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Nat: It’s Dr Clarissa Hughes, how formal! What is your educational/training background?
Clarissa: I guess it does sound formal – but I’d really prefer you to just call me Clarissa! My educational background is in the social sciences. I have a PhD in Sociology and much of my work focuses on social influences on behaviour change. I’m employed as a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, and my job involves undertaking research projects, writing articles for peer-reviewed journals, and supervising PhD and Masters students.
I love my job but it’s certainly a challenge to maintain your health and fitness when you’re stuck in front of a computer for hours each day AND have a household to manage! Thankfully I now have a really time-efficient approach to exercise and eating well, which means that I can maintain my fitness and health despite having a sedentary job and very little spare time.
What is Getting lean and curvy and Why did you started your online forum?
Getting Lean and Curvy is a Facebook page that I set up shortly after my first figure competition in late 2010. I never anticipated that it would get the amazing following that it has. Less than two years after being established, Getting Lean and Curvy has nearly 10,000 fans! It was designed bring together: a) women who are (or have been) trying to tone up and lose weight, and b) women who have managed to reach (and hopefully maintain) their body goals.
I must emphasise that ‘Getting lean and curvy’ is NOT about ‘getting skinny’ and it’s not a forum in which I’m positioned as ‘the expert’. It’s about celebrating our bodies and helping women to nourish and care for themselves in healthy, sustainable ways. The idea is to tap into the collective wisdom and experience of women who care about their health, wellbeing and appearance and who are keen to help others. So I like it to operate as a really positive and supportive virtual community of women, which shares information on a wide range of relevant topics, and encourages discussion and debate.
I started up the forum because I was so keen to share what I had learned when I ‘accidentally’ became a figure competitor! During my late 30s I became plumper, felt less and less comfortable in my body, and despite eating what I thought was a healthy diet and doing lots of low-impact cardio, I was having to buy bigger and bigger clothes. Thankfully, out of complete desperation I decided to give strength training a go, even though I was scared I would get ‘bulky’. Taking up strength training and ‘cleaning up’ my diet was the best thing I’ve ever done. You can read more about my story here.
You’ve competed in figure before, right? How was the whole experience? And fess up your post-comp experience?
Yes that’s right – I’ve done four figure (bodybuilding) competitions in the last 18 months or so. It’s quite funny really, making that transition to seeing yourself as an ‘athlete’ when you’ve been very bookish and un-sporty all your life! I started preparing for my first comp thinking that I’d never actually make it up on stage – it was mainly a strategy for keeping myself accountable and having a goal to assist my motivation. But I got results faster than I expected, and as the competition date drew nearer I thought ‘What have I got to lose?!’. The year I turned 40 I had ‘six pack abs’ for the first time in my life. I remember looking at the photographs and thinking ‘That isn’t me!’
The experience of competing has been quite amazing. It’s both incredibly challenging and incredibly empowering in a way that is difficult to describe. Psychologically, it can be REALLY tough at times. In fact, I find the discipline required with comp preparation nutrition to be much harder to sustain than the training regime – which I just love!
Both off season and during my comp preparation, my focus is always on my health. I’m just not prepared to sacrifice my health in order to achieve ‘a look’. So I never do things like eat nothing but chicken and broccoli for weeks on end, fill my body with a heap of synthetic supplements or spend ridiculous amounts of time exercising – because it’s just not good for you! I rely on a really varied, wholefood-based diet and my all-time favourite ‘supplement’ (Juice PLUS+) is actually made from real fruits and vegetables.
The regime I follow to prepare for a competition isn’t that much different from what I do ‘offseason’ – and because of that my ‘post-comp’ experience is a bit of a non-event! I tend to have a couple of indulgent meals and a day or two off training, and then I’m keen to get back into a routine again! I have heard that lots of women really struggle after the competition is over – with binge-eating and self-esteem issues and perhaps even some metabolic damage. Again, I think that health-focused, balanced comp preparation with the assistance of knowledgeable coaches and mentors (which I’m lucky enough to have) can really help women to avoid that downward spiral after competing.
What is your passion in life?
Ah well I’d have to say helping people. I just really get a kick out of giving people a hand to reach their goals and overcome their struggles, and showing them that no matter their difficulties or starting point, they CAN make positive and sustainable lifestyle changes. I also love to write – and the really great thing is that I can combine those two passions by writing blogs and content for my website, clean eating recipe e-books and e-seminars, and contributing to my favourite women’s health publications, Oxygen Magazine and Clean Eating Magazine. From time to time I get to present workshops and seminars around the country, but at the moment my academic job and domestic responsibilities mean that this happens less often than I would like. It’s such a thrill to meet people that I’ve previously only communicated with online and to hear the difference that my work has made to their health and happiness. I’ll never get tired of that feeling!
Anyone who inspires you?
Yes! LOTS of people inspire me for different reasons. Lindy Olsen and Michelle Nazaroffare two incredible Australian women who are completely devoted to ‘practicing what they preach’ and demonstrating the life-changing power of good nutrition and smart training. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet both of them in person this year and, at the risk of sounding really corny, that had a really profound impact on me.
Further afield, I’m inspired by Nicole Wilkins and Erin Stern (who are top-ranking competitors who’ve retained a feminine look) and Tosca Reno (who popularised ‘clean eating’). Closer to home, I’m inspired by my three children and two step-children (who are all growing up to be lovely. fascinating people) and my amazing partner of 5 years, Dave (who supports me 100%, makes me laugh and reminds me what’s really important in life).
Your site helps many ladies get fit and healthier, you really must love what you do?
