CREDIT: CLARA MOLDEN
Mary Portas has made her name by telling the world what to do. Uninspired shopkeepers, international brands, members of David Cameron’s coalition government; all have received due instruction from the bob-topped queen of retail. But in the hands of one particular man, she is putty.
“After my back started playing up I realised I needed someone to properly structure a physical routine for me”
Luke Gray is a 56-year-old personal trainer with a bespoke studio around the corner from the Portas’s London home, in Primrose Hill. He and his nutritionist wife Jo added Portas to their books a year ago – the time it has taken for them to change her life, she claims.
“I thought that personal trainers would have me puffing up and down Primrose Hill for everybody to see and that was the last thing I wanted,” says Portas, meeting me for coffee at 9am, fresh from one of her three weekly morning workouts. “But after my back started playing up I realised I needed someone to properly structure a physical routine for me.”
When the 56-year-old arrived at one of the Grays’ retreat weekends in Surrey to kick-start a new training programme, she presented an array of symptoms Luke and Jo had seen many times over. Disc protrusion in her spine, partly caused by years of running on concrete, had become so painful Portas was reduced to a hobble.
She had little overall muscle definition, neck muscles tight from stress, painful knees and was exhausted from interrupted sleep. Her angelic-sounding four-year-old, Horatio, wasn’t the problem – “Honestly, he’s never woken in the night, ever” – but work and time demands were taking their toll.
Portas didn’t look drastically out of shape, but without realising it, she had been stacking up exactly the kind of unhealthy habits and physical problems that authorities say are causing a “health crisis” among her age group. According to Public Health England, eight in 10 people aged between 40 and 60 in this country are overweight, drink too much or get too little exercise.
Inactivity caused by years of driving to work and sitting at desks, the pressures of caring for children and elderly relatives, plus a simple lack of awareness and time to learn about how to live better mean that many members of this busy “sandwich generation” are much less healthy than their age dictates they should be.
Since around half of those in midlife will live to the age of 90, it is essential they start thinking in terms of “health-span”, not lifespan, says Sir Muir Gray, clinical adviser to the PHE campaign, if they want to avoid being a burden on their children and enjoy a healthy retirement.
For Portas, this really hit home on the retreat. “I’m kind of the matriarch of the family. I’m one of five and I want to be fit and be there for them,” she says. Besides Horatio, who was born as the result of IVF between Portas’s wife Melanie and her brother Lawrence, she has two other children, Mylo, 22, and Verity, 21, with her ex-husband Graham Portas.
She also employs 50 staff at her communications agency, presents regular television shows, travels the world lecturing and recently opened her 21st Mary’s Living and Giving Shop, a chain of charity stores that raise money for Save The Children. Exercise had become something she did when she could squeeze it in, if at all.
“With plenty of stress but very little structure to her eating and exercise, something had to give – and it was her body”
“Before I had kids, when I worked at Harvey Nics, I used to get up at 5.30am, drive to Hyde Park with my clothes for the day in the back of my car, do a 40-minute run and then do a workout at the gym,” she says. “But then my life just got so busy.” With plenty of stress but very little structure to her eating and exercise, something had to give – and it was her body.
The Grays, who have been running their company Living Retreats for 15 years, say they’re starting to get more and more “Mary-types” through their doors. “It’s often driven by a bad back or a dodgy knee, or something that is falling off,” Luke says. Yoga, for all its benefits, is also sometimes the cause of problems for this age group.
Portas had been practising on and off for years, but without simultaneous strength or conditioning training to build muscle, she was gaining flexibility without having the structure in place to support her joints, Luke explains. “If you’re really mobile but you’re not strong, then all of the pressure goes on to the joint and the joint will then flare. It will be painful.”
The Grays’ first steps with Portas, as with so many of their clients, were to give her diet, sleep and exercise patterns an overhaul. “Her eating was erratic. She’d be super healthy and then have a lovely croissant,” Jo explains. “A lot of treats were going on.” Portas waseating about the right amount of food a day but too much at each meal, rather than spreading the amount out evenly across the day. She was also drinking wine in the evenings in an attempt to unwind, which wasn’t helping her sleep.
“Having never used weights in her life, Portas can now carry out three sets of 10 20kg lifts on an Olympic weightlifting bar”
Jo rebalanced Portas’s diet, adding animal protein into every meal and non-animal protein – such as nuts, hemp seed and chia – into her snacks, to help her build muscle from the exercises she started with Luke. She taught Portas new portion rules for each meal: the amount of protein should be the size of one palm; leafy veg and salad should fit into two cupped hands; soft fruit should equal one handful.
Jo also prescribed destressing milk protein tablets called Compose LT to help her feel less wired in the evening and another supplement, Relax, to boost magnesium levels and help her sleep through the night. At the same time, Luke went to work on her body. He typically starts his midlifer clients on basic muscle-creating exercises using body weight or equipment like Swiss balls. As her strength increased, Portas’s hypermobility lessened, easing the strain on her back and the pain in her knees.
“It was simple but nobody had addressed it, so it was a nice fix for us to be able to do,” Luke says.
Portas soon graduated to harder exercises like downward dogs, squats and turnouts, raising one arm into the air from a plank position. Gray takes what he calls a “functional exercise” approach, making clients perform moves relevant to daily life such as pulling, pushing and lifting.
Having never used weights in her life, Portas can now carry out three sets of 10 20kg lifts on an Olympic weightlifting bar. In between gym circuits she walks – to her office in Bloomsbury or around Regent’s Park – and boxes, regularly sparring with Luke on the top of Primrose Hill at great personal risk to her reputation, apparently.
“We can all do this. I’m lucky, I can have a great trainer and pay for that but everybody can be fit”
“You’re aware sometimes that you’re sweating and the bob isn’t quite as gorgeous… it’s not really how you want to be seen.” She insists there’s no visualisation at the punchbag, however.
“No, I’m a hippy, I’m calmer, I don’t do that.”
Despite what she says, it’s clear that her year spent working out, living more healthily and feeling “fantastic” as a result hasn’t completely transformed the mercurial Portas into a vision of tranquillity. When she’s reminded of issues she cares about – the closure of a favourite local yoga studio, local councils’ lack of understanding about the importance of community and Theresa May’s recent “PR stunt” visit to her local butcher on Small Business Saturday – the sparks fly. “See, this is why I need to be fit!” she rages. “I can’t just sit by and not let change happen.”
But what Luke and Jo’s programmes have given her is the stamina to keep going. “I think in a way we have a responsibility to be healthy,” she says. “We can all do this. I’m lucky, I can have a great trainer and pay for that but everybody can be fit.”
Watch out, Britain: a new Portas project could be on the cards.