do a double take, like, oh, I didn’t know you had all of that underneath there,” she laughed. She got a kick out of other moms in the school pickup line starting to notice her newly-defined muscles and asking her about her workouts.

As much as she loved the gym though, it wasn’t always convenient. She had a small window during which she had access to free childcare to drive there, get her workout in, and drive back. If the gym was busy, she often wouldn’t be able to do the exercises she wanted. 

Then, in 2019 when she and her family moved to a new home, her husband surprised her by getting a Tonal installed. At first, she was wary. She was used to her gym routine and didn’t know if she could replicate her favorite exercises on Tonal. Over time and especially during the pandemic, she realized that not only could she do big lifts such as bench presses, squats, and deadlifts as well as accessory exercises, but Tonal also offered her something the gym couldn’t: flexibility.

“Tonal entered my routine, then became the core of my routine,” she said. “What I like most about Tonal is I’m not fixed to a gym block anymore. Now I can spread out my workouts throughout the day based on my chaotic life. I can do a quick session in the morning knowing I can come back in the evening and finish.”

She also learned about her body and how it moves, and whether she was doing exercises incorrectly, thanks to Form Feedback. Tee was better able to listen to her body because she wasn’t rushing through exercises as she did at the gym when someone else was waiting for the machine she was using.

From Life-Changing Setback to Making Her Comeback

Tee was in the best shape of her life, but nothing could have prepared her for the challenges she would soon face.

In 2021, while doing a routine step-up—a move she’d done countless times—Tee experienced pain and was unable to complete the exercise no matter how she modified it. Several doctors visits and multiple MRIs later, she learned she tore her labrum (the ring of cartilage that helps hold the top of the thigh bone to the hip socket) as a result of hip dysplasia, a condition she was likely born with that had gone undiagnosed. 

“My surgeon said my labrum was going to pop no matter what. It was just a matter of time,” Tee said. “That I lasted as long as I did was a testament to my strength training.”

The only solution, she was told, was a hip replacement. 

“I went to my car and cried because I couldn’t believe it,” Tee recalled. “I’m 38. What do you mean I need a hip replacement? It took me a really long time to come to terms with it.”

What should have been a three-hour surgery lasted nearly seven hours, and complications required Tee to have a blood transfusion. She struggled with “unbearable” pain in the days following the procedure and was unable to walk, drive, or do everyday activities that she previously took for granted.

“It was brutal, very humbling,” she said. “I felt at my lowest because the simplest tasks—putting on my socks, getting out of bed, rolling over—became an issue.”

Tee was desperate to do what brought her the most joy: working out. But she had a lot of healing to do before that was an option.

“I turned to meditation on Tonal because it kept me from going crazy,” explained Tee, who said Coach Allison’s meditation sessions guiding her to find the best version of herself were particularly meaningful. “I had to learn to control my thoughts. I had to learn to tell myself, it’s just time. You’ll be back.”

That change in mindset gave her a new sense of purpose as she slowly worked to rebuild strength in her hip and legs. 

“My focus has shifted from aesthetics to just pure daily living,” Tee said. “I shifted from feeling sorry for myself to things I can do to prolong this prosthetic [hip] because I’m not trying to do this again in 20 years. I want to make this last as long as possible.”

Michelle Tee scrolling through the Tonal content library.

Once cleared, she started on the road back to health using bodyweight exercises, mobility work, yoga, Pilates, and barre to strengthen her hip and the muscles surrounding it. Having access to this variety of exercise modalities on Tonal had now become critical for her recovery and a way to connect with who she was before her hip replacement. She slowly built up to doing unilateral moves like single-leg RDLs to continue strengthening her hips and work through imbalances, and practiced squatting again to develop her range of motion.

As she grew stronger, she was able to start adding resistance—just 20 pounds at first—and incrementally increasing from there. She started deadlifting at 50 pounds, a far cry from her pre-surgery 200-pounds lifts.

“What did I learn about myself? That I’m not a quitter, because there were many times I wanted to quit,” she said. “What happened was not of my choosing. It was a birth defect. I couldn’t control that, but I can control my recovery. I can control how much stronger I want to be afterward.”

More than a year post-surgery, Tee is actually stronger now than she was before. She’s back to strength training at her full potential and can even deadlift 200 pounds again. Her lower-body Strength Score is at an all-time high. This time around, she’s taking a more holistic approach to her wellbeing.

“Tonal introduced me to a whole new approach to fitness,” Tee explained. “It allowed me to become a more balanced athlete, not only focusing on strength, but also on the underlying issues, mobility, flexibility, and becoming stronger from within.”

The information provided in this article is for educational and informational purposes only. Individuals with pre-existing health conditions, injuries, or concerns should consult with their healthcare provider before trying a new exercise or nutrition regimen.

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