You’ve hit the nail on the head there! Yup – I definitely love what I do. I get such a buzz from helping people navigate the maze of information out there on ‘the best’ way of eating and training – and showing them that ultimately what’s best is what works for them and is sustainable. I also enjoy demonstrating that you don’t have to become a fanatic or lead a life of complete deprivation to be lean, fit and healthy.
What is a typical training day for you?
My job involves sitting – all day, every day (Monday to Friday) and my kids are really busy with extracurricular activities so I have very little time! So I tend to do a short but intense strength training session (or cardio session, usually High-Impact Interval Training) during my lunch hour or sometimes after work.
My preference is for a split routine rather than a full body workout, because I find it much easier to cope with DOMS in specific muscle groups rather than being sore all over! Recovery time is really important for muscle growth so I don’t train the same muscle groups on consecutive days, and I ALWAYS have one rest day per week (even right up to a competition).
What is your typical diet?
Ah this is the million dollar question! Firstly I should say that if you don’t pay attention to your nutrition, your time at the gym will be largely wasted. Secondly, I should say that I LOVE food and I thrive on having lots of variety. I’m sure you’ve heard of some people preparing for figure competitions by eating nothing but chicken and broccoli, five times a day, for weeks. I just couldn’t do that, and even if I could, I wouldn’t because I don’t believe it’s healthy!
Generally speaking I follow the principles outlined in Lindy Olsen’s ‘7 Rules for Success’. I eat a mountain of different coloured vegetables every day (many of them raw, and organic where possible), small amounts of lean protein, and very few processed foods. I don’t take a chemical multivitamin – I take a wholefood nutrition support product called Juice PLUS+ which is used by top athletes, and is backed by independent clinical studies conducted at leading research institutions.
I eat coconut oil, nuts and nut butters, avocadoes, whole (free range) eggs and full-fat dairy. Over time, my diet has become increasingly ‘Paleo’ and I’ve discovered that both sugar and gluten make me feel ‘ick’ – I just needed to cut them out for long enough to notice the difference! People often want to know whether I still eat desserts, drink alcohol and go out to dinner. ‘Yes’ is the answer to all of these – but they tend to be part of a scheduled ‘cheat’ meal (which I prefer to call a ‘free meal) which I find helps me to stay sane and gives my metabolism a weekly jolt.
Do you think more and more women are realizing the benefit of strength training?
I think so. But I still think a lot of them are terrified of getting bulky. I used to be worried about that too – but that was before I understood how important lean muscle mass is for metabolism and general wellbeing. Plus, muscle helps you burn fat and helps you to selectively shape your body (for instance, you can give the illusion of a smaller waist by building up your shoulders). Heavy lifting combined with clean eating changed my body faster and more dramatically than any other thing I’ve ever tried, and I still look (and feel) quite feminine. It’s great!
Do you have any regrets in life, if so why? If not why?
Not really. That’s not to say that I haven’t made mistakes, because I have. But I guess I always try to learn from my mistakes, and use difficult situations as an opportunity for self-reflection. Sometimes I look back over my life and wonder how things would be now if I’d made different choices at critical junctures. But generally speaking I try to make the best of everything and ‘live in the moment’ as much as possible. I tend to be very pragmatic and I look to change things if I’m unhappy about them, rather than wallowing about in self-pity! Just lately I’ve been really focusing on gratitude and I find that’s excellent for helping me to refocus on the positives when I’m feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
You have children Clarissa, how do you fit your exercise/healthy eating in?
Well for a start I have a weekly ‘food prep sesh’ in which I devote a couple of hours every Sunday to cooking/preparing a wide variety of nutritious meals and snacks. Some of it goes in the freezer (often in single-serve portions) and the rest goes in the fridge. Getting into that habit means that you never get home late and night and have that awful situation of wondering what to make for dinner – since it’s already made. It also means that there are yummy things for everyone to pack in their lunches.
I also take opportunities to exercise, even for quite short periods like 15 or 20 minutes. If you tell yourself that you need a large block of uninterrupted time to exercise, it’s less likely to happen! So if I have to wait for my daughter to finish ballet class or my son to finish gymnastics, I’ll go for quick run or pop to the gym rather than wait in the car. I also sometimes exercise while everyone else is still asleep (by using my treadmill or spin bike at home) and I park my car a reasonable distance from work so I get a decent walk most days.
What’s your piece of advice for the average housewife sitting at home wondering if she should start working out?
I think many women are held back by their self-talk as much as anything. They tell themselves that they need more money/time/motivation or whatever before they start exercising, or they convince themselves that it’s ‘easier for others’ because they ‘don’t have kids’ or are ‘sporty’ or ‘have a fast metabolism’ or ‘good genes’ or whatever. I really encourage people to focus less on their perceived limitations or challenges, and more on what they CAN do. Baby steps in the right direction are better than wildly unrealistic goals that are doomed to failure.
I also think that the internet can be very helpful for women who are just starting their fitness journeys, particularly if they don’t have like-minded people living close by. Sometimes the people we are closest to can become decidedly UNsupportive when we are trying to improve our health! I’m constantly hearing stories of best friends who turn up with mudcake or act all pouty and dejected when someone is doing their best to stick with an eating plan or an exercise regime. It can be very confusing and disappointing – and that’s why it’s essential to connect with people who ‘get’ what you are trying to do.
That’s probably one of the reasons that Getting Lean and Curvy is doing so well – because it’s a really friendly, supportive ‘place’ where women can ask questions without fear of judgement, discuss what works for them, and connect with others who are looking to make healthy and sustainable changes to their lifestyle. It helps them to cut through the hype and the information overload and realise that there isn’t one ‘best’ way to train, eat or live! So I’m really proud of what I’ve created and I hope it helps thousands more women in years to come.
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