My story: Why I say “I understand”

IMG_5291My motivations to be a personal trainer and nutritional advisor go way beyond wanting people to be proud of their big biceps and washboard stomachs. Sharing the story which lead me to this path is a bit scary, as it’s it not something I discuss with many people, but hopefully it will help people see why I preach and get so passionate about the things I do.

It’s rather long at just over 2000 words, but I hope you find it interesting, and that it helps you or someone you know in some way. Please feel free to share it.

 

Dog walking and dam building

I have enjoyed being active my whole life. My happiest memories as a child are climbing trees, building dams and wandering the fields near my home carrying a rucksack full of nature books in order to identify any critters that I came into contact with. I loved walking my dog and got up early to do so before school (I’ve always been an early bird).

My senior school had a leisure centre on site and as soon as I was allowed I spent my lunchtimes in the gym or pool. By this time though another motivation was at play. I had been bullied from the age of 12, which continued on-and-off for the remainder of my school years. With this, as is often the case, my confidence plummeted. Add the rollercoaster of teenage hormones and an increasingly negative relationship with my body image, and the result is that my exercise sessions became more about feeling marginally happier with my body than about having fun.

Wafer-thin ham sandwiches

Into this mix I now added what I was led to believe were healthy food choices. Thinking back to those days I remember eating a lot of rice cakes and sandwiches made from Weight Watchers bread, with no spread or a tiny bit of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Light spread and two slices of wafer-thin ham sandwiches. My lunches looked anaemic in short.

My mum is an amazing cook yet I felt terribly guilty eating her delicious meals, and enviably watched my brother devour his own bodyweight in food day after day, whist he remained lean. Meanwhile I was always hungry yet my body did not seem to reflect all the effort I was putting in. It was like I was baking a cake with all the “right” ingredients, yet the result was always flat, burnt and disgusting to taste. I could not understand it.

Discovering some confidence

It was a huge relief when I could finally leave the bullies behind as I left to go to university in Swansea when I 18. I was free to break free from the social anguish that had plagued me for six years at school. I could make friends based on who I was at that point in my life, not based on who I had gone to school with.

When I started uni I had been in a relationship for several years with a guy from home (not school, I was far too short on confidence there). About half way through that year though, the relationship came to an end. Although I felt devastated initially I very soon felt more free than I had for a really really long time. I was like an exotic bird discovering for the first time it’s beautiful wings, then realising that they were also my passport to freedom.

I made great new friends, many of whom I’m still close to. I had tons of fun, got involved in new things, in short I had the university experience. I felt loads happier and was more active. I was also thinking less than I had about food than I had for years and ironically weight started to fall off me, without my even noticing. I soon needed to buy smaller clothes and received lots of compliments from those around me. I felt ecstatic. Finally I discovered what it felt like to not completely hate my own body.

Heading into the danger zone

Subconsciously though, I linked my loss of weight to my new-found popularity and fun-filled life. Therefore once I slowly but surely started to gain weight again, I was terrified. In my head I would loose my great new friends and fab new life if I put weight on again. I once again returned to rice cakes and Weight Watchers bread sandwiches. They had just as much success for me then as they had last time though.

I was by now a second-year student; drinking most nights of the week, frequently grabbing takeaways on the way home and sleeping way less than I needed. As the weight increased I got more and more desperate. This is how I became bulimic.

In a shared house of nine I could easily get away with sneaking off to nearby shops to buy bags of “forbidden” foods, and then embark on binging and purging sessions. Or so I thought. I suspect my housemates were on to me far sooner than I realised.

I can’t really remember how long this went on for. I do remember though that at some point I realised that I needed to tell someone what I was doing in order to experience the shame needed to get myself out of it. I told my mum about it, who got me to see a counsellor, I read a book about it but it didn’t help a great deal.

Meeting Dan

It was meeting Dan that really put a stopper in it. Mainly because I was generally either at the gym or with him (or both) during my free time, so I had far less private time in which to embark on any bulimic behaviour. The binges and purges became less frequent, and at some point stopped altogether, but the poor body image and shaky self-confidence remained with me for years.

Throughout all of this I was still an avid gym-goer. I would come in from clubbing and be in the gym a few hours later. Looking at it now I must have been a metabolic wreck, but I guess you can get away with it more when you’re young.

“Running 20-odd miles a week unfortunately doesn’t mean you can get away with eating whatever the hell you like”

I continued to be a gym bunny when Dan and I moved from Swansea to Cardiff, where I studied to be a journalist, and then when we moved from there to Bath. Funnily enough the gym we joined when we moved to Bath was at the YMCA. If someone had told me then that I would be working for them in a few years I would never have believed them.

