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March 31, 2017 05:11 PM

 

After battling thyroid and testicular cancer, Tarek El Moussa was told even just walking would be a challenge.

“I wasn’t clear to walk after my surgery,” the Flip or Flop star, 36, tells PEOPLE. “My doctor pretty much told me I’d never lift weights again. I was really screwed up.”

But being told he couldn’t do something was actually all the motivation El Moussa needed to inspire him to get back into the gym. A few months after his surgery, he was referred to physical therapist Quintin Tucker.

“When he put me on his table on day one, I couldn’t walk,” says El Moussa. “But by the end of the week, he had me lifting weights. The therapy he did on me made it possible for me to work on getting myself back.”

That meant a rebirth of sorts both physically and mentally.

Pye Jirsa Photography

“I want to do everything I can to stay healthy,” says El Moussa, who has admitted he was “miserable” as his weight fluctuated in the months after his surgeries and as he recovered from a debilitating back injury in 2014. “It just feels good to change your body and get in shape. It builds self confidence and just to understand you can accomplish goals.”

Also motivating El Moussa is his new home base of Newport Beach, California, where he moved after his split from wife Christina last May.

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“Just being down by the beach, there’s all these people walking and riding bikes and running,”  he says. “It’s a workout environment so when you see those people being active you’re, like, ‘Man, I need to be active too!’ “

El Moussa says he works out with Tucker, who has transitioned into being his trainer, four or five times a week. He focuses on weight training super sets with high reps so his heart rate remains elevated and he receives the benefits of a cardio workout in addition to building and toning muscle.

“My fitness goals change all the time,” El Moussa explains. “Right now I’m working to get bigger, more muscular and then I’ll lean up a little bit.”

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Now back at his “healthy” weight of 195 lbs., 6-ft.-tall El Moussa sent his fans into a tizzy on Thursday when he shared a shirtless workout photo of himself. The pic is from a 2016 photo shoot, but the realtor says he initially didn’t plan on posting the photo.

“It’s not about confidence. It’s more about I’m not really the type of guy that does that stuff. I’m just more of a laid-back guym,” says El Moussa, whose ex Christina made headlines when she shared a bikini shot of herself last week. “But a lot of people tell me I inspire them. And the truth is, if I can get just 10 people to change their life and get in shape, then it’s worth it — or just one person.”

And El Moussa says it’s working. He’s already getting messages from fans telling him that he’s inspired them to hit the gym.

“I was really sick for a long time and, really, I still get tired because of all my medications. But I fight through it because I have a goal and I want to accomplish that goal,” he says. “In life — whether it’s business, fitness, family — in order to live the fullest life possible, you need to continue to challenge yourself and set new goals and make things happen. Never stay stagnant. That’s how I live my life.”

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