Susan Rennie aka The Sculpting Susan is based in Lincolnshire, UK and is the Founder of Teacher Strong Academy: the program for teachers who long for more energy and strength.
Originally from Scotland, after teaching full time in a secondary school for 6 years, she became a coach to hundreds of women online, supporting them with their strength training before creating an online course specifically aimed at helping teachers.
Through her extensive research and experience of diet, nutrition and strength training, she realised her passion for helping other teachers to become physically and mentally stronger so they can carry the weight of a dumbbell instead of workload stress. This means teachers can become happier and healthier without having to give up a job they love and continue to make a positive impact on children and young people in their care.
I believe that food is the foundation for health, longevity and disease prevention. I'm on a mission to empower others to take control of their physical and mental health through nutrition, strength training and self care so they don't have to wait for a medical diagnosis like I did, to have the energy to actually live the life they love. With a goal and the right plan, you CAN become physically and mentally stronger, reduce inflammation, obesity, fatigue, depression and anxiety (and that's just for starters). You just need someone to guide and support you.
Before life as an art teacher and strength coach, I grew up battling fatigue due to pain and gut inflammation.
At 9 years old during a rare hot Summer's day in Wishaw, Scotland, I lay in a small blue paddling pool in my parents' back garden. I was aware of pain and discomfort in my gut, the sensation heightened by wearing a tight pink swimsuit. My mum tried to take a photo of me and I remember I wanted to lie on my tummy so no one would have to see it. I didn't think I was fat. I did think though that my tummy was HUGE because it FELT HUGE. In the end, I settled for 'subtly' laying my arms across my tummy, which was to become the area I became the most self conscious of.
I didn't know it then but the pain I experienced was gut inflammation caused by an undiagnosed lactose intolerance and milk protein allergy. I didn't know about it until I started my teaching career in my early 30s. Growing up, studying and working hard, I never took the time to listen to my body and I suffered unecessarily for it. I wasn't interested in learning about sport or fitness at school so I didn't start learning about nutrition, exercise or self care until much later in life.
The only way I knew how to avoid the bloating and pain was by eating little and less often. I just wanted to feel like my friends did. I longed for their energy to do normal things like go for walks without it feeling like such a huge effort. I wanted to dress up and have fun but I just couldn't bring myself to muster the strength.
Sometimes I'd survive on simple sugar hits from sweets and cans of IrnBru. These would give me a quick rush of energy followed by a sugar crash. Eventually this led to an anorexia bulimia cycle in my late teens where I found myself caught between starvation, binge eating and making myself sick. This cycle continued throughout University where I was convinced I'd become adept at keeping it hidden. But I experienced periods of extreme highs and lows. As my relationship with food became more and more fraught, so too, did my relationship with others.
Lacking in energy, especially with the effort of the pretence, I spent a lot of my time depressed and insecure. I became reliant on anti-depressants and received cognitive behavioural therapy at the recommendation of my GP to help me to figure out what was going on inside my head. I know now, that greater emphasis was needed to figure out what was going on inside my body.
As I continued to work hard on the things I was passionate about (art and film), I did what the majority of people do when they haven’t learned about the science of the body and how it gets fuel: I went from one yo-yo diet to the next, trying every form of physical activity determined that if I just moved more and ate less, I’d finally feel less bloated, tired, stressed and depressed. I’d be happier and healthier if only I had more energy.
I had no clue what I was doing. I didn’t have time to figure it all out. I was busy and my body ached with inflammation, insulin resistance and excess body fat yet I kept working myself into the ground because, let’s face it, I was good at that.
Like so many people who didn’t pursue the study of fitness and nutrition (and some who did), I didn’t know that inflammation had proven to underlie every condition we associate with ageing, from wrinkles to lifestyle related cancers, through to Alzheimer’s disease.
Crucially, I came to learn that inflammation is something that we have more control over than we think in relation to prevention and even reversal of physical AND mental health conditions. Yet despite painstaking efforts, it took many years of pain and suffering before I started to join the dots, especially between inflammation and associated intolerances and allergies.
I'd spent years through triumphs and tears fighting for what seemed like an impossible battle for normality: saying 'yes' to going out to meet friends or going out for dinner with my family without worrying about feeling low or what I was going to eat.
I wanted a fulfilled life that included a husband, children, career and health but how could I when I felt so run down at such an early age. At just 20 years old, I remember desperately remarking to a friend in the bar where I worked that:
"I was still young! I shouldn't be THIS exhausted!"
Misguided but determined to improve my energy levels, I bought into every diet you can think of and wasted countless hours and money on both aerobic and anaerobic exercises, from running and gym classes to home workout DVDs. I enjoyed lifting weights at the gym but I hadn't yet learned enough about nutrition to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Before my life as a school teacher, I was well versed on The Alexander Technique due to lumbar weakness in my spine, again caused by inflammation. Taking the time to learn how to move my body with intention coupled with 6 months of physiotherapy, I was able to heal from the pain.
