“I just live and breathe it” – the woman who made a life-altering career change

Why ill health and a mid-life crisis was a life-changer for the good

Anna Coles lives in Hampshire and is the founder of Compono Fitness & Health. She specialises in metabolic health and cancer rehabilitation, running classes and fitness retreats.

Empathetic, focused and driven, Coles has built a successful career coaching and inspiring others to reach their goals. As well as motivating people to be fitter and healthier, she also supports people through difficult personal times as they deal with cancer treatment.

Anna Coles Compono Fitness and HealthCredit: Exceptional

Today she’s a picture of confidence, but it was not always so easy getting there. She had to cope with illness in her family, and as she entered her fifties, she found herself at a mid-life crossroads – factors that turned out to be important in her life-changing decision to retrain as a personal trainer (PT).

Exceptional caught up with Coles to find out what inspired her to make such a career change, and why she continues to build upon and expand her fitness knowledge.

“My degree was in fine arts,” she says, “and I fell into that because it was what I was best at in school. I wouldn’t say I was brilliant, but I was good enough to do it without having to really try. So I worked within commercial and decorative art for a number of years.

“I married, and had children, and got a part-time job managing a website for a jewellery designer. It was just pocket money, and a way to keep my hand in.”

Coles admits she led a “hardened lifestyle”, which culminated in a shock over her husband’s health. “My husband suddenly needed a heart bypass at 55. I was 40 at the time. We lived a lifestyle that included drinking a lot, and I was also a very heavy smoker.”

Anna Coles Compono Fitness and HealthCredit: Exceptional

Finding the fitness buzz

Her husband falling ill was a wake-up call that made her decide to improve her own health, she says. She gave up smoking and started training to do the Moonwalk, an annual fundraising walk for breast cancer, with participants choosing to walk either a half or full marathon distance though London at midnight. For Coles, as well as being a great fundraising opportunity, the Moonwalk inspired her to take up fitness on a regular basis and eventually to retrain in it as a new career.

“It’s something I would have thought completely unachievable,” she says,“ and it just gave me huge amounts of confidence. I got a real buzz out of it, and I thought – now I’m going to start running.” She adds: “I realised that was quite different to walking, but I did it. I built up my running, and absolutely fell in love with cardio.”

Things changed again for Coles when her eldest son went off to university. “It’s a bit of a cliché, I suppose, but I had an empty nest. I was also bored in my job managing the jewellery website. It had been brilliant to fill in time when the kids were growing up, but it wasn’t really doing much for me any more.”

It was then that her husband suggested she take up what she loved, and work in the fitness industry. “I just laughed and said there was no way I can do that. I haven’t got a science or maths brain, and who would want to train with me? I was 50 at the time.”

In spite of her reservations, she decided to give it a go and follow her passion. As many know from experience, learning something new later in life can be a challenge. But once Coles started retraining as a PT, she didn’t look back.

Anna Coles Compono Fitness and HealthCredit: Exceptional

A new challenge

“I became completely and utterly focused,” she says. “It was the only way I could do it. Intellectually it was a challenge, because I was using a whole side of my brain I hadn’t used before.

“I passed my level two as a PT and within 24 hours I was working in a gym. I then went on to study level three and did my GP referral.”

Having a GP referral qualification has enabled Coles to work with a broader client base, including people with high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes, and other conditions.

Always check your trainer is qualified to a similarly high level if you have any health issues. At the very least a personal trainer must hold their Level 3 personal training qualification and their GP referral certificate to work with anyone who has health conditions. 

Expanding knowledge

Lockdown was a difficult time for people in the fitness industry as it was a long time before any face-to-face training could resume. As with many industries, work moved online during this period, and Coles started regularly teaching via the internet, something she still does for Energie Fitness, a group of gyms with branches nationwide.

She also put her spare time to good use, choosing to add more qualifications to her growing list, including level four in metabolic health, and training as a Pure Stretch instructor. After that, her career took yet another turn.

“I was contacted by the Synthesis Clinic in Hampshire, who I’d done some work for before. They had started to specialise in cancer care, and they asked if I’d be interested in qualifying in cancer rehab. I had mixed feelings about it – I felt I’d reached the limit of my academic capabilities – but it was too good an opportunity to turn down.”

“The training really challenged me, and I thought I was never going to understand or grasp it, but bit by bit it all started to make sense. Now I work with clients from the point of diagnosis, getting them to an optimal level of fitness so that, if they need surgery for example, they might reduce their hospital time or speed up their recovery time.”

Anna Coles Compono Fitness and HealthCredit: Exceptional

Finding the balance

She also sees them through treatment, and notes that every programme is different for each individual. “You could have two people with the same diagnosis, the same treatment pathway, the same prognosis, but they’re going to respond differently.” She often works with clients online. “The pandemic really changed all that. Before, the pool of people I could work with was quite small, now it’s anyone, anywhere.”

Coles also sees private personal training clients in-person in a small studio, as well as teaching classes in EMS (electrical muscle stimulation), a fairly new system, where the participants are wired up to electrodes as they work out.

She explains: “It activates fast twitch muscle fibres while you’re using your slow twitch muscle fibres – for example, in a strength training workout. And you really feel it the next day!”

It’s been an eight-year journey to where she is now, she says. “It was just going to be a job doing something I enjoyed. I didn’t think it was going to define me, which it has. I just live and breathe it and I feel very responsible for my clients. All my energy and passion goes to them, but that’s what makes a good coach.”

Perhaps it’s fitting her company’s motto is “find the balance”, as that’s just what she’s found for herself. “Now I’m in a position where I can put more into myself, and my friendships and relationships outside work. To take stock of my life and just enjoy it. I can get a better work-life balance, but within my new life. I wouldn’t want to go back to the old one.”

Becky Fuller

Written by Becky Fuller she/her

Updated:

Becky Fuller is a fully qualified Personal Trainer, specialising in strength and conditioning for over 50s. Becky’s focus is helping people to become stronger both in body and mind, and to move well without pain. Becky also has many years’ experience working as a freelance journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications such as Screen Rant, Geek Feed, and Daily Actor. She also regularly reviews theatre productions for UKTW.

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