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Overcoming diet culture, depression and more...

Updated: Jul 29, 2020

In the last few months peoples lives and habits have dramatically changed. The top three conversations in my social group appear to be the challenges of homeschooling/ sending kids to school and the need to get rid of a lockdown belly. Social media is awash with diet solutions and exercise videos to burn fat. I get it, things feel out of control and attempting to control a body shape can seem to give a purpose. We know boosting our immune system is important but we live in a society in which we've been conditioned to think that body size equates to health. I hope that one thing we can keep is the compassion many have shown and that we start to turn that compassion inwards to a self acceptance that can be a lasting change.

Personal Trainer
Amy Smelling - Personal Trainer

Often I feel very alone as a fitness coach that doesn't harp on about weight-loss. I started to reach out to find that there was a community of evidence based, like minded trainers and in today's post I am privileged to share with you Amy's experience.

Amy is a phenomenal personal trainer based in Norwich.

"Getting my own ‘health’ so drastically wrong a few years back has definitely shaped the personal trainer I’ve become today.

Deciding to become a personal trainer was part mid life crisis but also a whole heap of passion. I wanted to help and support people out of diet culture so they didn’t end up making the same mistakes I did.

The truth is, I really f*cked things up for myself. Like really.

I was working as a primary school teacher at the time. Teaching is stressful, there’s no doubt about it, but it is also highly rewarding and I loved working with kids. Seeing them grow, develop and improve as they navigate the world as little people is everything and more.

Unfortunately, the climate in my school changed over the years and the job became harder than it ever should have been. Our school became fairly toxic. The stress and workload increased four fold in a matter of weeks.

I’ve always been known as ‘the strong one’. The one who gets on with it, who sees the bright side and works tirelessly to overcome problems and adversities. We seem to divide ourselves into two kinds of people. Those who need help and those give help.

When you’re known for giving help, it’s hard to ask for it.

Not only was my work place becoming a toxic place to be, I was unknowingly creating a toxic environment for myself at home. When you feel out of control in an area of your life, like work, regaining some control elsewhere can often be a coping mechanism.

I remember finding ‘the body coach’ on instagram and his ‘lean in 15 videos’. Suddenly my life became all about hiit cardio and coconut oil – which I couldn’t even afford to buy.

I remember just frustrated that I couldn’t justify spending just shy of £10 on some coconut oil and I felt shamed that I had to continue to just vegetable oil. This is what toxic fitness culture and ‘healthism’ does to you.

Exercise also became about burning. Fat, calories…if I felt I could torch it in some way, I did. I measured workouts on how much I’d sweated or how hard it was to sit down on the toilet the next day.

I also bought a treadmill for my garage and started to sign up for 5k, 10ks and half marathons. I always enjoyed running events in school but with the recent discovery of ‘fat busting’ work outs I thought there was no better way to burn loads of calories than to run long distances as frequently as possible.

I also rejoined a gym. I’d had a gym membership all through sixth form and university. Again it was something I used to enjoy but the rejoining became another avenue for my calorie burning journey. I’d often stay for 2 classes back to back and then go on my treadmill when I got home.

In honesty, most of the exercise I did – I actually really enjoyed but I was doing it for the wrong reasons. Extrinsic motivation seems to breed more and more toxic behaviours.

Despite recognising that exercise was a way to relieve work stress, my relationship with exercise wasn’t healthy. I was all about the numbers and I would get anxiety if I didn’t reach my step or calorie goals for the day. I was constantly body checking, weighing myself and even when I made ‘progress’, my insecurities got worse.

I remember telling myself that when I reached a certain weight or could fit into a certain pair of jeans, I’d start dating. I was denying myself human interaction and intimacy because I was so dissatisfied with how I looked.

intrinsic motivaiotn makes a differnt to wellbeing. Is that motivation compassionate or self critical
What's your motivation?

And that’s when my relationship with food took almighty hit.

Every instagram account I followed advocated for calorie or macro counting, bulking or cutting, low carb or cutting out food groups.

There were tips for ignoring hunger and tricks for feeling fuller. I was happy for My Fitness Pal to tell me to eat less than my BMR (the amount of calories your body needs to exist) and would often feel faint at work which lead to frequent binges.

I was doing everything to control the food I ate and how I moved my body but I was ignoring a vital element. I was doing nothing to safe guard my mental health.

Eventually, I crumbled. I had no safety nets in place to deal with the increasing demands and stress of my career, my body was malnourished, I was binge drinking and I broke.

I remember how I’d randomly burst into tears, have panic attacks and see dark shadows in my peripheral vision. My 5 year old daughter turned to me one day in the kitchen and said ‘Mummy, you never laugh’. Ouch.

I felt so completely isolated and unable to ask for help. We’d just broken up for the Christmas holidays. A half term always brings an element of relief for most teachers just in the nick of time but all I felt was ill. A clawing, active state of illness where I was being repeatedly boxed in.

I went to my GP in a few days after Christmas Day and broke down in the consultation room. I was diagnosed with depression and severe anxiety. The GP suggested some time off work which instantly felt like a weight had been lifted. She also said to me, “What do you enjoy doing?”. My instant reaction was to answer with “I like going to the gym.”

“Make sure you do that in your time away from work,” she replied, “Make sure you don’t lock yourself away in your house during this time.”

Beneath the darkness of punishment, restriction, body dissatisfaction and the rest, there was some light. I did love being in the gym. I’d made friends in the classes I went to, I was friendly with most of the instructors so I always had someone to talk to. There was always someone to say hello as I walked in. I never felt alone or helpless in there.

And that’s what I clung on to.

Being diagnosed with depression was certainly a much needed wake up call but I hope that for many others in the same position, they won’t allow it to get that far. Clawing myself out of the toxicity of diet and fitness culture was by no means a straight forward and simple journey. There’s certainly no quick fix but it is possible.

Much of my own journey involved lots of reading, reinventing my instagram feed by unfollowing the accounts that lead to my toxic behaviours and doing a lot of work on my mindset. Reframing your thoughts is possibly the most powerful tool at your disposal.

Looking back, I am ashamed of how I treated myself. More importantly, every time I trashed talked myself I was doing harm to others. I have thin privilege and when I raged war on my own body I simultaneously raged war on everyone else’s. Body dissatisfaction breeds body dissatisfaction. If I wasn’t happy with my tummy, why should others be happy with theirs?

During this change in mindset is when I really fell in love with weight lifting. I still do cardio, mainly walking – please never underestimate the benefits of a good walk! – and I aim to get my heart rate up at least once or twice a week when I teach cycle & LBT in the gym. I eat intuitively, consciously plan in self care activities, take a lot of rest and generally just find that I enjoy my life a hell of a lot more.

I’m never going to hide from my previous behaviours or deny they happened. My experiences can help and give hope to others that they don’t have to be dieting or at war with themselves for the rest of their life.

I want to be part of the change that helps people think and feel differently about their bodies, food, exercise and their health because this new mindset changed my life. I want to be going to gym and lifting weights when I’m 60, 70, 80 years + because when you find what you love, there’s no stopping you.

You can Follow Amy on Facebook and Instagram

Sarah is an Occupational Therapist and personal trainer who is passionate about helping people flourish @MoodLifterPT She is always happy to be contacted if you want to find out more.

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