Charlee Atkins describes herself as a “professional sweater” — not of the fuzzy-garment kind, but as one of America’s most in-demand SoulCycle instructors. In addition to teaching sold-out classes, Atkins is also a Wilhelmina fitness model and can be seen everywhere from Target to Runner’s World. She talks to the Cut about diet, staying motivated, and how cookies can actually help you work out harder and better.
How I start my mornings: Even though I teach at ten, I wake up at six or seven. Your body has to warm up to do what we do. I start it with yerba mate, because I can’t hit the caffeine right away.
I have oatmeal, a nice carb-heavy meal to energize me — the old-fashioned kind. I’ll add honey, raisins because I like the texture, and a little bit of coconut milk — something to give it a little bit of pizzazz. I’ll cook half a carton of hard-boiled eggs and eat them throughout the day. I do foam rolling, because you have to stay loose and limber to stay active.
Then mentally, to work out every day, you need to come with a clean slate. I do your typical to-do list, but I’m big on writing it down and crossing it out. I know iPhones have reminders you can check off. But for me, actually crossing it off is satisfying.
How I sweat: I teach on average 13 classes a week, and try to do two to three workouts on my own. Three to five is the starter to maintain what you have. Five to six we generally recommend for a change. Obviously, five is going to get you closer to where you want to be. But everyone is different.
I also got a trainer. Since SoulCycle is spinning, it’s important to also try to work out with someone else who helps me move in other dynamic positions. His name is Dariuz. It’s so cool to have a trainer in my life and it helps me remember how important it is to have someone give you advice about your body and how to make it stronger.
On food and nutrition: People like to think that because we work out so often we can eat anything we want, and some people can. The longer you do this business and live an active life, which could be SoulCycle or someone working out five to six times a week, you need to start thinking about nutrition as fuel and be smart about it. Timing is everything, and you can’t afford to eat garbage at my level of fitness.
I eat eggs and egg whites, oatmeal. I don’t have a lot of fruit. If I need sugar, sugar in its simplest form is a carbohydrate. I get sugar from oatmeal. One tip my sports nutritionist told me is to eat half a cookie or scone or cupcake half an hour before class. Because it’s such a simple sugar, it gets absorbed right away. My treat to myself is to have half a cookie an hour before class and it energizes me for the next 45 minutes or so of class. I love Balthazar oatmeal butter scones. Like if I have one every single day, which I do, I would be the happiest person in the world. But it’s about timing — if you eat sugar 20 to 30 minutes before class, you’ll hit the peak during class. An hour will be right before class and then you will crash.
So I don’t eat a full meal two hours before class. I’ll do the cookies. After class, it’s super important to get protein within a 30-minute window. I’ll have a protein called Source Organic, which is a peanut-butter protein. I’ll have it in a shaker and will just down it right after. Or after I shower, I’ll have a little Fage 2% yogurt. That’s the easiest thing you can have immediately following class.
To me, wellness is: It’s the simplest answer, but being fit and healthy or well — it’s a lifestyle. Being well and being healthy is a day-by-day choice.
How wellness has changed for me: I played sports all my life. For undergrad, I studied physical therapy. As I was doing job-shadowing to get my physical-therapy license, I realized that the type of people I liked working with were people who wanted to get better — people who have the drive of an athlete or people like we get in Soul Cycle who want to make a change. It’s inspiring to me and I know what it’s like to be where you are and not be where you want to be. I view myself as this person who helps bridge that gap. Inspiring people to make that leap is the most gratifying thing about what I do. Fitness is just my art and how I get my message across. I’m in the business of helping people realize that where you are currently isn’t where you have to stay.
I posted a picture of myself on Instagram from maybe six years ago. I call that person “she.” “She” was happy and very healthy. She looks fine. But at the time, I had gained the freshman 15, which didn’t make me happy. As women, it’s hard to lose what we gain especially when you don’t know where it’s coming from. The transformation was not an intention or goal to lose weight. It was a lifestyle change. I became vegetarian because it made me feel better. I quit drinking for some time because I could taste food better. I made wellness choices over time that got me to where I am.
On motivating yourself to work out: You can fall into a mood. Some days it’s the act of just coming to work, even though I love what I do. All it takes it a mental shift. Music is what motivates me. I have speakers in the bathroom and I was like, I love this song. The thought of playing that song and enjoying it with 60 other people made me be like, Oh, I get to go teach!
But for you, how do you make that mental shift? If you want to make a change, you have to show up. When you make it an option like, Oh I could go or I could not go, is when people start to fall off the wagon. Don’t give yourself permission to not show up. You have to always give yourself the option for success.
Also talk yourself into it. Like, As soon as that’s over, I can do XYZ. One thing I picked up from doing yoga in LA., the yogi or guru taught us anytime you’re down to list the things you love. Sometimes I’ll do that on the way to class. I’ll be like I love coffee, I love sweating, it will put you in a positive mind-set. If you focus on the positive and things you love, you’ll find a million things to list. It’s crazy how you can talk yourself into anything. You can talk yourself into doing that final 30-second sprint. When you tell yourself no, the game is over. If you tell yourself, “Yes, yes, yes, yes,” you’ll do it. It’s like having a cheerleader in the corner.
How I eat when I’m alone: It’s not glamorous. I went on a trip with two of my friends who are riders, and they got to see the other side of me. They were like, Wow, you really eat all the time. I’m constantly hungry and eat every two hours. I’ll have four to five hard boiled eggs a day. I do tend to eat the same things, and it’s boring but it works.
But I’m also about the dessert. I have a sweet tooth. I’m really into cheesecake, like Junior’s. I live in Nolita and I found the Little Cupcake Bakeshop and they have this cookies-and-cream cheesecake. There’s nothing bad to get there.
My wellness struggle: My wellness struggle is setting myself up for success in workouts and staying committed. If I set a workout too far, I probably won’t go to it. I like places where you can’t cancel the day of. Most boutique fitness studios give you a deadline. By financially committing, it makes you show up. Or I’ll book them first thing in the morning.
My wellness advice: If you know you want to be in a different place, have that vision in front of you. Every choice you make will bring you closer to where you want to go. I can give you tips about how many hours to sleep or you can do one or ten of the things I suggest. But it only works if you’re slowly making different changes over time. Overnight, you’re not going to become a guru. It’s a progression. You start to learn about the ways that are best for you.