Actor, presenter and podcaster, Jameela Jamil, 37, is on a mission to redefine the narrative around exercise.
Over 31% of UK adults say they never see people like them represented in the exercise world, and 68% feel too embarrassed to go to the gym because they 'don't fit the mould', new research by ASICS, reveals.
As founder of I Weigh (an Instagram account Jameela started to create a safe and inclusive space on social media, which turned into a mental health movement with a podcast), she hosted its first event 'Move for Your Mind' last week, where she spoke to Yahoo UK about all things body image and unhealthy societal pressures.
"Shame is out and 'no pain, no gain' is bollocks," she says.
When we met Jameela, she was candid, witty, and more comfortable chatting perched on the floor.
Here she shares how she went from living with an eating disorder and jogging in her bedroom at night, to not moving at all and developing depression, to learning how to reframe exercise and move for her mental health. Plus, why she thinks brands need to step up and insights into her hopes of creating a worldwide women's walking club at night, so women can experience wearing headphones or getting some air in the dark without a fear of being murdered.
Talking 'New Year, New You'
"It's always nice to have ambition and a goal in some way. But I think there's just so much pressure, shame and rush infused into it," says Jameela of the concept. "It's like these arbitrary deadlines are set.
"By now, how do people not understand it's not working? People aren't happier. I think 19 February is the date everyone gives up their New Year's resolution... we couldn't have more data, so why is this still the only way? Why is shaming and fear-mongering people still the only way that brands know how to market?"
Why is shaming and fear mongering people still the only way that brands know how to market?
"We've got to get 'beach body ready', get 'ready for Valentine's Day – get thin so someone will love you'. There's just all these bookmarks in the year used to stress and pressure us," she adds.
Even 'Blue Monday', Hayley Jarvis, head of physical activity at Mind, who also chatted to us at the event, points out, is a marketing tool. "While 'New Year, New You' works for some people in terms of goals and intentions, for me it's concerning because it can put pressure on people. You can also start looking after your mind and body anytime," whether that's a Friday or any month in the year.
Jameela's journey with exercise
"It was interesting, I was a swimmer when I was younger, so I really loved to be in the pool. I was swimming for fun and then towards a goal," Jameela recalls.
"Then around 11 when I developed an eating disorder was around the same age I happened to stop swimming.
"Exercise became about jogging... on the spot in my bedroom at night to try and 'make up' for the muffin I'd eaten at lunch. I started doing online workouts while drinking diet Cup A Soup, and just being so exhausted.
"So associating exercise with being so tired and so sad and in so much pain, and being taught 'no pain, no gain', made me think it must be working."
Associating exercise with being so tired and so sad and in so much pain, and being taught 'no pain, no gain', made me think it must be working
"The most number of deaths from a mental health problem are from eating disorders. This is serious, we need to really change that narrative in this toxic culture that exists," says Jarvis, who encourages seeking professional support.
And, highlighted by ASICS research, 'no pain, no gain' isn't accurate. "Science says 15 minutes and 9 seconds can be enough to lift your mood and help you feel good," the Mind expert adds.
After her initial 20 year experience with exercise, Jameela explains, "Once I realised I had severe anorexia, I stopped exercising at all, started my healing journey and decided exercise was kind of like a form of bulimia for me. It was a purge for eating so I stopped whatsoever.
"I developed depression, and there were many reasons I felt like I could have been depressed. But then during the Marvel period [when she played villain Titania in She-Hulk in 2022] I realised, oh wow, a huge part of it is I don't ever move.
"It sort of became my identity, that I was a sloth. Now it's [movement] such a pivotal part of my day and something I will not not miss for anything."
'Completely reframing exercise'
Jameela started sharing her own exercise classes, complete with pyjamas, snacks and disco, in a different style to the intense workout videos we often see celebrities and influencers post, or extreme TikTok trends circulating, and began trying to reframe movement.
"As well as being a natural progression of I Weigh, Marvel made a big difference because it was the first time a company wanted me to get bigger and stronger. They forced me to exercise five days a week. But it was to learn things like better balance and more strength, agility and flexibility. And I'd never, ever looked at my body in that way.
"I'd always looked at my body as this embarrassment that was always letting me down. That was never meeting these stupid standards.
"It made me have this newfound respect for my body."
I'd always looked at my body as this embarrassment that was always letting me down
She noticed she didn't need to take her meds for anxiety as much anymore. "I really advocate for medication, but I personally came down on anti-anxiety pills. I also wasn't taking sleeping pills anymore [which she had been taking since she was 11], I was just sleeping, I was going to bed exhausted every night," she says.
"While I don't think I could ever keep that up again, it just completely reframed exercise. I was like, wow, I feel good. I'm not thinner, I am happier."
