I am Jennie, founder of set U free fitness. I went from not owning a pair of trainers to setting up a fitness studio. I have been every size and shape, from a squishy size 24+ to a miserable size 6. It has taken a huge journey to get to the place where I can say; my body isn’t perfect but I love it!
Whenever I have spoken about my journey in the past, I have recalled that big chapter from 2007- 2009 when I lost over 100lbs. A huge achievement, but in all honesty that was not the end of my journey, and probably not the hardest part. In fact, looking back now, I see that it is what I have done since my weight loss which has defined who I am today, and what we hope to achieve at set U free fitness.
Read on to find out about my journey and how it has shaped the person I am, and what we aim to do at set U free.
I was always overweight, that was my reality
I was a healthy but chunky 10lb baby, and I was chubby every day from them on. Being overweight was all I knew, that was my reality, that is what I had come to accept.
I don’t ever remember food and my body not being an issue. I was on a diet pretty much every day from about age 9. I was pushed to lose weight by doctors, teachers, by other kids, by my parents. The crazy thing was- I only ever got bigger. And the harder I tried, the bigger I got. By my teens I had become numb to fat jokes and remarks about my size.
At my largest I struggled to do up a size 24. I refused to weigh myself, but I must have been near to 19 stone. I was always bubbly and had loads of friends, but by my early 20s I felt I had lost some of the best years of my life. I lacked the confidence to do all the things I wanted to. I hated going shopping with friends. I would tag along and stand outside the changing rooms of Topshop enviously watching them try on cute outfits, whilst I was resigned to black trousers and smock tops.
I tried every diet going, and always failed, finding myself fatter and more miserable than before. I even tried the sensible approach of just ‘eating well and moving more’ but I lacked the real understanding to make it work.
I wasn’t really on a diet, I just made small changes
I knew I needed to do something, but I didn’t know where to turn anymore. I was only 22 years old and already tired of dieting.
It was by chance a friend asked if I would join Weight Watchers with her. I didn’t expect anything, I had tried every diet going, I just went for morale support. At my first meeting I was horrified to find out I weighed almost double a healthy weight for my height.
I couldn’t imagine ever being a healthy weight, so I decided my goal would be to fit in to clothes at Topshop. Then I would be able to go shopping with my friends. I decided that this time I wasn’t going to go ‘all out’ and cut out everything I enjoyed. So I tracked what I ate, but still enjoyed my favorite foods like pizza, cake and alcohol.
I never had a big loss, but then I wasn’t really on a diet, I was just making little tweaks. I swapped large meat feast pizzas for smaller veggie ones, and switched alco-pops for gin and tonic. Weight Watchers taught me a lot about healthy eating, portion control, and inspired me to cook from scratch. It helped me work out where I had been going wrong in the past, and the group support was my weekly boost of motivation.
A few months in to my weight loss journey I thought some extra activity might give me a boost, but I was way too conscious. The idea of joining a gym was like someone asking if you would want to get up and sing karaoke naked. I didn’t even own a pair of trainers or jogging bottoms.
It was much to my own surprise I became interested in fitness
I decided to start by just going for a 10 minute walk a few nights a week. Much to my own surprise I quite enjoyed it. 10 soon became 20, then 45 minutes, and twice a week became three times, then every day. Sometimes I would see people jog past me and I would think; I would love to be able to do that, but I was still too conscious and convinced I was too fat to run.
One afternoon I walked passed my local leisure centre and the gym seemed pretty quiet. I figured it wouldn’t be too bad if there was no one there to laugh at me. So I plucked up the courage to join. I had never been to a gym in my life, to say it was scary was an understatement. I had a very brief induction, but nobody asked what I wanted to achieve and I was left to get on with it. So I stuck to walking on the treadmill.
