My story: Why I say “I understand”

My motivations to be a personal trainer and nutritional advisor go way beyond wanting people to be proud of their big biceps and washboard stomachs. Sharing the story which lead me to this path is a bit scary, as it’s it not something I discuss with many people, but hopefully it will help people see why I preach and get so passionate about the things I do.

It’s rather long at just over 2000 words, but I hope you find it interesting, and that it helps you or someone you know in some way. Please feel free to share it.

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Dog walking and dam building

I have enjoyed being active my whole life. My happiest memories as a child are climbing trees, building dams and wandering the fields near my home carrying a rucksack full of nature books in order to identify any critters that I came into contact with. I loved walking my dog and got up early to do so before school (I’ve always been an early bird).

My senior school had a leisure centre on site and as soon as I was allowed I spent my lunchtimes in the gym or pool. By this time though another motivation was at play. I had been bullied from the age of 12, which continued on-and-off for the remainder of my school years. With this, as is often the case, my confidence plummeted. Add the rollercoaster of teenage hormones and an increasingly negative relationship with my body image, and the result is that my exercise sessions became more about feeling marginally happier with my body than about having fun.


Wafer-thin ham sandwiches

Into this mix I now added what I was led to believe were healthy food choices. Thinking back to those days I remember eating a lot of rice cakes and sandwiches made from Weight Watchers bread, with no spread or a tiny bit of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter Light spread and two slices of wafer-thin ham sandwiches. My lunches looked anaemic in short.

My mum is an amazing cook yet I felt terribly guilty eating her delicious meals, and enviably watched my brother devour his own bodyweight in food day after day, whist he remained lean. Meanwhile I was always hungry yet my body did not seem to reflect all the effort I was putting in. It was like I was baking a cake with all the “right” ingredients, yet the result was always flat, burnt and disgusting to taste. I could not understand it.

Discovering some confidence

It was a huge relief when I could finally leave the bullies behind as I left to go to university in Swansea when I 18. I was free to break free from the social anguish that had plagued me for six years at school. I could make friends based on who I was at that point in my life, not based on who I had gone to school with.

When I started uni I had been in a relationship for several years with a guy from home (not school, I was far too short on confidence there). About half way through that year though, the relationship came to an end. Although I felt devastated initially I very soon felt more free than I had for a really really long time. I was like an exotic bird discovering for the first time it’s beautiful wings, then realising that they were also my passport to freedom.

I made great new friends, many of whom I’m still close to. I had tons of fun, got involved in new things, in short I had the university experience. I felt loads happier and was more active. I was also thinking less than I had about food than I had for years and ironically weight started to fall off me, without my even noticing. I soon needed to buy smaller clothes and received lots of compliments from those around me. I felt ecstatic. Finally I discovered what it felt like to not completely hate my own body.

Heading into the danger zone

Subconsciously though, I linked my loss of weight to my new-found popularity and fun-filled life. Therefore once I slowly but surely started to gain weight again, I was terrified. In my head I would loose my great new friends and fab new life if I put weight on again. I once again returned to rice cakes and Weight Watchers bread sandwiches. They had just as much success for me then as they had last time though.

I was by now a second-year student; drinking most nights of the week, frequently grabbing takeaways on the way home and sleeping way less than I needed. As the weight increased I got more and more desperate. This is how I became bulimic.

In a shared house of nine I could easily get away with sneaking off to nearby shops to buy bags of “forbidden” foods, and then embark on binging and purging sessions. Or so I thought. I suspect my housemates were on to me far sooner than I realised.

I can’t really remember how long this went on for. I do remember though that at some point I realised that I needed to tell someone what I was doing in order to experience the shame needed to get myself out of it. I told my mum about it, who got me to see a counsellor, I read a book about it but it didn’t help a great deal.

Meeting Dan

It was meeting Dan that really put a stopper in it. Mainly because I was generally either at the gym or with him (or both) during my free time, so I had far less private time in which to embark on any bulimic behaviour. The binges and purges became less frequent, and at some point stopped altogether, but the poor body image and shaky self-confidence remained with me for years.

Throughout all of this I was still an avid gym-goer. I would come in from clubbing and be in the gym a few hours later. Looking at it now I must have been a metabolic wreck, but I guess you can get away with it more when you’re young.

