Fit As A Fiddle

An Irish beauty with a deep-seated passion for exercise, an intelligent mind and humble nature, Susan Baxter is the epitome of ‘well rounded’ and ‘approachable’. Anya Kussler finds out what makes this multi-faceted fitness aficionado slash fitness model and presenter tick.

“Susan lives with passion, and with a strong sense of integrity; she walks the talk, and is always ready to share her knowledge and ideas with others, whether they’re novice athletes, students or people with chronic pain and disabilities’’ – Susan’s dad

Behind the scenes: Susan’s background in a nutshell

Susan Baxter is a down-to-earth fitness enthusiast who grew up in a small Northern Ireland town called Carrickfergus. She moved to New Zealand after school to start a psychology degree at Otago University, only to confess: “I haven't stopped studying since”. Having said that, the 28-year-old has completed her PhD, which focuses on overcoming barriers to exercise in those with chronic illness (specifically rheumatoid arthritis).

During school, Susan says she was involved in athletics, netball, and hockey, but admits she didn't like to have to practice or train for these sports. “All I wanted to do is play the games!” Then, as fate would have it, in her second to last year in high school she and her best friend were introduced to the local gym, and found themselves instantly hooked. “This made a bit of a difference to my hiding behind trees in cross- country and athletics,” Susan laughs.

When Susan moved halfway across the world to our shores in 2005, the raven-haired lass soon realised that she would have to take ownership of her own training and motivation. “After doing one week of group fitness classes as part of the induction to the University, I signed up to learn how to instruct classes, and soon after jumped at the opportunity to become a Zumba instructor.” It appears that this was a successful move, as in 2011, Susan was named 'Nationals People's Choice Group Fitness Instructor of the Year'.

But group fitness is by no means the only activity this bright, attractive and energetic young woman is cut out to be. To find out what else Dr Susan B has going for her, and to be inspired by her wise-beyond-her-years views on wellbeing, read on…

 Why, in your opinion, is it important to be fit?

The human body was designed to move: to move is part of life; of health. But ‘fitness’ means different things to different people. My high school PE teacher once aptly described being fit as “the ability to carry out the desired day-to-day tasks with ease”. Beyond this, I also believe that fitness is about being able to challenge yourself to the best of your ability. You can get a real sense of accomplishment by having, and meeting, a fitness challenge and goals, in order to see what your body is capable of!

How do you define wellbeing and what does it mean to you?

To me, wellbeing is a complete mental, physical, environmental, spiritual and social balance. To achieve this you must nourish your body with correct nutrition, exercise regularly, rest well, challenge your intellect – and be able to enjoy time with friends, yourself and your surrounds. I cannot say that I get the balance right all of the time, but I certainly try, and for me that’s the goal!

What is your training philosophy?

It’s simply about doing your best, on any given day at any given time, in order to improve. When you consistently give your best, how can you not be happy, even if you completely fail at the task?

Why and how did you get into body shaping and competing?

I always advise people to set themselves goals, yet I had no real goal (with a ‘set’ deadline) myself. Competing has given me a vehicle to set goals for myself, to really challenge myself and as a result I feel more authentic than ever: I am now someone who is living and breathing the goal setting and attainment that I have been trying to encourage people to do! In challenging myself to meet these goals, I have learned firsthand about many of the obstacles to healthy living that I could only imagine previously: such as how hard it is to avoid sugar when you commence a healthier diet.

Initially, some fitness colleagues suggested I start competing, but since I am actually quite a shy person, I’d always brushed it off. It was only after my involvement with hosting Highlanders TV that Optimum Nutrition encouraged me to enter my first competition that I considered trying it out. I’ve had the opportunity to represent New Zealand in the ‘Worlds’ and ‘Universes’ competitions internationally, which has been a dream come true: I have (amongst other top 10 placings) placed 3rd at Universes. This year I am challenging myself to do my first competiton in the NZIFBB which will completely transform my training and nutrition.

I consider myself extremely fortunate to have the alignment and sporting and academic support of a world-class company, such as Optimum Nutrition. I was blown away when I was asked to be a part of their team’s Jakarta tour, which taught me a lot about training and nutrition within a different culture. I guess that’s why travelling to different countries is so important, and what’s inspired me to be a fitness presenter on an international level.

What is your greatest achievement so far and why?

Developing a personal insight into my own strengths (and weaknesses) has been incredibly empowering: this has also led, in turn, to a better appreciation of the strengths in others.

Why did you decide to study a PhD and which field do you specialise in?

I have a real interest in people, and our behaviors. The human mind is such a powerful thing and the more I learn about it, the more I want to learn! I specialise in health and exercise psychology as well as health science, and want to be able to help motivate change towards health behaviours, based upon the best available evidence from empirical research. My main focus for this is physical activity, but I also enjoy learning about research within the field of nutrition, and supplementation.

What does being a fitness writer / presenter and hosting Highlanders TV entail?

I feel that it enables me to combine my love of sports and rugby with engaging in regular interviews with key players as a means of helping rugby supporters to get to know the real person behind the player. Each of the guys has a wicked sense of humour and it’s great that they’re willing to 'give a go!' at all kinds of things (including Zumba!).

Being a fitness writer and presenter allows also me to present my research at conferences to my colleagues in the field. The best professionals in the industry attend these conferences regularly, and it allows me to stay current with research as well as share my research with industry experts who will take the information and put it into practice. This is another area I am passionate about: employing best evidence practices in real-world settings in the most efficient way so that end users can get the most benefit from the research. I think that through my eBooks on Amazon and published articles in magazines/journals I can also communicate this evidence to reach the wider population. 

How do you stay mentally and physically on the ball?

