Kelsey Wells is shivering in the lobby of the stylish Ace Hotel in east London. With a herbal tea, fruit salad, and bottle of water in front of her, the fitness icon may be feeling the draught, but she still looks like the epitome of health.
Wearing Stella McCartney trainers, a bright red, long-sleeved crop-top, charcoal marl sweatpants, diamond earrings, eyelash extensions, a perfect gel manicure, and hair swept up into a sleek high bun, fitness has never looked more stylish.
It’s people like Wells who are to thank for the current vogue for healthy living — with 2.1 million followers on Instagram, she makes living a healthy lifestyle aspirational, but, crucially, not unobtainable.
Getting more women to understand the power of finding a love for fitness has become Wells’ mission as she’s grown her empire over the past five years — but she says there’s still one major thing most women are getting wrong in their approach to embracing it.
‘Fitness is not about aesthetics’
If there’s one thing Wells, 30, wants every woman to get into their head, it’s that working out is not about changing how your body looks.
“I think the biggest misconception and the most important thing for everyone to understand about fitness in general is that fitness is not about aesthetics, fitness is about your health,” the American trainer told INSIDER while in London for Balance Festival, a weekend-long wellness event.
“For way too long we were bombarded with the opposite messaging in a lot of different ways and it just doesn’t serve you. It triggers guilt and stress.”
Wells is referring to the idea that working out, be that going to the gym or heading out for a jog, is something you have to endure as punishment for eating or to try and lose body fat before, say, a wedding or holiday.
“You don’t need to get fit for summer or for a holiday or an event, it’s not about that,” she said. “The fact is we all have a body, we all have health, we have one body so you need to take care of your body and that is what fitness is about.”
This is what led Wells to launch a new at-home version of her PWR workout programme, “PWR at Home,” which is available on the Sweat app — she wanted to make exercise even more accessible.
“I named my programmes PWR because I empowered myself through fitness, I was able to understand that fitness is about health, and find my confidence and my own self love,” she said.
“I used fitness as a tool to empower myself instead of a tool to beat myself up, and that’s my goal with what I do, to help other women do the same.”
Your mindset changes everything
Wells’ physical transformation over the past five years may be clear, but she says it was successfully transforming her outlook that made all the difference.
“I grew up with not the best internal dialogue towards myself and I was always very hard on myself and my body,” she said. “I looked at fitness and exercise as a chore and as something you did to change your body. That’s pretty tragic.
“My biggest transformation that I ever made was being able to switch that mindset, truly learn and understand that one thing.
“And if women can do that, then it changes everything because then your efforts towards eating healthily and exercising are coming from a place of gratitude towards your body and a place of joy, you are taking care of yourself, you’re relieving stress, you’re taking care of your health, physical, mental, and emotional.”
It’s still OK to have physical goals
Don’t feel bad if you’re looking at Wells, admiring her physique, and feeling motivated by the prospect of getting in shape to change your appearance.
The Instagram star believes it’s totally fine to have aesthetic goals, but they shouldn’t be your main motivation for working out.
“There’s nothing wrong with your body changing or having physical goals so long as they’re attainable for your body type and you’re going about them in a healthy way,” Wells explained.
“But the problem becomes when that’s your driver — you’ll never be satisfied, you’ll always be picking yourself apart, you’ll feel like it’s taking too long, you’ll think it’s not working and will just feel discouraged.”
She added that you need to be careful with the goals you choose for yourself.
“If your goal is fat loss, that’s a good goal, especially if you need to be healthier,” Wells said. “But it’s about making sure you’re doing that in healthy ways, not doing anything too extreme, and understanding that you are beautiful and sexy just as you are now. Changing your body isn’t going to make you feel that way.”
Wells believes working out is actually the “ultimate” form of self-care.
“If you’re exercising because you want to take care of yourself, have more energy, sleep better, have more confidence, then those physical changes will come,” she said.
“It’s about taking care of yourself for the right reasons and then when those changes come, your confidence will grow. You need to love your body through every phase and change and stage.”
Exercise and mental health
It may be hard to believe, but Wells hasn’t always been the mega-fit beacon of health she is now — in fact, just five years ago, exercise didn’t feature in her life at all.
Everything changed after she had her son, Anderson, who is now five years old.
