My fitness journey started roughly 24 years ago when I was about 15 years old. As I write these words I find it difficult to believe I’ve been exercising and keeping myself fit for over half my life. I always thought I wasn’t particularly body conscious in my teens, but looking back I can see I was. Although I was a couple of dress sizes bigger than I am now, I couldn’t tell you how much I weighed. I wasn’t particularly big, and being tall helped me to look slimmer than I was. I just wish I’d have realised it back then. But if I had, then I might not be where I am today.
The event that first made me feel self-conscious about my body was a school trip to The Sandcastle in Blackpool. And although I wasn’t the biggest in my class, or even within my group of friends, the idea of wearing a swimsuit in front of my class mates was something I wasn’t prepared to do. So, I didn’t go. But the event that led me to really freaking out about my body, was being invited to go on holiday with one of my friends and her parents.
In my teens, I was a bit of a tomboy: I played football, wore football shirts, lived in jeans and didn’t wear anything that drew attention to my body shape. The bigger and baggier my clothes were, the better – and I was okayish with my weight. But once I’d accepted the holiday invitation, I couldn’t get the thought of wearing a swimsuit out of my head. As the holiday drew closer so did my panic. In an evening, I would lock myself in my room and behind the privacy of the bedroom door, I would do a range of exercises, including lying leg raises and glute squeezes, before finishing off with some squats. I didn’t particularly know what I was doing – I just knew I had to do something to try and tone up my saddlebags.
I survived the holiday by wearing a t-shirt over my swimsuit, but shortly after I returned I made the decision I wanted to exercise properly. I wanted to feel good about myself – and my body. I became increasingly conscious that my friends were wearing skirts, shorts and tight-fitting bodysuits, while I was sweltering on hot summer’s day in my jeans or oversized knee length dungaree shorts. One day when I was at the local library I stumbled upon the video section, and there upon one of the shelves was Kathy Smith’s Fat Burning Workout. I didn’t hesitate. I booked it out straight away and did so repeatedly for the next couple of months. At first, I struggled to get through the whole workout. But every day after school, I would take over the living room and exercise until I was dripping with sweat, barely being able to breathe. After a couple of weeks, I started to notice a difference. I could complete the whole workout – not with ease – but I could do it. And after another couple of weeks, people started commenting, asking if I’d lost weight. I was ecstatic.
My first workout video (that’s right – video!)
Seeing how frequently I was doing the Kathy Smith video and also how much I enjoyed working out, when I passed my GCSEs my parents bought me The Y-Plan Fat Breaker as a well-done present. It was my very own exercise video and I was made up. It consisted of 3 routines: 11 minutes, 17 minutes and 35 minutes. I started off doing the 17-minute routine twice through before moving onto the 35-minute workout. Sometimes, I would do that one twice through as well. I found myself looking in shops like HMV, Woolworths and WH Smith, scouring the video section for the latest workout videos and before I knew it, I had my own little library.
Discovering the gym & Thai-boxing
When I started college, I discovered I could get a free gym pass for the local leisure centres and that’s where my fitness journey really started. I would cycle the 20 minutes to reach my nearest leisure centre, do my workout and then cycle home. Even though I started lifting weights, I didn’t particularly know what I was doing. I would watch other people on the machines and then adjust the weight accordingly. I’d lost a full-dress size and there was a significant difference in my body shape too, so I figured I must have been doing something right. But now, it wasn’t just about how I looked, it was more than that. I also noticed how I was feeling inside: I felt stronger and better within myself, which was something I wasn’t expecting. About this time, I started Thai-boxing lessons and I soon found myself training up to 5 nights a week, taking gradings and preparing myself for an intercamp fight. I didn’t think I was ready, but my instructor was confident I could do it – and I did. The fight was hard – mentally and physically – but I gave it everything I had, and afterwards, I felt great.
I stopped Thai-boxing when I went off to University in Hull. I looked at other clubs, but they didn’t hold any appeal. So, I joined a dirty back street gym just off the red-light district and to this day, it’s still one of the best gyms I’ve ever been a member of. The classes were amazing and always full, regardless of the time of day and when things started to go wrong, I found myself spending more and more time there. I soon realised that University wasn’t what I expected and there were many things making me unhappy. I began visiting friends from back home more frequently, at whichever city they were studying in, or returning home to stay with my parents. I wanted to be anywhere except Hull.
But regardless of where I was, my exercise routine was the one thing that stayed consistent. It was my coping mechanism. It was the only thing keeping me sane. I’d either find a gym, attend a class, or take an exercise video with me and do that. One night, my friend and I went out on a massive bender and didn’t return to her house in Sheffield until stupid o’ clock in the morning, but I still started off the next day by exercising. She lifted her head from underneath the covers to find me doing a Cher fitness video in her bedroom, mumbled something about me being fucking insane and then promptly went back to sleep. Extreme? Looking back, perhaps a little, but it was the one thing that cleared my head and helped prepare me for my day.
Even though I was exercising daily, I found myself putting on weight and I didn’t make the link at the time that my diet was affecting how I looked. I just figured that if I was exercising every day, I should be losing weight. Unfortunately, the student lifestyle of staying up late, drinking copious amounts of alcohol and living on a diet of bacon sandwiches, bread and Warburtons tea cakes was hindering my workouts – I just didn’t realise it. And it was only when I returned home for the Summer that I somehow managed to change my eating habits. I didn’t know what I was doing – I wasn’t a nutritionist – but I started looking more carefully at what I was eating. I’d also cut down on my drinking and started hammering the gym again. I still didn’t know what I was doing at the gym either and I found myself doing full body workouts nearly every day – but the weight was dropping off me and everyone was commenting how good I looked, so I kept at it. About this time I also started running, and most days I would slog it out on a treadmill for nearly an hour before doing a full-body workout with weights. I was putting my body under an obscene amount of stress, but I was feeling strong and healthy, so I didn’t see it as an issue.
