PT course helped Nicola strike a balance in life after years of putting her body through the wringer
Personal trainer Nicola McPeak knows all about going to extremes.
At university 10 years ago, the Portstewart women led a typical student lifestyle, with too many beers and takeaways leaving her feeling overweight, size 16 and sluggish.
After graduation, Nicola vowed to get in shape, but she took things too far, becoming obsessed with diet and exercise and dropping to a tiny size four.
After qualifying as a personal trainer, the 30-year-old has finally found her happy medium.
She’s now a comfortable size 10 and is more likely to be found taking long runs along the beach than sweating on a treadmill.
Incredibly, despite becoming a fitness guru on Instagram, Nicola has achieved her physique without ever setting foot in a gym.
“I do all my workouts from home. I’m just not a gym person. In fact, I think I’m living proof that you don’t need expensive equipment or a gym membership to be healthy,” she says.
“When I started working out at home, I was just using tin cans and water bottles as weights. It really can be that simple if you want it to be.
“I think the one thing the pandemic has taught us is that you really can do an effective workout in your front room.”
Nicola studied psychology, specialising in health in her final year at Ulster University’s Magee campus, but like most students, her diet was far from healthy.
“By the time I graduated, I was 11st, which is quite heavy for me because I’m only 5ft,” she explains.
“I was a dress size 14 to 16 and I felt really unhappy in myself.
“I’d been living that typical early 20s lifestyle: going out a lot, eating lots of takeaways and drinking lots of cheap beer.”
Nicola wanted to boost her confidence so, aged 23, she vowed to lose weight, but she ended up becoming a little too obsessed and dropped to under eight stone.
“I think I started doing one of those ‘beach body’ diet and exercise plans that promise fast results, but as the weight started shifting, I became caught up in it,” she says.
“If I missed a workout for any reason, I’d give myself a really hard time, like it was the end of the world.
“At birthdays and barbecues, I would worry about things like eating a slice of cake. I’d be calculating how much exercise I needed to do to burn off the calories.
“By the time I was 26, I was down to a size four, which was far too skinny, but even then, I would still be worried about what my stomach looked like in a belly top.
“I realised that being smaller hadn’t made me any happier.”
Nicola decided to qualify as a personal trainer, studying at Coleraine Tech.
Doing so helped her find a better approach to her wellbeing.
One day, it just “hit home” that she needed to strike a balance, and that by helping other people, she would be helping herself.
“I started doing some weight training, focusing on building my strength instead of just doing cardio to stay slim,” Nicola explains.
“I worked out at home and found that I began to enjoy that feeling of being stronger.
“I also allowed myself to enjoy food again. I realised that food is not the enemy, it’s a way to fuel your body and there’s nothing wrong with a few treats along the way.”
After realising the error of her ways, Nicola is now a healthy size 10, weighing around 9st 10lbs.
While she still exercises up to six days a week, she’s much kinder to her body than in the past and makes sure to include lots of variety in her workouts
“For me, exercise is now about having ‘me time’ and feeling happy in my own skin,” she says.
“I’ve built a home gym, but I like to mix things up as much as possible.
“I’m outdoorsy and very into exercising outside. I’ll go swimming in the sea, running on the beach or hiking in the Mournes with friends.”
With her diet, Nicola is now a self-confessed foodie.
“I love my food. I don’t restrict myself anymore. These days I’m all about balance,” she stresses.
“I’ve found that I naturally gravitate to healthier foods that are good for my body.
“I tend to eat three balanced meals a day, perhaps with a healthy snack between.
“But I also now see eating as part of an enjoyable lifestyle. I spent so many years being scared of food, but these days, if I’m going to a party, I’ll eat cake, or if I’m going to the cinema, I’ll have popcorn.
“When I look back at old photos of myself at my slimmest, it makes me really sad wondering why I did that to myself. I spent so many years trying to shrink myself, but it didn’t make me happy.”
Nicola is now helping to share her balanced approach to wellness with others. She has a YouTube channel, where she shares her love of trying new foods, but most of her clients find her via Instagram @little.niks.
“For me, fitness is about how you are feeling in yourself. Just start to move in a way that feels good for you and don’t get caught up in what everyone else is doing,” she adds.
“Give yourself the freedom to be healthy in your own way.”