When Andrea McGowan got a dog about three years ago, she had no way of knowing that the dog, and the regimen it demanded of her, would lead to her dream job.
Andrea, a Letterkenny woman, was handling social media in the Belfast offices of an international company and looking forward to moving up through the ranks. But while she said everything may have looked great from the outside, Andrea wasn’t happy.
Now, three years later, Andrea has changed careers and is pursuing her passion, working as a personal trainer and training to become a competitive bodybuilder. In those years, she also lost up to six stone in weight.
And she still has the dog, a Labrador-Rottweiler mix named Oscar.
“He’s brilliant,” Andrea said. She was speaking on the phone earlier this week, while taking Oscar out for a walk.
That’s how her new direction began, about three years ago. At that time, she said, her life revolved around driving to the office for 9am, sitting at her desk all day and driving home again after 5pm. She would lay on the sofa at home all evening, eating takeaway food.
It was only later that she realised that while she had convinced herself that was the life she wanted, she had no passion for the work she was doing. She also realised that she was not happy with how she looked at the time.
“I was always the first one making a joke about my weight or my appearance, in case anybody else would have a chance to say something,” Andrea said.
When she got Oscar, she knew she would have to go out for a walk every day. “I was incredibly lazy, but I knew I had to take him out for his walk – it wasn’t fair on him otherwise,” she said.
So she started out slowly, “and before I knew it I was thinking, ‘This would be over quicker if I could run’.” So she started jogging, and in time she was running 5ks after work.
Andrea also looked at her eating habits. She said there are two types of people – restrictors, who she said have to restrict themselves; and moderators, who she said can look at tempting food and moderate how much of it they will eat. Andrea recognised that she was what she called a restrictor.
“I cut out a lot of what I used to eat – I found it easier to restrict myself totally,” she said. “If I wasn’t allowed it at all, I couldn’t overindulge.”
Andrea said she had spent her whole life trying to get in shape, and had joined one gym or another, but she could not stick at it.
But the results she saw after her daily walks with Oscar gave her the motivation she needed to continue working at it.
“I didn’t have an excuse then – I had to walk him,” Andrea said. After she caught the running bug, it was an easy move to joining a gym and keep with it. She became so dedicated to fitness that she earned a Level 3 certificate in personal training, receiving it just before last Christmas, and qualified as a gym instructor.
Andrea had moved to Dublin for a similar social media job with a different company, but found the cost of living in Dublin so high that she thought of returning home to Donegal. She had these thoughts of returning home before, but had not been able to find a job to sustain her. Now, she thought, she could try to make a living as a personal trainer.
“I would be a bit cautious normally about things like that and I decided, just before Christmas, to try a wee bit on the side and see what’s happening,” she said.
She made the move to Donegal in June of this year, and has been delivering courses and working as a personal trainer based in Letterkenny. “It’s fairly small scale at this point,” she said, but she hopes to see her work grow.
Andrea believes people may have the wrong idea of what a personal trainer does. She always asks her clients what they want to achieve.
“People think if I go to a personal trainer I’m going to spend hours on a treadmill, or training for an event I don’t want to do,” she said. “A personal trainer is to take your goals for yourself, and help you achieve them.
“If you want to run a 5k they’re going to get you there and in a way that is going to be achievable and enjoyable,” Andrea said. “If you want to be a bodybuilder they’re going to get you there, and it will be a different journey, but it will still be enjoyable.”
Andrea finds her work deeply satisfying. It has been a while since she has been monitoring social media for a large company.
“Now I’m telling someone, ‘When you came to me four weeks ago you couldn’t do this exercise. Now you can do 20 in a row, and look at what you’ve achieved,’” she said.
She remembers the look on people’s faces when they accomplish something they thought was beyond them.
“You’re actually changing somebody’s life right in front of you,” she said.
Andrea posts about her classes and her progress in her own training at her AMG Fitness NW Facebook page.
She is training now as a bodybuilder and hopes to be competing on stage within two years.
“I’m probably two stone heavier now than I was at my lightest, but I’m totally working toward a different goal,” she said. She finds the amount of food she has to eat now the most difficult part of this type of training.
“But it has to be done,” she said, adding, “The training is brilliant.”
Andrea said if she had to pass on one piece of advice it would be this: Don’t take on too much.
“You can’t change your life overnight – it takes time,” she said. “Make one change, and stick to it, and before you know it you’ve made all the changes you wanted.”
The things that matter
“I don't care about what I weigh,”Andrea said. “That's the last thing I think about.
“I care about my health, my clothes size, how much body fat I have - those are the things that matter, not numbers on scales,” she said.
She was out of the gym for a few months with an injury but said that now, “I’m so much more focused on good technique and doing everything at your own pace.”