The nutritional side of things

As you do when you join a gym I had a programme written for me by the lovely Simon (who ended up getting me my YMCA job years later). I met with him every 12 weeks for a retest and at one of them we found my results weren’t what he’d expect given how much I was in the gym. I knew, and he most likely knew too, that was due to the nutritional side of things.

marathon
Me after running the London Marathon

I distinctly remember him suggesting we look into my nutritional intake. I was petrified. I went to the gym so that I could eat chocolate, cake and all the rest of it. I knew he would tell me not to eat such crap and I couldn’t have coped with that. I vowed to just exercise more and decided to take on the London Marathon. I would surely loose weight if I trained for a marathon wouldn’t I?!

 

Not necessarily, so it turns out. Running 20-odd miles a week unfortunately doesn’t mean you can get away with eating whatever the hell you like, as I believed it would. I thought that if I was doing that much exercise I would get back the body I had at the end of my first year of uni, which was the smallest I had ever been.

Extra chocolate allowance

Maybe it would have done if I had been eating well, but it didn’t for me, no doubt partly because I was counterbalancing the running with chocolate. I had joined Weight Watchers by then and every time I came back from a run or gym session I would work out how many points I had just burned, and consume that exact amount of chocolate. I would even do an extra mile or an extra ten minutes in the gym simply to “buy” myself some extra chocolate allowance.

So this mentality went on until I fell pregnant with Jack. After having him I went straight back to the gym and to weighing out chocolate, despite the fact that I was breastfeeding and shattered. However now a change occurred. My gym sessions and runs were now the only headspace I got. They were the only times I saw people and did the things I had done before I became a mum. Over time my exercise sessions became more vital for my mental wellbeing than my physical wellbeing.

Huge amounts of cake and chocolate

Since having Jack I had been eating huge amounts of cake and chocolate because I was breastfeeding, and had been told by midwives and everyone else that I needed to eat lots of extra calories to produce the milk that he needed. Clearly I had been eating enough to produce milk for several babies, and consuming such a huge calorie surplus that my weight had gone up and up.

“Clearly I had been eating enough to produce milk for several babies”

I seriously needed to get my weight under control, but no longer had loads of spare time I could spend in the gym. I needed another tactic.

In searching for some help I came across The Clean & Lean Diet and everything clicked. The book spoke about cutting out refined, processed foods, caffeine, and alcohol, and about eating whole, clean foods. I decided to give it a go for a few weeks and have never looked back. Not only did I start to loose weight, but most importantly I felt far healthier that I probably ever had. No surprise. For the first time I was eating loads of nutrient-dense food instead of air-filled nutrient-poor foods.

Game changer

This was real game-changer for me. I had discovered that the secret to being healthy wasn’t hidden in a certain number of hours logged in the gym or a particular “health” food. It was in a clean and, most importantly, healthy approach. Combine this with the fact that to me exercise was no longer a way to control my weight, but something I enjoyed in and of itself, and you can see why I felt better than I had in years. And I felt better not just physically but mentally and emotionally too. The bulimic inside me slowly grew smaller and smaller until I realised she had gone entirely.

Today I enjoy healthy food, and I also enjoy the occasional treat. I no longer fear “treat” foods, as I am in control of my feelings around them now. My own exercise sessions are now fun and something I love to do, not something I feel I should do in order to look a certain way, and I hope that my clients and class participants feel the same about the ones I deliver to them.

The road to making my discovery was a painful one for me, and it angers me that food companies, supermarkets and in many ways the government had made it so hard for me, and others like me, to make that discovery.

This is why I decided to retrain to be a personal trainer and nutritional advisor. I wanted to help educated people about how to live a healthy life, be it mentally, physically, nutritionally or emotionally. If I save just one person from going down the horrible road that I did, that I will have succeeded.

So when I tell you I understand how hard it can be to live a healthy life, I really do.

I will be there to help whoever I can in whatever way I can.

Thanks for reading.

 

Why health is my most important value

I just wrote this for a task and thought it was relevant to share it here:

Why is health your most important value? 
Describe a time in your life when it has been particularly important

Health means that you have the ability to live life to the full. If you want to climb a mountain you can do it, if you want to swim in the sea you can do it, if you have to dash upstairs to get a forgotten jumper before the school run you can do it. It gives you freedom and more choices.

For me it has been the times in my life where my health has been compromised that I have realised just how important it is. Pneumonia got in the way of our annual family trip to the Enchanted Christmas event at Westonbirt Arboretum last year, and for months over the past two years has stopped me from running and doing the CrossFit workouts I (perhaps weirdly) love.

It made me miss my son’s first school assembly and stopped me breastfeeding my daughter when I was forced to take steroids. And right now an injured wrist is once again getting in the way of bike rides, CrossFit and throwing heavy chunks of metal around at the gym (to quote Emma Farrell).

