Even though physical weight loss is great, it is not at the top of the list of benefits of leading a healthier life, says Chantel Erfort Manuel.
I was on deadline as hundreds of women took to the streets to join the #TheTotalShutdown march against gender-based violence on Wednesday, so I had to watch it unfold on social media.

Among the many faces I recognised in the pictures, and among those posting prolifically, was Caroline Peters, the founder of Nantes Athletic Club.

Our first encounter was about two years ago when she gave me a medal as a token of thanks for my participation in a workshop aimed at helping local sports clubs interact more effectively with the media. As she did so, she announced to those in the room that it was the only medal the club would ever give to someone who hadn’t run a race. Afterward, Caroline and I had a giggle as I told her I could barely run 50 metres before collapsing, so I really appreciated the medal.

That was a couple of months before I had my wake-up call and decided it was time to lose weight and get healthy.

The next time I met up with Caroline was December 2017, when I completed my first park run at Nantes Park. That time I had actually run, but didn’t get a medal. My reward, however, was an interview with Caroline during which she told me about how focusing on her health and getting in shape had helped her manage her mental illness and reclaim a space in her community that held memories of a traumatic past.

“Running saved my life,” Caroline told me. As she stood up from the bench we were on, she looked over at Nantes Park in Bridgetown and said: “That’s where I was raped when I was 16 years old.”

Her friend who was with her that day, was murdered.

Caroline carried the physical and emotional scars for many years and by the time she started running at the age of 48, she was overweight, depressed, and living with diabetes.

She started Nantes Athletic Club not only to get herself and women in her community in shape, but also as a way of reclaiming the park which had become synonymous with violent crime.

In the past year-and-a-half that I have been writing about my health and fitness and my overall well-being, I have encountered many other women who exemplify the positive effects leading a healthier life can have.

And believe me, even though it’s awesome to be able to fit into smaller jeans or actually like the way your body looks, most of them do not put the physical weight loss at the top of their list of benefits.

I have met women who had lost all confidence in themselves due to emotional and physical abuse, but rediscovered their innate emotional strength through physical activity, like punching a bag, lifting a barbell or swinging a kettlebell.

I have met women who hated their legs but learned to trust them and love them as those legs carried them to - and beyond - milestones they had set themselves.

I have met women emerging from a tumultuous ocean of divorce, who found a companion in themselves as they overcame challenges they thought they’d never be able to do without a partner at their side.

As for my experience? While my primary goal had been to lose weight when I changed my diet and lifestyle last year, I have to agree that the weight loss is but a “nice to have” when compared with the other benefits I’ve enjoyed.

Apart from learning about nutrition and understanding the negative relationship I had with food, I have also overcome a sometimes crippling lack of self-confidence and negative body image I lived with for much of my life.

For that alone, the journey has been worth it.

* You can read Chantel Erfort Manuel's interview with Caroline Peters at www.editedeating.co.za and for more on health and wellness, follow @editedeating on social media.