After a few weeks I gained a bit of confidence, until one day I risked a very gentle jog. I managed a 10 second burst of very light jogging, but it felt amazing. That was the first time I had ever consciously run as an adult, I think I was in shock. Every time I went I added another 5 seconds to my little jogging burst. The first time I managed a whole minute jogging I was so happy, and so proud I cried. I had come so far, and already achieved something I never thought I could. I still remember that feeling, and it’s something I never forget when I work with clients who are new to exercise.
I remember watching the classes, but despite my massively increased fitness there was no way I was walking in to a class on my own. I would surely die of embarrassment if not exhaustion. Then one day I plucked up the courage to join a boxing class. It was tough, but within 10 minutes I was hooked.
I started trying out other classes. I was surprised to find some I wasn’t all that terrible at, and some things I was actually good at. I discovered that I was pretty strong, and loved classes like circuits or body pump where I got to use weights. However, I have zero co-ordination and struggle to keep rhythm with things like zumba or aerobics. I figured I was more built for strength than speed, and I could live with that.
I was blind-sighted and getting desperate
After two years I had smashed past my goal of shopping in Topshop, I was a size 8-10 and felt amazing, but my weight loss had slowed way down. Somewhere along the way I set my goal weight at 9stone 3.5llbs for no other reason than it was exactly 7 stone from my first weigh in. I got within the last few pounds and really started to struggle.
Friends and family had made comments about me looking gaunt, but I dismissed it joking they were just so used to seeing me much bigger. I was well within the healthy weight range for my height. I struggled for months trying to lose the last 5lbs. Looking back, I think it was my body’s way of telling me I was OK, but I so wanted to hit that 7 stone mark.
I got increasingly frustrated, it felt like the more I exercised and the less I ate, the less successful I was. After months of struggling and torturing myself over the last few pounds I somehow hit my target weight. I was so happy. I thought that was it, and I could lead the rest of my life happily ever after. At least that is what I thought…
The fitness industry is filled with bad advice and magic beans- I fell for all of it
Losing weight can quickly become obsessive. When I was overweight I had one problem; I was overweight. After losing all the excess fat my problems just multiplied! I hated my saggy excess skin on my tummy and my arms, I hated the way my thighs wobbled, I hated my huge calves, wide hips and squishy bum. I criticised every small part of my body and trained harder to try to target them.
I stopped going to Weight Watchers, I was fit and thin now, I was confident I could do it alone. I kept going to the gym, and became increasingly interested in the whole ‘fitness scene’. I decided to do a personal trainers qualification out of interest and curiosity. I thought it might teach me a few things, and show me more effective ways to exercise. I was thrown deep in to the whole fitness scene and lifestyle.
The problem with the fitness industry is that it is full of bad advice and people ready to pray on the vulnerable. I cut out carbs, packed in so many grams of protein per kilo of body weight, I drank nothing but water and herbal tea, and I refused to eat processed meals. I was in peak shape, I had a great body, but it was never enough, and the truth was; I was miserable. I would get anxious about going out for meals or having a night out with friends. I would dread any sort of social event that could throw me ‘off plan’.
It wasn’t sustainable. Something like a holiday or Christmas would come, and I would gain a few pounds. Then I would be desperate to lose it fast. I would cling hopefully to any promise of a quick fix. I tried them all; pills, potions, plans, detoxes, shakes. Every-time the same result; massive loss in a short time, then slowly, without being able to stop it, it would creep back on… with more.
My obsession with food grew, and I developed some bad habits.
I had cut so much out of my diet, and I was dedicated to ‘eating clean’ and convincing myself one day the cravings for sugar would stop. They didn’t. In fact the more I cut out, the more I craved. I would have good days, even weeks of being totally ‘on plan’. Then something stupid would happen, I would have a bad day, or get stressed, or upset, and I would cave in to something ‘naughty’. I would find myself in the kitchen having an internal battle. I so wanted something sweet but the voice in my head would tell me no, eating a biscuit would be a failure.
I would crack, eat the biscuit. The voice in my head screamed at me for being a failure. And well, if you’re going to be a failure might as well be a massive failure. So I would go have another biscuit, or two, or three, or I would finish the packet so there was none left, and then tomorrow would be a clean slate.