I continued to be a gym bunny when Dan and I moved from Swansea to Cardiff, where I studied to be a journalist, and then when we moved from there to Bath. Funnily enough the gym we joined when we moved to Bath was at the YMCA. If someone had told me then that I would be working for them in a few years I would never have believed them.

Me after running the London Marathon

Me after running the London Marathon

Running 20-odd miles a week unfortunately doesn’t mean you can get away with eating whatever the hell you like
— Laura HIlton

The nutritional side of things

As you do when you join a gym I had a programme written for me by the lovely Simon (who ended up getting me my YMCA job years later). I met with him every 12 weeks for a retest and at one of them we found my results weren’t what he’d expect given how much I was in the gym. I knew, and he most likely knew too, that was due to the nutritional side of things.

Me after running the London Marathon

I distinctly remember him suggesting we look into my nutritional intake. I was petrified. I went to the gym so that I could eat chocolate, cake and all the rest of it. I knew he would tell me not to eat such crap and I couldn’t have coped with that. I vowed to just exercise more and decided to take on the London Marathon. I would surely loose weight if I trained for a marathon wouldn’t I?!

Not necessarily, so it turns out. Running 20-odd miles a week unfortunately doesn’t mean you can get away with eating whatever the hell you like, as I believed it would. I thought that if I was doing that much exercise I would get back the body I had at the end of my first year of uni, which was the smallest I had ever been.

Extra chocolate allowance

Maybe it would have done if I had been eating well, but it didn’t for me, no doubt partly because I was counterbalancing the running with chocolate. I had joined Weight Watchers by then and every time I came back from a run or gym session I would work out how many points I had just burned, and consume that exact amount of chocolate. I would even do an extra mile or an extra ten minutes in the gym simply to “buy” myself some extra chocolate allowance.

So this mentality went on until I fell pregnant with Jack. After having him I went straight back to the gym and to weighing out chocolate, despite the fact that I was breastfeeding and shattered. However now a change occurred. My gym sessions and runs were now the only headspace I got. They were the only times I saw people and did the things I had done before I became a mum. Over time my exercise sessions became more vital for my mental wellbeing than my physical wellbeing.

Huge amounts of cake and chocolate

Since having Jack I had been eating huge amounts of cake and chocolate because I was breastfeeding, and had been told by midwives and everyone else that I needed to eat lots of extra calories to produce the milk that he needed. Clearly I had been eating enough to produce milk for several babies, and consuming such a huge calorie surplus that my weight had gone up and up.

I seriously needed to get my weight under control, but no longer had loads of spare time I could spend in the gym. I needed another tactic.

Clearly I had been eating enough to produce milk for several babies
— Laura Hilton

In searching for some help I came across The Clean & Lean Diet and everything clicked. The book spoke about cutting out refined, processed foods, caffeine, and alcohol, and about eating whole, clean foods. I decided to give it a go for a few weeks and have never looked back. Not only did I start to loose weight, but most importantly I felt far healthier that I probably ever had. No surprise. For the first time I was eating loads of nutrient-dense food instead of air-filled nutrient-poor foods.

Game changer

This was real game-changer for me. I had discovered that the secret to being healthy wasn’t hidden in a certain number of hours logged in the gym or a particular “health” food. It was in a clean and, most importantly, healthy approach. Combine this with the fact that to me exercise was no longer a way to control my weight, but something I enjoyed in and of itself, and you can see why I felt better than I had in years. And I felt better not just physically but mentally and emotionally too. The bulimic inside me slowly grew smaller and smaller until I realised she had gone entirely.

Today I enjoy healthy food, and I also enjoy the occasional treat. I no longer fear “treat” foods, as I am in control of my feelings around them now. My own exercise sessions are now fun and something I love to do, not something I feel I should do in order to look a certain way, and I hope that my clients and class participants feel the same about the ones I deliver to them.

The road to making my discovery was a painful one for me, and it angers me that food companies, supermarkets and in many ways the government had made it so hard for me, and others like me, to make that discovery.

This is why I decided to retrain to be a personal trainer and nutritional advisor. I wanted to help educated people about how to live a healthy life, be it mentally, physically, nutritionally or emotionally. If I save just one person from going down the horrible road that I did, that I will have succeeded.

So when I tell you I understand how hard it can be to live a healthy life, I really do.

I will be there to help whoever I can in whatever way I can.

Thanks for reading.

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Laura Hilton