I’m very excited to announce that Gentle Fitness will be running again from September 26th 2018! Our new venue will be in the beautiful studio at Swansea Wellbeing Centre on Walter Road. Gentle Fitness will now be at 5:45pm on Wednesdays, with a suggested donation of £4 to cover the costs of running the class.
Due to a lot of advance interest, I have added a booking form here!
What is Gentle Fitness?
Many people are aware that introducing more exercise to their life would benefit their mental and physical health. However, it can be very difficult knowing where to start, particularly if you have injuries or health conditions which affect what you can do. For some of us knowing what to do and how much to do it is the biggest barrier.
At Gentle Fitness we will be learning simple strength exercises which can be easily altered to suit your body and your level of fitness. The class will be friendly and non-intimidating – no loud music or shouting instructors! Equipment will be kept to a minimum so that you can easily repeat the exercises at home.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. I’m really unfit. Will it be too difficult for me?
Every exercise at Gentle Fitness can be altered to work for you. If at any point you need to stop because something is too challenging, I openly encourage you to rest and recover. Exercise is about finding your limit and working to that – if you find it, that’s perfect! We know that you’re working to the best of your abilities, and that’s what fitness is all about.
2. I’ve never exercised before. How will I know what to do?
That’s perfect! Gentle Fitness is a great place to learn! Every exercise will be amply demonstrated, and I’ll be right by your side helping to make sure that you perform it correctly. We’ll be working at a gentle pace in a small group, allowing lots of time for checking in with everyone.
3. I don’t like getting hot, sweaty and breathless. Will Gentle Fitness be suitable for me?
Many people share a dislike of getting hot, sweaty or out of breath. At Gentle Fitness I encourage you to do what you can within your own comfort levels. By nature, strength training is also less likely to make you very hot, sweaty or out of breath. If at any point you’re uncomfortable, you will be encouraged to stop and rest.
4. What is strength training? And why would I want to do it?
Strength training is any kind of exercise geared towards increasing the strength of your muscles. Strong muscles have many positive health benefits including increased bone density, better support of the joints and better metabolic health. Strength training can help with weight management which is beneficial for managing conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
In addition to the physical benefits, strength training can really contribute to mental wellbeing. Setting yourself challenges, working steadily toward them and then seeing yourself progress helps a lot when dealing with the low self esteem which often accompanies depression, anxiety and other mood disorders.
5. What should I wear? Do I need to bring anything?
You should wear comfortable clothing that you can move about it. No special gear is required! We usually work in bare feet or socks, so don’t worry if you don’t have trainers. You don’t need to bring any equipment other than a drink in a bottle.
6. I’m still not sure if Gentle Fitness is for me…
If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I want Gentle Fitness to be as welcoming as possible and would love to hear from you! Most importantly, if you think that it might be for you, come along and give it a try!
Weightloss is boring. There. I’ve said it. It’s boring and long and frequently demoralising. It often feels like you’re going two steps forward and one step back. It’s easy for it to take over your life. On top of that, it’s typically a pretty slow process – and in fact for it to be sustainable and healthy for your body in the long run it needs to be slow. During the process we can see ourselves in a really two-dimensional way, reducing our value to nothing more than a number on the scale.
For these reasons and more, I think that weightloss makes for a very poor goal – at least by itself. As something to aim for, it’s both tough and pretty depressing. Yet most of the people I meet who are new to fitness have weightloss as their only goal. They don’t even care how they do it, they just want to be smaller. It may be the key thing motivating people to step through the gym doors or into a class, but it’s actually one of the most complicated, long-winded, full-of-setbacks goals I can think of.
None of this is to say that weightloss isn’t what you might want. It’s not for me – or any fitness professional – to tell you what to do with your body. If weightloss is your initial impetus for getting fitter and healthier that’s an awesome start, but I think there are compelling reasons to quickly shift yourself to other goals.
Why not weightloss?
When it comes down to it, losing weight is all about diminishing yourself. Dieting is about restriction, cutting things down, missing out. That might seem like picky semantics, but many long-term dieters find themselves obsessing over even tiny increases in their size. The results of a weigh-in can easily send us spiralling into self-criticism and self-sabotage, because if we’re not shrinking, we’re not succeeding.
However strong you are mentally, it’s a tedious process. Over the long term it takes it’s toll, and when we get tired of it, we tend to give up. Your chances of losing weight and keeping it off are statistically very low, so if that’s your only interest, you’re setting yourself up for a tough ride.
