Sunday 20 August 2017

Meet Louise Green - the plus-size personal trainer who ditched diets and embraced fitness

Tired of diets that didn't work, Louise Green's new book reveals how she embraced fitness and became a plus-size personal trainer

Louise Green
Louise Green

Tanya Sweeney

When Louise Green turned up for her first half-marathon, she was, at 5ft 6in, a UK size 18 and weighed 13 and a half stone. She asked organisers for her marathon package, and they handed her one for the fun run instead.

"I had trained for months and months and was like, 'yep, this is about 16km shorter than what I was hoping to run'," she recalls. "What was most insulting was that they didn't even ask what race I was running. It's an assumption that I get all the time… that my body is not capable."

Yet Louise (45) is more capable than most: now working flat out as a plus-size personal trainer in her native Vancouver, Louise sees clients, then runs 5km or swims 50 laps in her local pool most days. She completes several triathlons and half-marathons a year, and has a half-Ironman - a 1.9k swim, 90km bike ride and half-marathon - in her sights. This month sees the publication of her first book, Big Fit Girl: Embrace The Body You Have.

It hasn't always been this way, and the Liverpool-born redhead - whose family comes from Ireland - recalls a time when, working at a law firm, she was drinking a bottle of wine a night and smoking 20 cigarettes a day. And yet, she yearned to be thin.

Louise Green
Louise Green

"I approached exercise in an all-or-nothing way," she says. "I'd go to aerobics five times a week, then drink a lot of wine and fall off the diet plan. As a result, I felt like a total failure."

The goals she set had less to do with fitness and more to do with fitting into a certain dress size. Any workouts were often done hungover and in between smokes. No diet was left unbothered: soup, protein shakes, diet food. It only made her feel worse.

Big Fit Girl
Big Fit Girl

"I think that a lot of that came from societal conditioning," Louise admits. "I was in my 20s, I wanted to look like the women in advertising and media. I was going for tans, dyeing my hair blonde, chronically dieting and trying to morph the whole time. I got frequent flyer status at Weight Watchers, I'd joined and quit so many times. I'd show up and they'd say, really condescendingly, 'oh, you've lost a quarter of a pound'. I was like, 'I went through this to get what?'"

She ditched the cycle of diets, too: Louise admits she could "never be a woman who would never be hungry", but is a fan of nutrition: having three balanced meals a day, low-sugar, low-fat snacks, and paying attention to pre- and post-workout nourishment.

"I wanted to remove the focus from reducing calories or whittling down your body, because those add such an enormous pressure to women," she says. "It robs us of living our best lives.

"The recipes in the book reflect much of what I eat: overnight oats, smoothies, frittata recipes, salmon burgers, shrimp tacos and even a good old Irish stew. The focus of my eating plan is good, wholesome food that is rich in nutrients for athletic performance but without the restrictions of a diet model. I also have a healthy balance in my life and have pizza nights, or sometimes French fries because to me, that's all a part of an enjoyable, sustainable lifestyle."

At the age of 29, she happened upon a local running clinic for people hoping to run 5k. Spying the 'real' runners, Louise was terrified of being there. Crippled with inadequacy, she nearly went home. And when the trainer turned up - a tall, plus-sized woman - it was the first time that Louise started processing the previously unthinkable: that plus-size women could be fit and healthy.

"It changed everything," she says. "I'd been fighting with my body. I couldn't be someone that wasn't hungry. And when I saw this woman, I thought, maybe I can live out my athletic dreams."

Like most young women who exercise, dropping inches was, initially, the end goal. In fact, as she started training, she put 18 pounds on, taking her to 15 stone 9lb. But feeling strong, toned and fit soon became its own prize.

"It took several months of coaching to shift my perspective, that this isn't about shedding weight; it's about feeling my physical power," she says. "I was finally reaping all the endless benefits that exercise brings. I was so tired of rejecting my body. I was actually elated that I could do this."

And yet the sentiment endures that when it comes to fat and fit, never the twain shall meet. Last week, research presented at the European Congress on Obesity suggested that the idea that people can be fat but medically fit is a myth, based on a study of GP records of 3.5m people in the UK.

However, the study has not yet been published in a scientific journal and hasn't received the requisite academic reviews to verify whether it is scientifically sound. The presentation also didn't specify how much other factors such as diet, lifestyle or smoking influenced the findings.

According to Dr Francis Finucane, consultant endocrinologist at Galway University Hospitals, it is "absolutely" possible to be fit and fat. He points out that the study did not measure 'fitness' as such, so that it doesn't dispel 'fat but fit' as a myth. He also points out that the Body Mass Index (BMI), the most common measure of obesity, is a good but imperfect measure, and doesn't give the full picture of a person's health.

"It tells you about how heavy someone is relative to their height but it doesn't tell you, for example, whether they've got fat or muscle tissue there, and it doesn't tell you about where the fat is stored," he says.

"Individuals who have a lot of excess fat can sometimes still be very healthy. It all depends on where that fat is, and how well it's functioning as a fuel storage depot."

He refers to a 1999 study of normal weight, overweight and obese men conducted in the US by Drs Wei and Blair, which found that "when you take into consideration how fit someone is, how fat someone is doesn't matter. If you are a fit fat person, you have the same low risk of dying as a fit thin person."

"There's a significant relationship in the general population between fitness and fatness. Most fit people are thin, and most unfit people tend to be heavier. If you look at obesity rates, obese people generally tend to be less fit than lean people, so there's a strong correlation between fitness and fatness," he explains.

"Being thin and inactive is worse than being overweight and fit," affirms Bernadette Carr, Medical Director at VHI. "It's very simple; the body needs exercise more than it needs to be thin. Without exercise, you become more susceptible to conditions like type-2 diabetes and heart disease."

"Most experts suggest exercising for 30 minutes every day, or an hour of exercise three times a week," says Carr. "When it comes to exercise, doing a huge workout is better than nothing, but it doesn't compare to doing a small amount of moderate exercise regularly."

In addition to Louise's work as a plus-size personal trainer and writing the book, she has also become an advocate for plus-size athletes' visibility. Previously, athletes were thought to be slim and toned, with little or no extraneous body fat. There has been a slow but inexorable shift in this regard, mainly on social media: Ashley Graham starred on the cover of Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, while Instagram has seen a new crop of curvy runners, yoga instructors and hikers. Nike has just released a XXXL clothing line in the US, prompting yet another shift in athletic brand culture.

Louise still endures plenty of negative scrutiny about her body and perceived health woes, but says she doesn't let it get to her.

"That does happen, but often it's coming from behind the keyboard. People never say it to my face," she says. "I've trained over a thousand plus-size women and had endless conversations about this. I know this is real. I know my s***. If people challenge me, they have no idea. Sorry for your ignorance. I'm not here to battle with people who misunderstand what I am doing. A body like mine is an anomaly in the media, and advertisers keep us invisible, but we do exist."

She adds: "The women in my classes start using the same language - 'I'm an athlete' - and they put people in their place when they make assumptions about them. They might or might not lose weight as a side benefit but they're stronger, more confident. That they can run up the stairs and not feel winded is empowering to them, and aesthetics come in a distant second.

They no longer equate a certain body size with a regime working or not working. There are so many more ways to measure your fitness success that don't include the scale."

Big Fit Girl: Embrace The Body You Have by Louise Green (Greystone Books, €14) is out now

Irish Independent

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