With a new freedom of movement, I enjoyed being more active and qualified as a Level 2 Fitness Instructor, thinking that the aerobic activity of exercising to music was the key to maintaining my physical health and energy levels.
(Spoiler. It wasn’t).
I was smart and worked bloody hard so why couldn’t I figure it all out? It seemed that I was always so tired and miserable despite all of the other wonderful people and things in my life that I was so grateful for.
I'd fallen for a sweet, patient and funny man with whom I'd marry and eventually have two children. In theory, we were living the dream, happily married with a newborn, together in our first flat. Yet I burned the candle at both ends, working as a filmmaker, video editor and media tutor in order to help make ends meet. After having a baby, you'd think I'd have the sense to slow down a bit but money was tighter than ever. I became so stressed and run down after giving birth to our son that I'd considered I might have been postnatally depressed. I had less energy and patience than ever before, I was falling asleep all the time and when I wasn't falling asleep, I was shouting at someone. My husband and mum thought I might be depressed and urged me to see my GP.
"I'm not depressed!'' I would scream. "I'm stressed because I have so much to do and I have zero energy to do it!!"
There were so many warning signs that I chose to ignore. The fatigue, I was used to but over time I also experienced a whole host of worrying symptoms. Headaches (I never got headaches), vision problems: my sight became distorted like the lens of a camera that tries to automatically focus on objects by zooming in and out; my voice became deeper and raspier and I couldn't even lift my toothbrush without experiencing either pins and needles or numbness. There were days I honestly couldn't even string a simple sentence together to respond to a simple question. It was like my brain just wouldn't work. I also became more forgetful than usual. This was more than just brain fog.
Finally, feeling hopeless, I went to the GP one morning for answers and despite my protests, I reluctantly left with a prescription for anti-depressants. I felt broken and defeated. Was I really depressed again after all this time? I'd find out the answer to that question that same afternoon but not before the worst happened.
I was thirty before I finally realised the detrimental effects of not listening to my body and of spending years trying to fill from an empty cup.
In 2012, while my husband was at work, I woke up one afternoon, feeling dazed and confused lying on my sofa in our flat. I heard the distant sounds of my house phone ringing, my mobile pinging and the screams of my 6 month old son lying in his basket in the next room. I couldn't lift my head up. I remember just lying there, trying to listen to the sounds, feeling helpless and unable to move. I don't remember how long I was out but when I eventually came to, I realised my GP and my mum had been trying to reach me. My son was still screaming, all alone in the next room. I was instructed to call the GP asap who told me later that afternoon that he couldn’t fathom how I’d been able to drive to the practice considering my blood test revealed that I had little to no thyroxine level in my blood. I had an underactive thyroid and was diagnosed with hypothyroidism.
At last, I had an answer. I wasn't going crazy! "Ha! Screw you anti depressants, I don't need you!" I realised that I'd learned to put up with so much, that I'd allowed this to happen.
The thyroid's main role is to regulate your metabolism (your body's ability to break down and convert oxygen and calories to energy). Sometimes there's a single core issue wrecking the thyroid, such as poor digestion, nutrient deficiencies, or too much stress. Yes, yes and hell yes! Sometimes it's not as simple as that but with the thyroid gland acting as a kind of bellwether for overall health, it's effectively signalling a problem in some other area of your body, which I'd get to in time. In the meantime, it was enough to have a starting point to build from.
Arriving home from the pharmacy that same afternoon, my thyroxine medication in hand, I walked straight up to my son's moses basket. He was fast asleep. I made a promise to him then and there that I would never be this broken again. I vowed to learn how to take better care of myself: to become healthy and strong and become the woman and mother I knew I could be.
I was riddled with guilt. Why hadn't I paid attention before now?
But you see, having little to no energy, falling asleep all the time, carrying excess weight, bloating, depression, tingling in my hands and feet and constantly feeling cold wasn’t new to me. My symptoms had become progressively worse over the years. My face, neck and tongue would become swollen from time to time but I'd started to investigate intolerances by then. I’d learned to ‘put up with’ so much for so long. I’d suffered with - amongst other things - gut inflammation for most of my life. But I wasn’t to learn of my allergy until after I started my teaching career, by which point, I was too busy to find the time to listen to my body. That is, until the afternoon I woke up on my sofa, unable to remember where I was: unable to tend to my son who needed me. That was indeed the day I woke up. It was time to start paying attention to my body. And this was just the beginning...
A few years later, after researching the science of nutrition, I bought an online program that would teach me how to build muscle on a plant based diet. This was more than just a muscle building program.
Having the discipline to be consistent with my strength training led to a deeper understanding of the important roles that nutrition AND muscle building play in energy production.
