Staying in shape is no easy task, especially in our fast-paced world and tumultuous economic climate, where self-improvement ranks a far second to mortgage payments. While politicians duke it out over healthcare reform, we are quick to forget that health itself starts with the individual, not insurance companies.

Mike Mahler, a staunch vegan and fitness expert, has made his living in self-betterment in his own compromise and cruelty-free way. Mahler has mastered every aspect of well-being from the body to the mind, core to cerebral cortex. He uses kettlebells–crudely described as a large ball with a handle–and does exercises like swings, cleans, snatch and jerk. Kettlebells may seem unorthodox compared to the standard barbell and treadmill method, but take one look at Mahler and the other athletes who have followed his example, like MMA fighter Mac Danzig, and you know it’s is the real deal.

At fifteen-years-old Mahler became a vegetarian after he read an interview with Harley Flanagan, one of the founders of The Cro-Mags (same band as John Joseph, author of Meat is for Pussies). Flanagan’s argument was based solely on compassion and logic. “He stated that you couldn’t talk about peace while eating a steak as the animal you’re eating died in agonizing pain,” Mahler explains in an email interview. As a child he visited a game park in Kenya with his parents and saw how an animal in its natural habitat in no way resembled the factory farms that feed the masses, “I realized that this is how animals should be living their lives. Not on some miserable factory farm being treated inhumanely,” Mahler says. So he took a stand to alleviate the suffering, and twenty-one years later he is still a proud herbivore.

Fitness has been a passion of Mahler’s since he was eighteen, and he believes it was a beneficial force, “It really helped me make some positive changes and develop much more confidence,” he says. He also realized that he should be doing what he loved for a living and be his own boss, “I got laid off and decided I never wanted to work for someone else again. Moreover, I wanted to do a career that excited me rather than just to pay the bills.”

He picked up the kettlebell in 2001 and got certified to be an instructor, since then he has put the proverbial pedal to the metal and made a name for himself, teaching classes around the United States and even in London in 2002. He has been interviewed and referenced by various fitness figureheads and publications and has written articles on kettlebell training for Ironman Magazine, Muscle and Fitness, and Men’s Fitness.

Physical well-being also hinges on what one eats, and veganism is advantageous to getting and staying in shape only when done correctly. One thing Mahler emphasizes is a high level of protein: “Protein is also very important and many vegans downplay the importance of protein which is a big mistake. We need a lot more than 10% in our diet for optimal functioning. I would say no less than 20% and for most 30% or more will be even better.” He suggests getting protein from a mix of nuts, seeds and legumes. Also a variety of hemp, pea and rice protein powders, “Works well for a fantastic blend of all the essential amino acids which is critical for every hard training athlete,” he says.

Diet is also an art of avoidance. As vegans we are constantly drawn to the mock meats and approximations, but Mahler warns against these foods and a slue of others. “Too much emphasis on processed junk, grains, and high carbohydrates is not going to work. It is a one way trip to insulin resistance and being a fat storing machine, ” he says. “Avoid soy, fake meats and grains including allegedly healthy ones such as Quinoa…Focus on getting all carbs from fruits and vegetables…”

Fitness for Mahler is something that penetrates below the surface, for one’s prowess is only as good as one’s thought process. Just look at his recommended reading list on his website–his list of literature ranges from The Art of War by Sun Tzu to Being Peace by buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, to The Best Natural Sports Medicine Ever by Dr. William Wong.

In 2011 Mahler published his own manifesto, Live Life Aggressively! What Self Help Gurus Should Be Telling You. It is a guide to willpower that determines success. While it’s easy to sling optimistic mantras like, “Live life aggressively,” to really get anywhere one needs to match actions with the words, and Mahler’s success in the fitness world is indicative that he does just that. “I believe in personal responsibility and taking charge of your life,” he says. “I also believe that people either want to achieve or they don’t. In other words if you need someone else to motivate you then you don’t really care about achieving the goal. You should wake up every morning with a fire to live fully.”

In the end though, it is the philosophy of compassion that distinguishes this kettlebell instructor, from the rest of the fitness gurus. Veganism in itself is an exercise in compassion, every time we abstain from perpetuating the cycle of the abuse of our fellow beings. Mahler concedes this point, “Compassion is my philosophy for life. Not just to people but to all beings. I think when you live your life with compassion as your guide you can’t go wrong,” he says. But in his signature aggressive fashion he explains that compassion is also important for number one, “An important part of this is being compassionate to oneself. This means you have the courage to live life fully and not settle. It also means you should never let others push you around or tell you what you can or can’t achieve. No one has that right.”

Live Life Aggressively can be purchased here, half the profits go to the Nevada SPCA, a no kill shelter for abandoned animals and LifeQuest Transitions, an organization that helps wounded soldiers.

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