Coffee Q&A: Hannah Lewin

This month, I return to my Coffee Q&A series with a very special guest: Hannah Lewin. Hannah is one of the kindest, most hard-working and determined people I’ve met – despite never actually meeting in person! She’s been training me since November 2020 online and over this time both my arms and our friendship have grown into something beautiful.

Hannah is a personal trainer (PT) who works exclusively with women – building our confidence, strength and helping us “break free from the restrictions of the dieting industry”. Hannah is an eating disorder specialist trainer and takes a “health-first” approach with her clients. I can attest that in working with Hannah my confidence has boomed and, naturally, my fitness has improved a lot without spending a moment thinking about the calories I consume or which exercise makes my arms look good (even though they do look good…) – so I thought I’d share a bit of Hannah’s magic with you all while we spoke over a cuppa.

TW: In this chat we discuss eating disorders and recovery. If this topic is something you’re not ready to read about maybe come back to this post another time.

Rebekah: Thanks so much for chatting today! Those who follow me online will know that I started training with you in November 2020. But as you know, when I was looking for PTs, it wasn’t a quick search. I came across quite a lot of trainers who I felt like I couldn’t gel with because they weren’t so explicit in their anti-diet focus, or often didn’t have one. So, I wondered if you could explain a little bit about what diet culture is, and why you lead with “anti-diet culture” in your business?

Hannah: Of course. Diet culture is essentially the way that the diet industry impacts on everyday life. So it’s the way that it sneaks into conversations with your friends, with your family. It’s the way that it’s portrayed in the media, it’s portrayed in – kind of – normalised PT standards. It’s incredibly sneaky. It kind of seeps into our culture and so it’s there all the time but we’re not even aware of it. 

It’s also in the self-imposed rules that we all perhaps have, and don’t even realise, for example, I can’t eat after six, or I can’t have fruit after a meal, all of those kind of things that are very self-imposed we don’t even realise where they come from and they have always stemmed from from our culture. 

The reason that I wanted to be quite explicit in the way that I work. I’m very direct. So my two USPs, if you like, in my business are that I only work with women and I work from an anti-diet culture mentality. Firstly, it’s because I have a background in PR. I worked in PR for a long time and was very aware of the marketplace of being a trainer. And you know, particularly in London, you have to find a way to stand out. But those two things wouldn’t have lasted this long if it wasn’t an organic thing, if it wasn’t genuine, if it was simply just PR or a money thing. Frankly, it would be exhausting – being a PT is hard enough. 

I wanted to be very explicit in the way that I worked from a business perspective, I knew not many people were doing it or had been doing it for a long time. And, and I just kind of knew there was this marketplace for it. And I wanted to be a part of leading that conversation and leading this change. And even this way of working, I feel it’s a little reductionist to reduce someone’s effort to just a weight change – like a scale weight change. And so that’s why I wanted people to know, upfront, that’s what I was about. And I’m very unapologetic about that.

I definitely feel that working with you. It made you stand out – people were talking about you and your message on Twitter and I thought “this sounds like someone who’s right up my street!”

Since working with you, you’ve mentioned having a health-first approach to fitness and training a lot. Could explain what that means and why that’s important?

So it’s really, really important. I think people don’t understand what anti-diet is. Anti-diet does not equate to being anti-health. We’re not interested in people never eating a nutritionally well-balanced diet. Anti-diet and health-first is not so wacky from a health perspective. It means that people take a balanced approach to nutrition and fitness. 

I’m a PT, I think movement is important for everybody. Whether it’s getting out walking everyday, or doing something a bit more structured, it’s really important. So when we say health-first we are literally talking about customising fitness relatively holistically. We’re thinking about things like your movement, but also your nutrition. We’re not putting it into this diet waggon. We’re not ever “going on something”. Because, for me – from my professional and past [personal] experience – whenever you go on something, guess what happens? You fall off it at some point, that is just life. And that is the fact of going on a diet. It’s not meant to last forever. 

I think that’s what health-first means. It means looking after everything, and not that you go off and eat whatever you want all the time without having any mindfulness about the nutritional side. It also means moving in a way that feels good for you, and supports your life and supports your body.

I think it’s really interesting to put it in that way. I’ve definitely noticed, even this week doing a bit of research for this conversation, the amount it gets confused with promoting “unhealthy” behaviours. And it’s about making a fitness plan or a healthy lifestyle that works for you. I would go so far as to say anti-diet is giving your body the most respect you can.

