‘My Fitness Story’ or ‘Frances Blaikie – Aspiring Ninja!’

I watched a bloke lead his bike down some stairs yesterday. He had the front wheel under control, but the back wheel bounced around all over the place. Baboing, Bading, Bagang. My rear-end used to act in a similar manner. I had control of most of the front section of my chasis, (I’ve spent a LOT of money on bras over the years for this purpose), but my rear section would jig about with a mind of its own. It was relentless in exercise classes – although I admit that I was always glad that at least one part of me had so much energy. It’s almost gone now. Just the odd wobble bobble, definitely no Baboing, Bading, Bagang going on back there. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a sizable caboose, and I want it to shrink some more, but my motivation is that it be small enough so that I can run, jump and lift myself around obstacle courses and life in general, not because I feel the need to conform to someone’s ideal body shape.

My story is not one of enormous weight loss in a matter of weeks. I wish it was. I have wished for a story like that for over 40 years, but apart from biennial yo-yo dieting where I would lose the same 10 – 15 kg over 5 months, only to pile it all back on in a small amount of time, my journey so far has been one of the fat kid/teen/adult, somewhere between 30 – 50 kg overweight according to the ideal weight charts or BMI measures, which are crap measures anyway, but the ones that I have been measured against none the less. When you meet me you get a beautiful warm smile, someone who is smart, funny, intelligent, good natured, talented, super good company, empathetic, supportive, basically a wonderful person; the strong, successful, organised, totally in control professional woman (seriously: any single Dads, brothers, whatever, feel free to send them my way, I am that fabulous! They will thank you). What you don’t see is the constant struggle with shyness, a fear of just about everything, and the small amount of self confidence that gets me by. And you never hear the inner critic that is hammering away, ALL OF THE TIME, about how useless, stupid and ugly I am. That is the same voice that sends me into my fridge and cupboards to find almost any kind of food as a form of comfort and solace. So while my intermittent dieting episodes were reasonably successful attempts to drastically alter my eating habits for short periods of time, they never addressed the important behavioural issues regarding my relationship with myself and my preferred drug: FOOD! Well, not vegetables, I am suspicious of vegetables. And porridge. There is nothing comforting about porridge. Once my will power had been exhausted I reverted back to old, safe, destructive habits. A classic, tragic story. That is until I found Geneen Roth, and later Libby Weaver. And later still wonderful role models in Xena (Warrior Trainer), Trainer Guy, and a bunch of wonderful gym buddies!

I have spent the last 12 years learning to live by Geneen Roth’s eating guide lines: A rough summary would be: I can eat whatever I want and whenever I want (Yes, you read that correctly!), but I try to recognise the difference between when I’m physically hungry and emotionally hungry, and if I’m physically hungry then I try to eat what my body wants, not what my brain/heart wants; I try to make nourishing food choices (see Dr Libby for many wonderful options), which as time goes by involves vegetables more and not sugar. This has been a complete surprise to me and my colon. Whatever food that I choose, I must enjoy every mouthful! YES! No matter what I have chosen, I am allowed to enjoy it! Because there must be a reason that I feel that I need it, and so I am allowed it. But I must try to stop eating when I am full, even if that means leaving food on a plate. In this manner I am learning to trust my body, and nourish it, and my body is slowly changing so that my frame does not have to carry such a burden around anymore.

From Dr Libby I learnt to be kinder to myself. I try to stop listening to the nasty inner critic. Just stop listening! Shut it down. For so long I was powerless against the voice, but I am in charge of my brain chemistry, and so I am in charge of what I listen to, and how I treat myself. I would never say to anyone the things that I have routinely said to myself for years. Nor would I let anyone say those things to anyone else. And so I protect myself like I would protect a little kid from verbal abuse, take the devastated and hurting little me in a comforting embrace and turn off the ugly voice. Nobody should have to listen to that nonsense. EVER. I have also learnt that it’s what I do 80% of the time that makes a difference, so I try to make good choices most of the time and cut myself some slack when I feel like I need something that nourishes my heart more than a carrot could ever do, although that behaviour is changing slowly.

