‘I feel fitter, stronger and more energy-filled than I have in a long time’

‘I feel fitter, stronger and more energy-filled than I have in a long time’ – Clare McKenna reveals results midway through six-month health overhaul.

This article by Clare McKenna was published in the Sunday Independent on April 19th 

Our world has changed utterly since February, when radio host Clare McKenna started her health overhaul, but our physical and mental well-being have never been so important. Here, we check in with her midway through the journey she is sharing with Sunday Independent LIFE.

A lot has changed in the three months since I pledged to give my overall health an overhaul. This health journey now pales into insignificance compared to the global health journey we have all been on with Covid-19, but as health and wellness take centre stage, our ability to fortify our own is perhaps more pertinent than ever. So, a reminder about my premise: my intention was to consistently follow advice on health and wellness to see how it felt to operate at optimum. As presenter of Newstalk’s health and wellness show, Alive and Kicking, I have met some incredible minds, and managed to convince some of them to work with me over six months.

I started with a complete health check, beginning with bloods, at my GP, Dr Sinead Hussey. She recommends that anyone over the age of 40 (I am 42 this month), and maybe a little earlier, should undergo an annual review of this kind, and at €35, it can provide peace of mind. Most tests came back normal, thankfully. She did say there was evidence of more saturated fat in my blood that she would have liked, but as it was January 7, it seemed plausible that the season to be jolly was clinging to me as much as I was still clinging to it.

The other red flag was that my calcium levels were a little low; not worrying yet, but not something she’d like to see worsen. This came as a wake-up call for me, and is a massive reminder of why I wanted to set out on this journey at all. I’ve got lost on the wellness road before, and become overwhelmed with the mixed messages around what we should and shouldn’t eat. I’ve been on every bandwagon and tried every fad going, in the pursuit of health. But was I actually making trendy decisions at the cost of my health?

I’ve been half-vegan, half-paleo, half keeping an eye on what I’m eating and half ‘sure who cares, I’m busy’, without ever truly understanding the impact any of this was having on my health. Years ago, I read (from a celebrity, not a dermatologist) that dairy can cause skin congestion, so as I was getting a spot or two, I self-diagnosed and decided to cut out a food group. I did see a difference in my skin, by the way, but I didn’t think about what might be happening on the inside.

And here is where I think many of us fall short; we focus on the aesthetic, what’s on the outside, and not enough on our inner health, which ironically is the best way to improve how you look and feel. We see popping abs on an Instagram post, and without knowing anything about the actual health of the person in the photo, begin taking lifestyle advice from them. I’ve been there!

After the GP, my next port of call was to the UPMC Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry, Dublin. It offers a range of health checks for everyone from elite athletes to those with health issues. Using specialist equipment, you really get an in-depth analysis of your overall health.

I was quietly confident. I work out regularly – although maybe not as consistently as I should when I let family or work-life override it. I also eat well and I’m comfortable in my own skin. I don’t spend time obsessing over my dress size; if my clothes feel tight, I eat less; a back-and-forth that has continued pretty much all of my adult life. As it happened, I was feeling good that day.

Somewhat sobering results

After an initial chat with the fascinating Dr Andrew Franklyn-Miller, it was time to don the hospital gown. I didn’t step on any scales or have anybody measurements taken; the Dexa scan reading of body-fat percentage and lean muscle mass was all the health indication I needed. The Dexa scanner uses a very low dose of radiation to scan your body, rather like an X-ray. It takes about five minutes, and you get the results immediately. Mine were somewhat sobering. For my age range (41-45 years), my percentage of body fat – 36.5pc – put me in the overweight category by 0.5pc. I was never as happy to be in an older age bracket, because if I were younger, the result would have been worse. In the 41-45 age bracket, 35-38pc is considered overweight; after that, it’s into obese territory. Bear in mind that, although I had taken the wheels off over Christmas, I am health conscious and exercise regularly. Dr Franklyn-Miller explained that while using calipers to pinch and assess body fat is fairly accurate, we can distribute fat in different areas of our body, including around our organs, and the Dexa scanner is the only way to truly detect this fat. I didn’t get my bone density assessed, but Dr Franklyn-Miller did tell me that lower calcium levels in my blood was reason enough to be concerned about osteopenia (when bones are weaker than normal) or osteoporosis (brittle bones) later in life. More sobering news.

