A personal trainer who runs a successful fitness business is celebrating her 10th year as an eating disorder survivor.
Overweight, self-conscious and embarrassed when shopping for clothes – Lee had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and smoking, struggled with depression and bulimia for 15 years.
Now, the mum-of-two runs Lee Donald Personal Training – and helps locals lose weight, get fitter and eat better by showing them that change really is possible.
She spoke to the Evening Express about her journey to mark the start of the national Eating Disorders Awareness Week in the hope of helping other people.
Getting her personal training qualification was a turning point for Lee as it made her value her health more.
“When you’re working on your fitness, it’s really difficult to get better when you’re physically feeling so ill,” said Lee.
“Eating disorders not only destroy your physical health, but they also destroy your mental health.
“Trying to keep up with people on my personal training course was really difficult because my health wasn’t good then and I still smoked at the time.”
But since Lee had such a strong desire to achieve her fitness qualification and get better, she decided to give up smoking.
“It needed to be one or the other – I couldn’t smoke and also be a personal trainer,” said Lee.
“So I chose fitness and I set my mind to it and it just grew and grew – I got fitter and stronger and as a result of that my mental health got better.
“Up until when I qualified, I was still being sick every so often – I was trying not to be – but it’s an illness.
“I’m a believer that once you’ve had an eating disorder, you’ll always have it, but you can learn to manage it better.
“It’s been a long process but it’s something anyone is capable of doing if they take that first step and reach out for help – this is the message I always try and convey.”
Lee, who now competes in world championships, including the OCR (Obstacle Course Racing) World Championship, says she has been successfully managing her illness for a decade and feels “firmly in control”.
“In the early stages, I’d be doing well and then had a slip-up, but I’ve been on track for a long long time now,” confessed Lee.
Sharing her eating disorder story to help others
The passionate personal trainer, who has documented her journey on social media, believes sharing her story is really important as it can show people who are suffering that getting better is possible.
She said: “I remember when I was sick I was thinking that I didn’t know how I was going to get better.
“I couldn’t visualise myself not being sick – I didn’t think I could get out of the dark place that I was in.
“People always think I came out of the womb doing fitness because I’m this positive person, but it’s actually a complete opposite as I’d come from a very hard dark place and when people realise that, they think that if I can do it, so can they – which I think is very important.
“I think I kind of went from one extreme to another – I decided I was going to 100% focus and do the best I can, be the fittest I can be, and that I was going to build the best fitness business that I could.
“I’m a firm believer that if you put your mind to something, there isn’t much you cannot achieve.”
Battling eating disorder during pandemic
While battling eating disorders is challenging in a supportive environment, eating disorder sufferers could experience an exacerbation of their symptoms during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Lee said: “Eating disorder charity Beat has been struggling a lot to cope with the demand and being available to help – as many charities have due to coronavirus.
“The pandemic really has had a knock-on effect on many people.
“My disorder wasn’t weight-based – it was a form of self-harm and feeling in control and obviously now, there’s a very little within our control.
“If I was still where I was, I have no doubt that having extra time on my hands would have made things escalate.
“People aren’t getting the proper help they need face to face.”
A lot of people are struggling with their weight due to moving less, so Lee believes if people’s disorders are weight-based, their symptoms may worsen.
“Food is pretty much the only source of happiness for many people nowadays,” said Lee.
“I think a lot of people are using food as a coping mechanism just now – but they trade short-term happiness for a long-term sacrifice.”
Supporting clients online
The owner of Lee Donald Personal Training – the business she set up in 2011 – said she does her best to support her clients online.
She stated: “I would usually run a 1:1 personal training classes in my cabin in Aberdeen, do three classes in the community and I also have an online coaching hub called the Max Experience, which I had before the pandemic, and I also offer personalised nutrition plans.
“A lot of the women who have come to my fitness classes have now moved to my online coaching classes, so I’ve been able to support them there with a range of workouts and recipes.”
Lee also does live workouts and virtual Q&As for her clients.
She added: “I’ve just been showing up for them even more and doing what I can to support them.”
The personal trainer has supported more than 100 locals through her personal training sessions and fitness classes but also thousands online thanks to her sharing her story and documenting her journey on social media.
And for this, she has won a number of awards over the years, including Best Personal Trainer in Aberdeen 2020 (LEP Fitness) and Best Fitness Business 2019 (Scotland’s Business Awards).
Lee said: “My passion is helping people – winning awards is just a by-product of me enjoying my job and putting in the work.
“I’m up for two new awards this year, which is definitely good news, considering everything that’s going on just now.”
The personal trainer was shortlisted in the Scottish Health and Fitness Awards and Scotland Prestige Awards.