It’s been a long journey, and it will continue until I expire. It takes a lot of energy, patience and time to listen to my body, make nourishing choices and filter my thoughts, but I will enjoy the journey! Every single mouthful and burpee! It turns out that there are ways to construct my life so that my resolve to nourish my body and soul can be sustained. Instead of making the number on the scale the ultimate measure of success, I choose fitness goals. My mantra these days is that I want to be fitter, faster and stronger than I have ever been. Any body composition change is a welcome consequence of my new eating habits and fitness goals. The exercise is about claiming my body back, so that I can do the things that I want to do when I want to do them. In the last 10 months I have lost 11.5 kg of fat so that I have just sneaked into the healthy %fat range, I have managed to gain some muscle mass, and I am wearing the smallest dress size of my life! I can run, jump, burpee, push-up, squat, deadlift and so many other things, and it feels REALLY good. I don’t think there will ever be a finish point, because there is still a number of fat percentage points to drop and fitness goals to meet, like being able to make a pull up. How cool would that be?!

But I didn’t do this without some impressive help. And now I will introduce you to some of the key supporting actors in my recent journey: Xena and Tainer Guy.

In January 2014, at the age of 46, I joined a gym that had a programme called ‘Slank’ in Danish, ‘Slim’ in English. They offered exercise classes for us rounded individuals and a weekly personal consultation to monitor progress and to help with a diet and exercise plan. At the time I was not able to run or jump, and I was wearing clothing in very large sizes. I desperately wanted to change. One of the instructors was this incredibly energetic, competent and intimidating woman called Signe Hostrup Nielsen. Signe is pronounced like ‘Xena’, as in the warrior princess, which is actually an apt comparison for this AMAZING and motivating instructor. I persevered for 10 months and managed to lose 12 kg while increasing my fitness to the point where I could actually jog to catch the bus and complete a whole hour of HIIT functional training, but medical issues struck (menopause, OMG, it is horrible!) and I put the weight back on over 5 months. I continued with ‘Slim’ because I had met a heap of really cool women, all struggling with the same issue. It was like finding my tribe in the middle of Denmark, a country full of beautiful thin people. We learnt that we could push our bodies to do soooo much more than our brains thought was possible, if we could just switch our brains off. We learnt to challenge ourselves and each other with exercise, and to achieve. I managed to keep a degree of the fitness, but I couldn’t shift the weight because my eating was out of control again. Xena, Warrior Trainer, was a constant support over this time, but I wasn’t ready to make the necessary eating changes and so I did fitness so that I could hang out with my new posse. And then ‘Slim’ was cancelled as a programme and I was lost. I tried to continue by myself by scheduling classes that Xena instructed, but I wasn’t making any progress in terms of my fitness goals, or in getting my food choices under control.

August 2015 I decided to make a major change and get myself a personal trainer to kick start some changes. I approached Xena, Warrior Trainer, as the obvious choice for the job, but she couldn’t train me. I remember she looked at me, smiled knowingly and then said that she had THE perfect trainer for me. That we would be a great match. This guy was tough but just what I needed! Hold on a minute, she said ‘guy’? A man? My heart went cold, and it must have shown on my face, because she assured me that he didn’t bite… often. And so she recommended a young bloke, Michael Gabelgård Schjøtt, henceforth known as Trainer guy because I can’t pronounce any of his names correctly (or Young Mister Cutie-pie McHardbody, but that’s just between you and me). The best thing that has happened in my life in a long time. (Apart from that hindbærsnitter and latte last week, they were very good!) He is half my age, half my mass, and seriously FIT! No, not like that. Well, yes, a bit like that… But he’s the kind of bloke that goes out and runs 10 km because he’s bored, the kind of bloke that is off to obstacle course racing World Champs soon so that the other racers have some decent competition, the kind that runs and jumps and acrobats and punches and swims, and just about everything you can think of. He’s basically a ninja. The thought of confessing to this kind of bloke that I absolutely really needed that cake for emotional support or that I didn’t get to that spin class because the couch was just too comfortable was slightly appalling. And he was probably going to weigh me! Horrific thought. I’d rather have a pelvic exam. But I was desperate to try anything, and so I agreed to meet Trainer guy. Now, from the reaction of a lot of my women friends of a particular age and stage, this sounded like the beginning of an erotic novel with me as the main character. I can state categorically that it has been nothing like that, at all, nope, nothing. More like T1000 (Terminator 2 reference) meets Bender (Futurama reference).