As well as filling out a detailed lifestyle questionnaire, I also wore a heart monitor for five days to assess my heart-rate variability and stress handling during everything from sleeping to eating to working out. The research shows that the time between your heartbeats will lessen if you’re more stressed, and conversely, the beats will be farther apart if you are relaxed and your body is coping better through nutrition, rest and recovery. My results came back with a label of ‘pretty good’. I wore the monitor on a week where excessive exercise wasn’t a major feature, which was a shame, but no red markers for stress showed, and the quality of my sleep was good.

The Health Lab also takes a detailed look at bloods to check for markers of bone health, cellular health and inflammation. Dr Franklyn-Miller says that increasingly they see people who want to take control of their own health, and one of the ways to be empowered is by having information about how healthy you really are.

He also said there is potential for me to make changes to my body composition through looking at my nutrition and taking more consistent exercise. By reducing body fat and the extra load on my body, both of which cause stress to my organs, he explained that I’d have less chance of developing type 2 diabetes and other inflammation issues.

And so to Daniel Davey, performance nutritionist. It was he who started me on this journey when he joined me on Alive and Kicking to talk about his book, Eat Up Raise Your Game. He set me a target of reducing my body fat by losing a one pound a week over a six-month period: a steady and gradual loss. The Dexa scan had shown that my lean muscle mass was 43.6kg. Shockingly, to increase this even to 45.6kg would be pretty miraculous, Daniel said. Fat so much easier to put on.

Why is increasing muscle mass important? This has nothing to do with the aesthetic. More muscle means better resistance to disease, a lower level of mortality, better insulin sensitivity and more resistance to injury. This is not about becoming ripped, it’s about extending the quality and length of your life in a healthy and consistent manner. So, my homework was set: I was to eat proper, balanced meals consisting of 40pc carbohydrate, 30pc fat and 30pc protein at every sitting. Daniel set me a calorie intake I was never to go below. I was to focus on fuelling my consistent workouts, which had to include resistance training, and afterwards, I had to eat adequately to recover from those sessions.

I have never looked at food in this way in my life. I see food as pleasure, although I also swing between that and eating in deprivation to make up for a splurge – an attitude that isn’t as balanced as I thought it was. Over the last three months, I have eaten more than I have in a long time. I’m not afraid to overeat and I’m not categorising any food groups as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but I am assessing everything in terms of how it affects my body, and how this makes me feel. Introducing this way of eating has improved my energy levels and I’ve been on the search for a magic pill to do that for years – let food be thy medicine! At the moment, I am more motivated to train, because I have more energy and I’m sleeping better. I have had to meal-plan and cook more. I had let a busy work and family life stand in the way of this, often grabbing trays of pre-prepared meals in the supermarket, or having food-on-the-go in the car, but I have found that if I take the time to batch-cook one or two days of the week, I have more time on the other days, as I reach for dinner from the freezer or have food on hand that will nourish me and that I enjoy.

I haven’t spent time weighing amounts or agonising over percentages – it’s been a rough gauge; through trial and error, I’ve figured out what works for me. For example, before lockdown, there was a busy work day when I left a too-long gap between breakfast and lunch. When I eventually made it to one of my favourite salad bars, where they have plenty of ‘carbohydrate, fat and protein’-combination options, I temporarily slipped back to my ‘eat less is better’ ways and ordered mainly veg and leaves. It didn’t fill me, and even though I ate a proper dinner that evening, I was off-kilter and woke the next morning feeling exhausted. I would have often woken that way after a solid seven or eight hours sleep, but until now I never made the link between that tiredness and what I’d eaten the day before. I had assumed I was eating healthily because there wasn’t an abundance of processed food and takeaways, but I wasn’t fuelling my body correctly.

When it came to my training, another former Alive and Kicking guest who made a big impression was Claire McGrath, a major achiever in everything from gymnastics to body building and yoga teacher training. She’s even a headstand expert! And along with an in-depth knowledge of muscle and strength building, she has the zen of being a yoga teacher, meditation master and breathwork expert.

