Consistent, healthy choices, every day over time can make a huge difference to your health. In this Active Women Interview, I talk to Gemma Hicks. She discovered that aside from losing weight, becoming active and fit has so many other benefits and it’s opened up a whole new world for her

Tell us a bit about yourself Gemma…

I have always been overweight. I was a chubby child. I hated any form of exercise and my parents, who are both quite sedentary, were always happy to offer a note to excuse me from PE. I was treated with sweets and chocolate if I behaved. My grandparents, who looked after me while my parents worked, fed me on large portions of wholesome food. If I ate it all, it was always followed by a good Yorkshire-style pudding like rice pudding or sponge and custard.

I became an obese teenager. I was relatively academic but never sporting. We never went for family walks or did any sort of sporting activities at the weekend. I continued the cycle of rewarding myself with food if I did a particularly difficult piece of homework or had a stressful day. I would celebrate with ‘treat food’ on a daily basis.

I toyed with various diets but nothing really worked for me. I was reasonably confident in myself but I was always aware of my weight and, at my biggest, weighed over 26 stone. There were lots of things I simply couldn’t do because of my size such as sitting in a chair with arms, going on fairground rides, flying on an aeroplane; I was physically unable to fit into the toilet cubicle and required an extendable belt. I have many an embarrassing tale of a sinking pedalo and hearing horrible jibes in the street from complete strangers.  Luckily, or perhaps unluckily, I never suffered from any health problems (no high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol). This meant there was never any real reason for me to lose weight until I was intending to get married in my early 20s. The picture where I am in the green vest top was me on my 21st birthday. As you can see, I lost a large amount of weight but I did this in an unhealthy way. I stopped eating breakfast and lunch. I went to the gym five times a week for a couple of hours at a time and this was simply not sustainable.

That relationship broke down and I put back on all of the weight and more. Most recently, I have no idea what spurred me on to lose weight. I think I just woke up one day and decided I’d try Weight Watchers for one more time. That was around March 2016.

When did you decide to start exercising regularly and why was that?

I had dabbled in exercise at the gym previously and didn’t mind it but it took until around January 2017 for me to build up the confidence to join again. I started to see my weight drop and decided it was time to incorporate exercise into my lifestyle.  I would go to the gym several times a week. I would use the machines in the main part of the gym, the treadmill, the cross trainer and the weights. I always did a varied workout but never really got out of breath and sweaty. I seemed to think that by turning up and being there for an hour, doing bits and bobs, it was better than sitting at home on the sofa. Which of course it is but it didn’t really help my weight loss.

As my weight loss slowed and I gained more confidence, I decided to try one of the classes at the gym. I started off with a step class which made me cry. Eventually I fell into doing body combat and body pump classes. For the first time in a long time I found myself getting out of breath, puffing and panting and struggling to keep up but feeling great afterwards. The more I went to the classes, the easier they got and after about 12 months, I was starting to feel very confident. I was actually helping those new starters to get involved and feel comfortable in the classes. I also started spin classes at that point too.

What activities have you tried and what’s your favourite?

I tried rugby in my mid twenties, I didn’t have the aerobic capacity to run and didn’t like the idea of getting hurt so after one training session that was a no-no. I’ve done free weights and cardio gym work but I never knew if I was doing the right thing. I moved on to body pump, body combat and spin classes.  The pump and combat classes were a great way for me to get started in increasing my aerobic capacity but, once I became fitter, they didn’t challenge me as much, hence the spin and my decision to start running.

What has been the biggest barrier you’ve had to overcome in your fitness journey?

My weight, without a doubt. Despite having no health problems per se, being overweight makes everything physically so much harder and then there is the psychological side of it too. Being morbidly obese also made me paranoid. I felt that people were looking at me all the time due to my size, I wouldn’t eat fast food or go into fast food restaurants because of the stigma of being an obese person in there. I felt the same sort of stigma about being in the gym. Clearly I wasn’t a valid gym goer if I was overweight. Over time, with weight loss and increasing confidence I realised that 99 per cent of people in the gym didn’t even know I was there, unless I was on ‘their’ treadmill!

Have you had any negative comments and how have you dealt with them?

Yes, lots about my weight. I have been called out in the street by teenagers, tutted at etc. The only negativity I’ve had about my running is from my mum. It’s not really a negative but harks back to school PE and her not wanting me to do anything that I don’t want to. When I was having a wobble about the Virtual Great North Run she told me I didn’t have to do it if it was too hard. I know she was just being kind and didn’t want me to feel the pressure but at that point I saw part of the reason I had gotten to where I was. Part of me wanted her to give me a good talking to and say, you’ve trained for this, you’ve got this, now stop whining and go and smash it!

What goals have you set and have you reached any of them yet?

I’m not really sure why I started running.  I know I didn’t feel like I was getting as much from the classes any more. I was hungry to become fitter so I hired a personal trainer to make the most of the training time I had.  I was urged to set a goal, so I decided that I wanted to be able to run continuously for 5 km. My PT, Susie Hinchcliffe, built me up using the run/walk method to achieve that goal within a few months.

When I’d achieved that, I decided I wanted to be able to run 10 km without stopping. This was my next goal and my PT suggested I entered a race to spur me on. I did and I successfully ran my first 10km race in July 2019. That first race was awful. My mum turned up to cheer me on at the 1.5 mile mark and that made me cry but I kept going. I didn’t stop and the feeling of adrenaline I got having crossed the line was the most amazing feeling I had ever felt. For the first time in my life I felt that I had actually achieved something I could be proud of. I felt like I wasn’t being judged on how I looked, or my size. I felt ‘ordinary’ and also extraordinary at the same time!

The race was organised by my local running club Askern & District Running Club (ADRC), of which I’m now a member. They are the most supportive group of people I have ever met, they clearly have bigger faith in my abilities than I do and they share my passion for running as a means to keep happy and healthy and to allow me to eat the odd piece of cake!

My most recent achievement is the Virtual Great North Run, again done with support from ADRC.  I am yet to consider a marathon however, despite always saying I would never do it, I’m starting to feel the bug creeping in so I’m sure once I’ve done a few more half marathons that I’ll be building up to a full marathon. Who knows what the future holds!

What benefits has being active brought you?

It has given me my life back. I don’t think twice about nipping out to the shops on foot, walking a few miles to a friends house, going out to eat or appearing in photos. All things I would have avoided before I started running. Running now allows me to maintain a healthy weight and live a full life.

I have now lost in the region of 12 stone to get down to my current weight of around 14 stone. I have a fair amount of loose skin. I still have big hips, big legs and a big bottom. I have tummy rolls but I am the fittest I have ever been and fitter than many people I know who are slimmer than me. 

What advice would you give to other women who want to start exercising?

Do it! Don’t worry about it. Don’t spend too long analysing, considering or researching it. Get on the internet, have a quick search and go along to a few classes, groups or activities you think you might like. If you don’t like it, you can say you’ve tried it and move on to the next thing! Once you find what suits you, it won’t be a chore to fit it into your routine. You only regret the things you don’t do. Oh, and invest in a good sports bra, regardless of the exercise you choose!

What a wonderfully inspiring story of change! If you’ve become active and would like to share your journey to celebrate it and help motivate others then please get in touch.

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