- I’ve been active my whole life and have been passionate about lifting weights for three years.
- But even though I was already strong, it wasn’t until I lost 35 pounds a year and a half ago when people started taking me seriously as a “fitness person.”
- It was infuriating that everyone thought I’d suddenly got into fitness purely because I’d lost some of the fat insulating my muscles.
- In fact, being super-lean sometimes comes through adopting an unhealthy lifestyle. We need to stop equating leanness with strength and fitness.
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At the start of 2019, I decided I’d like to lose some weight. The number on the scale had gradually crept up over the years, I felt lethargic and sluggish, and I knew I had some unhealthy overeating — and overdrinking — habits.
Unlike previous attempts to slim down, I didn’t follow any particular nutrition plan. I simply ate less: I loosely tracked my calories and aimed to eat less than my body used on a daily basis while keeping my protein intake high.
Six months later, I had lost over 35 pounds while still maintaining my muscle. (I’ve also kept it off and lost a little more over the past year.)
Some people paid me compliments. Some people were saboteurs, trying to persuade me to eat more when I didn’t want to. But the reaction that annoyed me the most was the assumption that I had suddenly discovered fitness, which couldn’t have been further from the truth.
I have been active my whole life, and I had been strength training for nearly two years when I decided to lose weight. I wasn’t unfit or weak; I could deadlift 115 kilograms, or 255 pounds, and keep up with my opponents on a netball court.
When I lost some of the fat that had been insulating my body, it simply meant my muscles were more visible. They hadn’t grown. I hadn’t got stronger or fitter. I simply looked the part.
I’d been active my whole life, but I haven’t always had a healthy relationship with food
During my childhood and teen years, dancing was my passion. I went to classes five days a week, performed with the English Youth Ballet, attended summer camps, and competed at festivals in ballet, tap, and jazz. At school, I played netball, athletics, tennis, rounders, and hockey — rather poorly — too.
I was always a healthy weight, but when I was 17 I decided to try to lose some of the fat that had appeared on my body as I’d stopped growing taller.
I started calorie counting, and the pounds came off. In retrospect, though, I was unhealthily obsessed. Though I never skipped a meal, I was eating tiny portions and doing lots of cardio. I became too thin and had very little muscle.
I knew I was too thin, but I was scared to eat more because I didn’t want to give up control. I didn’t know how to maintain my weight or gain weight in a healthy way, and I was scared to undo all my progress.
But with the support of my family, I learned how to be healthy. Throughout my late teens and early 20s, my weight fluctuated, but I was never overweight, and I kept up with my fitness routines.
When I moved to London to begin my career as a journalist, I got swept up in the excitement and glamour of urban media life. Fitness dropped far down my list of priorities, and I spent my time staying out late at glamorous launch parties, having mini burger canapés and free cocktails for dinner because I saw it as a money-saving measure.
My weight slowly increased. I knew it was happening, and I tried to slim down various times, but I never got very far. The turning point came three years ago, when I was invited to train for six weeks with one of London’s most established personal trainers for an article about learning to lift weights.
I had no idea it would change my life. It was a privilege to learn the ropes from an expert and have such a brilliant introduction to weight training. I was immediately hooked.
I loved how strong and empowered I feel when I lift heavy weights.
I kept it up, and fitness became a regular feature in my life again. Going to the gym wasn’t a chore or a punishment as it was back in my cardio days; it was a joy.
Though I’d learned more about sports nutrition, macros, and the importance of protein, I was still consuming too much, even if it was nutritious and “healthy.” Part of me was reluctant to count calories again, because I was conscious of how it had become a disordered way of eating as a teenager.
But at the end of 2018, I took a deep breath and decided it was time to give it another go. I was older, much better educated around nutrition, and self-aware enough to be vigilant about not falling back into that damaging rabbit hole.
I took a more relaxed approach, and I didn’t count calories every day. This time, calorie-counting worked well because it reeducated me around portion sizes. It also helped me break away from the mindset of “good” and “bad” foods — they’re all just energy sources.
Losing weight isn’t the key to happiness, but as I traveled along my weight-loss journey, I did start to feel more like myself again. I felt lighter and more energized with every step I took. In my netball matches, I was much less out of breath, had more stamina, and was faster.
But because people suddenly started to notice my “toned” physique, they thought I’d only recently started working out seriously. Everyone from Instagram followers to vague work acquaintances started saying things like: “Wow, Rachel, you’ve gotten into your fitness recently.” And it simply wasn’t true.
I’d been into my fitness for years. I’d just improved my relationship with food, learned about the importance of energy balance, and started fueling my body appropriately.
I felt exasperated by the fact that I’d had to lose weight to be taken seriously as a fitness person.
Being lean and shredded doesn’t always translate to overall health
Five years ago, personal trainer Hayley Madigan was the leanest she’d ever been, weighing about 50 kilograms, or 110 pounds. She’d decided to compete in bikini competitions, which meant getting lean.
“I had a shredded six-pack and you could see all of my muscles, and in the fitness industry this was deemed as achieving good results, but actually I was the unhealthiest I have ever been,” she told Insider.
Strict dieting and twice-daily workouts led Madigan to lose her period for three years because of the stress her body was under. She weighed everything she ate and obsessively tracked calories, and she never socialized.
Because Madigan wasn’t getting enough nutrients, her health suffered, and she developed depression and anxiety.
For others, having low body-fat levels is a reminder they have an underlying health condition.
Ben Carpenter is a personal trainer who has had Crohn’s and inflammatory bowel diseases for years and finds it difficult to put on weight as a result. He’s received the most compliments on his physique during his worst flare-ups.
“I was a personal trainer and in good shape by stereotypical cultural standards: fairly muscular and with a six-pack,” Carpenter told Insider. “I often had clients hiring me because they said they wanted to look like me.”
But when Carpenter, now 33, had his first intense bout of inflammatory bowel disease when he was about 20, he spent six nights in a hospital over a matter of months, and lost about 22 kilograms.
“A lot of people see my low levels of body fat and automatically assume I am in very good health,” Carpenter said.
The relationship between body composition and health is nuanced, and just because someone is shredded doesn’t mean the person should be giving fitness advice to others
While many people say they wouldn’t hire an “out of shape” personal trainer much as they wouldn’t employ a bankrupt financial adviser or a dentist with tooth decay, the relationship between body-fat levels and health is more complex.
Genetics play a huge role in our appearances. Other people could eat and train and recover in exactly the same way as I do, and they’d still look different.
As Madigan and Carpenter show, a “ripped” body doesn’t equate to health, and nor does it equate to being a good trainer.
Disordered eating is rife within the fitness industry, according to Carpenter, and a lot of trainers and influencers feel pressure to be lean to get more business — many have told me this.
But a good personal trainer is someone who knows their stuff, encourages balance, keeps you on track, makes fitness fun, and helps you live an overall healthier lifestyle. Having a low body-fat percentage isn’t a prerequisite for any of those.
We need to stop equating leanness with health
For me, losing weight came largely from overcoming my overeating tendencies and working on my relationship with food by dispelling the long-ingrained notion that there are “good” and “bad” foods.
I understand why people who don’t know the truth about what it takes to get so lean hold the views they do. But we need to change the culture in fitness and challenge the notion that thin automatically equals healthy. Ultimately, there’s a misguided belief that exercise is about aesthetics.
It’s OK to want to change your body, but movement should be a joy in itself, not a punishment.
I loved lifting weights before I lost weight. I was strong and worked out about five times a week, because I loved it. I still work out about five times a week, because I still love it. My body, mindset, and eating habits have changed, but my training — and appreciation for physical fitness — haven’t.
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