AGED 21, Laura Westwater weighed close to 16 stone and was miserable.
But photographs from a Greek holiday spurred her into action – and now 12 years on and six stones lighter she’s one of Edinburgh’s leading gym instructors and blazing a trail for women’s fitness.
The 33-year-old is director of FitnessChicks and leads 20 exercise classes every week.
But her gym is for women only as her own experience in attending others was, she says, “shaming”.
She said: “I was overweight and not happy about how I looked, so when I decided to go to a gym I wanted to be on the running machine in the corner.
“I know how horrible it is to feel like you hate yourself because of the way you look.
“But when I went to gyms I found that the men who were there – either as staff or clients – were either patronising or staring in a way that made me feel very uncomfortable.
“They might not have been aware they were behaving that way, but it made me decide that when I had my own place it would be for women only.”
It was a holiday to Zante which made Laura decide to get fit.
“I saw the photos and I was so miserable and my friends were all so fit. My diet wasn’t bad, it’s just that I ate a lot – especially pasta and cheese – and I didn’t do any exercise, so I was just over 15-and-a-half stone. And when I was at university there was a lot of drinking which didn’t help.
“So I joined a gym and just ran and ran. I hid away and just used the one machine – I didn’t even want to ask anyone how to switch it on. But I started seeing results and I went from one extreme to the other, going every day.”
After graduating in business law and psychology, Laura worked with the Scottish Executive but realised she would rather be teaching fitness.
After completing a personal trainer’s course, she launched her new career.
“I mostly had women clients who didn’t use gyms because they didn’t want to exercise around men,” she said.
“I wanted to get rid of that problem and have a gym which had a friendly and non-judgemental environment.
That was three years ago and she’s already hit the 200th client milestone and has created four new jobs. FitnessChicks also has its own vintage-styled hair and beauty salon, and although it is in a glass building, it has blinds installed so no-one can see inside.
“It makes women feel more at ease and it’s also meant we can cater for Muslim women as they have no fear of meeting a man when they don’t have their veil on,” she said. “I’ve brought in so many women who have been to a unisex gym once and felt so uncomfortable. That doesn’t happen here.”
Laura now hopes to franchise her business across Scotland, but next week is throwing open the doors for free in aid of the Josh Nolan Foundation, a charity which aims to raise awareness about mental health issues in young men and prevent suicides.
All 40 classes at the gym will run from Monday through the week on a donation basis.