Think of a personal trainer and many of us will conjure up an image of a sergeant major-type, barking orders for 20 more burpees to a puce-faced, breathless out-of-shape client.
It’s a caricature, of course, but personal trainers can sometimes seem intimidating, especially if you are new to the whole exercise malarkey and are more tubby than taut.
Not personal trainer Karla McAllister, though, who achieves results through being encouraging, supportive, and empathetic and has made fitness a sphere anyone can step into without fear or embarrassment.
“I try to teach, rather than demand of people, which is something I am very much into,” said the Ballymoney woman.
It is these qualities which resulted in the 32-year-old recently being crowned not only top personal trainer in Co Antrim, but also for the whole of Northern Ireland in the recent NI B-Fit Awards.
The mum-of-one said: “To win was such an achievement. I still don’t think it’s really sunk in. I’m just back to work as normal, but it’s something that I will cherish for a very long time, probably forever.”
Ice skating career
Karla is no stranger to fitness, having had an illustrious career as a British figure skating champion.
She was on the GB Olympic team, was three times British champion and competed internationally for GB. She also won Britain’s Brilliant Protégé in 2000 for Sports Person of the Year, but sadly that career came to an end.
“I left home when I was 14 to skate with the British team. I lived in England for nine years. We travelled every month to compete on the Grand Prix circuit, but then I sustained a very bad injury and that’s what finished my skating career when I was 21.”
Having always had an affinity for sport and fitness (she began skating at just six years of age), she decided to find a new outlet for her passion and opened a gym to teach pilates.
That gym started from very humble beginnings in her dad’s garage with just two clients, but now 11 years later her business, Karla’s Physical Excellence, which she runs with her husband Gareth, not only has a very successful gym in Ballymoney, but an online, worldwide presence, which is helping people of all ages achieve a healthier body and mind.
It was the pandemic which prompted Karla to move the business online.
“Obviously when lockdown happened we couldn’t work, so I decided to open the gym online and give everybody seven weeks free. The way I looked at it was there was no point in looking for money in the middle of this terrible time, so we thought instead of me sitting at home doing nothing, we’ll go online and keep ourselves busy.
“After the seven weeks we decided to drop our prices from £70 a month to £25 a month which works out at 83p per day because we realised in the pandemic how many people had lost their jobs, how many people would see fitness and wellbeing as a luxury and we didn’t want that for anybody. We wanted to make sure that people were looking after their health and looking after their mental wellbeing, so that is why we dropped our prices. Ever since we have done that and reached out and helped so many people, it became huge. People really appreciated that we were doing so much for so little.
“We supplied two live 45- minute workouts every day, meal plans and cooking demos and live chats with clients every night. I tried to tell people that if your immune system is good you’ll fight anything that comes your way, so eating good and eating clean will keep your body healthy and will help you fight coronavirus. If your lungs are healthy and you are working out, the combination of both will help you so much.”
Karla also released her own range of ready meals, salads and energy balls, supplying them to butchers’ firm Apperleys, which has outlets in Randalstown, Ballymoney and Ballymena.
“They are in 19 stores and they are selling out fast. We’ve been doing that for nearly a year now.”
Karla’s Facebook page is full of ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots, as clients flaunt their newly trim physique, but it’s not just about shedding the pounds, there’s truly inspirational stories too.
“I have one girl, Laura Harper, who suffered a stroke at 25 after her last baby. She had to learn to walk, talk and feed herself again. Every gym turned her away and I said ‘no, I will work with you’ - this was all online during lockdown. She has lost three stone, she looks absolutely amazing, she can take part in any class, she’s got her balance, her strength, her core stability, everything is back, even better than it was before the stroke. She’s healthier now than she’s ever been and she is on top of the world.
“To see somebody as inspirational as that, who has come from a serious illness and be told that they would never do anything like that, to now being a forerunner and giving inspiration to other people is just amazing.”
Many people are allergic to the self-discipline of gyms, they also don’t like an audience and are fearful of exercising next to fitter looking gym bunnies, this is where Karla’s online classes have plugged a gap.
“A lot of people on the online programme say they were too scared to go to a gym environment, scared of making a fool of themselves or feeling self-conscious. With us they’ve got the chance to do it at home on a private group where no one sees them, you are not on Zoom and clients say they can’t believe they haven’t done something like this sooner because it has changed their whole lives.”
Of course, there is also the mental barrier to getting fit - it’s all too easy to come up with excuses to eschew exercise in favour of lolling on the sofa.
“It’s a mindset,” said Karla. “People don’t take responsibility for themselves. The first thing everybody does is they look for the closest excuse, like I’m too busy, I’m too tired or I’m working all the time. But instead of knocking it before you’ve tried it, do one workout a day, no matter how badly you complete it, or how little you do it is better than sitting on the sofa - 45 minutes is only three per cent of your day. How many people sit down and watch Love Island for an hour?
“Changing your diet is not only going to make you a happier, healthier person.
“People tend to use food as comfort, whereas food is actually fuel and no matter whether you eat that Chinese or that chocolate bar it’s not going to change your feelings. It’s all about looking at it in a completely different way and that’s something we do a lot of.”
Personal struggles with mental health issues
Karla takes a holistic approach to wellbeing, incorporating physical fitness, nutrition and mental health coaching into her programmes.
And she’s not afraid to admit she has her own struggles with mental health issues, insisting she is “just a normal mummy who struggles with balancing life every day.”
“I suffer very badly from anxiety and depression, which I am not ashamed to say.
“I am a human being. I am programmed exactly the same way as everyone else. People seem to think sometimes that you’re a robot because it’s your job, but there are days I don’t want to get up and days I don’t want to work out. I like to make people aware of this so they don’t feel alone.
“But I know that if I do get up and work out, within that 45 minutes of feeling down or anxious or anyway not myself then it (the exercise) completely changes my mood and my approach. It’s (depression) only a temporary thing, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be there forever.
“It just means that at the minute life’s a little bit different and you just have to learn to cope with it.”
She is also keen to promote fitness and good body image among children and teenagers.
“We like to let young people know that what they are seeing in the magazines, in all these filtered posts on Instagram, is not real life.
“We run a free kids’ class every Saturday because it is very hard to get activities for children that don’t cost an arm and a leg and especially with coronavirus there were so many parents that couldn’t afford to send their kids to lots of things because of being out of work.
“Children are very welcome to come to the gym with their parents, because we know it is not easy sometimes for mums and dads to get out sometimes without the children.”
Karla is also keen to give back to the community that has supported her so much, by raising money for local good causes.
“At Christmas we did a toy collection for St Vincent De Paul and collected over £5,000 worth of toys, which we gave to 23 local families in our area. We also raffled off a climbing frame and we got £1,200, which we gave to Ballymoney food bank.
“Our big motto is ‘You get out of life what you put in’.”