Former journalist Paula Kerr found mental and physical strength at the gym when fighting breast cancer. Now she shares her inspirational attitude to health and wellbeing at her luxury fitness weekends at Chewton Glen in the New Forest. We asked about Fitter Stronger - and how she convinced Olympian James Cracknell to join her.
Q: How did you deal with your diagnosis?
I was a journalist for over 20 years, then in 2013 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I decided I needed all my strength, so I kept training at my gym and changed my diet. When I told my oncologist my plan, he told me categorically there was nothing I could do to improve my situation. So I got another oncologist!
The gym became my focus and gave me direction. It was a barometer to see how strong my body was as I was going through chemotherapy. I was there on days when I had really difficult decisions to make during treatment, when I had to build up the courage to tell my kids, when I saw my friends burst into tears day after day because I’d just told them.
You’re trying to be strong for everyone else, so I needed somewhere to call my own, where it didn’t matter and I wouldn’t have to wear a wig, where I could just get on with it. Quite often I was there when the doors opened at 6am!
Q: People assume that being ill means you have to lie down, not go to the gym. Weren’t you too exhausted?
Chemo really knocks you out. It destroys so many of your cells. It takes your immunity down as well as your strength and stamina. And that makes you feel vulnerable, and I didn’t like feeling vulnerable. I’ve always been quite independent, so it messed with that and I didn’t like it.
There were days that were really tough. There were days when I would say to Mitch [now one of the Fitter Stronger trainers] “Gloves and pads!” which meant I wanted to do some boxing. It was totally brilliant therapy! There were days when I did it with tears in my eyes, until I couldn’t stand up any more.
Q: How do you know your fitness regime helped?
They said at the end of chemo you will be on your knees, and I wasn’t. I was climbing Ben Nevis! That was a big emotional journey. It was an absolute turning point. My husband was with me, as was Simon [also a trainer at Fitter Stronger]. I cried all the way – not because of the pain but the elation that I was doing it, realising my body was strong enough. I was really blown away. It’s exhausting trying to climb a mountain when you’re crying!
Q: How did Fitter Stronger come about?
After chemo, I had an epiphany. I know how good exercise makes me feel and how powerful it can be. I have friends going through a divorce who are in the gym. It just gives them a way of working out their problems. I wanted other people to get that, so I retrained as a personal trainer at my local gym.
I love it because I’m able to help other people that have no confidence or stamina for whatever reason. You see people who come in in oversized T-shirts, not because they need them but because their confidence is low. I say to them: look, you’ve got as much right to be here as everybody else.
One of my clients is 72 – it doesn’t matter what your age is.
I had an idea of a fitness retreat, employing the people that I really trusted and had worked with, who I can hand-on-heart say will help you.
Q: Why is Fitter Stronger different?
It’s not just a fitness workout. There are lots of retreats where you can sweat yourself to bits for a couple of days. Right from the beginning we said we’re not going to weigh you. It’s about getting a better relationship with your body and how to treat it so it responds to you, and does what you need it to do.
I called it Fitter Stronger for a reason. When your strength dwindles it’s frightening. Having strength is reassuring, mentally and physically.
Q: How did you get James Cracknell involved?
I wanted someone to do a motivational talk. I’d interviewed James a couple of times and realised we were singing from the same hymn book. We met and got on… and the rest is history!
James stands in for me. He’s got a slightly more exiting career and thrilling recovery story. Our ducking and diving in terms of our health is similar. Both of our doctors told us we couldn’t do anything, but we made the decision to take responsibility.
Q: What’s your advice to anyone going through a physical or emotional setback?