Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
American Idol winner Jordin Sparks went from a gym-phobic girl to a fiercely fit (50 pounds lighter) runner—and it all started with a case of pneumonia.
“I live every second like this is my last one,” belts out R&B singer Jordin Sparks in her hit song “Tattoo.” And for the 23-year-old American Idol winner-turned-mega pop star, this isn’t just a lyric, it’s a lifestyle—one that she adopted two years ago after a major wake-up call.
In the fall of 2010, Sparks was finishing her first-ever Broadway run, playing Nina Rosario in the acclaimed In the Heights, when she lost her voice. Assuming it was a run-of-the-mill chest infection, the singer visited her doctor, only to discover that she was suffering from walking pneumonia—a serious condition if left untreated.
The diagnosis was a turning point for the Arizona native. With her 21st birthday quickly approaching, Sparks felt that she should be on top of her game, not under the weather. She knew that in order to feel the best she could, her exercise-avoiding, junk-food-loving habits needed to change. “I remember thinking, I’m supposed to be enjoying life and be healthy and vibrant—this is just not going to work anymore,” Sparks says. Right then and there, the youngest winner in Idol history decided it was time to shape up.
Two years later, the radiant pop star is 50 pounds lighter and living larger than ever. Sparks has sold 1.3 million albums, garnered a Grammy nomination, debuted one platinum record (with another in the works) and starred in her first major film, 2012’s Sparkle, alongside the late Whitney Houston. Her own clothing and perfume lines, strong Christian faith and adoring boyfriend (singer Jason Derulo) make for a full life for this gorgeous celeb who now loves running, eating healthy and staying fit.
WOMEN’S RUNNING: You went from a girl who hated running to a fitness fanatic. How did you make it work?
JORDIN SPARKS: It started with baby steps. I couldn’t do a lot of cardio for the first two weeks, as my lungs really had no capacity. I went from walking, to a brisk walk, to hiking, but had to stop every five minutes to catch my breath. As I started getting better, I took a Latin dance class and then started seeing a trainer and going to the gym regularly. It’s de finitely been a journey.
WR: When did running enter the picture?
JS: When you go to the gym, people are always on the treadmill. I avoided it at all costs for a while, but eventually started thinking, If they can do it, I can. One day I just looked at a treadmill and said, “Okay, I’m going to do this!”
Then there was one night I was in a hotel by myself in New York—probably recording or doing some sort of appearance out there—and I ended up running two miles. Two miles! It was a huge milestone for me. I remember calling my dad and freaking out. He knows I was always one to avoid anything like running, so it really was a big deal.
WR: As a former pro football player, did you father ever inspire you to get fit?
JS: Watching my dad was one of my biggest inspirations. When I was younger—here’s this person in peak physical condition, and then there I was, a girl going through puberty. He’d try to get me to come to the gym with him, an invitation that I sometimes took the wrong way. Back then, the more my parents encouraged me to be active, the more I just wanted to stay inside. I didn’t get it until just a couple of years ago.
WR: The music industry is notoriously image focused. Did you ever feel pressure to look a certain way?
JS: Even though my parents modeled fitness to me, they always had another message—that I was beautiful the way I was. I was always like, “Cool! I’m cute. Awesome.” I didn’t think I was the prettiest girl ever, but I really was okay with myself. That’s not to say there weren’t moments where I wanted to throw a bag over my head—and there still are.
But after Idol, I did the worst thing ever: I went online to see what people were saying. I wasn’t prepared at age 16 for how harsh people can be—I really hadn’t seen myself that way and thought I was missing something. The pressures now are still the same, but I think it’s more normal now to see girls with curves. There’s room for all types in Hollywood.
WR: How did the media respond to your weight loss-or did you stay off the internet around that time, too?
JS: During Idol I learned my lesson: Stay off the Internet! It did get a little crazy after I lost all the weight—I think people got confused about my message. But I didn’t lose the weight because I wanted to be a certain size or look exactly like everyone else. It happened because I wanted to be healthy.
When you make better choices, your body responds in an amazing way. But don’t do it because you want to be like everyone else. You have to do it for you. You are who you are for a reason. Be happy with that, because there’s nobody else like you.
WR: Did you change your diet as well?
JS: It was the holidays when I decided to make that drastic change, and my first test was walking into my nana’s house. I’m a believer that food should be enjoyed, but I used to eat just because it tasted good— not because I was hungry. I had to change that mindset. I would literally talk to myself: “I don’t need to get a second helping. I know it tasted good, but I’m just going to leave it over there in that nice little pot and that’s where it’s going to stay.”
Now, two years later, I’m making healthier choices. Instead of Pop-Tarts, which I love, I eat an apple. It’s a daily thing though—I’m not going to say I never splurge.
WR: You’re in the middle of recording you third studio album. How did you find the time to run?
JS: I try to fit it in when I go to the gym. Recently I was in New York and I had to run on the hotel treadmill at 11 o’clock at night. That happens a lot, but no matter what the time, doing something is better than nothing.
WR: Do you run with your boyfriend?
JS: Jason just got a house in Miami and it’s really close to the beach, so we go for walks and jogs down there. When we’re in L.A., we go to the gym often and run side by side on the treadmill. He’s distracting though because he’s so cute. I’m naturally clumsy, so if I try to sneak a look at him, I end up tripping.
There are days I don’t want to get up, let alone run, and Jason’s a great motivator. It’s fun to have somebody next to me not judging me as I drip with sweat and try to keep my form right.