Change the Frame
So what I am suggesting is that you try to see yourself as more. More than a number. More than someone whose only purpose is to shrink. Reframing our goals this way is much more motivating. Think about gaining things, growing, improving. It may seem like a trivial shift but it can absolutely be the difference between your new, healthier lifestyle being a temporary measure or a long-term change. Positive goals are exciting and they give us something to look forward to.
Losing weight is a singular goal but with a huge number of contributing factors: diet, exercise, sleep, stress, mental health, plus all the individual barriers we face. Once you start thinking positively, you realise the sheer range of things you can aim for. It’s huge! This brings us to my other top tip for staying motivated in the long term: varied goals.
It’s the Spice of Life
Often we don’t break the weightloss process down into smaller steps, which means we can miss a lot of the progress we’re actually making. Perhaps this week you exercised 5 times just as you’d planned. Success, right? But if the scale hasn’t budged it’s almost impossible not to feel like a failure. Judging ourselves by one very particular measure sets us up for failure even if we actually succeeded in all of our contributing behaviours.
Setting ourselves varied goals, including a good mix which are definitively within our control, is far more motivating. You cannot decide if you lose or gain weight, but you can decide to make behaviour changes which may have weight loss as a result.
Having varied goals encourages us to see ourselves as the multi-faceted beings that we are. It also means that even on weeks where some healthy habits have gone by the wayside, we’re likely succeeding at something. That means not feeling like your whole week was a worthless write-off because you gained half a pound, and that means better chances of enjoying and sustaining the process in the long-run.
The Way Forward
So my suggestion is that if you’re looking for weightloss, you keep your focus on varied, positive goals. The wonderful thing about this approach is that an improvement in body composition is an extremely likely side effect. Focusing on these contributing goals, and giving ourselves a break from the mental stress that solely aiming for weightloss brings, means we’re actually much more likely to achieve that weightloss in the end.
In the long run you may even find that those other goals – be they lifting more weight, running further, trying new recipes or whatever else – become your main motivation. For some of us that shift in perspective even leads to a new career!
So, what can you do on your health and fitness journey that makes you feel empowered? How can you use health and fitness to help you learn new things? To grow more brave? To surprise yourself? Shift your focus, shift your thinking and let the scale take a back seat.
For more help with building positive habits, read my blogpost about it here.
This started out as an attempt to write about New Year’s resolutions. How often we make them and fail to keep them, etc. etc. Most resolutions are attempts at building a new habit into our lives or getting rid of an old one – and that’s easier said than done.
Very quickly I realised I was being a poor follower of my own usual advice by focusing on the negative. What we have here instead is my guide to giving your resolutions the best chance of success.
It’s important to note that there’s a distinction here between building new habits and removing old ones. The advice below is firmly for the former. In my opinion it is easier and more motivating to add positive habits to your life than it is to give things up. The latter immediately comes with unpleasant connotations – of missing out on something, going without, being worse off. If you can reframe your intentions so that you’re adding something new and wonderful to your life, you’ll be going in with a much more positive approach.
One Thing At A Time
I’m going to lay down one hard and fast rule here: don’t try to introduce more than one habit at a time. Building habits is hard, it requires time and energy. Pick one, get it firmly entrenched in your life, then work on another one. You’ll achieve more in less time than you would starting by multiple habits at once. The aim is for them to be permanent fixtures in your behaviour. Master one, then turn to the next.
Simple Steps to Starting Right
When I’m planning to introduce a new habit – any new habit – these are the steps I take to make sure I’m giving myself the best chance of success.
Ask yourself the important questions
Do I really want to make this change? If you have any doubt about whether you want to make this change, focus your energy on something else. Without a conviction that this is something you really want to do, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Does this fit into my life? Think about the time/energy/money/attention you can realistically devote to your new habit. If it seems even vaguely unmanageable, break it down into smaller steps. You can always increase what you invest into it later once the habit is firmly established, but over-reaching initially is going to seriously lower the odds of you seeing your resolution through. And if it doesn’t fit, be honest about it and find something that does.
Planning for Success
Once you’re sure you want to do this, make a plan. Even ten minutes spent planning for success will make all the difference to your habit change. With a little bit of forethought, you can avoid many of the problems that might have scuppered your previous attempts.
To help you on your way, I’ve put together a planning sheet on Google Docs for your new habit. Click here to download.
