Strong is the New Skinny


Kelly Creel


90.3 WBHM I have declared on my blog, on my social media networks, and to all my close family members and friends that I am going to exercise every day in 2014. Yes, I plan to work out 365 consecutive days.

I've made it clear to all, however, that I'm not embarking on this 365-day fitness challenge because I want to be skinny. I'm doing this because I want to be strong.

I'm also doing this because I want to be Kelly Creel.

Creel turned 40 last year but has a fitness level some 20-year-old women would envy. Creel and her husband, Stephen Creel, own Inspire Fitness Birmingham, a local boutique fitness studio that offers Spinning classes, yoga, strength-training sessions and personal training. Creel teaches yoga and Spinning and leads strength-training classes called FuncFit (or Functional Fitness) at Inspire.

"My husband and I started Inspire because we are big believers in the Spinning program and what it has done for our bodies, our energy level, and our overall health and wellness, and we wanted the freedom to be able to share Spinning with Birmingham in a format the city had perhaps not seen before," said Creel. At Inspire Fitness, Spinning classes are accompanied by video - either music videos to make classes more fun, or videos of bike rides through various types of terrain to give clients the feeling of actually cycling in the great outdoors.

But one cannot live on Spinning alone.

"Thinking of fitness as a triangle, the other two corners of the triangle are strength and flexibility," Creel said. "We think a complete picture of fitness and wellness can be achieved by participating in the three products we offer, those three points on the triangle. So for us it's back to basics: cardio, strength training, and yoga can absolutely make you the fittest you've ever been."

On a recent Tuesday evening I went to Inspire for a quick Spinning class and a yoga session. But first, I had a talk with Creel about my 365-day fitness challenge.

"Am I crazy for wanting to do this?" I bluntly asked.

"No, I don't think you're crazy," Creel answered. "The human body was engineered for movement, so moving it every day in some form, even if that's at a light intensity, is a wonderful goal."

Creel did, however, give me some tips on how to prevent injury during my challenge. She recommended light workouts such as restorative yoga or a leisurely walk outside once or twice a week. She also said I should let myself off the hook and take a break if I'm sick.

Creel applauded my focus on building strength. She's determined to help her clients, especially her female clients, get stronger. Last summer Inspire Fitness hosted an eight-week chin-up challenge for women. During the challenge, women did a series of workouts to help build their upper-body strength so they could do chin-ups. She plans to host this challenge again in 2014, and you can bet I'll be there.

Creel says strong is the new skinny.

"When I was in high school in the late '80s and early '90s, I didn't know of a single girl my age who cared about being able to do push-ups and pul-ups, outside of failing the Presidential Fitness Test," Creel said. "They only wanted to be thin. But now, since Title IX was enacted and really took hold, and girls started playing more sports competitively, the trend is more toward strength. Women want muscle definition - they want proof that they worked hard, were diligent, and were disciplined and passionate about something. It's not about starving yourself anymore; it's about showing up, doing the work, and proving that you're mentally as well as physically tough."

Though it's hard to believe considering her current career and lifestyle, there was a time when Creel lacked the motivation to eat right and exercise. Creel has always been thin, she said, but when she was in her early twenties she lived off fast food and pizza and never worked out.

"A cardiologist put me on a treadmill [for a fitness test] and I flunked it," Creel said. "He said I was the most un-fit skinny 22-year-old he'd ever seen."

By her early thirties, Creel was exercising more, but still lacked consistency.

"Everything changed when my son was four, and we joined karate so we would have an activity we could do together," Creel said. "Suddenly I was competing in a sport - which I loved, enjoyed, and became quite obsessed with - and it became crucial for me to be very consistent with my fitness efforts. I think finding your purpose for your training can become that spark of motivation that helps you stay consistent."

But what if you're struggling to maintain a regular exercise regimen? Creel recommends taking up a sport or signing up for a local race. Plan a hiking trip with friends and start training to prepare your body for the trek. Accountability is crucial, Creel said. So if you sign up for a 5K, tell everybody. Another fun idea: you and your friends purchase vouchers from a website like Groupon or Living Social for fitness classes, and then commit to attending the classes together.

To be clear, though, accountability is not a synonym for shaming.

"Shaming in the fitness industry is something that I find absolutely, completely unacceptable," Creel said. "The first form of physical fitness I became certified to teach is yoga. The yogic path teaches us to bring compassion to what we do and what we share, both on and off the mat."

And Creel wants to share the gospel of fitness not to shame others into getting in shape, but simply because it changed her life.

"When I was 30 I woke up every day feeling like crap," Creel confessed. "Now that I'm 40 I wake up and nine days out of 10 I feel like a 20-year-old. I want everybody to feel this way."

Javacia Harris Bowser is an educator and freelance writer in Birmingham. Javacia is the founder of See Jane Write, an organization for local women writers, and she blogs about her life as a “southern fried feminist” at The Writeous Babe Project.

~ January 30, 2014