Being healthy is a major factor (not the only factor, I know) in being able to do what you want, when you want, and this is why it is my most important value. It is also why I am so passionate about helping others be their healthiest selves. For me it is not about big biceps and shredded abs. It’s about living a happy life to the full. Every. Single. Day.

Book review: ‘Lights Out’

Lights outAlthough most areas of my life as are healthy as they could possibly be, sleep has seriously let me down over the last few years. This was what lead me to read Lights Out. That and the fact that I have suffered from numerous bouts of pneumonia/chest infections over the last year, and I had a sneaking suspicion that my lack of quality sleep may be partly to blame.

First up I will say that Lights Out is relatively old (published 2001) and that there has no doubt been a great deal of new research done on the topics discussed in the intervening period. Also the style of writing is extremely sensationalist. Chapters conclude in a style not unlike that of The Divinci Code writer Dan Brown, and I could almost hear dramatic music and the end of each chapter.

That said, I thought this was a really interesting read. It blames a huge number of western society’s chronic and increasing diseases (such as obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease) on the invention of the light bulb. It documents compelling research that shows a steady increase in these conditions as light bulbs became more readily available.

This makes sense. As light bulbs became more widely used our days grew longer. We could work more hours than ever before, businesses such as factories suddenly needed night workers and as a result our sleep patterns became messed up like never before.

Now we have the ability to stay awake longer, we of course need more fuel in order to do so. Yet more compelling research showed that we fuel these extra waking hours with carbs (aka sugar). As a species we evolved on minimal seasonal carbs; a handful of blueberries when we stumbled across a ripe bush, a few apples at the start of autumn. Research shows we can get by without any carbs at all, and many people (myself included) find they feel and function better on low carb or ketogenic diets. The combination of less sleep and more sugar we live on nowadays is quite simply deadly.

The book suggests that we do as much as we possibly can to ensure we get at least nine hours of sleep a night, particularly in winter months, during which our ancestors would have slept whenever the sun wasn’t up. Our rooms should represent caves at nighttime. Blackout blinds should be installed, and no lights should be visible, including “stand-by” lights on electrical items, or digital clocks. We should also not look at screens or consume carbs for a good few hours before bedtime.

I finished this book a good month ago and since have tried to implement as many of these suggestions as possible. Given that prior to this I clocked in an average of about 5.5/6 hours of sleep a night, I felt that nine hours was an extremely tall order.

I gave it my best shot however, and now I do manage to get nine hours of rest several times a week, something I literally never thought I could do. Several nights of the week I teach exercise classes, and on these nights I tend to get to sleep later than I would like, but on the other evenings I try my best to go to sleep by about 9pm.

This of course has its disadvantages. The hubby and I get less time together, which is annoying, and I get less time to myself, which I can only get when the kids are in bed. As I now go to bed only about an hour or so after them, time to read or watch TV is very limited. Also socialising becomes tricky. Either I have to leave really early, or I sacrifice my sleep time and feel rubbish the next day.

Getting to sleep is never a challenge for me, but staying asleep proves difficult every night. I now have various relaxation tracks and apps (including the fabulous Headspace app) that I use to help relax me when I wake early. Even if they don’t enable me to get back to sleep, they at least lower my heart rate so much that my FitBit “thinks” I’m asleep, which I reckon means I’m getting sufficient rest time. I used to use my early wake-up time to work, catch up on emails or to exercise, so there is no doubt that my new technique is far better for me, even if I don’t actually manage to get back to sleep.

The first few times I clocked nine hours sleep I actually felt worse for it. I felt spaced out and not unlike being hung-over. I guess it was so alien to my body that it didn’t quite know how to manage it. Scientifically I suppose my endocrine system was flooded with hormones in levels it was simply not used to. I no longer get this feeling though, and I certainly feel more with-it than I have for a long time. I also no longer fall asleep in front of the TV, as I’m in bed long before I’m tired enough to do that.

I’ve become better at giving in to my body’s cries for sleep, as I realise just how important it is, and how unnatural it is to fight sleep. I now think of quality sleep as important as decent gym sessions, which certainly helps me prioritise my sleep. This is something I never used to do. In fact at busy times sleep was always the first thing to go, as I just didn’t realise quite how important it was.

Time and again when I hear or read about today’s biggest health hurdles, sleep is mentioned. I’ve even heard a PT say that unless his clients were willing to put the sleep hours in, he simply refused to work with them. I whole-heartedly agree with this now. Sleep is more important to your health then anything you could do in the gym.

This book has most definitely changed my life. I would recommend it to anyone, not only those who have a particular sleep issue. In fact it’s probably more beneficial to those who don’t think they have a problem with sleep but who only clock about six or seven hours a night. At least those who struggle with sleep know they have to do something about it.

Lights Out is worth anybody reading, so long as you don’t stay up reading it into the wee small hours of the night.