Consider how your previous attempts at this (or something similar) failed before. Thinking about what went wrong last time can be a major help in preventing the same thing happening again. Then devise a strategy to handle those problems differently this time. Working out how to overcome difficulties when you’re actually experiencing them will be much harder than having a strategy in place beforehand.
Make it easy on yourself. Remove unnecessary challenges by making your environment conducive to your new habit. If you want to eat more vegetables, make sure you have a good supply in the house (frozen and tinned veg are amazing for this). If you want to go to the gym, pick one that’s easy to get to (there are more ideas about picking the right gym here). If your goal is to do yoga every day, set up your mat somewhere in the house and keep the space clear and ready for action.
Give yourself a trigger.Linking your habit to something you already do every day will instantly help it to become part of your routine. It could be something you do as soon as you wake up, straight after breakfast, as soon as you get in after work or after you brush your teeth at night. Associating it with something you already do without conscious effort acts like an anchor point, giving your new habit something firm to attach to.
Know when you’re succeeding. Without something to aim for, establishing new habits can quickly be demoralising. However, all-or-nothing thinking is not your friend either. You need your new habit to be scaleable so that you stay motivated. Start small with frequent, achieveable goals. Hitting them will give you the boost you need to keep going. Remember, you can always add more detail to your habit later on.
Be accountable.Tick things off a list, tell a friend, post on social media. Whatever gives you a sense of satisfaction and the encouragement you need to keep going. Schedule check-ins with yourself so that you can monitor your progress. And if you’re not progressing, be honest! Reflect on what’s not working and change it.
Visualise your future success and work backwards. Imagine yourself in a year’s time. You have stuck with your new habit and achieved the goals you set yourself. What steps did you take to do this? Which challenges did you overcome? What had you achieved at three months? Six months? Thinking this through can help you to go in with a success mindset.
Then… Just F*ing Do It
Once you know you really want to do something, and you’ve made your plan for how you’re going to do it, the real work starts. The best advice I can give is to just f*ing do it.
Our brains are hardwired to stop us from changing our behaviour. Doing new things makes us uncomfortable, particularly if we find them difficult. We tend to think of people who successfully take on new habits as having more willpower than us, or finding something easier. We can all think of a million reasons why we can’t do something but other people can. Ultimately we need to be able to sit with that discomfort and those doubts, and Do The Thing anyway. It’s hard, and horrible sometimes, but afterwards you will feel great about it.
What’s great is that the more you do this, the easier it gets. We tend to think of willpower as being the magic ingredient in behaviour change, but I think the real magic is in persistence. Habit building isn’t something that people are either good at or not – it’s a skill which everyone can practice. Practice takes time and effort, but it’s time and effort well spent.
For more information about making new habits with F*it Swansea, click here.
Many thanks to Kit and Daniel for all they have done in teaching me about habits, consistency, goal setting and getting back up again when I fall <3
From time to time everyone who exercises regularly will find themselves in a training slump. Sometimes it’s down to life events; exercise can be an escape from personal difficulty, but it can also sometimes feel like just another job that needs doing. There are times when our training itself can become uninspiring. Perhaps we’re experiencing a plateau and can’t seem to get out of it, or illness or injury have set us back.
For those with mental health issues, slumps can be an annoyingly regular fact of life. It’s important to remember that, whatever the reason, small regular slumps can affect our long term progress just as much as less frequent, major ones.
Prepping for Slumps
You can of course just wait for the slump to pass in it’s own time, and that’s awesome if it works well for you. That is how I used to deal with things. Writing from my own experience, I quickly saw that my long term progress was being badly affected. I also noticed that my annoyance with constantly having to rebuild my strength was something that contributed to low periods. As someone with a lifelong mental health condition, I wanted to work out ways to get through a slump whilst being kind to myself and preventing regressing my training too much, but most importantly staying sane.
This is why I think it’s helpful to have a plan in place for when these slumps occur. As with most contingency plans, it’s best to make them when we’re feeling well and motivated. The last thing you need when you recognise that your training has become a chore is to have to put a load of mental effort into coming up with a way out. Below are some simple strategies that I have evolved to deal with periods of low mood, low energy or injury which you may find helpful.
Be Kind To Yourself
Firstly, start treating yourself kindly, as you would a dear friend. This should be true at all times, but it’s something that many of us find impossible to do. When you’re failing to meet self-set goals it becomes even more important, and in many respects even harder to manage.
