The fitness Industry can be a difficult space to navigate for anyone, let alone those of us in fat bodies, or bodies that don’t live up to the ‘body ideal’. It can be a daunting step to enter (or re-enter) the world of exercise… if only there were some fabulous instructors and trainers out there who could be trusted to safeguard our body autonomy and self- confidence in their classes…
Enter Ash Newburn (she/her), a 33-year-old, London- based, instructor who is bringing an anti-diet mentality to a fitness class that has a reputation for being quite the opposite: spin.
Ash, who is a public lawyer by day (as well as being the book club facilitator for ADRC’s private community space – get you a girl who can do it all!), teaches spin classes at Boom Cycle, a boutique studio with locations across London. I sat down with her to hear more about her experiences in this industry, and to learn more about the impact that spin has had on her wellbeing, relationship with her body, and broader life.
Hey Ash! So, I guess to start with I’m interested to know whether you started with going to spin classes first, before you became an instructor?
Yeah, so I’ve been in London for 10 years. When I came to London, I felt like I needed to look a certain way. I did all sorts of exercise, and I became an obsessive exerciser – I didn’t feel like I’d had a successful day until I’d been to the gym or done a class. I started spin alongside other things, but spin was the only thing I really enjoyed, and then I came across Boom Cycle 6 or 7 years ago.
Boom Cycle is a different kind of spin to the ones you find in gyms, as it’s more about the feeling and the experience. There’s no focus on statistics, competition, or numbers – I’d been to studios in the past where there are leader boards and riders are encouraged to compare themselves to other people, and Boom wasn’t like that. When I started to try and repair my relationship with my body and with movement, I read about moving your body how you want to, and not doing things when you don’t enjoy them. Spin is the only form of movement I’ve ever felt unadulterated joy for and for that reason it has now become my main focus in terms of how I chose to move my body.
So, how did you start your journey into becoming an instructor?
Over time, I got to know some of the Boom instructors and people in the studios from going to classes regularly. One of my favourite instructors was Bangs Carey-Campbell (@bangsandabun), at the time she was Boom’s Head Instructor, and after a class where I’d felt particularly fabulous on the bike, she came up to me and asked if I’d ever thought about auditioning to be an instructor. I was like – that seems absolutely ridiculous to me! I’m a lawyer, I sit in an office all day, I don’t have any qualifications in fitness– it’s not something I’d ever have thought was an option for me. But she just said she’d love to see me in the upcoming auditions – and that kind of planted the seed really. I ended up auditioning but didn’t get through the first time. When the next round [of auditions] came about I wasn’t sure if I could put myself through it again, but I thought why not give it one more go? And then I got through!
That’s brilliant! So, now that you’ve been an instructor for a few years, if I were to ask you to sum up your style of class, how would you describe it?
So, there’s no – and this is true of the whole of Boom Cycle – there’s no statistics, no numbers, no tracking. For me, it’s really important that we break the link between exercise and weight loss. It’s all about feeling, it’s about letting go. Having 45 minutes to yourself to not think about anything else and just move in a joyous way. For me, spinning was a massive part of finding my way back to that. And, obviously, I know it’s not going to be that for everyone, as we all have our own preferences, but what I’ve found with spinning, I want everyone to be able to find in their own way. Whether that’s in my class, in someone else’s class or even not in a class at all, just like – I don’t know – rolling down hills in fields (laughs).
So, yeah, I’m aiming for a safe and supportive space, no pressure, no expectations. I always say at the start of class, this is your ride. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, what anyone else is in the room is doing, you listen to your body today, I want you to trust what your body is telling you. We grow up in a world that teaches us not to listen to ourselves, and I want my class to be a space where people can learn to listen to themselves, outside of the negativity and shame which is often tied to exercise.
You mentioned earlier that you struggled with feeling you had to look a certain way when you moved to London 10 years ago. Would you mind if we talked a bit about what your relationship with your body was like before that?
