I adore my horses. Horses eat hay. Hay is made in bales. Bales weigh about 25 to 30 kilograms.

This is how I found myself lifting 120 bales on to the back of the ute as my husband drove from bale to bale. I stack them three rows high and the top row is above my head height. Though the bales start off quite light, after a few loads in 30 degree heat, it becomes difficult. But not impossible. Never impossible.

At 47, I still relish chances to improve on my physical strength. No longer do I chase the skinny dream. Strength is everything.

Strong body, strong mind. It brings confidence. It keeps female bones strong. It will, I am convinced, carry me into old age.

Some women dream of chasing their perfect job. Some women dream of having the perfect house. I dream of doing the perfect chin up. Hands forward!

I never want to be the woman who can’t carry a few grocery bags in both hands.

I never want to be the one waiting for the blokes to lift a 20kg bag of dog food into the boot of the car.

And looking forward, I never want to be the woman who can’t pick up her little grandchildren.

From my teenage years, my weight had swung back and forth like a pendulum. Like most young women, I alternated between pigging out and dieting. Alcohol was an ever-present factor affecting my weight. It was only in my mid-to-late twenties when I started exercising regularly. Running became a daily meditation, but it was all aimed at weight control.

The birth of my first child changed my perspective. Yoga was a welcome form of stress relief and it opened my eyes as to what was possible with a strong and supple body.

I began practicing regularly and while my natural strength initially carried me through, I quickly saw smaller, older women who had amazing strength.

Plank pose was difficult after childbirth. Could I still do a backbend? Or hold my own weight in a handstand?

All these things became challenges. I was in my early thirties and went back to work part-time while caring for one and then two young children.

Over those years, the strength factor was slowly creeping into my life and the weight factor was slowly crawling out. I began running with weights.

I learned to teach yoga and was slightly dismayed that many women could not hold their own body weight off the floor.

How is it that women lose their strength so easily?

I flirted with vegetarianism for a year but quickly realised that it did not suit my body. I needed iron and protein.

I cut down on carbs and included a lot more lean protein in my diet – chicken, fish and our own lamb. Eggs, the cholesterol baddie of the 70s and 80s, became a mainstay and I still do not go through a day without a handful or more of raw nuts.

Everything I eat is now aimed at making me strong, not skinny.

After completing a book on the Pacific War, a friend asked me to trek Kokoda. By then, I was 38. Although I was fit, I incorporated more strength training as preparation for carrying a 15kg backpack over rugged terrain.

Our local mountain was a regular work out, carrying weights wrapped in towels, stuffed into my old baby backpack. I was training at least 90 minutes a day, six days a week for the four months prior to the trek.

Feeling strong, there was never a moment of doubt along that Track. Never once did I feel I could not make it. Eighteen months later, I trekked it a second time.

Since then, I have kept up my running. I have had the help of a friend, an exercise physiologist, and she worked on my strength. I never felt so proud as when I bench pressed close to my body weight. Some weeks are more diligent than others but I have now incorporated weights into every workout.

The bonus is that I have learned to eat for my own body. And since I have forgotten about painstakingly measuring calories, I have dropped a few kilos.

I would love to go back and meet my 20-something self and tell her what I have learned. I could save her a lot of time and angst.





*Gabrielle Chan is a journalist and author with more than 25 years experience. She is a regular columnist with The Australian and has previously worked for The Daily Telegraph, the ABC and the South China Morning Post. Gabrielle has written and edited Flickers of History, War On Our Doorstep and FEAST and is a member of the NSW Anzac Advisory Council. She is a qualified yoga teacher.


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  • Reply November 8, 2012


    I will never be skinny. I am however fit and strong. I can be 80kg and a size 10-12. Strength is what I am built for. Last year I piled on weight after a knee injury.
    I was diagnosed earlier this year with pcos. Since then I have lost weight, changed my diet and become strong again. And pregnant again.

  • Reply November 13, 2012


    Great story Gabrielle. I am 50 this year and I started strength training 2 years ago. I am a new woman! Stronger, fitter and mentally tougher than I have ever been before. I now do 4 weight sessions per week, instead of the recommended minimum of two. It just makes you feel great and gives you some much needed ‘me’ time when you just focus on what your body & muscles are doing and not much else. I too, wish I had started much earlier in life.

  • Reply November 13, 2012


    I like what you say about re-orienting to getting and being strong. For a good part of my early life I enjoyed my strength and tested it. I also practiced yoga and meditation and was exposed to various helpful and compassionate philosophies. I am concerned however about the weights you are lifting overhead~ agricultural occ. health and safety? I am also concerned about how people like you, and people like me(once strong) are served up issues like disease,trauma,accident and ageing~ and then we cannot be the people we once were.

  • Reply November 14, 2012


    Thank you!

  • Reply November 14, 2012


    Loved your article. I am a 42 y.o. mother of 3 who just did my first Tough Mudder in September and have already signed up for the next one in Sydney. People think I’m mad, but what makes me mad is that I didn’t get the exercise bug 20 years ago! I love it, and look forward to it every day. My kids are proud of me and active, although my husband subscribes to the “you only have so many heartbeats in your lifetime, why would you waste them?” theory. Can’t win all of the battles!

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