I remember the beginning like yesterday. A very traumatic yesterday. We talked about goals. He immediately assured me that weight loss was a simple process and we could easily achieve a massive weight loss (oh the wisdom of a fit young fella. He knows me better now and would be less blasé about stating such things). I assured him that I wanted to focus on getting fitter, faster and stronger, how I’d tried for 4 decades to lose weight and never achieved any long term effect, so I was very reluctant to make any kind of weight loss a focus of our time together. I remember his face at that point, firmly set in an expression that spoke louder than words: ‘Did I just hear her correctly? She’s been on a diet for 40 years? And no weight loss? How can that be possible? It’s so simple…’ To his credit, he did not question any of my statements, just shrugged and smiled and asserted that we could do what I wanted! We would focus on fitness goals. But then he wanted to record a start point. And the start point required stepping onto the dreaded machine. Oh the horror of anyone, let alone a bloke, knowing those most personal and devastating of numbers. My age and my weight were both required for the machine to crunch some numbers about body composition. I gingerly stepped on, and we waited for the stats. Horrific. My bottom lip trembled, my throat closed over and tears welled up in my eyes, I was weighed down with equal loads of embarrassment and judgement. In my mind, every gram counted heavily against my self worth, and it crushed my soul. Such an unpleasant and emotionally charged moment. But he didn’t notice. Or he knew to ignore me. He just took a photo of the avalanche of information that the machine spewed forth. I breathed deeply and stared at the paper. He talked about what some of the numbers meant. I kept up the deep breathing and made grunting noises. I was just grateful that the dreaded tape measure did not make an appearance. Instead he talked about keeping a food diary for a few days so that he could see what he was dealing with (his words, not mine). I confess that while I filled it out, I deliberately didn’t send it to him, or ever bring it up again. It was an interesting exercise though, on the days that I recorded stuff, I was eating VERY healthy. On the other days… well… stuff happens so let’s move on. There is something about being accountable and writing stuff down that brings the issue into clear focus though. Since then I have learnt to make nourishing choices for my body. Not all the time, but maybe 80% of the time, and that’s a good goal to have. Finally we trotted off to learn some exercise techniques, and that was the beginning of a fun fitness journey with Trainer Guy!

We didn’t go near that horrendous machine for 3 months! It was like freedom! And now we only visit it every 4 or 5 weeks, and only if I ask for it. It can be a useful number but I just have to remember that it is only one statistic in a large number of other achievements. And slow progress of fat loss of 1-2 kg per month will hopefully mean that my new healthier habits will be sustainable long term. In the first 3 months, we did lots of learning to enjoy exercise. There were many challenges and many achievements. We focused on getting me fitter, faster and stronger, and it worked. I made massive progress in terms of stamina and strength. My back stopped hurting. My times on the rowing machine improved. And my clothes fitted so much better. In fact, I fitted into almost everything in my wardrobe. Everything, except my skinniest pair of pants, which I had never been able to get in to anyway. Why did I have them? Because I was always going to shrink… Why did I keep them? I tortured myself that maybe, one day, I would be able to fit them; maybe, one day I’d be small enough. I should have been kinder to myself and just put them in the op-shop and bought new ones that fitted. They are actually too big now. But I still should have found things to wear that made me feel gorgeous at all stages of the journey, because this journey isn’t going to end soon and I need to learn to celebrate everything along the way.

I remember thinking after our first session that you know it’s been a hard training session, full of lunges, squats, box jumps, push-ups, planks…, when you are standing outside your apartment block whimpering and snivelling because the idea of climbing a couple of flights of stairs is too horrendous. I’d managed to drag myself around the grocery store before trudging home, and I thought about cracking open the cereal packet and camping at the front door for the night, but then it started to rain. I managed to get up the stairs, and as I collapsed onto the couch I was unabashedly proud of what I’d completed that night, and looking forward to the next time!

