Michelle Bridges reveals why your body set point is key to weight loss
Michelle Bridges reveals why your body set point is key to weight loss
In a revealing interview the fitness extraordinaire opens up about her new book and adjustment to motherhood.
For the average couple, romance is a night on the town or a candlelit dinner. For Michelle Bridges and Steve Willis, it’s a sweaty, intense gym session often crashed by their toddler son, Axel. “Mostly because for both of us — and not just us — exercise decompresses you, it dials down anxiety,” Bridges tells Stellar. “That’s the time we really connect.”
When Axel, 21 months, is with them Bridges will do a minute of squats or push-ups, and then swap with Willis and spend a minute of rest playing cars with their son. It’s not an ideal session for a fitness guru used to daily tortures, but it’s all she can manage while looking after an adventurous toddler.
“It’s not been easy; it’s been sporadic,” Bridges says of balancing exercise and motherhood. “But I could either fight that and get pissed off about it and throw my hands in the air, or I can accept this is the way my life is at the moment, and it won’t be like this forever. My schedule is a mess, and I have a nearly two-year-old and three other stepchildren. When you accept that, you go: ‘OK, I will just have to work around it.’”
Parenthood has that effect on exercise — and on everything else. For a while there, Bridges was everywhere: her face all over TV, magazines, at book signings, corporate speaking gigs. Now she has different priorities. She still heads a business that turns over tens of millions of dollars a year, but also spends two days a week throwing a ball in the park with her son.
As Bridges’s pace slows, her message is becoming more nuanced. While the internet is crowded with copycats of her 12-week training program, her latest book, Keeping It Off, moves into different territory, exploring the genetic and hormonal complexities of weight loss, and explaining how hard our body fights to keep us fat. “No-one wants to hear that,” Bridges admits, “but that’s what we know so far, and it would be remiss of me not to tell people.”
Bridges 2.0 might be mellower, but she is no less focused on her long-held ambition to get Australia fit and healthy.
On the day of our interview, Bridges is having a babysitting crisis. The woman who looks after Axel three days a week can’t do an extra shift, Willis is training clients, and his eldest daughter Brianna, 18, who lives with them, isn’t around until later. They’ve had to hire a babysitter Axel doesn’t know. Bridges is anxious about it, but calms down as she reminds herself that “Steve’s not far away”.
Bridges was not, she says, a “born mum” in the same way Willis always knew he wanted to be a father. But, Willis tells Stellar, “Michelle has grown into motherhood naturally. It hasn’t been without its challenges, but to see the little man’s smile each morning has been well worth the experience.”
Bridges agrees with her partner. “I have fallen in love with it now,” she says. “But I never really knew if I was going to be [a mother], if I wanted to be. Then I had a child and went…” She gasps. “I think I knew in my heart that it was probably one part of me that hadn’t been explored or fulfilled.” But, she explains, the timing never clicked. “Things were going on in my life or career — it never really felt right.”
Bridges’s career exploded at precisely the age when biology forces the hand of most women. She was 37 when she got her break as a trainer on The Biggest Loser in 2007, and spent the best part of the next decade building a health empire on the back of that fame. In 2013, at the zenith of her celebrity, her business was turning over about $60 million a year — two years later, her net worth was put at $53 million. At the time, a typical week meant featuring in at least two magazines, attending one promotional event, meeting her The Biggest Loser commitments, filming TV ads and fulfilling speaking engagements.
Also in 2013, Bridges left her partner Bill Moore for her The Biggest Loser co-star Willis, who already had three kids. Suddenly, children were on the cards for her, too. “Steve was like, ‘Yep, let’s do it.’”
So Bridges became pregnant at 44, and it forced her foot onto the brake. It was during this time she realised she had taken her eye off the ball when it came to the mechanics of her business — particularly, she says, at the back end. “I’d think, ‘Oh, sh*t, I really need to know my business better, instead of being out there in people’s faces and doing what I do.’ Like when you are sitting down doing your accounts, and they are saying, ‘Did you know these costs are going up?’ And you’re like… ‘No!’”
Axel’s arrival slowed her down further. She felt the same tension between child and career as other working mums, so she forced herself to begin saying no to new projects. “Don’t freak out,” she told herself. “That’s just the chapter you are in right now. There will be another coming. Be gentle with yourself.”
Willis watched this shift take place. “There’s no questioning Michelle is a busy, driven woman,” he says. “Axel coming into our lives raised a lot of questions, personally and professionally, around how she manages her time.” Weaving a child’s needs “into the fabric of everyday life,” Willis adds, “has been a challenge — but a challenge that has been acknowledged and accepted at every level.”
Her relationship with Willis also meant that stepchildren were now a factor in Bridges’s life. He has three children — Brianna, Ella, nine, and Jack, six — from previous relationships.
“[Step-parenting] is a whole new world,” Bridges says. “It’s a different gig, it really is. And you have to try to figure it out as quickly as you can. You’re not their parent. I try to see myself as a support, as a friend, but then I think there still has to be times when you’ve got to have that moment of discipline. It’s important to know they can lean on you if they want to… and not force that.”
The older children love Axel. “That was always like, ‘How is this going to go?’ You don’t know. But they adore him. They are all over him. I can’t really see myself having another one, but he’s not really an only child. He’s got [those] three.”
Motherhood, adds Bridges, “has made me be kinder to myself. It made me realise that there’s always going to be another day. The intensity doesn’t have to be quite as full-on, nor should it be.”
Back in the 1990s, Michelle Bridges was competing in bodybuilding events. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, she’d bulk up, then shred just before competition, when she’d slap on bronzer and do various muscle-enhancing poses onstage for the judges. She competed in Miss Figure and Miss World Fitness in the US. She won Miss Oceania. In the process, she may have conducted an unwitting experiment on her own body.
Normally, Bridges weighed between 58 and 60 kilos. But as she bulked up before the competition, she would push her weight up to 75 kilos. “My trainer was like, ‘It’s fine, it’s mostly muscle,’” she recalls. Years later, when she was pregnant, she put on 15 kilos. “Some of it was baby, and some of it was booty and boobies,” she says. But the scales hit the same point: 75 kilos. “It might have been a coincidence,” she says. Or it might have been her body’s set point.
The concept of a set weight point is one Bridges explores in Keeping It Off, which was written in consultation with experts such as Professor Katherine Samaras, an endocrinologist at Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, who describes it as “that weight our metabolism thinks is the perfect place for our survival”.
It’s a biological mechanism rooted in the days when food was scarce. Back then, those whose bodies survived famine, while naturally skinny people wasted away, would’ve been considered “genetically blessed”. Now, in the age of plenty, they’re more likely to get fat.“That’s why it’s important to stay on track once we start the weight-loss journey,” Dr Samaras says.
About 80 per cent of those who lose weight, says Bridges, put it back on again: “Once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s very difficult to get it back in.”
The best way to avoid this is to not stray into obesity in the first place — a key message, she says, for kids and parents. But those who do needn’t feel defeated; success is possible by being vigilant. And that, Bridges says, “will be through discipline. Some people see discipline as boring. I think of it as nurturing.”
Bridges says her message hasn’t changed since her Newcastle schooldays, when she asked the principal if she could run her own fitness classes. It’s still about promoting a healthy mind and body. But if her latest message is slightly more complicated, she still feels compelled to share it. “Once you learn something,” Bridges says, “you can’t unlearn it. It’s an extremely powerful message for our future generations.”
Keeping It Off (Pan Macmillan, $39.99) is out on Tuesday.
Michelle Bridges for ONEActive behind the scenes2:49
See Michelle Bridges on her ONEActive shoot for BIG W..