Weight watchers keen for gyms to reopen as lockdown has had its ups and downs

Lockdown has upset lives and livelihoods in an unprecedented way yet its upsides have included some people getting fitter and losing weight

Eimear McKenna lost a stone and a half during lockdown
Maureen Coleman

LIFE in lockdown hasn't been without its challenges but for many people it's been a time to reflect and reassess goals, priorities and, not surprisingly, health.

Gyms might've been closed for several months but that didn't stop plenty of fitness fanatics working out at home with the help of online body coach Joe Wicks, Zoom classes or daily walks, cycles and runs.

For some, it's been a time to clean up their diet and cook healthier meals, resulting in lockdown weight loss. But for others, too much free time on their hands, a bit of boredom and a slippery slope into bad habits like snacking on sweets or drinking wine or beer on 'school nights' has led to the pounds piling on.

The reopening of gyms in the north next week cannot come soon enough for Dunmurry dad-of-two Niall Jackson. For the last few weeks, the 31-year-old commercial sales manager has been back training outdoors at the side of Magee Health and Fitness in west Belfast but is looking forward to July 10, when it can throw open its doors to its members again.

A regular gym-goer, who trained five times a week; sometimes twice a day, Niall lost two and a half stone between September and Christmas last year. He put on a few pounds around the festive season and had been working out with a personal trainer to shift the slight weight gain, when Covid-19 hit the north and lockdown restrictions were implemented.

Furloughed from his job and living alone, Niall's motivation took a knock and he stopped training. As quickly as he'd lost the weight, dropping from 17 to 14.5 stone before Christmas, he began to put it back on in lockdown. A combination of lack of training, beer several nights of the week and frozen food and takeaways saw a stone and a half go back on.

“I really went hard at it from last August/September, doing spin and circuits in the morning and boxing at night,” says Niall.

“I was very disciplined and lost two and a half stone, mostly through training. I'd just started with a PT from the gym when lockdown happened. To begin with, I did try and do a bit at home with dumbbells.

“But training at home, indoors, on your own, just isn't the same and I lost motivation.”

Dunmurry father-of-two Niall Jackson is looking forward to gyms reopening

Not wanting to join the long queues outside supermarkets, Niall stocked up on frozen food including pizza, burgers and sweet potato chips, something he'd never done before. He also indulged in takeaway food a few times a week. Unable to see his young son and daughter, he was also somewhat bored and started to drink more beer than was normal for him.

“Because I was training five days a week and had the kids either Friday or Saturday, I'd only ever have a few beers on Sunday, while watching the football,” Niall says. “When I realised I was getting a bit bloated from the beer, I switched to gin and tonic but I didn't like feeling sluggish.

“It's very easy to fall into bad habits, once the motivation is gone, and the weight just started piling on. But now I'm back at it and giving it 100 per cent, the pounds will fall off me as quickly as they went on.”

Unlike Niall, west Belfast mum-of-two Eimear McKenna has never been a fan of the gym. As a child she carried extra weight and even when she played camogie and was healthy and fit, she still felt bigger than the girls in her team. After having her children, her weight steadily increased and she lost a lot of confidence. She joined a gym but felt too self-conscious and it wasn't an experience she enjoyed nor wished to repeat.

But lockdown has been a game changer for the 48-year-old, who works for the Housing Executive. When she heard that her sister-in-law Fiona Shannon, a PT who runs her own company, Shannon World Fitness, was launching a Zoom initiative Tribe 40, she signed up. Tribe 40 is an online boot camp aimed at women aged 40-plus and it ran from early May to June, over 40 days. In that time-frame, Eimear has lost a stone and a half, is feeling fitter, happier and healthier and is intent on continuing her home workouts and food plan when lockdown is over.

“My 86-year-old mum moved in with us and I was looking after her, the family, working from home and I got into a bit of a rut at the start of lockdown,” says Eimear. “I was eating and drinking a bit more and not feeling great about that, when Seamus, my husband, told me about Fiona's online fitness venture for women in lockdown.

“She had talked to other women who had put on weight over lockdown but there are those in the group who just wanted to stay active and fit when the gyms were closed.

“For four mornings a week, at 7am, we all did a Zoom workout with Fiona. At the start we used tins of beans then moved on to proper weights. It was tough, she really pushed us, but it was great. And the beauty of it was that no one else could see me huffing and puffing about my own kitchen.

“It didn't matter how I looked. I had it set so I could see Fiona but no-one could see me. That way, I didn't feel self-conscious.”

During a weekly Zoom catch-up, the ladies in the group discussed other issues such as nutrition and calorie counting and Eimear began to cut back on portion sizes and cut out the starch and sugary snacks. As the weight started to drop off, she felt her mood lifting too. Her sleep was improved, her skin glowed and with a stone and a half off, the people around her began to notice a difference.

“I know I still have a long way to go and I'd love to shift another five stone but honestly, I'm buzzing with excitement now. I'm up at 6.15 every morning, sometimes even before the alarm goes off.

“I walk every day too to make up the 10,000 steps. The Fitbit's on the moment I get up.

“The whole group went for a walk up Black Mountain last week and yes, I'm the heaviest among us all but it doesn't matter to me now. We're all on our own journey. For me it's about losing weight and getting my confidence back and I'm getting there.”

As well as shifting a stone and a half, Eimear has lost 27 inches all over and dropped a dress size. But it's the impact on her mental health and wellbeing that her loved ones are commenting on too. While working out, she forgot to take medication prescribed for anxiety but her mood was so chilled, she didn't even notice at the time.

“When Tribe 40 finished, Fiona sent me my own workouts to do because I didn't want to lose the momentum,” Eimear says. “She's starting up the Zoom group again on July 13 and I can't wait to get back at it.

“We're off to Donegal for a break and usually, we'd be eating and drinking all round us but I'm sticking to the plan and bringing my weights with me.

“I feel better than I have in such a long time. Lockdown gave me the opportunity to start working on myself and for me, fortunately, it's been such a positive experience.”

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