Sometimes, communicating across the language/cultural barrier can be awkward. I live in Denmark but I don’t have to speak Danish in my day to day life and so my Danish is terrible. Trainer Guy is Danish, and while I think his English is fantastic, he is not so confident speaking English, but we have training sessions in English anyway for my sake. And along with the language obstacles, there are also body language norms that are not always easy to negotiate. But the pearls of wisdom are still there in the conversation! There was a day when Trainer Guy greeted me with a small smile thus (verbatim): ‘Frances! You looks beautiful today.’ My heart just stopped. I don’t get greetings like that very often, in fact, never. It’s a shame that I have to admit that I looked around for this other Frances that he was greeting, but there was no one else. The compliment was out there, I had to choose what to do with it… Now, Danish people don’t move any muscles in their faces when they talk, there is no facial expression at all, so I wasn’t really sure if he was being sarcastic or not. He could also have been missing something in translating from Danish… Ah, well, doesn’t matter, I chose to believe he was being sweet. It put a big smile on my face! He could do nothing wrong that day, nor at any time since. At another point early on when we talked about setting goals, I made some smart comment about wanting to be a swim suit model, to which he replied earnestly, ‘Frances, you are a BIG lady.’ Pause with meaningful look into my eyes. ‘You are! You are NOT a small lady, you are a BIG lady.’ My face at that moment was trying to communicate that he should stop talking, I got the point. But instead he understood from my expression that I didn’t believe him and so he continued, ‘You will NEVER be a small lady, you will always be a BIG lady. So we must set goals that are realistic for you, (another meaningful pause)… because you are a BIG lady, NOT a small lady.’ And he was absolutely right. It was actually liberating to hear those words without any kind of judgement attached to them. They were simple statements of fact, communicated honestly and without any form of malice. I am tallish, I have wide shoulders and hips, and I am strong, and I like it like that! Thank you Trainer Guy, I am proud to be a Big lady!

He’s not always so earnest. He can be a cheeky brat. But this is why Xena, Warrier Trainer, thought that he would be good for me. I get bored with ‘serious’. One day I was instructed to do press-ups, and lots of them in total, but spread over a few sets, and I should do them correctly, no more talking and no cheating. He wanted me to complete them with speed and power, to imagine I was a Ford Mustang! Speed and Power Frances! He then said quietly that we were really working with something more like a Fiat Panda, but he smiled sweetly and said I was to think Ford Mustang! Go! Apparently I wasn’t getting my nose close enough to the floor, the instructions were, ‘Lower Frances, lower!’ So on the next push-up my helpful Trainer Guy, wanting me to experience exactly how low I should go, casually put his hand in the middle of my back and pushed. My arms collapsed and my nose was planted firmly in the revolting gym mat, to which he commented with genuine surprise, ‘What are you doing down there?’ I just grunted. It’s hard to do anything else with your face planted in the mat. But I got back up and finished the set. Fiat Panda, my foot! Can’t keep this Ford Mustang down. Even when he’s making a small joke at my expense, I still get a confidence boost!

It’s not always him dishing out the raz though. You see, when I get tired, I feign memory loss about how to perform certain exercises, and then he helpfully demonstrates the exercises I can’t remember. So I get to rest and watch while the delightful young man shows me how to do burpees and push-ups and whatever else he thinks is fun. That puts a smile on my face! The down side is that eventually he will say ‘your turn’, and I will attempt to emulate his very competent performance. I doubt that that puts a smile on his face. More likely he’ll shake his head and sigh. I like to finish with an air punch and exclaim at the improvement in my execution! He will probably reply with something wildly encouraging like, ‘Well…, let’s just say that it’s going in the right direction…’ High fives all round! Money well spent!

