Natalie Mariduena is going public with her life changes.
After being featured in Sports Illustrated Swimsuit in 2020 and 2021, the 26-year-old content creator decided in July 2022 to commit more fully to her health.
"I wasn't taking care of my body," Mariduena tells PEOPLE exclusively. "I would work out from time to time, but it just wasn't a priority."
The former athlete — she played soccer from age 4 through college — had lost much of her cardiovascular fitness.
"I could barely run, and my overall health was not great," says Mariduena, who has 3.4 million followers on Instagram, where she is also known as Natalie Noel. "I wanted to see what I could push my body to do, and what I could accomplish if I did make my health and fitness my No. 1 priority."
RELATED: Jay Pharoah Reveals How He Lost 20 Lbs. in 21 Days: The 'Weight Fell Off'
"He was doing a lot of really inspiring motivational transformations with other friends of ours, and he approached me and was like, 'If you want to get into the best shape you've ever been in, let me know!' "
Mariduena had recently finished filming a travel show for the Discovery Channel and felt ready to take on the challenge. "There were a lot of good foods and indulgences," she recalls of her travels. "I felt finally committed. I wanted to do it for myself."
Courtesy of @natalinanoel_
In the beginning, Mariduena worked out at least five times a week.
"One of my bigger goals was to run a 6:30 mile, which I've never done before, even in my soccer days," says Mariduena, who was recently named the president of YouTuber David Dobrik's company. "Outside of just weight loss, I wanted to set an actual fitness goal to push myself."
She started out at an 8:30 mile. "I really had to cut my time, which meant a lot of sprints and practice to get my body prepared." She eventually shaved off nearly two minutes, just shy of her goal.
In addition to cardio like running and boxing, she also lifted weights to achieve muscle transformation and gains "so that everything looks nice and toned."
Courtesy Natalie Mariduena
Mariduena has long been a body positive role model for many. When she appeared in SI Swim, her figure was applauded for being real and attainable.
She's aware that her weight loss might draw criticism from some fans. "I don't want people to feel like I didn't love my body before," she says. "I just wanted to be physically superior to what I was before."
And the benefits extend far beyond her appearance. "I feel a lot better now," she adds. "I hope that people can understand and appreciate that, because I didn't realize that at the time, either. It was eye-opening for me."
"I preach this idea of body normalcy and body positivity and that you don't have to look a certain way, shape, or whatever in order to feel or look good. And I still 100% stand by that. But now that I'm in this place, I move through daily life easier, and I just function better. Like even in my brain — I have clear thinking. It's just really improved my life as a whole, and I didn't think it would."
Mariduena says that changing her diet was the most challenging aspect of her weight loss. "I'm the self-proclaimed pasta queen," she says. "I love good food, and a lot of times, food that tastes amazing isn't necessarily the most amazing for you."
Still, she learned to adjust over time. "I definitely still had moments when I indulged, but I just found the balance in that." During the week she would focus on work and working out and staying regimented and in her routine. And then on the weekends, if she wanted to go out to dinner with her girlfriends, she would order whatever she wanted. "It's about moderation."
She and Fedorovich also filmed her journey, and the footage is now available on Xeela's YouTube channel. The documentary shows not just her high notes as far as workouts and activities and meals, but the tough times as well.
"You see a lot of my struggle and frustration with having to get up early and work out," Mariduena says. "There are days where I don't want to get out of bed and I don't want to have to wake up and go for a run and sweat and exert my body. But you have to push through that and get it done in order to get to your goal."
These days she maintains her results by working out three times a week, incorporating moderate cardio and weights. "Going to the gym is not my favorite thing in the world," she admits. "Walking into a gym, seeing weights and equipment or a treadmill can be sort of a drag. So I like to incorporate going to different classes like Pilates or hot yoga to keep it fun." Once a week she does heavier lifting.
All of this has enabled her to decrease her body fat percentage by 12%. "I don't think people really understood — because I post photos on Instagram at my best angles and in my best outfits, and you don't necessarily see the full scope of someone's health and fitness online — but I had a high percentage of body fat that was unhealthy," she says. "And I needed to have that sort of reset, somebody to help push me and get me back into a routine of enjoying health and fitness and having fun with it."
"And that's what this whole transformation did for me," she says. "Yes, I lost weight and I got fit, and now I'm very healthy and have changed my diet, my routine. But I still love my body from 4 or 5 months ago. That perspective hasn't changed."