Training to become an aerobics instructor
Once things really went belly up and I’d made the decision to leave Uni, I had to decide what to do next. Luckily, it was a no-brainer. I was going to the gym every day either to do a workout or attend a class, and I was getting to know all the instructors too. So, it made sense that I should follow my passion for fitness and train to become an aerobics instructor. I found a two-week intensive course in Manchester, signed up, and headed back home to stay with my parents for a while. My boyfriend at the time wasn’t very supportive and told me I wouldn’t be able to stand up in front of a group of people and teach – which only made me want to do it more. For two weeks, I felt like I finally belonged somewhere – I loved it. And although everyone on the course had a different reason for being there, they all had one thing in common – a love of fitness.
After qualifying as an aerobics instructor, I found myself returning to Hull. Along with working in a nightclub, and the various day jobs I managed to pick up, I also started teaching at a health club. It was nerve wracking and exhilarating at the same time. I loved spending time putting routines together, and I was receiving good feedback from the participants too.
My teaching career
Eventually, I became so unhappy I decided to return home. I packed my things up one day, and my parents came to collect me the next. By this time, I knew many of the instructors around the Warrington area from attending their classes and chatting with them afterwards. My name was put forward to teach for the council, and shortly after moving home I had my own classes in several leisure centres. I also found myself covering classes on a regular basis throughout the North West, both for the council and for private health clubs. A couple of the instructors took me under their wing and trained me up to teach spinning, so before long I had my own spinning classes and plenty of cover work too. By now, I was also a qualified step instructor and I’d managed to bag myself two more classes at a brand-new health club that was opening. I’d started working as a fitness instructor in a local gym, and I was also teaching 8 classes a week at a women’s only health club in Manchester. Things were going well. Unfortunately, my boss at the gym wasn’t very supportive, and although I knew my way around the equipment, I wasn’t a qualified fitness instructor. But this didn’t bother her. When I requested two weeks off for a training course so I could become a certified instructor, she told me I could have the time off but not to expect to get paid! Again, I found myself heading off to Manchester. I spent 2 weeks training to become a fitness instructor and personal trainer, scoring 98% in my exams – the highest in the class – and I returned to the gym fully qualified.
Weight gain – again!
Teaching was going well. I had regular classes and plenty of cover work too, but the one thing I couldn’t get on top of was my weight. Considering how active I was, I was still struggling to see that my diet was hindering all the good work I was putting in. At a weekend, Ian and I thought nothing of buying a couple of bags of cookies and doughnuts – the packs that contained 5 – and demolishing them in one night. I was supposed to be teaching people how to stay fit and healthy, and I felt anything but. Standing up in front of a class was starting to make me feel self-conscious about my weight, and when I hit 10st 10lb – the heaviest I’ve ever been – I went into meltdown. I scoured my local book shop for healthy eating books and found Rosemary Conley’s New Body Plan. I didn’t follow any of the exercises, but we started making the recipes and watching what we were eating. I dropped 10lb quickly and continued to eat sensibly while slowly watching another half stone fall off. I was back on track.
Giving up teaching
In 2004, 6 years after I first started teaching, I decided to hang up my teaching shoes. By this time, I’d gradually decreased my classes, given up my job at the gym and found myself teaching just two classes at a weekend and covering classes in an evening. Much as I loved it, I was beginning to find it taking a toll on my body. My joints were becoming painful, it was interfering with my own training and I found myself having more and more time off work from the day job I’d taken on, as the endometriosis I was suffering with gradually became worse.
It’s been 13 years since I gave up teaching, and even though I’m self-employed and love my job, I’ve never felt that level of job satisfaction since. 8 years ago, I tried going back to personal training – but it wasn’t the same. It didn’t give me the same buzz that teaching aerobics did and I don’t think anything ever will. When you’ve given something up that you loved with all your heart and soul, it’s difficult to find a suitable replacement.
It took me years to take part in an exercise class after leaving teaching. I went spinning, and it was one of the most emotional things I’ve ever put myself through. 20 minutes in, out of nowhere, I could feel the tears building up and it took every ounce of energy to hold them back. When I got to the car, I let them out and cried like there was no tomorrow. It was totally unexpected – I had no idea it would make me feel that way!
Where I am now
Although I don’t teach anymore, my love of training is still strong and I workout 6 days a week. Whether it’s at home, in the gym, or going for a run, my love of feeling fit and healthy is something that’s stayed with me. There are some days where I don’t feel like working out, but I push myself to do it. Because once I get started, I always enjoy it. And thanks to lots of reading and education, the introduction of My Fitness Pal and Fitbit, I understand what my body needs in order to fuel it correctly. I also follow a vegan diet, and you can read about my journey to veganism here.
Although I enjoy my workouts and love going hiking whenever possible, I don’t take part in as many outdoor activities as I’d like to. I ran the Chester half-marathon in 2016, and taking part in other running events is something I’d like to get more involved with. I used to be an avid indoor climber too, which is something I hope to get back to soon. And earlier in the year, I qualified as a sports and exercise nutritionist, although I haven’t decided in which direction I’m going with it yet. Whatever happens, I’m looking forward to seeing where the next step in my fitness journey takes me.
Everyone has a story behind their fitness journey, what’s yours?