So if you can’t be kind to yourself, find someone who can! It could be a friend, partner, trainer or an online community. The particulars matter much less than knowing that there is someone who will celebrate every tiny thing you do to get yourself through a tricky patch. I have found social media to be a great source of support, my favourite hangout being Instagram. There are many corners of the internet where you can find support to get through tough times. If you have friends or acquaintances who struggle with this stuff too, perhaps you can mutually support each other. Finding a personal cheerleader is one of the most helpful things you can do to get you through difficulties.
For some people social media doesn’t work at all. You might find other people’s perceived non-stop success makes you feel more intimidated about your own training. It may be that time spent on social media is actually preventing you finding the time and energy to get out and move. This is why it’s important to check in with yourself about whether it’s a help or a hindrance. Finding the strategies that work for you means honestly examining your relationship with alternative activities. Are they recharging and re-inspiring you? Or draining and distracting you? Only you can decide.
Setting overly high expectations for yourself is a sure way to get stuck in a slump. Try giving yourself easily achievable goals which can be adjusted as you go along. If you were running five times a week but have had a couple of weeks off and are struggling to get started again, perhaps aim for two runs that week. If you smash that by Wednesday, aim for three! Then congratulate yourself on Sunday when you finish your fourth. Setting four as a goal at first could have seemed unachievable or off-putting but by lowering the bar (in the most positive way) you’ll have more points at which to celebrate getting back to it.
The essential thing here is to remember that it doesn’t matter how small the goal is – in some ways, the smaller the better! During periods of particularly low mental health I have sometimes set the goal as “get through the gym door”. If I managed that, I would always do some training. It didn’t matter how much because the pressure was off; by walking through the door I’d achieved what I’d set out to do. Everything I managed was a bonus, leaving me feeling like a real success even after a short workout.
Break Things Down
It’s often the case that smaller or shorter things are easier to face when times are difficult. If you normally do a workout which lasts an hour, consider splitting it into two. Perhaps you could spread that 10k run out over two or three days. By making the activity more manageable, you’re far more likely to get back into the habit of doing it. Your body and mind will both thank you for taking the time to exercise, even if it’s half the time you usually train for.
Switch It Up
Perhaps some of your slump is down to feeling bored or uninspired by your usual activity. Maybe you’ve hit a plateau and feel like you’re getting nowhere. Changing your activity can make a huge difference to how you feel. It can also leave you feeling reinvigorated when you do return to our original training. Sometimes it turns into a whole new interest that takes over your old one!
Think about both what interests you and what you feel you can face doing. Perhaps something slower and less intense feels more manageable. Perhaps something with less equipment required, less set-up time, or less travel. I often turn to callisthenics (bodyweight strength training) when going to the gym and facing people and stacks of equipment feels too daunting. I can put Netflix on in my bedroom and work out in a really relaxed way whilst still working towards my strength goals.
There are some downsides to this approach which I’ll discuss below. However if you’re using exercise as a way of managing your mental or physical health and don’t mind how that happens then this can really help. The essential thing is to stay active.
Staying On Track
Changing what you’re doing altogether can work out well, but if you know you are going to want to carry on with your original training when you recover, my suggestion is to continue with a baseline level of activity and commit to it no matter what. This is a tough route at times, but I have found it to work out better for me in the long term. For people with long-term training goals, switching activity may not be helpful advice. As an example, taking four weeks out to do yoga instead will seriously affect your goal of running a charity 10k, and that might have a worse mental health impact in the long run than continuing to train through the slump.
Personally my longer term strength goals have been the same for a couple of years. That means that when I’m slumping I either accept a serious setback or find a way through it that doesn’t compromise those goals. I definitely prefer the latter approach. My favourite method is to set myself an absolute minimum level of training which I will do each week pretty much no matter what.
At first this was really difficult but it has become much easier with time. I feel like I am going through the motions – and in fact, that is exactly what’s happening. These are never stellar workouts, but my body is still doing the work I need it to do to prevent backsliding. That’s all I’m aiming for, and often I manage more than that. By keeping to a regular level of activity I ensure that when I’m back on good form I’m not having to deal with the frustration of regaining lost strength.
Whatever your approach, congratulate yourself (or get your personal cheerleader to do it!) at every opportunity. You deserve to for taking action to look after your physical health during times when your mental health is on the slide. That’s no small thing!