Some weeks I’m completely intimidated by him and only do as I’m told, no monkey business. But other weeks I’m in hyperactive mode and I cannot help myself, I have to be a clown. Trainer Guy just takes whatever arrives at the door and goes with that. One week he greeted me with a big wave and, ‘FRANCES! Hva’ sa?’ (What’s up) and I replied, ‘BONJOUR!’. Both he and the woman behind the desk looked a bit confused, and while trainer guy shrugged his shoulders and grabbed his jersey and stop watch from below the desk, (oh, how I hate that stop watch, 30 seconds on that thing feels like 5 minutes), I explained to the woman that I was being posh because I’m a lady after all, and I added an Audrey Hepburn hand flourish for emphasis. Trainer guy sprang up from behind the desk to say, ‘No you’re not. You’re a beast. Kom så (come on), we’re off to lift heavy stuff today.’ As he marched off to the free weights area, I galloped and skipped along behind him exclaiming, ‘I am SO a lady!…’, ‘Ohhhh, how much are we going to lift today?’, ‘I really AM a lady. I CAN be very sophisticated.’ ‘YEAH! Back squats!’, accompanied by a small jump in the air with little hand claps, ‘Ohhhh, so 60 kg to start with, like a warm up then?’ followed by cheeky giggles and a hulk impression. Trainer guy just looked at me deadpan and shook his head, ‘yup, a lady.’ Some days he really has to earn his money.

Trainer Guy is a wonderful role model for self confidence. He just enjoys living in his body. He doesn’t care too much that he isn’t such a big bloke, or that he can’t compete with big heavy lifters, because what he can do, he does really well, and he loves it. Some races match his skill set and other races do not. Whatever the race, he just gets in there and gives it everything in the tank. Now that is a wise way to live. Stop comparing yourself to other people, be prepared to try anything, find your strengths and what you love doing, and do that. I would love to enjoy living in my body. To be so comfortable and confident that I could run, jump, bike, dance, climb whatever and wherever I wanted. To just be happy with how I am made. And just LIVE! One of my mantras is ‘No more thinking, just doing!’ so no more second guessing and talking myself out of things, I have permission to explore and experiment and just do it! Confidence comes from just doing it.

There have been a few confidence wins over the last few months. One such time was when I tried on and purchased a pair of size 44 jeans (size 18)! I had not been able to squeeze into something so dainty in over 25 years! I got the zip to the its zenith in the try-on room and said, ‘Done deal!, we’re goin home!’ I’m glad that I waited to do the sit-down test on my bed at home. I could bend into the correct conformation and actually sit, but the tension was too much for my stomach muscles and I uncoiled onto my bed with a lot of force. Getting back to standing position required a roll onto the floor and an undignified downward dog style climb up some furniture, but the zip stayed up and no seams popped. BooYah! And now I have size 42 jeans!

One week at training session, Trainer Guy had me jumping onto a half bubble. The thing is about 50 cm in diameter, one side is hard and flat, and faced the floor; the other side is a half bubble of air-containing, pliable plastic. I was supposed to jump from one foot onto the bubble, land on both feet, and then jump back off again. It was placed about 3 meters from a heap of windows. And I’m petrified of it. The idea of jumping on and off things just stops me in my tracks.

‘Jump!’ …

‘Frances, I said JUMP!’ …

‘Why aren’t you jumping?’

To which I replied, ‘Actually, I’m afraid that I will bounce across the room, out through the window and into the car park.’ With a cheeky grin, Trainer Guy (remember: my height but HALF my mass, standing on the other side of the bubble, in front of the windows) extended his arms in front of himself, and declared, ‘I’ll catch you Frances! You just jump!’ Gotta admire the committment of the guy. What a very sweet offer! However, cute as he is, he cannot change the laws of physics. I pointed out that he would make a very bony cushion, and we would both probably end up through the window and in the car park. He was a bit offended by this observation because he thought he was up to the task if necessary. But then I jumped on and off the bubble a heap of times without incident and we both let out a sigh of relief. Inwardly I was making giant fist punches at the sky! I enjoy jumping on and off stuff! I conquered the half bubble. And confidence builds with every jump.