I finally started to see the bigger picture. I started by eating MORE food. I then added MORE nutrient dense food. I gave up cow's milk entirely, which completely eliminated my bloating. I would remark to my husband (infact, sometimes I still do), that I couldn't believe how good I felt after sitting through a three (sometimes five) course meal and NOT feel any discomfort. My energy wasn't being consumed by inflammation, bloating or pain so I was free to actually enjoy myself.
After a while, I no longer craved sugary snacks and processed foods and for the first time, I felt full of life: walking with energy and intention wherever I went.
This muscle building program made me realise that I'd been neglecting myself. It made me reflect on past decisions that led to some frankly awful experiences that I have no intention of repeating.
After completing the program with experience of coaching others online, I decided I wanted to help more people who were like me. It excited me to think I could help others to avoid years of pain and frustration.
I went on to study personal training, diet and nutrition and vegan nutrition, soaking up knowledge like never before. I learned about the proven impact of animal vs plant based protein. I dived into research on the effects of food on hormones (specifically insulin). I was interested in mental wellbeing as well as physical.
The human body is fascinating and I continue to learn more every day using evidence based scientific research where possible in order to reach informed decisions about my own health. I teach this same evidence based knowledge in my online program Teacher Strong Academy and encourage others to listen to their body, do their own research and of course seek the advice of a medical proffessional.
As a result, I gained muscle strength, gained a ton of energy. I lost 8 inches from my waist, eradicated pain and inflammation caused by food allergies and intolerances, reversed my ‘leaky gut syndrome’ (yes, its as horrible as it sounds) and completely controlled my insulin resistance, an indication of pre-diabetes.
I looked younger than I did as little as two years previous and I felt stronger than ever before.
Best of all, I felt energetic and strong in body and mind and with less stress and fatigue, I was more capable and patient with others, which positively impacted my relationships with those at work and with my family.
I finally had energy to give the best of me to those who needed me the most.
Strength training and nutrition may have finally come to me later in life but I believe that we only truly learn when we are ready and this was my time. I’ve been coaching other women with their strength training and nutrition ever since, focusing on helping teachers inparticular.
It's my mission to help teachers to become physically and mentally stronger so they could carry the weight of a dumbbell instead of workload stress. Teachers can become happier and healthier without having to give up a job they love. They can make time for their health and continue to make a positive impact on children and young people in their care.
But it only happens if you truly want health and happiness and if you never give up trying.
I’ve learned the hard way that you have to stop saying you want health and actually take action towards it no matter what age or stage you’re at in life.
Lots of small changes made consistently over time lead to bigger and better results and we are all capable of doing amazing things but we have to have faith in OURSELVES first.
We have to stop beating ourselves up when we mess up or fail the first or the 500th time.
We need to stop fearing failure - it’s the reason so many people quit in their pursuits yet it’s the very same reason that we grow in health and strength. You get to choose your 'hard' in this life, right? As in, you choose the effort that comes from staying miserable or the effort that comes from making change.
There's nothing special about me. I didn't have loads of time or money to spend learning something new. I didn't suddenly have all the answers but I did know how to follow a plan.
But I learned the hard way that even by following a LONGER term plan: NOTHING TRULY CHANGES UNTIL YOU DO, which is why unless you address some deep routed limiting beliefs about yourself, you'll more than likely revert back to old habits.
This is something I work on ALL THE TIME. I worked on it with my health goals and I work on it every day inside my business. In fact, everytime I'm faced with the challenge of learning something new I am reminded of a Henry Ford quote I first heard during a teacher training lecture:
In addition to rest and setting boundaries, another important part of self care that I teach comes from mental health and resilience practices and if you take anything valuable from this story, let it be this:
Nothing is more powerful in achieving your goals than the belief you have about yourself and what you see in your mind's eye. For what we think, we truly become.
Never let fear hold you back from doing something you really want to do. Never feel like the time isn't quite right, because the time will NEVER be right, not if you don't want to do it. Take it from someone who has wasted A LOT of time and energy believing that I couldn't, wouldn't or shouldn't do something. If you're excited about it, it lights you up and it scares you a little (or even a lot). Do it! You might just get EVERYTHING you wished for.
So who cares if you did or didn’t learn about sport and nutrition at school or from a young age? It doesn’t mean that you should miss out on becoming the healthiest and happiest version of yourself now or perhaps even the athlete that you know you can be.
I still live the passions of my youth: I’m still eating loads, working hard, being creative and I love teaching art. But I also now have the energy I once dreamed about. I make time for family and for myself.
Best of all, I get to turn what I've learned into something others can learn from, that guides them step by step in taking control of their physical and mental health. No one should have to wait for a medical diagnosis like I did, to have the energy to live the life they love.
It's not too late to start. All you have to do is decide to take that first step.
Become a part of the Teacher Strong revolution.
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