Health: Being skinny doesn’t always mean healthy

Joanna Rowsell MBE.
Joanna Rowsell MBE.
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World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell is gearing up for the Commonwealth Games, But first she sits down for a chat with Abi Jackson.

For many, exercise is something we do for leisure. But when sport is your job, what do you do in your spare time?

“When I’m off the bike, usually it’s all about resting and not using my legs,” says Olympian Joanna Rowsell. “I do like being out in the fresh air and I enjoy walking, but that’s pretty much all I can do in addition to cycling, and even that’s not really ideal as it does make my legs ache quite a lot - us cyclists aren’t really used to walking!”

Sounds like a good excuse for sitting on the sofa? “Exactly!”

If anybody deserves to put their feet up, it’s somebody like Rowsell, who became a familiar face during the London 2012 Olympics, scooping gold in the women’s team pursuit alongside teammates Dani King and Laura Trott.

More recently, she pedalled her way to her first major solo gold, winning the individual race at the Track Cycling World Championships in Colombia in February.

How long does the victory high last?

“Quite a while, which is good,” Rowsell says. “It was a surprise [to win]. I knew I had it in me, but you never really know whether you’re going to beat the other girl or not. So I was just happy and couldn’t believe that I’d actually won.”

Winning is a big driving force (“When it gets to the point when I don’t enjoy winning, I think that’s the time to retire”), but she loves the “whole process” of what her profession involves.

“If I wasn’t a sportsperson, I’d still be the type of person to keep fit and do classes at the gym and that sort of thing,” says the 25-year-old. “And I enjoy the process of preparing for big competitions, the build up to a big target.”

The next target of course is the Glasgow 2014 XX Commonwealth Games which start next month - Rowsell can’t believe her luck that she’ll be competing for another home crowd, so soon after 2012.

When she does get time off though, sofa aside, “It’s mainly time for visiting family and friends, visiting my parenting,” she says. “My boyfriend’s got a niece and nephew who are three and five years old, so just visiting the kids and things like that really.

“You can get into a bubble when you’re training all the time; it’s all very focused,” she continues. “It’s nice to just get away from that for a bit and enjoy being with other people.”

Rowsell’s lovely to talk to; laid-back, open and relaxed. When talk turns to body image pressures, however, things cranks up a notch - it’s clearly a subject she feels strongly about.

“I often come across those ads on the internet for the latest diet or whatever, and there’s a ‘before’ and ‘after’ photo saying, ‘Do you want to go from this to this?’ And often in the ‘before’ picture, the woman’s not even fat! There’s nothing wrong with her!

“Wanting to lose weight for your own personal reason is one thing, but why are we having an image that’s implying you are overweight when you’re not?”

Unlike some of her peers, Rowsell hasn’t, thankfully, experienced any distressing abuse on Twitter. She does receive the occasional “weird message”, though.

Healthy eating is hugely important, but Joanna also knows how crucial it is to eat a balanced diet, where carbs are not the enemy and occasional treats are enjoyed.

She works closely with her team nutritionist, but it concerns her that many people, especially young girls, who don’t have the same knowledge are bombarded with “unhealthy” messages about what they should and shouldn’t be eating in order to be skinny.

“It annoys me,” she adds. “Being as skinny as possible isn’t necessarily the healthiest way to live.”

She understands that body confidence can be an issue though.

As well as becoming a sporting hero during the Olympics, Rowsell became a poster girl for alopecia, the condition she’s had since she was 10, growing up in Surrey.

By the time she started secondary school, she had practically lost all of her hair.

It’s believed that alopecia is an autoimmune response, whereby the body’s immune system mistakes hair follicles as a threat and attacks them, resulting in round, patchy baldness (alopecia areata), or even the complete loss of all body hair (alopecia universalis). Some people experience re-growth, but it tends to be very unpredictable and can have a profound psychological impact.

She admits she was overwhelmed at first, however, with the attention she received during the Olympics.

“At the time, I sort of felt everyone was looking up to me like I was this inspirational role model, and assumed I had all the answers. Everyone was asking me, ‘How do you deal with it, what advice would you give?’, and I felt a bit like, ‘I don’t have all the answers!’. But I hope I did an OK job.”

She quickly realised why the media were so interested in asking her about it - rather than just churning out the same old comments about training regimes, this was something that set her apart, and that people could relate to.

“I think a lot of people relate to the alopecia, and not just other people with alopecia but anybody with body confidence issues and stuff,” she says. “And I sort of realised that when I was standing on that podium.”

When it comes to her own confidence, Rowsell has a clear formula: exercise.

“Sports has been a massive confidence-booster in my own life, and I’d advise everybody that that’s a good way to do it. Any issues you have with your body, or any general confidence issues, I think that can really help.”

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