Personal trainer Shreen El Masry’s group fitness sessions look like any other from afar.
But when you get closer, it’s very different from the way a lot of the other typical, early-morning boot camps operate in their local park.
For a start, everyone is laughing and having fun.
There’s also hula hooping, potato sack racing, and dancing to classic hits.
And at the centre is Shreen, beaming as she guides her clients through their next activity.
She’s not your average PT – she’s a non-diet, body inclusive personal trainer, as well as a certified intuitive eating counsellor.
“So I help women all around the world heal their relationship to food, exercise and their body,” the 35-year-old said.
“But mostly I help women exercise from a place of fun and for nourishment and for a tool for self-care and mental health, rather than for punishment.”
Why dieting and exercise was so dangerous for Shreen
While Shreen preaches self-love and body acceptance, it took her a long time to get there herself.
The Englishwoman, who now lives in Sydney, always wished she was skinny.
And that dream almost ruined her life.
“But what is ironic is that when I went on the diet that led me to an eating disorder, I nearly lost all those things because I had actually achieved all those things without trying to shrink my body.”
When she was a teenager, Shreen remembers going to see There’s Something About Mary at the movies.
“I came out of the film and I just wanted to be Cameron Diaz. I remember running straight to the chemist and buying SlimFast shakes,” she said.
But she hit rock-bottom when she was weight-shamed at a bridesmaids’ dress fitting 10 years ago.
It prompted her to use a calorie counting app to help track her food, and she was overexercising to maintain the weight loss.
It also coincided with her move to Australia, and it all became too much for the former music licensing manager.
“It was definitely the hardest thing that I’ve been through,” she said.
“And I never really understood eating disorders before, I didn’t know that they were a mental illness.”
How exercise healed Shreen
Shreen’s turning point came when her counsellor warned that she’d hospitalise her under the Mental Health Act.
“I knew just there and then I had to do everything I could to get better. That’s when I really threw myself into recovery and learnt everything,” she said.
“It was a really, really hard journey, and I fell down a lot.
That experience prompted Shreen’s career change, where she adopts the Health at Every Size (HAES) approach.
It’s a movement that’s been around for a while but continues to evolve and appears to be growing in popularity.
At its core, HAES rejects the idea that weight, size, or body mass index should be used as key indicators for health.
Instead it focuses on being inclusive of a diverse range of body types, helping people improve their overall health, eating for wellbeing, and finding joy in being physically active.
In Australia, there are around 80 verified providers — mainly psychologists and dieticians.
Shreen is one of the few personal trainers.
“I’m just really passionate in changing the narrative around fitness and diet culture and showing women that their weight has nothing to do with their self-worth,” she said.
Shreen adds that a lot of the women she trains have “fitness trauma” from bad experiences in gyms which don’t necessarily cater for all body types, and where there’s a tendency to push high-intensity exercise and working up a sweat.
“When you focus on exercising from that place of weight loss, it’s a very negative relationship that you get with your body.
“Whereas when you’re focusing on engaging in exercise as a tool for self-care, and something that’s fun and nourishing, you’re more likely going to stick to it and have a much more positive relationship to it.”
How diet and exercise can affect fertility, too
Shreen is also open about sharing her fertility struggles to help educate other women who may have fallen into the same trap of extreme dieting and exercising.
A few years after being in recovery from her eating disorder, she started trying to have a baby.
She came off the pill, but her period didn’t return.
She eventually discovered she had a condition called hypothalamic amenorrhea.
“And that basically means I’ve lost my periods due to years of dieting, overexercise, stress. And I had no idea, I’d never even heard of this condition. My doctor didn’t even pick up on it before,” she said.
“Even though I thought I was recovered, I clearly wasn’t because I was still engaging in a lot of exercise because it was so normalised.”
She had to stop all high-intensity cardio and gain a significant amount of weight.
After two years of trying, she became pregnant with son Bryn, and finally completed her recovery journey.
“That’s where I really learned about body acceptance and found this community,” she said.
“[I] just came to a place of peace with my body that I’ve never, ever experienced before.”
If you need support with an eating disorder or body image issues, contact the Butterfly Foundation’s National Helpline 1800 ED HOPE (1800 33 4673) or [email protected]