From everyday movement to mental health, fitness means different things to different people – we spoke to five women about why it’s important to them…
It’s fair to say that fitness, as a term and as an action, has evolved in the last 50 years, especially for women.
Considering that not that long ago women weren’t allowed to run marathons, play rugby or step into a boxing ring, it’s clear to see that progress has been made.
And while there are arguably still some fitness platforms that can negatively impact our body image, as a whole, women’s relationship with exercise has evolved into something that’s more than just muscle mass and perfect abs.
Thankfully, more and more women are turning to fitness to help improve other parts of their lives, such as their general wellbeing and feeling visible in a sector that has often ignored them – whether that’s down to discipline, race or body type.
Here, five women explain why they’ve moved beyond the traditional idea of fitness and the benefits it’s brought them…
1. Physical and mental strength go hand in hand
Bianca started her journey with keloid scarring at the age of 13. Keloid scars are an overgrowth of scar tissue caused by an overproduction of collagen that specifically affects those with darker complexions.
While Bianca was aware of how fitness could benefit her wellbeing, it was in fact the improvement in her physical strength that kept her motivated.
“I was originally going to the gym to help improve my mental health, but seeing the physical changes in my body made me even more determined to keep trying to beat my personal best,” says Bianca.
Proof that while it’s always good to feel mentally strong through movement, it’s just as beneficial to reap the physical benefits of exercise and be more confident because of it.
Bianca is now signed with an agency and is the first keloid model in mainstream media.
“I believe my mind and body work hand in hand,” she reveals. “As a strong-minded woman, I feel I can represent myself confidently and conquer any task or fears.”
2. All bodies are beautiful
Becca noticed her breasts were different sizes once she hit puberty. She was diagnosed with a condition called Poland syndrome – a disorder where individuals are born with missing or underdeveloped muscles on one side of the body – when she was 17.
“I used to let my hatred for my condition ruin my day after trying on clothes that didn’t fit my body,” Becca reveals.
“If I’m having a bad mental health day, I recognise that my body starts to feel the strain too, and anxiety or depression can make me very physically unwell.”
However, everything changed once she realised that fitness could help reframe her body image.
“I try to move or get out for a walk as much as I can, even on bad days, to improve my mental and physical health,” she says.
“It isn’t always easy as I have physical disabilities that sometimes prevent me from doing as much exercise as I’d like, but getting up and moving my body does help relieve my mind and body of stress.”
Since posting about her experience online, Becca has received hundreds of messages from women suffering with PS. She’s now the first female ambassador for the Poland syndrome charity PIP UK, and speaks publicly at events about the condition.
“I’ve learned that I am resilient and can overcome things that once would’ve broken my spirit,” Becca says when talking about her own fitness journey. “Since embracing the size difference and loving my chest, my self-confidence has improved immensely.”
3. Fitness can help you overcome your fears
Faye struggled with acne from a young age, and would often feel so insecure about her skin that she couldn’t bring herself to look in the mirror.
She admits it took her a long time to reframe her relationship with exercise, but that when she did, the effects were life-changing.
“The moment I was able to stop caring about what other people thought of me, my whole perspective on fitness changed for the better,” says Faye. “My relationship with it was so damaged up until that point. I was constantly worrying about people staring at my acne as exercise makes it more noticeable.”
However, once Faye started to overcome her fears about exercising in public, she realised that her insecurity was simply down to changing her mindset.
“It’s taken seven years, but I’ve finally learned to love myself at my best times and even more so at my worst – which I never dreamed of being a possibility.”
“When I feel confident, I can do anything,” Faye continues. “Acne has held me back from doing the things I love for so long – so once I shifted my mindset, I felt more confident in myself. At my lowest point I didn’t want to leave my bed because I was so embarrassed. But now I can hike and move because I choose to think positively every single day.”
4. You should celebrate your body at every moment
At 17, Stefanie was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, which is a form of inflammatory bowel disease. After being housebound for a year, it was decided that the condition had cause her body to deteriorate so rapidly that she would have to undergo surgery to get an ileostomy bag or potentially lose her life.
Gradually, Stefanie has started to rebuild her relationship with her body, and with exercise.
“When I was younger I used to view fitness as a chore and begrudged being active in any way,” says Stefanie. “When my health was at its poorest and I was hospitalised, my ability to move my body was limited. It wasn’t until I almost lost my life that I realised how much of a privilege it is to be able to move and exercise each day.”
Since recovering from her surgery, Stefanie admits that fitness has become her outlet.
“I train four to five times a week and stay active on recovery days,” she reveals. “My peers often think the reason I stay active so much is for the aesthetic, physical and performance side to training, but for me, fitness means much more.
“Training to me reinforces mental health and represents finding the inner strength to battle my anxieties each day and it helps me to maintain a healthy mind and healthy lifestyle. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
5. Nothing can hold you back
Natalie collapsed in 2017 and was told she wasn’t going to survive. After two emergency operations, she had 35cm of her small bowel removed and a stoma bag fitted. After being misdiagnosed for years, it turns out that she’d been suffering with Crohn’s disease.
“My perception changed when I realised that the only reason I survived on the operating table was because of my general fitness,” Natalie reveals. “I’ve always been active but when I found out the reason I was alive was because of exercise, it hit me how crucial it is and no matter how hard it gets to not give up.”
Since recovering from surgery, Natalie admits there have been times when she hasn’t felt motivated to train, but that ultimately, it’s her strength that keeps her going.
“It’s been a rocky road and my mind hated my body so much for a while, but since we’ve gone on our self-love journey together, the relationship is much better. My scar is my best friend. I honestly think she’s beautiful. If I did not have my scar I would not be who I am today. My growth is incredible and I am so proud of myself. My body is so strong and I will never take that for granted.”
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