Working as an interior designer at the time, Wells was struggling with post-natal anxiety, and her midwife suggested she try exercising to improve her mental health.
“I was like, ‘There’s no way,’ I was quite sarcastic about it, like, ‘Sure I’ll exercise, that’s not going to help, this is a real thing,'” she said.
But little by little she began moving more — first just going for walks with Anderson in a stroller, then doing body-weighted workouts in her basement flat a couple of times a week, which eventually turned into four times a week.
“I committed to myself but I stopped and started and quit and all of the things most women do,” Wells said.
“But then, the more I did it, the more I realized, ‘Wow, this is helping me.’ And the more I started to see my body change in the mirror, the more I started to feel better.
“It didn’t cure my anxiety but it definitely enabled me to cope with it holistically and gave me more energy, helped me sleep better, lifted that weight on my chest, and cleared my mind. And so I realised, ‘Wow, there’s so much more to this.’ I was mind blown.”
At the age of 24, Wells discovered a passion for fitness, and a year later in July 2016, after she posted a transformation photo online which encouraged women to “screw the scale,” she went viral.
Instagram is a double-edged sword
Instagram has largely been credited for popularizing the “fit” look — fewer women now aspire to look like the skinny models of the 90s, and instead seek muscular arms and so-called “bubble butts.”
Indeed, Wells is one of the biggest names in the fitness industry on Instagram, and regularly posting photos and videos has helped her rise to international fame.
But she acknowledges that there are pros and cons to the role Instagram has played in the perception of fitness.
“Different looks come on trend — thigh gaps, big bums… these are things that are unrealistic and unattainable for most body types,” Wells said.
“If for you social media is draining and negative and you find yourself in a negative spiral of comparison, I would first advise you really be careful with the content you’re consuming.”
She says influencers have a responsibility to be truthful and show life as it really is.
Despite this, Wells’ own Instagram only features glossy, perfectly-posed photos, without a stray hair, drop of sweat, or roll of flesh in sight.
However, she believes nobody should follow anyone that doesn’t make them feel good about themselves.
“If there’s someone you follow or content you see that makes you feel ‘less than,’ that’s on you to unfollow or not look,” she said. “You have to be honest with yourself.”
She believes that overall, Instagram has allowed women to educate themselves about fitness.
“Instagram is a phenomenal blessing for the fitness landscape because through your phone you can learn so much,” she said.
“You can find messages, people, places, and things that are going to empower you and inspire you to be better and feel better, and go, do, and be your best. So I think it’s a wonderful thing and I’m very grateful it exists.”
It’s for these reasons that Wells says she will always keep her Instagram account as the “positive, authentic, and uplifting” space she believes it is.
‘You have to be intentional about your thoughts’
Wells has accepted that she can’t control how people will perceive her, but that’s not to say she isn’t affected by the comments she receives.
In a recent post in which Wells had spoken about the importance of having a positive internal dialogue, someone had commented saying, “That’s easy for you to say.”
“When I saw her comment, I just wanted to hug her because I would’ve said that too five years ago,” Wells said.
It is easy for her to say now, she admits, but it’s taken time and hard work.
“For five years I’ve worked really hard on taking care of my mental health — just like I take care of my body and I exercise regularly, I exercise mentally regularly,” she said.
“I do meditation, I focus on choosing positivity, I do very practical things to help my mental and emotional health just as I do my physical health.
“So yes, it’s easy for me to say but it’s not because I look a certain way, it’s because I’ve worked hard for that.”
Five years ago, Wells’ mindset towards her body was one that will be familiar to many women.
“When I would see a photo of myself or my reflection in the mirror, I would start picking myself apart immediately, but you have to consciously stop,” she said.
Wells’ husband Ryan encouraged her to speak more kindly to herself — when he caught her being negative about her appearance, he’d call her out and make her say out loud two of her strengths or positive qualities.
“It might sound silly or cheesy but it’s so important,” Wells said.
“You have to be intentional about your thoughts and it was very hard at first, but the more you do it — it’s the same with physical exercise — the easier it becomes.
“I never did anything extreme, I never all of a sudden changed my life, but here I am five years later and my mindset is completely different, my body is completely different, my health is completely different, and it all was just done through the smallest efforts compounded over time.”