Thinking back over the years since I was a teenager, I’ve spent so much time wasted agonising, hating, even crying over the appearance of my body. The fitness and media industries – where I work every day as a qualified personal trainer and journalist – have so much to answer for as they perpetually tell us what we ‘should’ want, and we believe it. Lose 10 kilos now! How to get back your pre-baby body! Get healthy with the latest diet! Go Paleo/low-carb/high protein/gluten-free/dairy-free/sugar free/purple food only/lemon water detox. Sounds silly when you think about it really. And lately there’s a new trend of these diets and fitness tips being given by social influencers and celebrities who actually have no qualifications or true experience helping regular everyday people in real life. We’ve forgotten what balance and moderation actually look like and frankly it’s getting us into trouble.
If I’m really honest, being diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome when I was in my teens didn’t help matters for my own story. At a time when we are probably most vulnerable about our body image and figuring out where we fit into the world around us, I felt like my body was failing me. Medical advice from doctors made me focus on the wrong thing to sort myself out when it came to psychology: my weight. I now wonder what journey I would have taken if the primary focus had been placed on lifestyle changes, regaining intuition with my body and focusing on what felt right healthwise. Instead I became obsessed with going to the gym and fixing what was wrong with me.
Sometimes people do need to hear the plain facts when it comes to health problems that can be alleviated by weight loss, but I believe the framing of the solution is where we can make real changes. I was overweight. Don’t get me wrong – my PCOS symptoms are absolutely better for being at a lower weight, but I couldn’t stop obsessing over the damn number on the scales as I was shamed and guilted into it. Counting how many calories I was taking in. Have I spent at least an hour on the treadmill? How many hours of exercise could I rack up in a week? A day? The next hour? Could I burn calories faster in each workout? How many grams of protein should I eat? Maybe I should drink a protein shake instead of eat a meal…
Relearning to listen to your body
These days I am more intuitive with my fitness and nutrition approach, I eat anything I want but I listen to my body. If I eat too many bread or dairy products I feel bloated, so I keep them at a minimum – but don’t cut them out completely. If I’m tired I don’t push myself to exercise, but I will always do something active even if it’s just 10 minutes of stretching. I rest when I’m feeling fatigued even if the house needs cleaning. And if I feel amazing I happily do a kick arse workout that gets my sweat up. And guess what? My weight is just the same as it was when I was going crazy at the gym and I’m a lot happier now than I ever was back then.
My strength is actually better because I now tend to slow down my workouts and focus on performing exercises correctly aiming for quality over quantity. Sure my cardio fitness levels may have taken a dip, but it’s not like I actually want to run 10 km on the treadmill anyway and it’s bloody boring. Or course that’s not to say you shouldn’t go running if you actually like doing it – but life’s too short to do stuff you hate. I once made myself do a half marathon to cross it off my bucket list but I’m still not sure I actually enjoyed it, and I certainly didn’t enjoy training for it. Instead I now go for long walks in the fresh air (I particularly love doing it by the seaside) with my daughter and run around with her at the park.
Now I have better (but not perfect) perspective about those previous years; what a waste of time, energy and life I could have spent elsewhere. And it’s a prolific issue for women of all shapes and sizes; 91% of women hate their bodies. That makes me so sad. I NEVER want to hear my daughter say that.
Watch this film as soon as you can
Recently, I saw an amazing documentary called Embrace which explores issues of body image. Everybody should watch this; especially if you are raising a girl. As I’ve delved further into my journey as a yoga teacher, I’ve become increasingly comfortable in my own skin – scars, stretchmarks, mama tum, post-breastfeeding boobs and all. This is a body that has carried me everywhere through life, that has grown a human being, and it should be celebrated.
As I walk through the gym where I used to work, I no longer associate myself with the beautiful body images up on the walls that are aimed to inspire and motivate. Instead I feel alienated by them; even as a PT. I’m still strong, I’m still fit, but I’m a softer version of the old me. And somehow I don’t feel like I quite fit in there because now I care more about my health than how I look.
My obligation as a fitness professional influencing others
Up until recently I used to be one of the many trainers marketing weight loss challenges, and I’m having a bit of an existential crisis as I no longer believe that’s a socially responsible approach. This is causing me to rethink the way I’m teaching people to take control of their health and wellbeing, and I’m currently going through the process of rewording all my programmes and the way I talk to people.
Rather than losing x kilos in x weeks or push themselves to breaking point, they will be encouraged to be intuitive with their exercise and nutrition habits. To keep active every day in some way, but keep it gentle if you’re low on energy. To eat everything in moderation unless advised by a knowledgeable professional who understands your full situation and background (it’s important to note here that there are fitness instructors in New Zealand with little to no training or knowledge, just as there are nutritionists who may have only done a 6-week course online. Certificates and accolades don’t necessary translate to good advice if someone has had decent life experience, but there are also people with many years of experience and qualifications who will perpetuate negativity around self image and wellness habits without realising it).
My new approach may not make me the richest or most successful personal trainer – as many people are still looking for fast fixes and my route is certainly not the quickest way. But my clients will be happier and healthier on an emotional and mental level, which, from my previous experience tends to translate to long term physical transformation as well. Helping to stave off or alleviate anxiety, stress, burnout, negative body images and depression (rather than contributing to it) are far more important to me than getting people to look like those on the covers of the magazines.
Somehow amidst this modern busy lifestyle we’re all leading, we’ve forgotten how to be in touch with our feelings, our bodies, and to love ourselves. It’s time to take back control! ?