For my wedding back in 2008, I punished myself with a very strict regime. With the thought of wedding photos as my motivator, I trained hard, I trained consistently, and I never even had a cheat day. I felt fit, strong and there were lots of positives, but it wasn’t balanced and so I couldn’t sustain it in the long term. Once I went on honeymoon, I relaxed a bit and realised the world wouldn’t end, and I never really went back.

Because of that, I loved Claire’s approach – it seemed relaxed and more focused on a positive body image than driving yourself to a deprivation diet and workout programme designed to essentially change yourself.

Claire set up Yo Yo Om with her business partner, Rosie Harte. They met on the IFBB Pro circuit and became kindred spirits, initially bonding over the consequences of coming out of the strict regime of body-building competitions. Yo Yo Om gives courses on health, well-being and mindset, with a big focus on why our eating can become disordered, and fostering a healthy relationship with our bodies. I was invited to work with the girls through their online and video-call coaching, to see where I was at with food and body image.

This wasn’t a road I had intended to go down when I set off, but I have always been open to the mind, body and soul aspect of wellness, and while I was excited by what I learnt from Dr Franklyn-Miller and Daniel Davey – that consistent nutrition and exercise will bring about long-term health – I think it is worth considering our emotional selves too, and exploring why we eat the way we eat.

Embarking on The Reset

So I started with one of the Yo Yo Om courses, The Reset. The word ‘detox’ has amassed much criticism, mainly due to the fact that there is little scientific evidence to back up the notion that our bodies require extra help to process and purge toxins. We have organs, such as the skin and the liver, which are designed to do just that. Also, if you’ve ever done a ‘detox’ – be it juice or shake derived – you spend a few days feeling fairly hungry, and once you return to ‘normal’ eating, you revert back to how you were before. But the idea of their reset appealed to me. This is not a deprivation diet: you do not go hungry, and there are lots of things you can eat as much of as you like, but all the usual culprits are gone – sugar, caffeine, processed foods. It was described as a rest for the body, and I did it for 10 days.

I have to add that this went against the advice of Daniel Davey – and isn’t suitable for many people – but personally I felt I needed a kick. Not a weight-loss kick, but to break some bad habits and start with a clean slate. And it worked for me. I ate lots of rice and veg and porridge, and undid so many of the tales I was telling myself: that I couldn’t function without coffee; that I needed a little something sweet after dinner. I did it for journalistic endeavour, and I did it because it appealed to me, and I have no regrets. The reset set me up for my new way of looking at food, and I no longer framed the nutrition plan ahead as something difficult. If I could reset for 10 days, I could do anything.

Claire and Rosie also asked me some big questions during our coaching calls. They didn’t disagree with the idea that reducing body fat and increasing lean muscle mass is good for overall health, but they asked about the happiness that comes when the number on the scales or scan results change, and talked through the emotions attached to eating. While my plan of body-fat reduction and keeping a keen eye on what I ate went against their intuitive eating ideal, likewise theirs jarred with the thoughts of Daniel Davey, but we found a way to work the two in tandem. I followed the exercise and nutrition plan, which I have loved and really benefited from; and they continue to coach me through thoughts, feelings and mindset, from which I have learned so much.

But I also needed a trainer, someone to set me some resistance-based weight training and keep an eye on my progress, and that came from Fiona Oppermann of Dublin Sports Clinic. A former international sprinter, Fiona is now highly qualified in the areas of sports and exercise management, exercise physiology, and is a sports therapist and strength and conditioning coach. She’s also a ball of energy who makes me wish I’d been more into athletics than speech and drama at school, and she doesn’t let you set foot in the gym or lift a weight before she’s fully assessed you on the plinth.

She checked all my muscles and joints, and my overall mobility. From that, she could see any deficiencies that needed to be worked on before I could begin to build more muscle. I got up off that bed with a feeling that myself and my muscle composition were severely lacking, but Fiona assured me that with a little work ironing out kinks, and a bit more focus on muscle repair with things like foam-rolling and Epsom-salt baths, we’d be building lean muscle in no time.

Fiona then set me a series of exercises using a resistance band and weights that I could do twice a week at my local gym, with some added exercise, such as a hike or HIIT class. She also set me the challenge of running a mile a day for 40 days. She reckons that regardless of religious beliefs, there is something about Lent that Irish people still tap into, so she uses that template.

