Former Olympian on Inspiring Her Own Children

This blog post is written by Anna Hemmings MBE, 2 time Olympian and 6 time world champion as well as Britain’s most successful female kayaker. Anna also happens to be a colleague of mine. Whilst working with Anna I discovered that for some time after retiring and even more so after having children Anna found herself not doing the thing she loved to do which is exercise. It reminded me of many of the stories I hear from parents who essentially tell me they put their children, husbands or household first and forget about themselves. Yet, we all know the analogy with putting your own mask on before helping a child with theirs in the case of loss of pressure in an aeroplane. I’ll let Anna tell you her story from here:

For 20 years exercise was a key focus in my life and then I retired from professional sport and whilst I had no intention of continuing the 25 hours of training each week that I had become accustomed to, it became increasingly difficult to fit in just 4 to 5 hours a week. 18 months after retiring from my life as a kayaker, I founded Beyond the Barriers, a leading high performance training consultancy for business.

I launched myself into corporate life and no longer had the luxury of doing the exercise that I wanted, when I wanted. I adjusted, but to my surprise, my motivation to exercise waned and some weeks I was doing well if I trained 3 times a week. Then I had two children and my work-life balance went totally out of the window! When I returned to work after maternity leave for the second time, I was passionate about building the business and found myself juggling work, being a mum and trying to have some kind of social life and balance; exercise was so far down my list of priorities I was lucky if I got to the gym once or twice a week. A familiar scenario for many a working parent, I’m sure.

At Beyond the Barriers, alongside our leadership training, we do a lot of work on corporate wellness and one of our most popular programmes is Energy Management. One component of this is exercise because exercise and movement are our greatest stimulus for energy – the more we move the more energy we generate. I delivered this workshop to our clients, encouraging them to build more exercise and movement into their days and we discussed innovate ways to do this given time restraints. Delegates would set goals and I would help them create plans to reach these goals and they would walk away highly motivated and inspired. Yet I was not practicing what I was preaching, despite talking regularly to clients about the benefits of exercise, which by the way include:

  • Increased energy
  • Strengthened heart and lungs
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved immune system
  • Increased ability to handle stress better
  • Weight loss/management
  • Improved brain function and memory
  • Improved mental health
  • Increased feelings of wellbeing
  • Increased metabolism
  • Pain management

I knew this and had experienced it for myself every day for the first 30 years of my life and this was part of the problem. I started to question myself and noticed that I was telling myself a story – that I didn’t need to exercise as much as most people because I had already done more exercise in my life at the age of 38 than most people do in a lifetime, I had gained all of these benefits and I would continue benefitting from it even if I did a minimal amount for the rest of my life. It was a false story and utter nonsense that made me feel better about not exercising! What unhelpful stories do you tell yourself?

I want to be authentic in my work with clients, so I started to think about what would be a better story to tell myself. The truth is that I actually love sport and exercise and I enjoy how I feel when I do it and especially those post-exercise feel good endorphins. I also feel privileged to have been able to do sport for a living and I recognise the myriad of benefits that came from doing sport growing up. Now that I’m a mum, I’m passionate about my kids doing sport and exercise being a part of their life. I want them to have the health benefits obviously but also the joy of participating in sport, learning to win and lose competitions, learning to be a team player, experiencing setback and having a reason to bounce back stronger; skills that will set them up for life.

My new story was to build exercise into my routine for my own feel-good factor and health but most importantly to be a role model for my children and to inspire them to have exercise in their life. I want them to see me doing exercise and for it to become a part of their routine as they grow up. When something is a habit it’s much easier to keep it in your life.

I now had a more accurate and inspiring story, I just needed to remove the time barrier. I reminded myself that even short bursts of exercise were beneficial and better than nothing, so if I could only fit in 20 or 30 minutes I should still do it. One of my excuses previously had been that I can’t exercise because I’m looking after my kids. But if I was going to inspire my kids to exercise then why couldn’t we exercise together? So one Friday afternoon, when I was off work and looking after my son, who wasn’t at school yet, we went into the garden and I set up a HIIT circuit, I included body weight exercises such as squats, lunges, press ups, ab exercise etc. Luke was only 4 at the time so he couldn’t really do the exercises properly and I didn’t expect him to, but he thought it was fun to copy mummy and he joined in with what he wanted, when he wanted and I got my 30 minute work-out in. I no longer have the excuse of needing childcare and this has become a regular thing that we do together.

Sofia, my daughter who is now 7, often wants to come running with me but since she’s not quick enough, yet (I can’t wait until we can run together!) so we compromise by Sofia going on her bike so that she can keep up and she loves it. Sometimes together with my husband, the 4 of us go on bike rides as a family and we all get to exercise and have fun together. Next week we’re off skiing, another fabulous sport that we can all do together as a family and I can’t wait!

I’d love to hear your ideas about how you fit exercise in and combine sport with kids.


By Anna Hemmings MBE, OLY – Olympian & World Champion Kayaker, Managing Director Beyond the Barriers



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