Look for ways to reward yourself which make you feel good and are sustainable in the long-term. I’ve used a variety of methods including shiny sticker charts, taking myself out on a date, treating myself to a healthy food stuff which I don’t buy very often (fresh figs work for me), or even just having a long hot bath. Framing these things as rewards and looking forward to them when I’m in the moment of choosing whether to train or not often makes all the difference.
Let Your Body Be Your Guide
If you have lost strength or fitness, remember to adjust your training accordingly. Pushing your body as hard as you were before will do you no favours, mentally or physically. Step back into things at a sensible level and build up again in your own time. You’ll likely regain fitness at a faster rate than it took you to acquire it in the first place, but remember not to punish yourself by stepping up the intensity too soon.
And if you really need to rest, rest. This is about what works for both your body and your mind. Make sure that other self-care is high on your agenda. Eat regularly and well. Try to take care with your sleep patterns and make sure to do other things which benefit your mental state. Praise yourself (or get your allies to) for any and every small thing which you achieve. Make a note of your plan for dealing with training slumps and refer to it often. That way you know that when one occurs you have a sound course of action waiting for you.
Many thanks to Ann Lynch for her feedback and contributions to this post.
If you have any any tips which you’d like to share, please comment! I can only speak from personal experience and my ideas may not work for you. I am always interested in sharing ideas and learning from others with different experiences.
Recently I’ve been asked a lot to give recommendations for the equipment that I use in my training and with clients. I try to keep extra equipment use to a minimum and prefer to improvise, so when I do buy things I really want them to be worth their price!
Below is a list of things that I use regularly and would recommend. Where possible I’ve linked to the exact product I purchased but where that’s not possible there is a link to a product which is a good substitute. I’ll keep this list updated with new purchases and would love to hear your recommendations too!
In order to be totally transparent with you, I’d like to let you know that where a link goes to Amazon it is an associate link. That means that I get a small amount of money for anything purchased through that link. I do not, however, receive anything from the company before I’ve bought it that might colour my recommendation to buy it in the first place.
Mini Resistance Band AKA Hip Circle
The true Hip Circle is only available from this website but it is a truly magnificent piece of kit. Although it isn’t cheap, I’ve had mine for over 3 years and it’s only now showing slight signs of wear and tear. Truly, your glutes will thank you 😛
If the price of the original is a bit steep for you, there are many similar bands available on Amazon, including this one here. Though I haven’t purchased this one myself, the reviews are good and in terms of dimensions it is very similar to the Hip Circle. These bands are superb for glute work but are also amazingly good for other leg work, such as Psoas Marches. They make even the simplest exercise MUCH harder. In a good way 😉
My one bit of advice would be to stay away from the thin latex bands which tend to roll up and dig in to your skin. Stick with the thicker ones.
Longer Resistance bands
Longer resistance bands are amazing for working out away from home. They’re also superb for assisting with things like pull-ups and triceps dips, or providing an extra challenge on exercises like hip thrusts.
The bands I use are from Valhalla Fitness and they’ve served me well for over two years now. As well as their excellent name, they come in a wide range of resistances so you can find something ideal for your level of fitness. I have used mine a lot and there are no signs of wear or tear whatsoever yet.
If you also want to dazzle in a F*it t-shirt or vest while you’re busting out some overhead pulling work, head on over to my clothing store 😛
A good squat pad is absolutely essential if you do a lot of hip thrusting. They become a much more tempting exercise when you know you won’t have sore hips the next day! I have a truly superb Iron Bull squat pad which is absolutely perfect for hip thrusts and incredibly comfortable. Although it isn’t cheap, it’s great quality and much better than other squat pads I’ve seen in gyms.
Gymnastics rings are one of my favourite pieces of training equipment, even though at the moment I can only use them for the basics. They only get more challenging and fun as your strength develops! Even if you’re not about to start doing any serious gymnastics moves on them, using them for TRX-type exercises will add variety and difficulty to your workouts. They also make things like pullups and planks much, MUCH harder. Again, in a good way 🙂
I have wooden rings like those above and also the plastic ones in the picture below. I love taking them on holiday and stringing them up from climbing frames or trees to work on some inverted rows or pull ups. My son loves playing on them too!
Pull Up Bars
Absolutely vital for a home gym set up, a pull up bar will do serious things for your upper body strength. You can also use it as a suspension point for your gymnastics rings, and add assistance with your long resistance bands.