Like the reset with Yo Yo Om, this was something relatively small – a mile is just 1.6km; a jog around my block that took 10 to 12 minutes, but it became something massive. In the early days, I would procrastinate about it all day until I eventually did it, and it was always absolutely fine. I enjoyed it and felt better for it, and that was the lesson. You think you can’t do certain things, but really, you can do anything you put your mind to.

I started to see a change in my fitness levels and that, matched with the strength programme in the gym and the way I’ve been eating, meant I began to feel stronger and run better. I’d recommend something like the mile run as an easy kickstart. If you need to walk a bit, that’s fine, you can build up, but you still get the challenge, the achievement and the endorphin rush without having to set something eye-watering like getting up at 5 am to run 10k. It’s definitely been one of the most informative things I have ever done. In fact, the whole three months has – I feel fitter, stronger and more energy-filled than I have in a long time. And for the first time, it doesn’t feel like hard work or as if I’m depriving myself in any way. I know I’ve been very lucky to have so much input from so many brilliant people, and the motivation of writing this article, but, to be honest, the info I’ve tapped into is there for everyone. The main thing is the commitment to change, and that comes from you. From time to time I have struggled, as I often do, to keep all the plates in the air, and exercise can often be an easy one to drop. The kids; my work; my husband’s work; spending time with my ageing dad; hanging out with my pals – these can all be used as excuses to let things slip, but if you try, you can rearrange the priority list. Once you begin to feel the benefits of keeping exercise and nutrition on point, it really becomes the new normal.

Since the restrictions around Covid-19 have come into play, I haven’t felt the urge to fall off the wagon. Keeping my focus on exercise and eating well has actually been a massive saviour. Getting to the gym has obviously not been possible in the last while, but it’s been amazing to see how people have adapted, and discover the wealth of classes on Zoom, an app I didn’t know existed a month or so ago.

In a few months, I intend to return to the Dexa scanner, Covid-19 allowing, to see if I have been able to turn the stats around. In the meantime, I have noticed a difference in my clothes; my body feels stronger, and I feel fitter. Consistency really is key.

As I said, I believe that true health and wellness is a mind, body and soul endeavour, and so for the next three months, while I continue with all I have in place so far, I want to explore the mind and soul element a little further.

Yo Yo Om want to delve a little deeper into my closet to see what skeletons drag me to the fridge from time to time, and I want to include more mind-exercising into my everyday. I’ve already begun to meditate a lot more, and this is a tool I have relied on heavily as social distancing and work and school closures came into force. I’ve found great solace in it.

Being freelance means every week is different. It can be tricky to figure out the difference between work-time and downtime, and where training fits into this, so I plan to work with motivation coach Andy Ramage over the next three months to quieten down the voice in my head that sometimes wavers in its commitment.

I’ve also become fascinated with morning routines and the overlap of the things that successful people and thought leaders do first thing every day. From meditating and journaling to just making your bed, the non-negotiables we place at the top of our days seem to shape the rest of it. So while routines have changed somewhat in the last few weeks, I have found the markers of making my bed and taking time just to sit and breathe have made all the difference. One of the silver linings has been that there is more time for this in our slowed-down life. With any health journey, there can be a lot to take on and it can feel overwhelming, so I’d say change one thing at a time, whether that is focusing on your breakfast, upping your fruit and veg intake, or introducing a walk or run to your day. Go slowly, and you’re more likely to go the distance. There have been times where I’ve felt there was a lot to think about, but I just focused on one thing at a time and it has all fallen into place quite nicely.

I can’t say what the next three months will bring. I cling to the idea that the world will emerge from all this kinder, and we will hang on to the lessons we have learnt about what is really important. Exactly when I get back into a gym or on a Dexa scanner remains to be seen, but I’ll be continuing to lean on all I have learnt about health and wellness. I’ll continue to nourish my mind, body and soul.

I’m hooked, and I feel great.

Follow Clare’s journey @clareslair on Instagram.

Clare presents ‘Alive and Kicking’ on Newstalk, Sundays from 9am. Clothing throughout, New Dimensions Active

For further information on SSC’s Health Lab please call 01 526 2050 or email fitnesslab@sportssurgeryclinic.com






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