Fitness influencer and online trainer Kelsey Wells is on a mission to change how women view fitness.
Born and bred in Utah, US, she has three million followers on Instagram. Her PWR fitness programs cater to women of all abilities and at every different stage of life. Along with being part of the world-class trainer line up for Sweat, the health and fitness app designed for women by women, she also hosts her own free podcast, Redefine Fitness.
The 33-year-old is one of the headliners for Dubai Active, the region’s leading international health and fitness event set to take place at Dubai World Trade Centre from Friday, November 24 to Sunday, November 26, 2023.
Wells speaks to Livehealthy about why she always looks forward to coming to Dubai, her new intentional and mindful approach to exercise, and how she is encouraging women to view fitness as a positive thing and a way of nurturing themselves, rather than as a punishment to be endured.
What do you have planned for Dubai Active?
This year is going to be so special. I love Dubai. It has such a special place in my heart and I love the women there. This year I’m doing one of my live Redefine Fitness sessions. I’m known for doing really killer workouts, but these sessions combine movement with mindfulness. It includes setting an intention, using affirmations and taking a moment to show gratitude for your body at the end. Doing events like this with a big group of women is incredible. The energy is electric and I’m so excited. Right after the session, I’ll be doing a meet and greet and a Q&A as well.
What are your meet and greets like?
They’re just lovely. It really brings it all full circle and proves how much I’m helping people. It’s one thing to see my stats on the app or Instagram, but being able to meet women who have used the tools that I’ve created in my workout programs to care for and empower themselves, instead of looking at fitness as a negative, is incredible. It’s truly why I do this. Those meet and greets are my favorite things to do because connecting with people in person really drives me.
Do a lot of people look at fitness as a punishment?
Absolutely. I think the toxic ways that fitness, exercise and eating have been packaged and sold over the last few decades, predominantly to women, is really tragic. It has a long lasting negative impact on our mental health. But in 2023, I feel like there’s starting to be more awareness that fitness is about health, and our health is not just physical. It’s also mental, emotional and spiritual. These things go hand-in-hand and you can use movement as a tool for self-empowerment, and as a way of fortifying your mental health. But, you can’t do that if your motive is in the wrong place.
Unfortunately, if you’re a victim of diet culture and you’ve been bombarded by these things since before you could walk and talk, it’s not your fault if you might think of exercise in a negative way.
My mission is to help women understand where their self-limiting beliefs come from, and make them aware of the toxic culture that they’ve ingrained in themselves. Once they’re aware of this, they have the power to redefine how they look at fitness, and forge a new, healthy and gratifying relationship with movement.
Have you personally struggled with this?
Yes, that’s why I began doing what I do. I grew up believing that exercise was the ultimate chore. I would make myself do it if I ate what I thought was too much. Even as a very thin and privileged girl, I was in this perpetual mindset that I just needed to lose five pounds. I had this goal weight of 120 pounds, which is very unhealthy for my height and my body stature. I just had no understanding. I thought eating healthy meant either starving myself, or trying the latest fad diet or skinny tea. It wasn’t until after the birth of my son when I was 24, that I realized that it can, and should, be something different. I think that phase, that really delicate postpartum phase, was the perfect storm.
It was a little bit like hitting rock bottom. I say that gently because this phase of life is magical and beautiful, but also many women struggle with postpartum depression or anxiety. I experienced the latter very severely. I feel like my mental health was at a big low. I was terrified of my own thoughts and ashamed to admit that I was struggling.
Long story short, I was at a postpartum checkup, and my midwife could tell that my mental health was not getting better. I didn’t want to take medication so she suggested that I should try exercising. I was so skeptical. I thought, ‘what does that have to do with anything? I’m having real problems’. But I told her I would try.
I had tried to start exercising regularly many times between the ages of 16 and 24. But it never worked. But this time was the first time that I was doing it to help my body and my mind heal, rather than out of hate for them. I had an epiphany, and a really huge awakening. I realized I could get my strength back and my ability back if I worked towards it little by little. I realized that my internal dialogue was very unhealthy, and that I could change that.
I knew the road would be long and hard. But when I started to feel and see the changes, my mind was blown and I wanted to scream from the rooftop so that every other woman who hated themselves understood that they could change.
Are your body and mind strongly linked?
Absolutely. We’re taught to starve ourselves and to try to take up less space physically. That also translates into your head.
The confidence I’ve gained has been my biggest progress. My before and after photos of how my body had aesthetically changed got me a lot of attention online. But to me, the photos can’t even come close to showing the biggest progress I made, and the real things that matter. I’m not more confident because I lost a certain amount of body fat. It’s because I’ve started to treat myself more kindly. My internal process was linear with my physical changes.
As a fitness professional with almost a decade in the industry, I know that you can physically change but still be exceptionally unhealthy on the inside. Confidence comes from building trust with yourself and living authentically. When you realize that your physical and mental health are not separate, the benefits come hand-in-hand. I like to envision it as breaking through the walls that society or cultural expectations have put up around you, and becoming whole. I don’t think there’s anything more powerful than that.
Did having your son trigger this change?
I think motherhood was the thing that finally made me understand that how I was viewing myself and my body was not okay. The thought of my son treating and speaking to himself the way I did to myself shattered me. I studied marriage and family therapy in college, so I understood that my behaviors and actions were his greatest teacher, not what I told him to do. He would grow up to model himself on how I lived my life. That was what gave me the strength to accept where I was, and get out of that place. I began my journey for him, and through the process learned that I needed to do it for myself as well.