It’s allowing yourself to be an adult and to make your own choices, and is honestly about respecting your body, knowing what’s right for you. I think it’s a lot about future-proofing as well. If we all go – I don’t know – to a HIIT class six days a week, and we take protein powders, for example, I think it’s really important to remember that sometimes, you know, killing your body and being quite hostile to it in your 20s and particularly your 20s isn’t it? Maybe 20s and 30s. It’s how society works. But we want to live longer, until our 90s, and we won’t by killing ourselves now. 

I guess the other side, if you’re not thinking about diet, you’re thinking about the workouts for a more aesthetic approach. I have definitely fallen into the trap before. For example, I want my bum, arms or abs to look a certain way. And you do all these exercises but your bum or arms never look great in your head. Even if they do look great. Even if they look like the picture that you set out to look like. 

Whereas, working with you, we’ve removed that aesthetic focus from my thinking at least. I’ve noticed my body change and I’ve noticed myself getting stronger. But I’m not focused on how I look because we’re focusing on my body being stronger and being more resilient and me being healthier overall. And I think that’s an interesting part that maybe people don’t talk about, because it seems like we’re criticising people for wanting to look a certain way. I’m quite careful to do that. Because I definitely want to look a certain way myself at times. 

I think it’s really important to say that if you start if you start a different exercise regime, your body will change. That’s just biomechanics. It will change and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think what’s nice in the way that you and I work together and how I work with all my clients is that, like you say, it’s not the focus. So any aesthetic changes come as a byproduct of the work we’re doing. It makes them more long lasting if that’s what you want. It puts more fun elements back into the [fitness] work. 

I think if you’re just focusing on assessments all the time, every workout or every couple of weeks, you’ve been looking in the mirror and see nothing’s changing. But actually a month may go by and you think – oh, that looks different. Look however you want to look. That’s another important thing about anti-diet. I have no issue with people changing how they want to look – that is completely fine and I think that’s really important. I think this is where sometimes anti-diet social media can get quite militant, which I do not agree with. It is not for us as practitioners to tell people how they should look, or how they should move, or how they should feel about their body. I think all of my clients are beautiful. And, of course, I do have an incredible bunch of women. But I also know that we’re all human. We have days where we don’t feel so good. And that’s fine. And I think it’s really important that people come to you and they feel comfortable, they don’t feel judged. They can tell you what their goal should be. You can guide and say, “OK, how about we focus on improving your deadlift” or I’m fine getting there but may be getting you there in a different way. I work from a non-aesthetic perspective, but it doesn’t mean that if you want to change how you look that should be vilified.

You’ve said to me many times – I had that thing about my arms when we first started, I would flex my arms and literally nothing would change, absolutely nothing. And now, I haven’t focused on it in my head, but we’ve just incorporated different strength exercises into my plan. Now I have muscles and that’s something I like, I like women who have muscly arms, I think it’s cool. And it also means I can carry stuff, which is great. But yes, it’s about doing it from a healthy perspective, from the nutrition side and the mental health side. I think that’s what’s really nice working with you and seeing all of the content that you put out that you’re quite clear about those. Balancing the health of your mind and body throughout your decisions around fitness. 

Touching a little bit on the fitness influencers and social media points we’ve mentioned. There’s a lot of “fads” that go around and I think they can be quite hard to navigate. And I’m not going to delve deep into fads in this conversation, but I do want to ask a bit of a cheeky question. If you could eliminate one and just one popular fad or trend in fitness, what would you get rid of and why?

Glute activation.

Why would you get rid of that?

Because you don’t need to switch your muscles on before they work. Why that? The bands are everywhere on Instagram. They’re always pastel coloured. And it just drives me insane. We work with bands. Of course we do. But we use them more for things like rows and deadlifts. Having a band around your knees? It doesn’t really do anything – it kind of does and doesn’t. But the very premise of activating any muscle. As if, you know, years ago before resistance bands existed, those muscles weren’t able to be targeted. It’s just not true. It drives me nuts when you kind of see these influencers who look a very specific sort of way, sending you their bands to look exactly like they do. And honey, it just doesn’t happen. It just doesn’t. It’s like my glutes will work differently to yours. They will look differently. We have different genetic makeups. A pastel colour band isn’t gonna do a lot. I hate it. 