Sometimes random people have had an enormous and unexpected impact on my fitness journey. After certain kettle bell (KB) exercises at the gym, I like to place the offending article in its place on the rack and address it with a little dance that I call ‘take that, mister KB, I just OWNED you!’ This dance involves hand pistols, a Billy Idol White wedding smirk AND a hippy hippy shake shake. I do this with reckless abandon partly because I have believed that, as a person of round proportions, I am basically invisible and unnoticed in the sea of beautiful people, and therefore nobody would notice me gyrating in the corner. It turns out that one of the fit young ladies, whose prowess in squats and pull-ups and ALL other crossfit stuff is something I envy, had noticed. She came up to me after one of my workout sessions and said that she had been watching my progress over the last few months, and that she was really impressed with the hard workouts (credit to Trainer Guy, he’s always challenging me), that I had made massive improvements (more credit to Trainer Guy, he’s not satisfied unless it’s right), and that she was inspired to do better because of seeing me improve! I was bowled over! and quietly appalled at the same time. She didn’t mention my little dances. Perhaps I should holster the hand pistols, and restrain the hippy shake shake in the future. Nahhh. Victory over the KB should be celebrated! Spread the joy!

Small changes in habits can have big consequences, and this is certainly true of me and my food choices. Trainer Guy likes to recommend more vegetables in my diet. I usually screw up my face and make gagging noises, but he is right, and I have included more vege. One day he recommended one type in particular. He actually rubbed his six-pack (there is nothing about his abdominal region that suggests ‘tummy’) smiled dreamily and said, ‘mmmmm, agurkene er lækert!’ (mmmmm, cucumbers are delicious!’) in much the same way that I would talk about chocolate self saucing pudding. I was confused. I have obviously missed something in life. The cucumbers here in Europe must be a different breed to any that I’ve tasted before. Needless to say, I purchased one! It sat in the fridge keeping the 2 month old cabbage company for a day or two. Considering the rather sensual recommendation, I was expecting an almost orgasmic experience when I ate it! Sadly, that was not the case. But I did feel good about feeding my body nourishing food, so there was something satisfying about the experience.

Trainer Guy is a big fan of functional exercises in a high intensity interval training (HIIT) format. The point is to get your heart rate through the roof for many intervals of time. It turns out that there are other unexpected ways to get ones heart rate up and add to the HIIT volume… There is one exercise in particular where I’m supposed to hold my elbows at my waist, and rotate my hands from in front of me to the side. Apparently I don’t hold my elbows close enough to my body… Next minute, Trainer Guy is standing right behind me (full body contact! Well, hello there!), his arms around me (quite a feat considering he is not such a big bloke and I still have a reasonable girth), his elbows holding my elbows in place and his hands on my arms pulling them into the correct motion, and he was saying something in my ear about correct position of … Good god, I can’t remember! To be honest I was just trying to remember to breathe. And then the instruction was over and I had to continue on my own, with heart rate suitably elevated, weakened knees and some deep breathing. As far as surprises go, this one was not unpleasant. Unfortunately, or fortunately for my heart’s sake, my performance of this exercise has improved and I don’t need such intense instruction anymore.

My fitness journey with Trainer Guy: Part ninja, part T-1000. Enough of a drill sergeant that you want to hit him, but enough of a cheerleader that you obey the orders and say thank-you for the pain. Enough drive and achievement that he is both inspiring and intimidating, but with enough cheek and humour that you know your session is warmly anticipated, and that you are his focus for the next challenge on the carefully devised torture plan, which probably includes burpees. He really likes burpees. All sorts of burpees. He isn’t Bob Harper, but he comes pretty close!

Xena was right. Trainer Guy was a good match for me! I was ready to do whatever it took to change habits of a lifetime regarding food addiction and lack of exercise, and he was ready, with a smile and gentle chastisement, to push me to do the best that I can. The exercise sessions, both with him and the ones he planned for me to complete by myself, have been challenging and fun, and I’ve achieved a lot. But there’s so much more that I want to do, and that’s just exciting! I’m learning to nourish and love my body with exercise, beneficial food and kind words, and that is bringing peace and calm to my life. I’m happier and healthier than I’ve ever been, and I’m enjoying every step.