Friday 24 November 2017

In fitness and in health: ‘It’s liberating to be away from the pouting #gymselfie takers’

After eight weeks of training, writer and bride-to-be Joanna Kiernan has conquered her gym phobia

Joanna Kiernan at the Performance and Fitness Academy, Newhall, Naas. Photo: Adrian Melia
Joanna Kiernan at the Performance and Fitness Academy, Newhall, Naas. Photo: Adrian Melia
Joanna Kiernan at the Performance and Fitness Academy, Newhall, Naas. Photo: Adrian Melia
Joanna Kiernan at the Performance and Fitness Academy, Newhall, Naas. Photo: Adrian Melia

Two months ago, I began a fitness journey unlike anything I have ever done before. Of course, there have been numerous other well-intentioned forays into the realm of fitness in the past, but nothing ever stuck. Generally, I would find some excuse to quit – too hard, too sore, too much movement.

The biggest excuse that I would rely on was time or lack thereof; not just in the practical sense, but in the most philosophical sense too. Life was, I rationalised, too short for not eating cherry scones for breakfast smothered in jam; what a waste it would be to spend my final hour on Earth (should it work out that way) at a spinning class and so on.

There was also an overwhelming feeling that to work out and pay attention to my food was in some way giving in to outside pressures, unrealistic ideals of perfection, bikini bodies and all that lark.

For years, a little part of me was even disappointed when I tried to work out, as if, somehow, I was letting the side down. I knew I didn’t want to be obsessive about weight, to deny myself of the good things in life.

Thankfully, the super-skinny ideal never caught a hold of me. In fact, I was so repulsed by the notion of being so cruel and judgemental of oneself, and felt so sorry for the hundreds of already underweight girls and even older women I had met in life who agonised over the calories in a cracker, that I ran the other way almost out of protest.

There were, however, niggling body issues, which I could not ignore. There was discomfort, insecurity and a general sense that I was not doing enough to help myself and, particularly, my health.

There are many who separate fitness and health, self-worth and self-esteem – and if that works for you, then more power to you. I have never been the type to be ‘fat and happy’, or in my case ‘unfit and happy’, because weight was never technically the issue.

I was jiggly in places, yes. There were parts of my body that I did not feel in control of; areas which I had neglected. And 10 months before my wedding, I wanted to change this once and for all; to give myself this gift, not to impress others, but to rather regain control of my body image.

I wanted to take the reins on what I consider to be beautiful rather than allowing myself to accept what a world of chattering white noise tells us is beautiful one day and ugly the next.

Throughout history, society has been fascinated by many fitness trends, health fads and celebrity diets. However, social media has upped the ante over the last decade to a point where this hyper-awareness can often act as a barrier for people, having become an ‘us and them’ situation. We have grown accustomed to seeing Hollywood stars ‘post-gym’ selfies as they emerge after training sessions with strategic, designer-looking glints of sweat and perfect hair.


More recently, however, there has been a refreshing turn towards a more honest representation of these healthy living trends, with people like Lena Dunham and Jennifer Lopez posting photos of themselves working for a healthy, strong body, rather than the celebrity waifs of yesteryear, who would claim ‘good genes’ as they downed orange juice soaked cotton wool and snorted enough cocaine to make their hunger fade into oblivion.

There is a lovely honesty to those red, relatable, sweaty faces, a power even.

Taking ownership and care of one’s body has now become a sort of feminist statement.

And there is something very liberating about being surrounded by bodies, both male and female, of all descriptions – but particularly those of the non-sucked in, pouting, perfect #gymselfie variety – as they fly around in lycra, pushing themselves to the limit without a care in the world as to who is watching. The past eight weeks have been a very different experience to anything I had tried before.

This time around, I left my ego and fears at the door and threw myself into a completely new, yet steady and sustainable, lifestyle.

For the first time in my life, I began exercising without a friendly companion to moan to and/or convince into skiving off the actual work once it became uncomfortable. There was no way back.

I began training at The Performance and Fitness Academy in Naas, Co Kildare, with trainer Niall Munnelly during the last week of June and since then I have learned so many things, but primarily, what I had been doing wrong all of these years. I had become stuck in a cycle of berating and punishing myself for my failures, rather than striving to be healthy and happy. I was looking for a body that looked good – that was my only goal.

When I read articles about fitness, and when I interviewed people who had turned their lives and health around through exercising and eating healthily, I would have a moment of yearning for the willpower and stamina required to follow suit and then do nothing about it.

Gyms frightened me. I have signed up to and cancelled more memberships in more places than I can remember. I have been to more classes than you can think of: spinning, Body Pump, Body Blast, Body Attack, Step & Tone, Zumba and the rest.

My last gym attempt lasted about four weeks and that was really only because I was locked in a bitter, yet silent, dispute with a large Eastern European man, who kept hogging all of the weights machines – setting them all up with his very heavy weights and then going between them at his leisure. And it was pure spite that kept me going on this occasion – the challenge of getting there just ahead of him each morning and infiltrating his evil plan.


When I crept into The Performance and Fitness Academy that first week, to say I was intimidated would be a massive understatement.

It is, according to one of my suitably impressed friends, a ‘big boy’s gym’ – no mirrors, no soft furnishings.

However, I soon learned to relax a little and before I knew it, my bum-covering T-shirts, strategic jumpers tied around my hips, and worries about how ‘offensive’ my leggings may be to others, were cast aside.

The moment I let loose, great things started to happen. Six weeks in, my body-fat percentage had dropped by a massive 3.4pc overall, even though my weight on the scales has not decreased by much at all. Two weeks later, I feel more solid and healthy than I have ever done before.

Of course, those initial fears did not disappear immediately and I did find myself mid-way through some training sessions wondering who would be called when I had passed out, but eventually my inner drama queen relented.

Yes, I am still coming around to the idea of giving myself a break and appreciating what I can do, rather than fixating on what I can’t do, and I am also learning to ignore the weighing scales. As my trainer Niall promised me at the start of all of this: “It isn’t easy, but it is not as hard as people want to make it out to be either.”

So what else have I learned so far?

I’ve learned that after six weeks of clean eating, all it takes is one glass of wine before you start treating your friends to ‘the gun show’. I’ve also learned that I might be the only person in the world who suffers from cleavage-related injuries when putting on a sports bra. Ultimately, though, I’ve learned to enjoy the process rather than dread it, as I did at the beginning.

The goalposts have now shifted from getting into short shorts to improving my strength, mobility, health and simply continuing to feel this good. This isn’t about ‘shredding for the wedding’. I don’t want to lose half of my body weight and walk up the aisle to my lovely groom a shadow of my former self.

This project is about enjoying my life, my body and my mind, and achieving something outside of work and outside of my relationships. This is just for me – exactly what fitness should be. 

Follow Joanna’s fitness journey at Fit4aBride.wordpress.com

For more information on The Performance and Fitness Academy, see www.theperformanceandfitnessacademy.com

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