There are two types; one which hooks on a standard doorframe and another which uses pressure to attach to the frame. The pressure type can leave marks on the frame and is more prone to failure than the former. Either type will provide you with some seriously challenging exercises and I personally find it useful to have both.
At the moment I only have bars which have been gifted to me and so have no buying experience. If you can recommend good pull up bars to me then I would love to hear from you!
Do you have any recommendations to share? If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below 🙂
Have you ever found yourself thinking “I couldn’t wear that!”? Or complimenting a friend for wearing something that you think looks amazing on them but that for a bunch of reasons you think you could never wear yourself. Perhaps you think you’re too big, too small, too pale. Perhaps it’s your cellulite, your varicose veins, your age. There is always, always something.
Unfortunately our culture has a lot to say on the matter of who can wear what. Whether it’s by describing clothes in certain ways, aiming the advertising of them at certain people, or by using insidious phrases like ‘bikini body’, the messages coming at us about what is acceptable and what isn’t are strong and firmly ingrained.
The funny thing is, we often apply those rules much more harshly to ourselves than to those around us, setting the criteria based on whatever will exclude us. Think how often we encourage friends to wear things we think they look beautiful in, and how often we disagree with them when they try to encourage us. I’ve heard so many people recently expressing the opinion that there are clothing lines that they just cannot cross: that they somehow have not earned the right to wear a particular item.
What if we didn’t have to earn that right? What if our bodies were ours to adorn however we wanted or needed to at the time? And what has all this got to do with fitness?
Hot and Bothered
Recently I went on a long bike ride on a very sunny day. I got hot, I removed a layer. I got even hotter, I removed another layer. In the end I was only wearing cycling shorts and a sports bra. Now I have been trying to break down the negative messages in my brain around body image for a long time, ever since a girlfriend introduced me to feminism at the age of 17. After all that, I still wondered if it was permissible for me to be wearing so little, even if not doing so would make me incredibly hot and uncomfortable. After 20 years of gently chipping away at the cultural conditioning in my head, I still found myself thinking “am I fit enough to have earned the right yet?”
In the gym recently there’s been a marked increase in women working out in just leggings and a sports bra. It’s hot outside, we have big windows and there’s been an intermittent problem with the air conditioning. It makes perfect sense. Yet I’ve spoken to multiple people who feel that they haven’t earned the right to do the same – and in all honesty, I somehow feel that I haven’t earned the right.
I know I’m not alone. Whether it’s size, age, or a certain body part that we find entirely unacceptable, we’ve been trained into putting these invisible constraints on ourselves even at the price of practicality and our own comfort.
Because You’re Already Worth It
I describe myself as a body positive trainer and I think this clothing issue is a great example of why that’s needed. I also think that the most important thing about it is that it’s really nothing to do with clothes. Body positivity is a movement that encourages people to value their bodies just as they are. By learning to value ourselves without judgment, we’re automatically in a better place to take care of ourselves in whatever way seems right to us.
That might be by practicing yoga, it might be by competing as a powerlifter, it might be working to improve our diet – the details don’t matter. What’s important is that we are working on ourselves because we understand that we have value just as we are, and not only when we fit X, Y or Z criteria. I want to encourage people to look after their health and wellbeing because they know they are worth it, and not because they will be worth it when they reach a certain size or look a certain way.
Working Out In My Pants (Again)
As part of this, I consciously post pictures of me working out in the things I actually work out in – and yes, it is usually bra and pants. It’s hard for me not to try to choose pictures where you can’t see the parts of my body that I’m self-conscious about, but I firmly believe that we all benefit from seeing all sorts of bodies doing all sorts of things. All of those bodies, without exception, have the right to be wearing what is comfortable to them at the time. That right does not have to be earned.
When I say comfortable, do I mean physical comfort or mental comfort? I’m physically comfy working out in my underwear, but mentally it’s a challenging thing for me at times. We all have our own limits when it comes to how we portray ourselves to the world. Suggesting that everyone should start appearing on the internet in their undies would be just as unacceptable as insisting that only certain people were allowed to do it.
Examining Our Limits
The important thing here is to question whether those limits are self-imposed or not. Finding yourself wishing you could wear a certain thing is often a sign that this restriction has come from elsewhere. Take a little moment to work it out. If it did come from elsewhere, you might find yourself feeling comfortable pushing that boundary and you might not. Some days it takes more bravery than others. Just as it’s not your duty to be physically uncomfortable because of what others might think, it is not your job to make yourself mentally uncomfortable in order to challenge their perceptions either.