Of course! When I was much younger, as a teenager I went through what seems to be a fairly typical experience of equating thinness with attractiveness, with worthiness, with health. I felt like I had to control my body. I spent all of my teens and most of my twenties dieting, exercising obsessively, calculating my food (calorie counting) and tracking my exercise – it was all-consuming. I did enjoy some of the exercise I was doing, but I always had this ulterior motive – to make myself smaller – it wasn’t ever that I just did the exercise because of the mental health benefits, or because I enjoyed the feel of it.
I think most people – or a lot of people that I know – are now coming to the realisation of how effed up the experiences we went through when we were younger were. I feel like we’re now at a point where there is more awareness. I didn’t know the words ‘diet culture’ until I was about 26, whereas I think now, especially with platforms like ADRC, a lot more people have heard of it, which is really positive.
Yeah it’s really great that we can create spaces for conversations like this to talk about reclaiming exercise without the aspect of diet culture. I think spin, for example, has a bit of reputation for being quite a daunting class. Have you got any advice for people who might be worried about joining a class?
Fitness is so terrifying! I hate even the word “fitness” and the conversations about health which so often follow on from those about fitness and exercise. For me… even recently, I had a negative classpass review where someone who’d ridden my class left comments saying I was out of breath and that this person “expected more from an instructor”, which I think holds some fatphobic connotations. I mention it because I feel like that reminded me that there are people coming into these spaces that expect a certain thing that I’m not.
So, it’s completely understandable that people would feel that way! When people arrive, I ask anyone who is new to a class to give me a wave so that I can help them to get set up. I say to people they can just watch me, as there is a lot going on, so they can just sit and pedal rather than doing the choreography. We don’t expect new riders – or any riders – to do more than they are comfortable doing on any given day. Some days you might feel full of energy and want to give it everything, whereas other days you might not feel up to that and want to take a gentler approach.
What would you say to people who are worried they might not be fit enough, or those in a fat or disabled body who might feel spin isn’t suited to their needs?
I think fat people can feel under extra scrutiny in fitness spaces. There’s a feeling that, because of the way a larger body looks, or the way it moves/sounds, that people might think you’re less fit. I recently completed Louise Green’s Size Inclusive Fitness Training Course (@louisegreen_bigfitgirl), which is all about adapting fitness for larger bodied people. And one of the things Louise said, which I found so interesting, is that in order to move a larger mass in the same way as a smaller one, more exertion is required. So, for a larger-bodied person to be doing the same thing as a smaller bodied person on a spin bike – not that you have to be doing the same, but as an example – they are working harder. So being out of breath, or sweating – what you can see as a result of the body in motion, whatever size it is – is totally fine and to be expected. Unfortunately, people have this idea that – for example sweating or breathlessness – means different things for people in different bodies, and I really try to dispel that.
You’re right, we know that if you’re exercising you’re going to sweat and you’re going to get out of breath. And for people in smaller bodies that’s seen as a good thing, but for people in larger bodies it’s often seen as a sign of being unhealthy. So, it’s really great to know that there are instructors out there who don’t feed into that narrative.
Yeah, I think what I would say is you can move however you need or want to move – what I try to focus on is making people feel comfortable doing their own thing. You know – you see these spin classes where everyone moves like robots, and everyone is doing (or trying to do) the same thing – I really want people to feel like that’s not the goal, and that they can take it at their own pace and listen to their body. With physical disability, too, that’s super important. I don’t want people to feel they have to educate me on their needs, but if people are comfortable discussing them with me, perhaps once we’ve established a bit of a relationship, I’m always open to learn how we can make the class more comfortable for everyone. One thing I emphasise all the time in my classes is that you (the rider!) know your body better than I do and that you should always listen to yourself first. The class will feel different for every single person in it, and I want to honour that. In order to do so I think I have to start by establishing an environment in which riders trust that they won’t ever be shamed for doing something different and that they can talk to me about their needs.