That’s that’s a lot more succinct than I was thinking we would get in that conversation! I’m gonna move on before we delve even further. 

Getting a bit deeper into some of our work together and the wider work you’re doing in this area. A lot of those who follow me on socials or read some of the stuff on my website will know that when I was a teenager I had an eating disorder. Even though it’s been 10 years or so since my recovery, I still won’t look at calories on food packaging and I’m very against weighing myself. We’ve talked about holistic fitness and a health-first approach and food and fitness go hand in hand. And, as a result, it can be quite triggering for a lot of people going through recovery, or maybe still very much in their illness. 

Could you talk a little bit about your experience with eating disorders and fitness? How you navigate this with clients, potential clients, and in your conversations with people struggling. 

It is an area of specialism to me, and it is an area in personal training that I’ve been doing for a long time. I do work in conjunction with other professionals, other medical professionals with it, it’s really important to say that because exercise isn’t the best thing for someone in the grips of an eating disorder, actually, sometimes exercise is not the right thing, and I am always guided by medical professionals. 

However, I believe the typical NHS approach of blanket banning exercise for anyone, particularly in the case of anorexic clients, isn’t always the right approach. Based on my experience, there are some clients or some people with eating disorders, who, if exercise is taken away from them, they will find a way and ultimately, that is more dangerous and more destructive. It’s potentially life threatening compared to doing it in a controlled way.

The way I like to work with people is we look at it in more of a rehab way. We look at – it varies for every eating disorder and every person is different – but if we’re looking at anorexia, for example, women already are much higher risk of things like osteoporosis, obviously, anorexia will increase that and there’s some cardiac issues, in cases of people who are bulimic, they may have a lot of neck strain or chest strain which can cause some cardiac issues and stomach issues. And those with binge eating disorders leads to other kinds of physicality and biomechanical issues we need to deal with. There’s a different approach for every eating disorder. But the main takeaway running through all of them is that we are looking at reframing it and treating it as rehab and allowing them to still have [exercise]. 

It’s difficult sometimes, because it certainly doesn’t happen overnight and it’s also not linear. So you may go through a couple of weeks where someone’s in a really good place with it, and then they may have a bit of a relapse, and then they may suddenly start ramping it up again. So we do have to change it. For example, it may be that we take cardio away for a little while, but we refocus that energy into strength training. We’re looking at rebuilding bone density and some tissue and muscle repair. And that’s how I look at it. It comes from a lot of conversation, a lot of upfront conversation about what sessions will look like. I think that’s really important because I think when people have full warning about what their sessions will look like, it puts the control – because eating disorders there’s a lot of control within it – it’s about making them feel as in control as as they can be whilst also trying to build trust, to build rapport and trying to get them to know that you are on their side and you want them to continue to exercise but we just want to be kind to their body and support their recovery in a way that works for them. 

The main takeaway is just about reframing what exercise means: what it looks to have to move away from solely caloric expenditure, and more of a lifelong thing. This is where that non-aesthetic focus comes in. Again, I’m making it something that happens overnight. It really doesn’t. It really, really doesn’t. And that’s OK. But letting people know that’s fine. We’re here and we’ll get there.

That’s a really nice way to put it. Unfortunately, not everyone can work with you. So what would be your advice to those who might want to get into exercise again, but might be struggling with their recovery, or maybe those struggling with their body image in general?

So there’s two [organisations] that I work with. And primarily, I work with SEED who are an organisation based in Hull. Obviously, BEAT has got some really good resources as well. But I’m going to take a stab in the dark and say that possibly what people do when they’re in the grips of an eating disorder isn’t sustainable. So ask yourself the question: if you can see yourself doing what we’re doing in five years time, even a year’s time, keep it, it’s obviously sustainable. If the thought of doing what you’re doing right now, in a year’s time, makes you feel exhausted. That is a really good mental cue that where you’re at right now is too high. You have to be honest and nobody’s gonna judge you. You’re an adult, you have absolute autonomy over your body and what you do, but that’s a really good frame of reference. For example, maybe just back-off one run and change it for a bit of yoga or increase stretch or mobility based classes. 

Obviously, you may need to seek out some help. I do appreciate the cost element. Of course, sadly, I wish these things were free, but they just aren’t, but there are some good resources online. BEAT has some in terms of navigating exercise  in recovery, and SEED and I will be launching an exercise app, hopefully in June. We hope it is a way of getting help out to people at a much lower cost point. And to make it a bit more specific. 