But this little binging behaviour became increasingly common, until I was doing it almost every day. I would eat clean all day, super strict, totally on plan. Then at night I couldn’t stop myself from eating sugary foods. Eventually the amount I would eat increased. I would internally be screaming at myself as I poured another bowl of cereal, wondering, what the hell is wrong with me. This went on for about a year, my weight had crept up and up, and I would often find myself with an empty box of cereal and in tears.
Eventually it twigged, the more I restricted myself, the worse I binged. It felt like a light bulb moment, but by this point I was too deep in, I didn’t know how to stop.
I had to get help
I was more miserable than ever. More miserable than I ever had been when I was overweight. I even at one point wished I had never bothered. I wished I had just stayed size 24 and blissfully ignorant. Because by this point I was back up to a size 12, and I was out of control.
I contemplated seeing a doctor, but I was too embarrassed. I wasn’t throwing up, I just couldn’t stop binge eating. I decided to see a counselor, and she probably saved my life. I discovered I wasn’t the only one, binge eating disorder is increasingly common, and it can be triggered by restrictive dieting. It was such a relief to know I wasn’t just a total mental case.
Through counselling I helped rebuild my relationship with food, and with myself. I realised there is no such thing as clean and naughty food. It is all just food, there is no reason to feel bad about eating any of it. I learnt that my diet didn’t have to be perfect, OK is good enough, and a balanced diet includes some high fat foods, and some sugar now and then.
I felt back in control, but I wasn’t happy with my body. I wanted to get back in to a size 10 but without being obsessive. Then I had light bulb moment, I realised that I had managed to lose weight in the past eating biscuits, and drinking gin and having meals out…I had done it with Weight Watchers. So I re-joined, and straight away it felt right again. I could enjoy little bits of what I wanted, without feeling bad. I could socialise with friends, eat cake with grandma, go for meals with my partner and still lose weight. I had a life again.
The new vision
When I finished my PT qualification, friends started coming to me for help. They were too conscious or intimidated to go to a gym alone, I knew how that felt. I still remembered not wanting to enter a gym, I still remembered watching people jog past me and thinking I was too fat to run, I remembered the first time I ran for a minute and cried, I still remembered that first class, I remembered how it felt when things jiggled or chaffed. So I helped when I could.
It was just a hobby, and a way of helping people not fall for all the rubbish I had. But I soon found I really enjoyed it, like really, really enjoyed it. My little hobby quickly grew. I loved helping people learn to exercise safely, and make small sensible lifestyle changes. Before I knew it I was investing my life savings in to kitting out the Launch Pad.
I wanted to create a place where people could feel comfortable. I wanted somewhere people would be encouraged and leave feeling positive, like they achieved something awesome, not defeated and shattered. And from my own rubbish experiences I knew that there is so much bad advice out there. So I wanted somewhere people could come to learn about healthy eating, about exercising safely, and about creating a healthier lifestyle.
This was the starting ethos of set U free and will remain at our heart forever. No magic beans, no quick fixes, no judgement. Just honest, safe support and advice, from people who understand how it feels to be overweight and unfit.
From not owning a pair of trainers, to setting up my own fitness studio. To say my life is different is a huge understatement. In, 2015 I became Fitness Expert for Weight Watchers UK. I write a monthly fitness column for the magazine, as well as features, and workout plans for members. Fitness is not just my hobby, or my career, it is my passion. I have a workout for every mood, and exercise is a key part of my emotional health and well-being. I still have days where I struggle with my body image, or with binge eating behaviors. But I have the strength inside me to control it. My body isn’t perfect, my diet isn’t perfect, but I now know it doesn’t need to be. I love my body and all it can do. I can have a life, and enjoy food – not be controlled by it. If in doubt I just remind myself of our set U free motto: Awesome Isn’t Measured in Pounds.