Jameela also credits getting a dog for helping to shift her mindset. "That changed everything because then you don't have a choice. It's not about you. It's not about the calories."
While she acknowledges "not everyone's in a f*cking marvel movie where they're going to be shouted at to do jiu jitsu" or can get a dog, she believes "there are lots of ways you can make a little promise to yourself and to someone else that keeps you a bit accountable", like having a walking buddy.
"You don't have to be a master of accountability," she adds. "But just give yourself, without the shame and pressure, someone to show up for, and in doing so you're really showing up for yourself."
Bringing joy back to movement
Proudly confessing to being inspired by Mrs Doubtfire, Jameela's favourite ways to get moving are walking, running around with the dogs and vigorous cleaning (she loves cleaning).
"I put on music and it's a real party for me. I don't enjoy a dinner party, but I f*cking love after the dinner party when it's like, this is my party now," she says, setting the scene.
"That's it for me right now, because I don't really feel safe in lots of exercise spaces. So I've had to make my own. Today [her I Weigh event, full of panel talks and inclusive judgement-free exercise classes] is me going 'I don't know where to go so I've had to make somewhere'."
Jameela recalls going viral a few years ago for talking about an incident with a man who approached her in the gym. He told her 'him and the guys' had been watching her, and 'what a shame' it was she didn't push herself more as otherwise she 'could have an amazing body' and 'look great'.
"Which obviously meant he didn't think I looked great. And I was a f*cking size eight, so what the hell is going on for the people who are bigger than me?" she says.
Jameela also stopped going to dance classes because of the amount of people filming themselves.
Whether someone gets spotted or commented on in the back of a TikTok or not, she says, "That's someone's private space. When someone's working out their day, their problems or frustrations, where someone feels vulnerable or afraid. Where someone's working back from an injury.
"F*ck off with your camera phone. That's off-putting, it makes me not want to go to a dance class. I don't want to be filmed."
Jameela says they were careful to only film people at the I Weigh event blurry, from the back, or way up high, to show what it was trying to achieve. Grateful to ASICS, she adds, "We need brands like that to step up and say we believe in not using shame as a tool to make people buy our product."
'Movement has stopped me having so many arguments'
As well as improving her sleep and anxiety, Jameela has noticed a long list of benefits from healthy movement.
"It has stopped me from having so many arguments and made me way less of a b*tch," she says in a joking-but-serious manner.
"It's massively reduced my nerves. I always walk before I have to give a speech or go to a dinner party I'm nervous about, because I'm quite socially anxious.
"My health seems like it's improved, my blood sugars a bit better, which is great. But mostly… I just have a clearer head."
Night walking clubs for women
"Something I'd love to do with this movement is create walking clubs for women, because it's so scary to walk at night. It's so unfair that when the sun goes down, we're supposed to be inside so we don't get murdered.
"It's insane we can't go outside with our headphones on," she says, with things like holding keys in knuckles also springing to our minds.
It's so unfair that when the sun goes down, we're supposed to be inside so we don't get murdered
"Things we just learn how to do when we're 10. Unfortunately, that is the reality. So I'm not going to go and tell women, 'go for a walk late at night with your dog', but I'm going to try to figure out a way to create walking clubs around the world, where people can meet at a station and then do it together.
"It would just be so nice. People can either meet each other or you can keep your headphones on and experience being out at night with headphones on, without worrying someone's going to mug you or do worse."
'People have the power'
So, how can we improve the stats around exercise and shame?
"By joining this movement, and proving to the market we are the future and that shame is out and 'no pain, no gain' is bollocks. The idea of turning something like exercise into something exclusive is so preposterous to me.
"It's classist, it's ableist, it's ageist, it's fat phobic, it's a bit racist. And it's so unnecessary. I genuinely believe there would be less violence, war and sadness in this world if we were all exercising."
"Every great change in the world has been done by the people," she says. "Just 10 years ago, we used to put pictures of women on front covers of magazines in their underwear and write beached whale across it shamelessly. That doesn't happen anymore because the media has recognised we're not interested.
"I'd really love for people to understand they have all the power. We get to choose who our famous people are, we make them and we break them. We make media institutions powerful, we take that away. We make brands powerful, we take that away too.
"So this idea that we have to go along with the market is so ridiculous.
"Join me, join I Weigh, join this revolution and let’s make this the norm."
You can call Mind's infoline on 0300 123 3393 and find out more about information and support here.
Read more: Living with body dysmorphia: 'I convinced myself I needed a hair transplant' (Yahoo Life UK)
Read more: Experts discuss why and how we are living through a 'body confidence epidemic' (Yahoo Life UK)