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Lifting the curtain on the free weights room with student Jane Cowie

1 December 2017

As part of our #ThisGirlCan campaign this week, Laura Cope caught up with 3rd-year student weightlifter Jane Cowie, to talk about the transformative capacity of fitness in improving both our mental and physical well-being, and to inspire other women to get into weightlifting.

Q. How and why did you get into health and fitness?

A. I loved sport all the way through school but I didn’t have a healthy mindset and was self-conscious in my own body. My fitness journey began with me doing running and sit-ups, and exercising for the sake of exercise, which for me quickly became a monotonous and really uninspiring way to work out. I then went through a period where I suffered from an eating disorder and my whole attitude towards health and fitness pivoted around an obsession with counting calories which made me fundamentally unhealthy and unhappy. I really like to be open about this sort of thing now because I know that so many people go through similar experiences; where the process of working out and eating is no longer enjoyable - the two become almost incompatible in your mind. The next stage of my ‘journey’ began properly at university when I came to use fitness to feel strong, both physically and mentally and as a way to overcome fears. It became more than just a stress release, but a genuine hobby for me to enjoy with other people. It made me feel reinvigorated after hours of studying in the library, like a kind of mental reset button.

Q. What does a healthy lifestyle mean to you?

A. I know that this is always said, but literally it is all about balance. Being in a super rigid routine is not healthy, or sustainable, or fun. My philosophy revolves around going to the gym and having a really fun workout, but then still being able to go out to dinner with friends afterwards without feeling governed by training. You definitely need to be able to have that social balance. Enjoy your exercise and do it for you, but also have a pudding after a meal or go out for a drink, and don’t feel guilty.

Q.When did you start lifting weights and what drew you towards the sport?

A. I started learning CrossFit towards the end of school, but only got more seriously into weightlifting whilst here at University. I was drawn to weights because I wanted to find a style of fitness that made me feel strong and powerful. I like the feeling of being able to push myself with each workout and set short-term goals by steadily increasing my squat weights for instance.

Q. A lot of women often feel intimidated by the weights room. How did you overcome any fears you had surrounding it?

A. That’s a completely normal feeling to have. But I think that it is about just getting in there and doing it so often that you don’t feel that intimidation anymore - like with anything you're nervous about! Also, realise that everyone else there is there for themselves rather than to judge you. After speaking to a lot of my guy friends about it, they say that they often feel self-conscious in that atmosphere as well. But that in itself becomes a goal, to overcome this nervousness. Also, I’ve found that if anyone says anything to you in the weights room, then most likely it’ll be to offer you some genuine advice. It’s not about creating a negative space. I think that it also helps if you can find a friend or someone to go with, but if you can’t and you’re new to weights then just ask at the gym for some guidance. People will always be really happy to help you.

Q. Do you incorporate any other activities into your fitness routine?

A. I like to change things up every now and again to keep it interesting. I really believe in doing fitness for yourself and your personal enjoyment, so I’d say do whatever feels best for you. Everyone is at different levels and will enjoy different things. I also really like cycling, I go for the occasional run. Sometimes I’ll go climbing, or rowing. Just find what’s right for you. It’s all about getting that sense of emotional empowerment as well as feeling physically strong from whatever exercise that you do. It’s really good to have fitness goals regardless, and getting that feeling of having beaten a target and having created an output that leaves you with something to feel proud of. I think that it’s really important to have a different area of focus, other than study, to gain a sense of achievement.

Q. What impact have you found that having an active lifestyle has had on your overall wellbeing?

A. I’ve gone through different stages of fitness. But I didn’t like the feeling of being unfit and unconfident in myself. Now I’m grateful for fitness and food for giving me a sense of confidence and independence. Whilst I love exercising socially and with friends, I also really like the time that it can give you away from other people and to be in your own world for a while. That sense of independence is really valuable because it makes you realise that you are capable of achieving things by yourself. Being active has definitely increased my confidence. It also makes me more energetic generally in myself and my mindset, making me feel refreshed. I think it’s also about just having a go, doing things and trying something new. I still enjoy going for walks or gentle bike rides and find those equally important as lifting to my wellbeing.

Q. What would you say to other women in particular interested in getting into weights?

A. It’s changed my life for the better undoubtedly, it is just a really fun and empowering way of exercising. Also, you can see progression and feel yourself getting physically stronger really quickly. When you’re not fit, going for a run is not always enjoyable, it’s full-on cardio so is really tiring and can feel never-ending. I think that for someone getting into fitness, with weights it can be easier to mix things up a bit more. I would definitely recommend doing it with someone else at first, who knows what they’re doing. If you don’t have a friend that does, then just ask at the gym. Also, no matter what people say, you will not get bulky! Women just don’t have the testosterone or muscle mass to build muscle mass that quickly.

Q. For those of us who struggle to fit fitness in with a hectic university lifestyle, how do you balance an active lifestyle with studying and general university life?

A. I tell myself that a workout will make me feel better, because I know that it always does! I think that it is useful to have a loose schedule to work to, just to make sure that you can fit exercising in with everything else. I’ve found that fitness is a really good way to have a break from the library or work half way through the day. Not every workout has to be the best workout in the world, but value it as a stress release, or relief from working or writing essays. I always find that after a workout that I can then go back to my work with fresh ideas.

Q. You’re Editor of Epigram Food, and your Instagram account (@janecowiefood) is full of delicious looking recipes. Some people might struggle balancing fitness with a positive attitude towards food. Is there any advice/ tips that you’d give them?

A. I’d say, don’t think in tunnel vision. Don’t think in numbers. Just have a balanced diet, and make sure that you get in your basic nutrients . You can eat fruit and veg really cheaply if you buy sensibly and plan ahead. Try to be wise with your food shopping, but also allow yourself to make less healthy food choices when you want to, and don’t chastise yourself for your choices. Think about what you value and care about the most and enjoy your time socialising, hanging out and cooking and eating with friends. In sum, make food and fitness choices that you know are balanced and will make you happy.

Further information

Inspired by Jane? Want to join the gym? Here are our membership options.

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