There are people out there that can help you, just always be so careful who you’re following. Just because someone has an eating disorder or anti-diet in their bio, it doesn’t mean anything. I could write brain surgeon in my bio online. When people say anti-diet, or health-first, just flick back through their Instagram six months, because if six months ago they’re talking about macros and now they’re talking about anti-diet, you know they are a trend follower and they are not someone you should be following. 

There’s so much room for very poor credentials online. Even nutritionists. You want to be following registered dieticians. That’s really unfair maybe because some nutritionists are great. But just be very careful about who you’re following and taking advice from. If someone is genuinely qualified and genuinely knows their stuff they’ll be happy to share their credentials. I’m registered and I can share my code, my qualifications and my credentials at the drop of a hat. It doesn’t bother me, I have nothing to hide. So always be prepared to ask. Someone who’s legit will have them available.

I think that’s one thing I learned the hard way before we connected. At the beginning of last year, I deleted my Instagram. I found it a very difficult place for me to stay confident in myself. I often say that I have a very body neutral position. I don’t love nor hate my body most of the time. But, for me, Instagram was quite a triggering place. Even if I didn’t want to or even stopped following certain people, I would start to compare the way that I looked or did things with anyone. It would take one bad day for me to go into the search bar and navigate through unhealthy things. 

I think often what can be quite difficult to navigate is when people say “this is an easy workout” or “quick”. For me, it might be difficult. We’ve talked about it in our sessions – I love doing push ups and I don’t really like doing squats but for you it’s the opposite. It’s just who we are as people. That’s one learning I’ve been telling friends when looking at fitness online. Ignore those words at the beginning of exercises. It’s not necessarily an easy exercise for you and that’s completely fine. 

I wanted to talk a little bit about the work we’ve done in improving my running because I often talk quite hyperbolically about how running saved my life. One of my favourite books is Jog On by Bella Mackie where she talks about how running saved her life. The list goes on and on of famous people talking about how important running (or fitness) is to their mental health. And whilst I won’t say it was the only thing that contributed to me feeling a lot better, I definitely think that it has given me quite a lot of resilience. From your experience working with people with quite severe mental illness sometimes, and maybe from your personal life, how do you see mental and physical health working together and any tips for us when thinking about them together?

I absolutely do believe that mental and physical health go hand in hand. The only caveat I have that I think perhaps doesn’t get talked about enough – and I’m thinking more about this recently as lockdown goes on and I’m certainly finding myself having more anxious days – yes, exercise can make you feel much better and improve your mood. But, you know what, sometimes it doesn’t.

I think sometimes we get into a habit of thinking that exercise is a cure to mental health. Don’t get me wrong, 80% of the time I go for a run or go for a walk or I teach cycle, whatever, I feel better. But sometimes I just can’t get going. And I actually hate every minute of the workout I do. Sometimes, I actually feel worse and annoyed at the end of it. But, I think generally physical activity gives you a sense of removing yourself from the situation, whatever it is that’s making you feel anxious. 

The other thing possibly for people who have suffered anxiety, the problem is that sometimes physical activity can actually mimic the physical symptoms of anxiety and stressful situations. You raise your heart rate, it makes you sweaty. So, I think people obviously have to be comfortable with feeling like that as well. I think it’s really important that you find the thing that works for you because for me, it’s going for a run or probably being on the bike – a seven or eight minute climb is a meditation for me, for someone else it might be absolutely hell. I think it’s really important to find the thing that works for you. And it might take a couple of goes, it might take a few activities or a few things for you to try or it might not even be the activity, it might be the time you’re doing it. For me anything post lunch, like one o’clock onwards, forget it, it’s not happening. Allowing yourself the space to find that [exercise], knowing that it might not be the first thing you stumble across is what it’s about. 

Yeah, I completely agree with that. When I worked through this with my therapist a couple years ago, I found the point about symptoms quite interesting. Running kind of mimicked the symptoms I had in my panic attacks but because I started to love running so much, if I got sweaty or my heart started racing, I didn’t immediately panic. But then, equally, there was a period I remember about two years ago, where anytime I felt slightly anxious, I just went for a run. And then I wasn’t really addressing my anxiety – I was literally running away from my problems. 

