“A message to everyone who said I was ‘too tubby’ to be a personal trainer”

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Looking for some workout inspiration? Welcome to our new column, ‘This is what strong looks like’. 

This week, our very own Stylist Strong trainer, Neha Patel, explains the importance of inner strength - especially when faced with negativity.

What does strong mean to you?

Strong is definitely not a size or a number. For me, it’s not even something tangible – it’s more of a mindset. We all go through periods of our lives where we don’t feel strong, or think we aren’t strong people, but really in those moments I think we’ve just forgotten how to find that inner strength. It’s that muscle deep within the chest that beats so hard and for me, the way to find it is through movement.

Movement is my absolute medicine. As you start to move you have the benefit of endorphins, and then as you start to really push your boundaries you realise it’s your mental fitness that’s actually driving you to be stronger.

What roles do physical and mental strength play into your idea of ‘strength’?

They play huge roles. Three years ago I used to work in the corporate world of experiential marketing events, and I was working at one of the best agencies in the world. It was my dream job – I used to get to travel around the world, and I was pushing myself to work to the top of the career ladder. I was so ambitious and passionate about what I was doing.

I was chasing this career path that I thought I wanted and saying yes to everything and I slowly started to get overwhelmed by it all. From a mental perspective I was blissfully unaware that I was grieving – I lost my dad 13 years ago and I numbed the pain by burying myself in my work. I was also aware that none of the social norms of settling down and buying a house by the age of 30 had happened for me, and being single and in my mid-30s was terribly lonely.

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Neha on her solo travel trip

So as well as throwing myself into my work I was going out drinking and ending my nights with takeaways four to five times a week, and my health started to suffer. There were warning signs – I had panic attacks, and I was rushed to hospital once under a suspected cardiac arrest. You would think that having a moment where the whole left side of my body went numb would be enough to trigger me to change my ways, but I would try for a week and then slip back into my old habits.

I progressively got bigger and bigger, and then I became obese, which came with a whole load of health problems. My hormones were off the scale because my periods stopped, and I was suffering from abnormal bleeding. I was in and out of the doctor’s office having physical tests, but not even that was enough to make me stop. I was overwhelmed by my life but too scared to change anything.

Then it all came to a head one night in the office. I was exhausted after eight weeks of travelling and living out of a suitcase and I was working late on a pitch. We’d had pizzas and drinks in the office and at about midnight I realised I was the last creative person left on the team, and that I’d be there for at least another two to three hours. All I could see was a sea of green beer bottles and I suddenly just burst into tears – not normal tears but uncontrollable sobbing.

It hit me that this was my life, but that I didn’t actually want to be the people that I had aspired to be throughout my career. They weren’t healthy either – all they did was work, and live to work, and I realised that that wasn’t what I wanted. I realised that something was really wrong with me and I needed to get help. I silenced all my excuses and handed in my resignation letter, and that was day one of my journey to finally getting healthy.

You would think that weight would just fall off you when you’re obese, but you have to put a lot of effort in, and change a lot of habits.

I tried to think about the last time I was truly happy, and I realised it was when I was travelling. So I decided to take the money I had been saving to buy a house and invest it in myself instead – to get myself happy and healthy.

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Neha hiking on her travels

I planned an itinerary with the purpose of finding my inner health, because I wanted to get stronger and hopefully lose weight. I researched holistic places around the globe and set off for various retreats in Thailand and India. I wanted to go trekking in the Himalayas and do yoga on the beach. I knew I had to fix my mind as well as my body so, four weeks after deciding to travel, off I went for a three month adventure. And in those four weeks I invested in a personal trainer to help me start getting fit, and after three weeks of training in the park and thinking about nutrition (read: avoiding processed foods) I started to feel incredible. I was still noticeably obese, but I felt like an athlete.

In those three months I lost four stone, but I didn’t want it all to be about the numbers – I wanted to make it fun. I ended up extending my trip and staying in Thailand for five more months, where I discovered a real passion for both walking and coaching. The retreat I was staying at started asking me to do talks for the other guests, and I saw that people were inspired by my story and started making changes to their own lifestyles, and I realised this was something that I wanted to do. 

People would ask me to train with them because they felt motivated by me, and I started to think that when I came back to the UK I could start coaching, but I didn’t feel like I looked like a coach. I had lost about seven stone by then and I was a size 14, and I thought, who’s going to hire me as a coach in London if I’m not ripped with a six-pack?

When I came back I decided to sign up for a PT course, and I remember someone saying to me, ‘do you think a tubby trainer can be successful?’ which really knocked my confidence.

I qualified and I was super excited, but I spent the next five months unemployed because I kept getting told that I didn’t look right for various jobs. I started to panic that I would never be able to do the job that I love. But then I was asked to be a panel speaker at the Women in Fitness Summit that is run by Joslyn Thompson, who is the creative director of Stylist Strong, and I met so many people there who could relate to my story and inspired me not to give up. And then, as the summit was wrapping up I got my first job offer, and everything snowballed from there.

Working at Stylist Strong is brilliant because it relates to me as a personal brand, in terms of the message that strong is not a size.

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"It’s not easy, so you have to commit – you have to find your why"

How do you motivate yourself? (Not just for gym, but also in life?)

I think about my old self – she’s my biggest inspiration. She was so focused, and she proved to me that inner strength does not come from being a certain size or looking a certain way. She didn’t stop, she was relentless and she never once went off the path. At the beginning of my journey I wanted to become the coach that she needed, and I’ll never lose sight of that.

What is your advice for women who want to gain strength, both physical and mental?

The biggest advice I would give is that you have to take that first step. It’s not easy, so you have to commit – you have to find your why. For me, it was that I wanted to have a long life, and that’s been my driving factor all the way through.

Once you start, you’ll realise that your inner strength really does come from within, and then there’ll be no stopping you.

Stylist Strong is a fitness brand specialising in strength training specifically tailored for women. Our classes are designed to build both physical and mental strength in a smart and informed way.

So, whether you’re a beginner or already have strength-training experience, Stylist Strong has a class to suit you. Come and try our strength-based classes at our own purpose-built studio at The AllBright Mayfair. 

Images: courtesy of Neha Patel

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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter