If you’re used to eating pizza and Big Macs, it’s hard to switch over to a diet of chicken breasts and broccoli. By the same token, people who never work out can’t be expected to suddenly take on a regimen of weights and cardio six days a week. Common sense and experience show us that abrupt, massive changes to one’s lifestyle aren’t sustainable. You may start out motivated and disciplined, but after a week or two, it begins to wane (like so many New Year’s Resolutions), and you fall back into your old behaviors like a drunk onto a barroom floor.
Experts tell us that to see results long-term, we need to change things just a little at a time. Eat a little less dough and a few more carrot sticks each day until you’ve weaned yourself off junk food and onto salads… Start by taking walks around your neighborhood and knocking out a few pushups before you start renovating your house for a home gym. Small, gradual, maintainable changes work best.
That is, unless you’re Shawn Paul Jennings, who harnessed his bipolar personality to change his mindset and his life practically overnight—and without looking back. Jennings dropped his body fat by eight percent in six weeks en route to an Onnit 6 Challenge victory, and he’s only just beginning to build steam.
Death and Rebirth
Jennings, of Snohomish, Washington, worked in digital marketing, and was an avid surfer, artist, and musician. He struggled with anxiety and depression, but enjoyed an active and relatively balanced life. Then, in February 2019, he lost his father to pancreatic cancer. “We thought he had a little bit longer than he did,” says Jennings, “so it kind of snuck up on us.”
The shock sent Jennings into a spiral, in which he gave up all physical activity for rich food and booze. A typical day would begin with sleeping late—because he couldn’t get to sleep the night before—and then migrating to his beanbag chair where he’d vegetate until dinnertime. “I developed a lot of bad habits,” says Jennings, “and became an expert at them,” he jokes.
While his body swelled some 15 pounds over the course of that year, Jennings felt his mind was atrophying, describing his creative drive at level zero. His breaking point came when he turned 40 in January 2020. Attempting to celebrate his birthday by going surfing, his favorite activity, Jennings found he was so out of shape that he couldn’t even paddle out to the big waves.
Then Jennings discovered Own The Day, Own Your Life, the best-selling lifestyle book by Onnit founder Aubrey Marcus. “It really struck a chord with me,” he says, as he felt it provided the roadmap that would lead him out of his funk. “I listened to the audio version of it twice.” Jennings began following Marcus on social media, and that led to his discovery of the Onnit 6 Challenge, Onnit’s fitness transformation contest.
The Onnit 6 (O6) Challenge is a six-week course focused around one of the Onnit 6 workout programs—plans that use just one piece of workout equipment (or bodyweight alone) to build stability and strength in the body while training the mind to adopt healthy habits for life. All workouts feature video instruction, and are streamed online, allowing you to train at home. In the O6 Challenge, participants work together (albeit remotely) to stay motivated and achieve the best results—so it’s not so much a competition as a shared mission. To win the challenge, you need to demonstrate that training with Onnit helped you not only change your body but also improve your life. Grand-prize winners are awarded free Onnit products, access to all Onnit 6 programs, and $6,000 in cash.
Jennings signed up for the Kettlebell O6 Challenge, even though he’d never touched the cannonball-shaped implement before in his life, and the contest began, coincidentally, one year to the day after the passing of his dad.
“I had just turned 40 and wanted to make a change,” says Jennings. “The Challenge seemed like a good opportunity to do that, so I jumped in with both feet.” He bought three kettlebells—none heavier than 35 pounds—and, to help keep himself accountable, created a YouTube channel on which he’d maintain a video log of the experience. Christening the channel Kook & Rally, as in, “here’s a kook who’s going to rally and get his life together,” Jennings announced in his first video that “Grief left me a depressed, angry, lethargic fat slob. That all changes today.”
And just like that, it did.
Going forward, Jennings vowed to stop grieving over his father and instead celebrate his life by doing the things his dad would have wanted him to: taking care of his physical and mental health, expressing himself as an artist, and reclaiming his identity as a surfer. “I thought I could use the Challenge to get back into the things that used to make me happy,” says Jennings, “and to put me in a position where I felt I had the power to perform well at them again.”
A Tale of Two Shawns
Of course, it wasn’t quite as easy as just drawing a line in the sand and stepping over it. Jennings has always had trouble finding the middle ground. If he drinks alcohol, he’s apt to get loaded, and if he’s following a workout plan, he’s going to train like he’s heading to the Olympics. To make it even trickier, the switch can flip from on to off with the least provocation.