I did the same thing a few weeks ago. Every time a lockdown approaches or an announcement approaches, it does that same thing. I went to bed feeling panicky. And I said to my partner, I’ve just gotta get out of the house. I think sometimes we need to run away from it and just not think about it for a minute. 

I guess it’s also about knowing when to stop. If I go for a run and I come back and it hasn’t made me feel good, then I know, OK, I need to sit down and probably address this thing. And how often has this feeling occurred? Is it just one bad day? Or is it loads of days in a row? Running is not the only thing that helped me get better, but it definitely is a good tool. 

Now, I’m gonna move onto the quick-fire round. What did you want to be when you grew up? 

I wanted to be like a professional equestrian. I grew up riding a lot and I loved it. And I wanted to have lots of horses and be a show jumper. I wanted to be in the Olympics. Cross-country Olympics. But I had a fall about 10 years ago. My last [ride]. I was in Bolivia. I was 24 so I was still maybe too old. But I had an awful fall and never forget it to this day. I remember cantering and galloping and my saddle wasn’t on properly and I whacked my head on a rock. I bruised and fractured a rib. And that was it. That was it for my riding. But that’s what I wanted to do forever. 

So you haven’t been on a horse since? Do you think you will go back on a horse?

I would love to because I would like my son to ride. I don’t think it’s a phobia. I have just been living in London and not had that opportunity. 

What’s one piece of advice you’ve been given personally or professionally that you’d like to pass on to others?

It is a piece of advice that my very good friend Ban Hass gave me. And it’s really simple. And it’s the most impactful thing I’ve ever heard. It’s: you know. I’ve gone through divorce and things and just those two words. You do know, she’s so right. You know how you feel about a situation. You know what your gut instinct is. There are times I wish I’d broken up with that awful boyfriend, I hadn’t done that thing or whatever. It’s very powerful. You know exactly what the thing is you should be doing, whether you do it or not is another situation but you do know.

I can definitely resonate with that. And, what’s the worst job you’ve ever done?

Recruitment. Oh, my God. I know some people enjoy it and thrive on it but not me. It was nine months. I think it was that long. Working in property, I saw slumps and sales but I was having to do weekends and didn’t really want to do weekends anymore. I didn’t I didn’t finish university. So I started working when I was like 18 and I think I went into it about 22, something like that, maybe slightly younger. It wasn’t for me at all. I hated it.

Anything in particular about the job that you hated?

To be fair, possibly was the company, the office. It was just not my vibe at all. They were not my people.

Like your friend said: You know.

I knew within a week or so! 

I know we’re in the middle of lockdown but, what are you most looking forward to this month?

I am looking forward to a few days off with my son. I have this weekend off and it’s half term. It’s been a very difficult period. Obviously – for him. He’s only six. So it’s been very difficult for him, not seeing his friends. I’m really looking forward to a few days off with him.

That’s lovely. And if you could go back in time and tell yourself one statement at the beginning of February 2020. What would you say?

Wow, this time a year ago? Actually, one year ago exactly. I got my divorce. I’m very lucky that I’m very good friends with my ex-husband and we share our son and it was fine. But like exactly at this point a year ago, I was panicking about it all and I was very stressed. So I would just say: it will be fine. And then a week later, everything else in the world will change! 

That’s a good one. Because it will be fine. And then just to finish on, my favourite question. What would be the title song or soundtrack to the movie of your life?

Oh, there’s kind of two for very different reasons. One is anything Bruce Springsteen. I lost my father when I was very young. He died when I was 12. And anything Bruce Springsteen was my dad’s favourite so maybe it’s not the soundtrack to my life too much, but there are certain songs I think that I can kind of pick out and they kind of match with points in my life. 

And then the second one – I know everyone talks about it all the time but I think hearing this voice and learning more about some of the songs made me more interested in my feminism and learning a bit more about the new kind of feminism, being strong it’s: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I love the album. I’ve always loved it. I went and saw the 20th anniversary album and you know, it was a mess. She was late. But it was very powerful to me at the time. They couldn’t be further apart! 

You can find Hannah at: 

You can find the organisations Hannah mentioned at: 

If you’d like to get involved with the Coffee Q&A series 📧 

If you identify or are struggling with any of the topics discussed and feel you would like to talk to someone, please reach out to your GP, contact SEED, or the BEAT helpline on 0808 801 0677. And if you ever feel like things are too much, please call Samaritans on 116 123 💚

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