As a fat disabled person myself, something I worry about is whether equipment can hold my weight, or whether it’s going to uncomfortable – or even if I’m going to be able to get on the equipment at all. Do you think there are any people that will face barriers to accessing a spin class?
Though I’ve had people attend my class with varying disabilities, the equipment might be difficult to use for some people. So, I would always recommend that, if there are specific medical related concerns, riders check with their doctor about individual circumstances before coming to a class. Riders can also email the studio ahead of time to ask for specific assistance with set up on arrival at class. In terms of larger bodied people, manufacturers do tend to create equipment with a weight limit, and for spin bikes I think that is generally around 300-350 lbs. A lot of what I learnt with Louise is that there are a lot of gym based exercises done which machines, that you can also do without, and as such trainers can help larger bodied clients to make appropriate adjustments so as to complete specific movements without the use of machines. Unfortunately, I don’t know how you could do a spin class without a bike, which is an accessibility issue.
I have also tried to create an environment where people feel comfortable to advocate for themselves and be in the space even if it isn’t ideal for their body, such as by creating more space between bikes, or adjusting the bike set up to allow for belly abundance by having the handlebars higher. So, even though I know it isn’t ideal, I do want people to feel like I’m someone they can talk to, to ask these kinds of questions, or to feel comfortable in the space doing what they need. If people are super, super anxious, they can of course email the studio ahead of time and arrange to come in and have a look at the bikes or have chat to someone even before booking to come to a class.
It’s really helpful to know that you welcome those kinds of questions from people who might be interested in joining a class. And talking of belly abundance, I also love that one of your classes is called Big Babe Energy! I know spin involves choreo, so is there a particular playlist that you like to listen to during rides that embodies the atmosphere of the class?
Yeah! The anthem of Big Babe Energy, the song I play at every BBE ride, is called ‘Belly Bounce’ by Miss Eaves! There’s a part that talks about her health being no one else’s business. I found another awesome song recently called ‘Flap Flap ‘by Magdalena Grace, talking about the different folds of our body that flap, which kind of made me laugh. When I was healing myself (which is still ongoing), I would listen to songs which made me feel confident, so I also invite riders to share theirs with me.
You spoke about your healing journey just then… how has being a spin instructor impacted your relationship with your body?
Being a spin instructor has been difficult, and sometimes still is, in terms of how I feel about my own body. When I first started, I would have to give myself a pep talk before every class. I’m at the front of the class on a podium with everyone facing towards me (and some riders facing the side of me!). One of my biggest insecurities has always been my belly. I have a belly that looks pregnant, at least to other people… even recently I had someone come up to me in a supermarket while I was buying a bottle of wine, look at my belly and say to me, “Should you really be drinking that?”
Ergh, *audible sigh*.
There are so many ways that people’s bodies – especially women’s bodies – are impacted by body image standards. And there’s this perception that the only reason a woman’s belly would look like mine is if they are pregnant. So, now I advocate for letting your belly bounce and letting it all out, because I held myself in for so long. For me, when I’m in class and I play belly bounce and shout about letting your belly just be, I can’t believe that I’m doing it. It feels powerful and I feel so much myself – I’m not recognisable now to how I was at the start in terms of my confidence and my ability to speak in front of people and move and not feel ashamed. I’m really grateful for that.
That sounds like a really powerful transformation. How has that impacted on other areas of your life?
I feel like I move through the world in a much more carefree way. I’m much more able to prioritise my pleasure and my comfort and my needs. I ask myself what do I want to wear today? How do I want to approach my work today? It’s given me a sense of agency that I didn’t have before, and a sense of control, but in like the most radically positive way!
Wow! Thanks so much Ash for speaking to us about your experiences! Ash leads classes every month at Boom Cycle studios in Battersea, Holborn, Monument and Hammersmith including a FREE weekly community ride in Holborn, check out @boomcycle and @ashreadslondon for schedule details. Do you have any more questions for Ash before you join your first class? Leave a comment on our Instagram page, and we’ll ask Ash to share her thoughts!