But when you do push the edge of your comfort zone a little, please remember that this isn’t just a victory for you. Every time we non-model bodies step out onto the street, onto the beach or into the gym wearing whatever the hell we like, it’s a small blow against an incredibly pervasive – and damaging – cultural ideal. That victory belongs to, and benefits, all of us.
We all love stories, and the neater and more instantly gratifying they are, the better. When it comes to fitness, the simplest, most satisfying story is the classic ‘Before and After’. Almost exclusively, this is how the story goes: “Once Upon a Time I was bigger. Now I’m smaller and that means I’m a better, happier person. The End.”
The internet is awash with these stories. Instagram, the perfect format for simple, visual messages, is a particularly well-stocked library.* The hashtag #beforeandafterweightloss alone brings up nearly 200,000 results. There are countless variations on it that add to that number.
There is an uncomfortable similarity to many of these posts. ‘Before’ is an unflattering photo of someone looking shy and unhappy. ‘After’ involves a nicer outfit, better lighting and a big smile. The explicit message is positive. It celebrates success, happiness and pride. The subliminal message, however, perpetuates the idea that being smaller brings happiness, attractiveness and acceptance.
What’s the problem?
My uneasiness with these pictures is in no way a slight on the effort put in by the person in the photograph. I recognise the hard work that’s gone into any such transformation, but I also recognise the toll it may have taken. It’s worth bearing in mind that there are plenty of ways to get smaller which are detrimental both physically and psychologically. By encouraging us to judge the book by its cover, Before and Afters also encourage smallness by any means possible.
Not only that, but an ‘After’ isn’t necessarily a Happily Ever After. Although studies have struggled to pin down exactly what percentage of dieters will regain the weight that they have lost, it’s certainly a significant amount.** By framing success purely as weightloss, and weightloss as a short, well-defined period of out-of-the-ordinary behaviour, this cycle becomes harder to escape. If we could build a culture of seeing managing our health as an ongoing journey – one that starts at birth and ends in death – we’d build an environment in which people could be free of a vicious cycle which does good for neither mind nor body. Removing the guilt and self-hatred from the equation would allow us all to build better relationships with our bodies.
I’m not a shrink
So, the story is convenient, bite-sized, but it is only a fraction of the tale. By ignoring the less visual but more life-changing elements of increased health and fitness, ‘Before and Afters’ reduce the cultural conversation around our bodies to nothing more than the physical space we occupy.
For these reasons, there are no typical Before and After photos on my website, my Instagram or my Facebook page. I do not believe that my success as a personal trainer is primarily defined by shrinking my clients. I rate success in other ways: clients having increased confidence, finding day-to-day life easier, and above all setting goals which seem impossible and then smashing right through them. These things take time and are more keenly felt from the inside. Most importantly, they often don’t show up well in photos.
The real before and after
I have personally lost a lot of weight and have many pictures from the past I could make into readily shareable posts, but I don’t believe they would tell a story as interesting as the ones below. When I think of the real improvements to my life since I embarked on my journey into health, this is what I value.
Before: I gazed up at the Duo Torres in Bologna while my partner climbed up. I was scared of heights – still am – but didn’t trust myself to manage the stairs and basically preferred not to try.
After: I’ve had the chance to enjoy the views from Torre dos Clérigos twice after happily managing the 79m climb. I’m still terrified of heights, but I’m an experienced hand at setting myself challenges and smashing through them. I also climbed the Eiffel Tower recently too 🙂
Before: I hurt my back really badly not long before this but soldiered on in a lot of pain for months with no idea how to help myself.
After: Even through two wrist breaks and numerous other smaller injuries, I have managed to train, eat well and take care of myself.
Before: This was the first full-length photo I’d liked of myself in a very long time. I had to stand in a very specific way and have my bag in front of me to feel comfortable being photographed.
After: I just messed about on the beach while the photographer took photos. I love every jiggly, hairy, glorious moment of them.
Being the change
Take a moment to think about your health and fitness successes. What has mattered the most to you? How did it make you feel? How many of the things you really value were only about how much space you take up in the world? Sharing these stories in all their variety is a vital contribution to changing the narrative around size, health and body-image.
If this feels as important to you as it does to me, take the time this week to share some of your real Before and Afters. Let’s make this a story with a wide and wonderful cast of characters, a more complex but rewarding narrative, and a Happier Ever After for all of us.
