‘I can’t begin to explain how important it has been to my mental wellbeing’ (Picture: Sam Thomas/Beth Ashley/Poorna Bell/Metro.co.uk)
‘If you had told me a year ago that I’d be someone who loves the gym and enjoys taking care of her body, I wouldn’t believe you,’ Beth Ashley tells Metro.co.uk.
‘With such a grim history of disordered eating behaviours and cycles of being obsessed with exercise then suddenly not doing any, or binge eating and not eating anything for ages, it’s unbelievably brilliant that I feel that way.’
What Beth, a 26-year-old writer from Telford, is talking about, is the dramatic, almost magical, mindset shift that can be experienced when you find a form of movement that works for you.
For her, this was strength training. ‘I started strength training in March this year,’ says Beth.
‘Essentially, I wanted to lose weight and gain fitness, get stronger — look better and feel better. I decided I want to be the fittest I’ve ever been by the time I’m 30.’
Beth never thought she’d be the type of person who enjoyed taking care of her body (Picture: Beth Ashley}
Beth has been trying to lose weight and become healthier for years, but has never been able to stick to anything for more than a few months. That is until she discovered her current gym, The Body Barn in Shropshire.
‘It’s all about strength and positive vibes and there isn’t any negative messaging around body image,’ she says.
‘There’s also no mirrors and they don’t encourage phone use so it’s not full of people filming.’
She decided to try out one of the strength-based group classes and instantly fell in love. ‘Ever since, I’ve been to the class between three to five times a week.
‘I’m just obsessed with it,’ she says. ‘This has been the biggest life change for me – falling in love with exercise and it purely being about feeling good both physically and mentally.
‘Even though I signed up to lose weight, I’m not doing it for that anymore. I’m going to feel good and to feel strong.’
While exercise can take many forms, the government guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week (think cardio like running or swimming) and two strength training sessions hitting all the major muscle groups.
However, research has shown that only one in 20 adults in England exercise their muscles enough.
But, for those who do, strength training is often about a lot more than looking good naked.
Five benefits of strength training
Reduced risk of injury. With an increase of muscle, your joints and ligaments will be supported in movement. This helps to reduce the risk of injury when performing higher impact movement; like running or HIIT.
An increase of muscle mass, leads to a higher metabolism. If lowering your body fat is part of your fitness goals, this is a great advantage (it means you can eat more).
Decreased risk of osteoporosis, also known as brittle done disease. One in three women and one in five men are affected by osteoporosis in later life. Weight training helps to increase bone density which can greatly reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
Weight training can be a great mental release and helps to increase confidence as you become stronger.
When Sam Thomas, 37, from Bristol, relapsed into alcoholism for the fourth time in 2019, the first place he went after he was discharged from the detox centre was the gym. ‘What I learned was that with a clear body and mind, I was able to focus and build not just muscle but strength,’ the writer and campaigner tells Metro.co.uk.
‘My therapist at the time referred to my muscles as “armour,” which has some truth to it.’
Sam wears his muscles like armour post-recovery (Picture: Sam Thomas)
Sam suffered from bulimia in his early 20s before ‘replacing’ his disordered eating with alcoholism.
‘I only started drinking at 24 and was in a detox rehab by the age of 31,’ he says. ‘I relapsed eight hours after I was discharged.’
After dealing with several hospital admissions for Complex-PTSD and the decision to leave his job at a charity in 2018, Sam eventually returned to the gym for the first time since his early 20s. ‘This was when I realised how strength-training could be one way I could manage my mental health,’ he says.
However, it was only in 2019, after his final detox, that something stuck. ‘While my strength training may have started off with vanity, it is now about sanity,’ he says.
‘For me, gym sessions act as a “reset” for whatever mood I’m in.
‘If I’m stressed it helps stabilise me and if I’m lethargic it energises me.
‘Now four years sober, I have maintained steady gym sessions and it helps me to keep on track with my recovery.’
Poorna Bell, 42, from London, also found that strength training had far reaching benefits, not just for her body but for her mind.
‘I’m stronger than I ever dreamed’ (Picture: Poorna Bell)
After her husband passed away in 2016, Poorna realised she needed to do certain things around the house that were, at the time, ‘physically impossible’.
‘I realised that all of my exercising up to that point had mainly been around the idea of aesthetics, such as weight loss or maintenance, and that it actually counted for very little in the practical sense,’ the author and consultant tells Metro.co.uk.
She decided to join her local gym and hire a personal trainer so that she could learn the basics and, just like Beth, she quickly fell in love.
‘I loved improving week on week,’ she says.
A couple of years later, she decided to take her hobby up notch and try powerlifting, a competitive sport that involves lifting your maximum amount of weight on three specific lifts: squat, bench press and deadlift.
‘It has changed my life in every way,’ says Poorna, who has since written the book, Stronger, which unpacks the lessons women have been taught about strength fitness.
‘Not only am I physically stronger – beyond anything I could have dreamed of – but it gives me a stable routine and structure that is very positive for my mental health.
‘Especially as I get older, having something that progressively allows me to get stronger is incredible to witness and also overturn the narrative around ageing.’
Simon Tierney-Wigg, 47, a registered mental health work from Manchester, also found strength training later in life.
Simon was never the sportiest person, but strength training helped to build his confidence (Picture: Simon Tierney-Wigg)
‘I started lifting weights in earnest about five years ago,’ he says.
‘I have various physical issues, such as scoliosis, which means the left side of my body has always been weaker than my right, so I’ve always been put off from trying to life weights.’
When Simon discovered Brazilian jiu jitsu, a grappling-based martial art, things changed.
‘My confidence started to improve, so I booked some sessions with my personal trainer, Stef, who is brilliant at not only adjusting training programmes to suit my particular needs, but pushing me far further than I thought I’d ever go.’
Simon says the physical benefits from lifting weights can’t be understated. ‘I have better balance, coordination and posture, not to mention I sleep better and eat better,’ he says.
On top of that, though, he says that strength training has changed almost every aspect of his life, but especially his mental health.
‘Body image, particularly gait and posture, has been intrinsic to my confidence since childhood,’ he continues.
‘Being able to work with my PT to create specific, targeted strength training has not only improved both these things, but allowed me to kick on and strive for a level of activity I previously thought unattainable.
‘I can’t begin to explain how important that has been to my mental wellbeing.’
Exercise is often framed as something we should do to look a certain way, to fit a beauty standard — and while strength training can be a useful tool for that, it often ends up being about so much more.
As Sam found: ‘Over the years, I’ve found the more I’ve advanced in my strength training, the more I’ve achieved in other areas of my life.
‘Only when we make a start and stick to the programme, can we begin to realise what we are truly capable of.
‘You might actually surprise yourself.’
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‘While my strength training may have started off with vanity, it is now about sanity.’