Gemma Atkinson is on a mission to make mums – and not just new mothers – feel like their old selves again. The radio host and presenter of The Toddler Club is releasing her second fitness and recipe book this week, which arms readers with healthy recipes, easy-to-follow workouts, and delves into Gemma's own parenting journey.
As she poses exclusively for our Digital Cover to celebrate the release of The Ultimate Body Plan for New Mums, Gemma tells us: "A lot of pregnancy books make it sound like it's all cardigans and floral aprons and baking while your baby's asleep – and this is a reality check on it all."
The former Strictly star, who shares her two-year-old daughter Mia with professional dancer Gorka Marquez, talks about how motherhood has changed her, how she's stronger and more resilient than ever, and how she deals with that typical mum scrutiny.
Gemma, congratulations on your new book! Tell us what it's all about.
"It's essentially a follow-up to The Ultimate Body Plan and it's aimed at anyone who's ever had a baby, it isn't necessarily just for new mums. It's all about finding yourself again after having a child, strengthening your pelvic floor, and focusing on how you feel your best – not necessarily about having to get back into your pre-pregnancy jeans. There are 75 recipes that are vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free. And there's a 12-week plan which you can either do for 12 weeks or you can continue further on.
Gemma wears a navy satin cowl neck dress from True Decadence
"The book is also a bit about my journey into motherhood and my experiences. From the minute I announced I was pregnant, I was flooded with questions of 'When are you going to start training again? Are you worried that your body is going to change? When are you going to get your body back?' And it just dawned on me that it's such a massive fear for so many people, that having a baby will effectively ruin the body and the mind and I just thought it's completely not the case.
"Getting back in shape was the last thing on my mind after I'd had Mia. So I just thought I wanted something like a bible that I wish I had when I was pregnant to read so I was less anxious about things and not putting as much pressure on myself. I've been as honest as possible with the good and the bad – there's a section on piles for example, things that you don't expect. A lot of pregnancy books gloss over that and make it sound like it's all cardigans and floral aprons and baking while your baby's asleep and this is a reality check on it all."
So how long did you wait to exercise again after having Mia?
"I probably could have done it sooner but I didn't choose to do anything for about 16 weeks. It was the hottest summer we'd had in a long time and I just loved being at home in the garden. The one thing I did focus on straight away was my nutrition, because I knew that eating well and making good choices was going to give me more energy and put me in a better place to deal with being a mum.
"And then one day I just thought, 'I might do a walk today. I will see how it goes…' and I started gradually walking and then built myself up to getting back in the gym. For me, it was about taking a step back and appreciating what my body had done. I missed how exercise made me feel endorphin-wise but I had that, in a way, just by being around Mia. Because I listened to my body and knew when to rest and when to step back, it was a no-brainer to just let myself heal properly.
"I didn't start lifting heavy weights again until Mia was around six months old. It was just a case of being patient with myself and I focused on my strength rather than my size."
What does your exercise regime look like now?
"I try and do between three and four times a week of training at the gym. I try and do a yoga day and I walk the dogs twice daily. Food wise, I always go with 80 per cent what my body needs and 20 per cent what I like, so there's lots of grains and vegetables and pulses. At the weekend, if we fancy a pizza, we will have one or if we're going to the cinema, we'll get some pick and mix. Nothing is off limits. I am aware that a chocolate bar every day isn't going to be good for me but chocolate one day a week is fine."
How did you manage to put aside the usual scrutiny on new mums and just do things your way?
"I think I found the scrutiny more difficult before I had Mia. But the minute I became a mum, everything just gained a new perspective for me and the opinion of Joe Bloggs on the internet was really insignificant to how I was with my daughter at home. My concern in life now is, 'Is my family healthy and happy?' It just shifted my focus. And what people think of me now is nothing to do with me. It's to do with them. They don't know me personally so why should I take it personally?
"You know your body and your baby better than anyone else. It's fine for people to give you all this advice, but ultimately, it's your baby. So you've got to trust your own instincts and do your routine which will be completely different from other people's but that's okay. Don't compare your child to anyone else's because they're all completely different."
The Ultimate Body Plan for New Mums, £12.99, Amazon
Your book talks about the importance of mums to take time out to be kind to themselves every so often. What self-care did you do?
"For me, it was little things like trying to have a bath on a Sunday night in Epsom salts. I remember one time my Mum went to the supermarket and she brought me home a little face mask and it just felt nice to have it on. So it's not necessarily big, expensive spa days or gestures. It's just little things that remind you that you were someone before you were a mum and you can still be that person."
How did motherhood change you?
"Becoming a mother definitely made me more patient and it's kind of surprised me at how natural I've dealt with things, whether they've been easy or not. I never thought I'd have kids because I was more than happy to be on my own with ten dogs. And that was kind of the dream for me! It wasn't until I met Gorka I thought, 'Oh, I could actually have a family with him,' because it was just different. It shocked me at how natural a process it was for me because I know a lot of people struggle and it's difficult."
You don't always have a helping hand when you're looking after Mia. Has that made you more of a resilient mum?
"When Gorka is away working or on tour, it has made me more resilient. I've always been extremely independent and Gorka is too, and I think that bodes extremely well for our relationship because I think if either of us was extremely needy, it'd be a nightmare because whenever we were away working, we would always be torn between our work and our family. We're in this amazing place whereby we enjoy our jobs and it makes the time we have together even more special if we've had a week or so apart.
"From when I was a child I've always just learned to look after myself and just rely on myself. That's stuck really! I'm good on my own and it's a lot better and more fun when Gorka's around but the times when he's not, I'm still coping and everything is in working order."
Describe your ideal night out.
"We love getting a takeaway and just staying in and if we do go out, our thing is that we love brunch. We'd much rather do a Sunday brunch than a Saturday night out. It's always been like that, to be honest. I loved going out when I was younger but now nights like that are few and far between, even though they're always amazingly fun. But it's just nicer, I think, when you've been at work all week to just be at home in your pyjamas on a Saturday night watching a film and having a takeaway."
You recently returned to Hollyoaks for one episode. What was that like?
"I'd been asked back a few times by them. I never wanted to turn my back on Hollyoaks because it's where I started my career. But I've been so busy with everything else. I have my radio show every weekday and I was just tied up. So we did the one episode and I was on set for about six days. And it was just wonderful. It's such an amazing place and the crew were incredible. I've known them since I was 15, I've kind of grown up with them. So it was nice to go back and see all the familiar faces but all now with a few more laughter lines and a few more stories."
Would you ever go back to working on a soap again?
"I couldn't go back to a soap again. I would love to do a short-term appearance. I do enjoy acting, I absolutely love it. I always say if a job came up like a one-off series or a drama where you know there's a start and end date to your filming schedule, you work around it.
"When we were doing Emmerdale or Hollyoaks, you would get your call time the night before for the following day. But I love routine. I've been guilty in the past of saying yes to everything and I've always said it's great to grab every opportunity. But I think as I've got older, the first thing I say is 'How long is it for and whereabouts is it based?' I love the fact that my radio station is a 20-minute drive from my house."
Gemma is wearing necklaces by Kirstie Le Marque.
The Ultimate Body Plan for New Mums: 12 Weeks to Finding You Again by Gemma Atkinson (£16.99, Headline Home) comes out on 14 April 2022.