“Given this is my first blog and it would be fair to say many who know me well would say I’m fairly strong in my opinions and views it was genuinely hard to know where to start. How can you have everything and nothing to say at the same time I wondered to myself? And there is genuinely no need to answer that…

However, inspiration struck during the period of general confusion between Christmas and New Year where we all forget what day it is and I’d identified a need to tear myself off the sofa, get some fresh air and pop out to the supermarket to buy things I didn’t need before my muscles totally disintegrated. In an aim to exceed my average festive step count of 3000 – 4000 (significantly lower than my usual 12,000 a day) I saw it as a good opportunity to wander round the clothes and seasonal goods in search of bargains I absolutely knew I didn’t need but convinced myself I should look for. As ever, the displays had changed to represent the time in the year, slinky velvet Christmas dresses relegated to the spot in the corner behind the chunky knits and winter coats and pride of place, first thing you absolutely couldn’t miss was the new perfectly colour coordinated fitness range for women. (Interestingly not for men but that’s probably a whole different blog for a different day.) I of course had a look, I’m a part time fitness instructor after all so I need those for work surely?

Alas I exercised some self-control and carried on with an empty basket. On passing through the children’s section I came across a further fitness related display, prime place on the ends of the row again for young girls (interestingly not boys!) I stopped, looked, stepping back, looked again and felt a huge sense of disappointment, followed by frustration. What I saw is typical I am sure of the ranges offered by many clothes stores and supermarkets who sell clothes for children. The adult range had almost been shrunk down and re-modelled in different colours for young girls including cropped fitness bras for children as young as aged 3 and 4. I genuinely couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Since when did society, supermarkets or parents set the expectation that a 5, 6 or 7 year old girl needed to look like a fully-fledged adult fitness professional to live an active childhood? The pressures placed on young girls already in terms of perfect body image, being less strong (and therefore less able than boys some may say) puberty and peer pressure and the challenges of growing up are immense. Physical activity for children can and should include a variety of things, team sports, PE in schools, competitive and non-competitive elements (yes I know this is controversial in the eyes of some as it appears wrong to help children to learn to lose), dance and specific children’s fitness activities or just running around the garden or playing in the park. Whatever keeps children interested and active, makes them smile, laugh and learn new social skills makes the difference. It is not the clothes they wear! It must not ever come down to that. Kit for sports needs to be appropriate and safe that is an absolute must. Children must feel able, equal and comfortable to engage in physical activity in their trainers and comfortable clothes – not dressed to the 9s in revealing clothes designed for adults which further seeks to embed the ‘body beautiful’ image of fitness.

I know myself and see regularly how the genuine fears and confidence issues women have about their own bodies impacts on their confidence and ability to engage in physical activity. Body matters just as much as mind for many and I know there will be women and men sat at home desperate to make positive changes and who just do not feel able to take the first step. Many in their hearts are willing and feel disappointed every day they aren’t able to take a step forward in their lives. How much of that starts in early childhood? How many of those 6 year old girls who already tell their parents they are ‘fat’ will have seen those clothing ranges, tried them on, maybe even worn them? As a result they may always have a lingering feeling of upset, lack of confidence, fear or something else that will go on to shape how they approach physical activity in the future and may serve as significant mental barriers? So many of those tiny insignificant moments in childhood create the adult insecurities we all battle with every day.

At a time where so many of us are setting or re-setting our health and fitness ambitions for 2018, physical activity needs to be and perceived as being open and accessible to all. It has to be based on people coming together as individuals in a class, participants in a team, starting a personal training programme or simply going out for a walk round the block or up the stairs at lunch. The confidence needed to take the first step for some is insurmountable. For those brave enough to try, the first engagement is key whether it be the receptionist at the gym filling out the membership paperwork, the fitness instructor in the community class in the church hall, the coach at the local sports club or gym or the volunteer leading community walks. If it’s a virtual approach being taken it’s about the tone of the app, the accessibility of the website or the music on the fitness programme. It is definitely not about having the latest fitness fashion look, being body beautiful or being made to feel any less equal to anybody else (the instructor, coach, other participants etc) The atmosphere created in a fitness or sports environment should be one in which who you and what your goals are matters, not what you wear. This is even more important for children whose characters are shaped through sports and activities and when growing up is challenging enough anyway.

As a professional woman, fitness instructor, exercise class participant and most importantly wife, family member and friend I want to encourage and inspire people to take care of themselves both physically and mentally. The fun, laughter, joy and fitness something like Zumba has given me I cannot put into words. Genuinely it has changed my life and the privilege I have in being able to teach classes and help others on their health journey I am thankful for every day. I also work alongside a range of fabulous fellow instructors in Stockport who all inspire me as a participant too, making my laugh, ache, whoop and most importantly have a healthy body and happy mind. I’d be lost without their support and their classes.

So many new participants ask me what they need to wear when they say they are going to try one of my classes. I’ve never really considered it as more than a practical question if I’m honest but thinking about the link between body image, confidence and clothes there is for many I am sure far more complexity to the question and response. I always reply with trainers to keep you safe and clothes you feel comfortable in. If I shared the adult version of the above would they still come? And if they came, would the feel as confident as in their comfortable clothes? The answer I am sure is no!

The connection between clothes and personal confidence in life cannot be denied. I dress differently in my personal life, my work life and my gym life – for practical reasons more than anything. I am yet to deliver a presentation to a Board Meeting of Conference on corporate governance dressed in my Zumba Wear or teach a Zumba class dressed in my suit but it is on my list of ambitions – just to challenge perceptions! So any invites very welcome!

The most important thing for me is that the image of fitness for adults and children should not be based on what you wear and the desire to look like a person engaging in fitness. The best look and feelings for fitness are rosy red cheeks, a sweaty body, a sense of achievement (small or big) and a most importantly a smile. Nothing else matters.”