'Lifestyle change instead of just a phase': Canterbury mum's body-building transformation

Leeston early childhood teacher Lisa Chemaly has transformed her life after training for a body-building competition. The 43-year-old mother of two spoke to Susan Sandys about her journey

Can you tell me a little about your background?
I’m originally from South Africa. We (my former husband, young son and I) moved here to New Zealand 14 years ago. About 12 years ago I started studying early childhood, I’ve been an early childhood teacher ever since. I had always wanted to do it, but having study opportunity and being able to pay off a loan was something I couldn’t do back in South Africa.

Why did you move to New Zealand?
My kids’ dad’s parents came here for a holiday from South Africa. They liked it so much that they immigrated and encouraged us to follow. We had actually already planned to go to Australia, but then kind of changed our minds. I thought at the last second that it would be silly to have no family, because my family stayed behind. I was pregnant at the time, I had my daughter here. We were at Lincoln first, then Rolleston. About five years ago we found a house that we could afford to buy in Leeston.

Tell me about your fitness journey.
When I was growing up I was never one to enjoy exercise. I did enjoy riding my bike, and I did play sport at school, but as I got older, that just went right out the window. And, I guess for me, I’ve always kind of grown up just average, weight wise or body-type wise. I always used to compare myself to my friends. I think back in the day, people were quite judgy about your size. When I had my son, I think that’s when I started putting on weight, and didn’t feel very good about myself. I’m quite short (five foot two), so I don’t have much space to put on weight. Then I kind of lost the weight, and fell pregnant with my daughter, then moved to New Zealand. I was trying to study with a baby, I think it was just a lot. After that, I put on, like, 20 kilos. I ended up losing that, but in such an unhealthy way. I lost all muscle. As time went on, the weight slowly returned. I thought: ‘This is ridiculous, I know I can lose the weight.’ So I was like: ‘I know I can do it, so how can I do it in a more healthy way?’ I wanted to do it before my 40th. In 2018, in about September, I started getting up every morning and I would walk on the treadmill for an hour before breakfast, and just started thinking about what I was eating. So sort of calorie counting a little bit, to make sure I wasn’t eating things I shouldn’t. By the November, I had lost quite a lot quite quickly in a healthy way. That’s when I thought: ‘Okay, now I need to build muscle,’ because I never got back that muscle that I lost. So I joined the gym. By my 40th I had reached my goal, I was down to what I wanted to be. It was a lifestyle change instead of just a phase.

Lisa Chemaly enjoying the outdoors with daughter Paige and son Keagan when they were younger....
Lisa Chemaly enjoying the outdoors with daughter Paige and son Keagan when they were younger. Photo: Supplied
How did you get into body-building?
At the Lincoln gym, I met (personal trainer) John McCormick. He said to me one day: ‘Why don’t you do this (body-building) competition?’ It was a show he was holding for the first time in Lincoln. I’m like: ‘No, that’s silly.’ He’s like: ‘Come on, just join the team, I’ve got lots of people that are going to do it! Just do it.’ I said jokingly at the time: ‘Okay, yep sure,’ and continued on with it.

Did you enjoy it?
Doing the show this year (June) was such a great focus for me. There’s no way I would have even thought about it if he hadn’t of said: ‘You can do this,’ because I never would have believed that I could. There’s so many people going to gym, but when there is no goal they give up. I must say having that goal and a date kept me focused. Now the show is done, I’m struggling to get that focus and vibe again. But John has said we are doing the show again next year, so I just focus on that.

Did you ever think you would get into body-building?
Never, until he suggested it.

Have you been able to retain the same toned look since the show in June?
Not to that extent. The two weeks before the show you are cutting fat. I’m probably the same muscle percentage as I was then, but I’ve probably put a little bit of the fat per cent on, because I am eating normal now. I am not trying to cut fat. And the spray tan makes your muscles pop. You would never maintain that every day. But that’s why there’s another show, because you have something to work towards.

What foods did you cut out leading up to the show?
It took 16 weeks with no fatty foods. No red meats or fatty meats. So, it’s more white fish, grilled lean chicken, egg whites more so than the yolks, a lot of protein. Also lots of salads and vegetables, and no carbs after five. Cooking for the kids (now 17 and 13) and cooking for me, I just kept mine pretty simple, I would add a baked potato or chips on the side for them. As the weeks get closer, you start getting stricter. That’s when you even stop having chicken breasts, because that’s too fatty, and you stick to the egg whites and the white fish, and obviously the salady things. And starting to cut the carbs back too, a little bit as the weeks get closer. For example, I had oats for breakfast every morning, which is good, but closer to the time I had to swap out the oats for rice flakes. Which I must say pleasantly surprised me, I actually enjoyed them. I just added some of my protein powder and they were quite nice. Having the protein powder is a must too, that’s kind of like a treat because it’s tasty, you can con yourself into thinking it is a milkshake.

Lisa Chemaly worked hard over 16 weeks to prepare for a bodybuilding competition. Photo: Supplied
Lisa Chemaly worked hard over 16 weeks to prepare for a bodybuilding competition. Photo: Supplied
Can you eat cakes and muffins in that 16 weeks?
Definitely not. Although in saying that, I was allowed a cheat meal once a week. That was a healthy thing to do. You could decide whether it was a meal, for example lasagna, or it could be something like an ice-cream. Friday night was treat night and I would have a Cornetto cone with my two kids.

You must have amazing will power?
I had amazing willpower, I’m trying to get it back. I caught Covid about three weeks before the show, so I couldn’t do any cardio, that was a bit of a train wreck. So I just made sure what I was eating was as good as I could do.

Would you like to see the show become an annual event?
Yes, definitely, I will do it again. Because I was quite shy, I don’t know how I ever did it in the first place. Wearing so little and being proud of yourself is such a hard thing to do. For me, it’s something that I needed to do. Just being able to be proud of your achievements even though you’re not perfect. Standing in front of everyone and doing the whole bikini thing was so hard, but I’m so proud of myself for allowing myself to do it.

What word would you use to describe your journey?
It was challenging, but at the same time it was inspiring and rewarding. I can’t say that I was perfect and I definitely fell off the wagon a few times, but it was about saying that happened let’s move on you can do this. I’ve got goals again and it’s exciting. For my health, it’s been amazing. About seven years ago I put my back out, slipped my lower disc 25 per cent. The physio said I would never be able to run. I needed to work on my core muscles, which I actually didn’t have to begin with. 

What is your goal now?
I think just keeping it up. I think once you have made a lifestyle change, it’s just going with that. And focusing on that area with the kids that I teach, keeping them excited about running around, racing, obstacle courses, bike riding, moving and those kinds of things.

Has training for body-building made you adopt any permanent lifestyle changes?
I do try to limit how much carbs I eat after five o’clock, because there’s no time for your body to burn that. That is a theory that I will move forward with. I can’t say that I’m perfect on it right now, but that is something that is a lifestyle change for me. And also even sticking to the only-eat-dessert-once-a-week kind of theory, and just exercising when you can.