To read more about face-to-face or online personal training with F*it Swansea, visit here.
*I haven’t included examples as I don’t think it’s cool to single out strangers on the internet.
**Finding a clear answer on this was extremely difficult. Even looking for a meta-analysis didn’t prove fruitful, so if you know of one then please do get in touch. In the studies I could find, the lowest estimate was that one third of dieters regain at least the weight they have lost. There also appears to be long-term physiological consequences for repetitive bouts of weight loss and weight gain that we’re only just beginning to understand. I’m going to try to put together a blog post on this in the future.
If I asked you to picture someone fit, what would they be like? Chances are they’d have low body fat, visible muscle and be impeccably well-groomed.
The dominant imagery put forward by the fitness industry is of thin, white, tanned, beautiful people with well-defined muscles. Abs abound, despite being one of the hardest physical attributes to achieve for the majority of people. Though particular fashions change – the big booty movement being a notable recent example – the message is always clear: certain bodies are acceptable, the rest aren’t. If your body isn’t acceptable you aren’t doing enough. YOU are not enough.
Is it really all or nothing?
Working as a personal trainer, people for whom fitness is life surround me. Every day, every training session, every meal, is part of a devotion to fitness that often subsumes all other interests and activities. All we see is imagery of people who are at the top of their field, people for whom fitness is a full-time profession. It’s hard not to think that we should all be at their level.
Yet even these people don’t feel they’re doing enough. Always chasing the next goal, the next sign that their physique is improving, they are unbelievably hard on themselves in the quest to do enough. On the way, they develop a range of behaviours which run from healthy dedication to dangerous obsession. Disordered eating, drug use and overtraining are rife in gyms up and down the country, largely as a result of this culture of competition and comparison.*
And do you know what? I can’t be arsed.
I got into fitness because I love it and I’m dedicated to it – dedicated enough. It’s a huge and wonderful part of my life, but it’s just that – one part of a spectrum of activities which make my life richer.
A healthy balance
It’s common for me to meet people in the gym who are studying a degree, working, or parenting full-time. When we talk they often apologise for not coming to the gym more often. Where have they got the idea that they’re not doing enough? By comparing themselves to people for whom fitness is everything.
Yet seeing the people who work in my field, I too have moments of doubt. Am I really fit enough to be helping others with their fitness? Can I really look credible as a personal trainer if I’m wearing size 16 clothes? If I eat this biscuit does that mean I don’t want it – this mythical, indefinable it – enough?
No. If I eat this biscuit I’m just demonstrating that right now, I want a biscuit – and nothing about that demonstrates that I am not enough.
Consider the possibility that you are fit enough
In this moment, you and I are exactly as fit as we need to be. That doesn’t mean we can’t work towards being fitter tomorrow but it does mean we can stop being hard on ourselves today. Self-doubt and self-hatred may spur a brutal workout in the present, but what do they mean for how we treat ourselves in the future? If my self-image has to take a hit in order for me to work harder, something has gone seriously awry.
So I’d like to invite you to join me in congratulating yourself for being fit enough in this moment. Take time to thank yourself for anything and everything you do to look after your body. Celebrate the part that it plays in your varied and beautiful life. Think about what you want to do to work on your fitness in the future, but see it as a profound act of love for yourself and the people around you. Resolve, in this moment, to accept your body as a perfect expression of where you are now – without judgement, hatred or disdain.
And if you fancy, have that biscuit.
To read more about face-to-face or online personal training with F*it Swansea, visit here.
* There are many studies looking into aspects of this so it was hard to find a couple that really summed the situation up. The gist is that drug use, body/muscle dysmorphia and eating disorders are sharply rising amongst the gym community.
Some articles which begin to discuss the issues are included below.
I’m offering 6 weeks of Personal Fitness Training for a special price of £120 for the New Year. Learn more about how to make it past January and keep your fitness resolutions below.
Many people want to form a regular fitness habit in the New year and join a new gym to do so. However, often by February they terminate their membership. What’s happening to those great intentions and how can you avoid the same pitfall? Working with a personal trainer can help. Continue reading Reinforcing Resolutions
OK, so you’ve got your gym membership sorted. Excellent! Now you actually need to get your foot in the door. If you’ve never been to a gym before this is undoubtedly the most nerve wracking bit of the whole experience. If you suffer from anxiety or have other mental healthy problems, it might put you off the idea altogether.