I make sure that I’m organised and also schedule time for rest and sleep as well as listening to my own body. I have become better at picking up on certain signs of whether I can push those limits or whether its time for an unscheduled rest day. On top of that, eating healthily and exercising is a lifestyle for me and not something that I binge on: it’s important to remember that it's the consistent habits that add up over time.

What is your top advice for someone wanting to lose weight?

I think it's better not focus on weight loss as your goal... perhaps change the focus to a more positive goal? How about focusing on that you want to be able to achieve: perhaps run a certain distance, complete one of our great walks here in New Zealand, or that you want to be able to fit into a certain pair of jeans again? Once you set this goal, think about the small changes that you can make in order to get there: they all add up. Do not look at it as an ‘all or nothing’ approach as this can often set you up for disaster at the first challenge.

Do you find it difficult to maintain such a toned physique and often/much do you train to achieve it?

When not prepping for competitions I will exercise 6 days a week, but always with one rest day. I do love being active so I might also have other social activities included in there, such as trying a new dance class or a game of tennis, but I don't sacrifice my scheduled session for that. I am often based at a computer for my writing and studies so getting moving is one of those things I’ll (quite literally) jump at the chance to do!

When you really can’t be bothered exercising, how do you motivate yourself?

Exercise shouldn't be a chore. When I have a flat day I know that I will feel much better once I’ve started my session. You can’t expect each one to be awesome but you do need the flat days to appreciate the awesome days. It’s great to just think to yourself: ‘okay, I shall go for 15 minutes and if I don't want to stay I can always leave; usually you will find that you want to stay! If not, you haven’t lost... 15 minutes is infinitely better than nothing!

Other than training at the gym, which other activities or sports do you participate in?

I enjoy walking outdoors, tennis, netball, running, cycling and climbing. Actually, I’m usually quite keen to given any kind of activity a try.

What is your ultimate idea of relaxation?

Definitely a picnic near a beach or on a beach. You just cannot beat the noise of the ocean and a mix of amazing people around you to help you feel at peace! 

Who is your biggest role model and why?

My grandmother. She is witty, humorous, well aged and always manages to keep us all guessing what she is really ‘up to’! I feel many people are quick to dismiss the wisdom of their elders and forget just how much can be learned from someone who has lived through many advances and trends. I love that she has learned to use email, so that she can write to me from Northern Ireland and she is 90 years old

What is your most prized posession and why?

It would have to be a small locket that my parents gave me as a good luck charm when I sat my first 'proper' exam at the age of 11. It’s pretty special to me.

Tell us something about yourself that people are least likely to know:

I’m actually quite shy! I do hide it well, but I always have to push myself! I also can’t really swim well; I’m a real sinker: anyone could overtake me at the speed that I can swim at!

Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

I wish to be able to continue with my research into health and exercise; and to communicate this internationally for use in practical settings. I also wish to be able to motivate and inspire people on a larger scale and perhaps contribute to initiatives to encourage people of all ages to adopt healthy living.

My professional interest is special populations, and women’s health. My primary focus is on healthy behavior change and healthy hormones for women in their quarter life to mid life. There appears to be a lack of focus on this area, which concerns me deeply. This is the first generation in which we will see the effects of long-term use of modern contraceptives (our grandmothers did not use these). We also have been privy to the era of “quick fixes” and “fad diets” which will have numerous long-term health implications. I therefore want to be able to continue to educate and inspire women to make decisions that do not sacrifice the long term for the short-term goal.

If there is one piece of advice you’d like to give women to get off the couch, what would it be?

SB: We are so often led to believe that life should be about 'quick fixes' but the reality is that we need to work hard to reach our full potential. However, small things, consistently done, produce big results in the longer term. The greatest challenges produce the greatest rewards: certainly there are often hurdles along the way but this makes it all worthwhile. We are all capable of a lot more than we give ourselves credit for!

Just imagine if some of our world’s greatest leaders had refused to ‘get off their couch’ and invent things? What might we be living without today? You have the power to change within you, and the only person standing in your way is you!

What do you love most about our Kiwi summer?

I love that there are so many events and festivals around the country to celebrate summer, and that there is an abundance of stone fruit available! Unfortunately, for me Christmas in the summer will always feel strange, not wondering whether I will be 'snowed in' and unable to access the road!

Many of us have psychological barriers that prevent us from sticking to our exercise routines and eating healthy. Do you have any advice on how to overcome this?

I’m glad that you asked this: part of my PhD thesis is actually on this topic! One of the main problems is that there is so much misinformation out there: it’s debilitating in a sense, because obviously making any kind of change can be hard.

However, when there is conflicting information about what you should and shouldn't do  (including the type; intensity; timing; frequency; style and duration of exercise, or the style of eating that you should follow), it is no wonder that it’s so difficult to commence or stick to an exercise regime. This is an area in which I hope that by providing my expertise and skills online through my ebooks that I can help (available on Amazon).

Another issue is motivation, and unfortunately there are some differences for exercise compared to healthy eating. You have to eat each day, and hunger drives you to do so. However, what you put in your mouth is a choice. In contrast, with exercise, it is possible not to exercise and not feel any immediate discomfort like hunger. With exercise, you either do it or do not do it, and you must go out of your way to make it happen. This, in my opinion, makes exercise so much harder for people. But it is important to stress that healthy living is a two- pronged approach: research has shown that combining both is significantly more beneficial to your health than attempting just one or the other.

Interviewer: Anya Kussler, New Zealand Fitness [incorporating Fitness Life]

Photo credit: Shaun Poh Photography; Beautition: Elegance on Hanover; Hair: Zaibatsu Hair Art; Clothing: lululemon athletica

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