When women care for themselves, it’s not selfish. It is essential. Prioritizing yourself enables you to be a better mother, and a better partner, friend and sister. The more we fill our own cup, the more we have to pour to everyone else.
You told a story about your son and social media…
I started my social media about a year into my fitness journey. My son was about one. Of course he was an integral part of my content as motherhood was so key to the things that I was speaking about. My husband and my son are my life. They’re my whole heart and sharing them just came so naturally. Then, when he was about six years old, I took this little video of us in the kitchen and he said: ‘Mom, are you going to post that?’ I was really taken aback because we’d never talked about it before. I’d never asked him if he minded. It was just something I did. Then he said: ‘I don’t want you to. I don’t ever want you to.’ He said it so innocently and I just felt horrible.
It hit me so, so hard. So now I’m trying to raise him to have a sense of self and to know that he has autonomy over his body. It was such a basic window that I missed. I decided to share my experience of this as I view it as a parenting mistake. I didn’t know I was doing something wrong but when you know better, you can do better. He’s nine now and we still talk about it. Now he’s okay if I post about him sometimes, but not if it shows his face. It’s never something I make him feel weird about or pressure him into. He gets to choose, and that’s that. It’s now a really positive, healthy thing.
What’s your advice for people who just can’t get motivated?
First and foremost, the whole theory of falling off the wagon is false. As long as you’re alive, you’re on a fitness journey. You can’t fail at it. Life ebbs and flows, periods of rest and periods of being less active are completely normal, especially if you have been sick, or if you’ve experienced an injury or are in recovery. Also if you are at an ultra busy time in your life, it is okay to do less. But it is not okay to guilt yourself and shame yourself that you’re not moving.
I injured my ankle skiing and I had to rest and stop exercising for a significant period of time. It was the first time that I had done that since my journey began. It was exceptionally difficult for me at first, but then I realized that my body needed me to rest for the good of my physical health. I started to take just as much pride in resting, physical therapy, and in my really low impact short workouts as I ever did in my big heavy sessions. Now I put effort in every day to care for my health. Whether that’s meditation or a workout, or both. The biggest thing is to never shame yourself or guilt yourself if you didn’t get a workout in. That will never serve you and that is arguably just as unhealthy as being sedentary. In fact I think it’s worse.
I think doing a 12-week or a 6-week program can be exceptionally overwhelming for some people. For me, with both my physical and mental health, sometimes I’m not able to focus on the week at hand or even the workout that I’m doing. I just focus on taking it a minute at a time.
Do you think setting an intention helps?
As I said, I believe that the catalyst for success in physical fitness is your motive. You can never hate your way into self-love. You will never get far if you are negatively driven. The first step of my mindful movement sessions is to set an intention for the workout. Before I start I take 30 seconds to place my hands on my heart, take a deep breath and set an intention in my head. This might be: ‘This session is to relieve stress today, or this session is to move my body so that hopefully I am strong enough when I’m 70 to stand up when I fall down.’
Calling in those abundant beautiful positive thoughts of why you’re going to exercise is positive psychology.
It sounds a little bit cheesy, but it’s real, and it’s so important. It’s not going to come naturally at first, but if you choose to be intentional about each and every time you move your body, you will start to crave the benefits that have nothing to do with physical aesthetics. This includes more energy, more confidence and better sleep.
So many of these are neglected because in the fitness space, we’re so focused on the aesthetics. I’ve seen thousands of women finally find consistency with their workouts because they changed their motive.
Is it important that we pay attention to our cycles when we’re working out?
It’s absolutely important. I’ve had my own ups and downs. We tried for baby number two for a couple years, but that didn’t happen. I have frequent ovarian cysts and I’m no stranger to the painful side of being a woman. It’s a part of life.
I think the fitness industry has historically been predominantly driven by massive companies that are mostly run by men. The underlying thing is to listen to your body. You’ve probably heard that a million times, but it’s real because as a woman your physical body clock is set on a monthly cycle, and your energy levels and many other things fluctuate along with it. It’s important that you stay in tune with yourself, do less if you want to do less, and again, never feel guilty about that.
I would recommend worrying less about what you’re told to do during certain times or phases, and more about how you are feeling that day.
What would you like to achieve going forward?
I just launched a new program called PWR Strength. It’s low impact, longer sessions. It follows a push-pull type of a split, which is unique for my programming. I’ve been working so hardon it. To actually have it out there in the world is so exciting. I’m absolutely on cloud nine. It’s filling a big gap for women who are focused on longevity and training with low impact. Who want to push themselves but not cause wear and tear on their joint
Ultimately my goal is to create programs that can help women at all stages of life. I have a pregnancy program, a post-pregnancy program, low-impact body weight, lifting at home. Whatever amount of time you have and equipment you have, I got you.
That’s my big focus and what I’m most excited about right now. As far as AI and tech in fitness, I am really taking this day by day. I’m no expert. But I really choose to believe that with everything in life, it’s going to be what you make it. There’s positive and negative sides to everything. For instance with social media, it’s been mostly a beautiful space for me because that’s what I’ve chosen to create with it.
For more tips and workouts from Kelsey Wells, go to @kelseywells