In the past, Jennings would make a run at working out, but if he missed a day, he’d give up the pursuit entirely. The difference with O6 was that he now had a support group to cheerlead him through the obstacles and keep him on track.
The Onnit Tribe is a Facebook group created for Onnit 6 Challenge contestants to communicate. They exchange ideas about workouts and nutrition, but the real magic lies in how they motivate each other through difficult times.
“People in there post a lot of before and after photos, which is inspiring to see,” says Jennings, but the people who inspired me the most were the ones who seemed to be struggling the hardest. They’d post things like, ‘I missed my kettlebell workout today and I just feel like crap about it,’ and other members would jump on and say, ‘Hey, don’t beat yourself up. You’ll get it tomorrow. It’s OK.’ People even talked about things outside of the Challenge that they were struggling with. The tribe became a support system, not just for the contest, but for our lives in general. And as the pandemic began, that really meant a lot.”
There were days when Jennings missed workouts, but fueled by the love of the Tribe, he’d make sure to make it up the next day and, given his tendency to go to extremes, he sometimes did double sessions for good measure. “Another thing that helped me stay consistent was knowing that each week of the program built on the last one,” says Jennings. “I knew I had to get the exercises we did this week down before I could advance them the next week.”
Though he was a newbie to kettlebell training, Jennings took to it right away. Every Onnit 6 program provides exercises in a three-tier format: new users should start with moves that are at a Level 1 difficulty, and can progress as they see fit to Levels 2 and 3. For example, a trainee working lower body in an O6 session might start out with a basic lunge movement for his/her first few workouts and then graduate to a warrior lunge (a lunge followed by an external rotation of the rear leg) a few weeks later. Jennings was able to customize his workouts to his strength level, as well as his readiness to train that day according to how he was feeling.
Since all the workouts are streamed online, Jennings trained from his home office and garage, and sometimes even outdoors when the weather was nice.
As he built momentum on the program and settled into the habit of moving his body on a daily basis, Jennings found he craved even more activity. “I added things on, like going for a long walk or raking the leaves, instead of hanging out and watching TV.” Jennings made changes to his diet as well, incorporating more fruits and vegetables, a habit made easier by the delicious recipes and food prep ideas shared amongst the Tribe. Jennings didn’t count calories or carbs, but he was meticulous about weighing himself on a smart scale so that he could track his progress, and he took pictures of himself daily.
Still, one of his favorite features of the Challenge was that it wasn’t based entirely on aesthetic results. “Unlike so many other fitness contests,” he says, “there was no weigh in, and no pressure to look a certain way at the end. I thought that was very cool.”
Life Begins (Again) At 40
By the end of Week 6, Jennings had taken eight percent off his body fat while gaining significant muscle mass. He also found himself feeling more enthusiastic about his work. “I felt like an artist again,” he says. “I have a list of things I want to do and make now.” He returned to surfing with a vengeance, as well as his music. “I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished,” he says, “and I know my dad would be proud of it too.”
He not only righted his ship after the death of his father and turning 40, Jennings proved that he had the dedication to weather storms and maintain his lifestyle change indefinitely. For these reasons, Onnit named him the O6 Kettlebell winner in April 2020.
“The $6,000 in prize money was great, and it helped me out a lot,” says Jennings, “but that was the least of what I got out of the Challenge. The overall physical and mental health change was the real prize, and I made quite a few friends that I’m still in touch with who keep me on track. In fact, I’m connecting with people now better than I have in years.”
In September 2020, Jennings was finally diagnosed as bipolar, which explains his tendency toward erratic behavior, and why previous treatments never worked for him. While Jennings acknowledges that he still has days when he misses workouts and makes less than optimal decisions, he knows he’ll never let his demons overtake him again. “I have my peaks and valleys,” he says, “but I find some way to be active every day. As someone who struggles with moderation, if I miss one day, I feel like I might as well miss two weeks. That’s a difficult thing for me to work on. But when I pick myself up and do the work the next day, I feel one-thousand times better, and I’m pretty stoked by how I look and feel right now. When I get down, it’s easier to pick myself up than it used to be. Onnit 6 was not a fad workout for me. It’s become a lifestyle.”