Fitness Fridays: Melissa Leng-Adams On Playing American Football In Britain, Overcoming Bulimia And Embracing Those Thighs
If someone would have told Melissa “Her Royal Thighness” Leng-Adams, a British woman from London, that she was going to set up a fitness company and play American football competitively a few years ago, she probably would have laughed at the idea. She wasn’t into fitness nor impressed with football initially when introduced to it, but when she gave it another chance, she fell in love. The 25-year-old is now a running back representing Great Britain (the Lions) in the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) Women’s World Championships.
Leng-Adams trains her body extensively, and it’s something she loves to do, sharing her wellness tips, fitness regimen and more with thousands of followers on Instagram. But her road to launching a fitness company, being a body positive advocate and playing American Football competitively hasn’t been a smooth ride. For years, Leng-Adams struggled to accept her body, specifically her large thighs. She was overly conscious of her weight and during her early adult years punished her body; after a major health scare she did the work to turn things around. So when she looks at herself now, especially her thighs, the muscles she’s built and how far she’s come, Leng-Adams loves and embraces her body, and she wants all women to. That’s why she set up the fitness community Ad Virtus UK and her website, Her Royal Thighness, to help other women get moving in unique and fun ways, to embrace a balanced diet and to just walk away with a more positive mindset. That’s also why she talked with us and is sharing her fitness journey. Check it out.
MadameNoire: Tell us about your journey with sports and fitness. Have you always been an athlete and how did you end up playing American football as a British woman?
Melissa Leng-Adams: I’ve always enjoyed being active in one way or another. In my primary school, the Fulham Football Club (soccer) ran after-school sessions with us. I remember being one of two girls who stayed behind school to participate. In high school I enjoyed netball and athletics. I was really good at high jump and the 200m was my strongest sprint event.
American Football was a complete change of direction for me at 23 years old as I’d never competed in a contact sport before. My husband had been playing American Football competitively for quite some time. He started off playing in the premiership league in the U.K. and then professionally in Portugal. Since we already trained in the gym together he suggested I try the sport out myself. He knew a women’s development day was being hosted soon in the U.K., that’s a day for women who have never played American Football before to try it out, so I went along. Surprisingly, I was quite indifferent about it. I didn’t understand the terminology and because it wasn’t a sport I watched nor played before, I wasn’t won over straightaway, but a seed must have been sown because I kept thinking about it! At the development day a few women invited me to train with their local team in London. I thought I’d give the sport a second chance and I really enjoyed it. Ever since I committed to it my husband has tirelessly trained me and altered my workouts to now support my new football journey. After two years of playing the sport I tried out for the Great Britain squad and now I’m representing Great Britain in the IFAF Women’s World Championships in Canada. That’s why I always say, especially to women, when trying out a new sport or activity, always try it out a few times before you make up your mind about it. I could have given it a miss three years ago but now I’m playing nationally and representing Great Britain.
I read in a previous interview that in your youth you were more weight conscious and finally figured out the importance of being health conscious. What did it take for you to get to that health-conscious point?
As a teen I fell into that ridiculous trap of obsessing over weight loss and didn’t ever consider my health. By 13, I was already quite curvy with bigger thighs unlike my peers and instead of embracing being unique I just wanted to be slim and conform. When I look back at it, it was silly. We’ve been conditioned to want to fit in with everyone else in fear of standing out, but it’s a really weird way of thinking. If there is something that makes you, you — own it. It’s yours. It makes you special. It’s something I continuously tell people all the time who complain about their freckles, or their long legs, or their dark skin, or pale skin.
Unfortunately, as a teen I hadn’t got to this way of thinking yet and I was bulimic for a year. Being a black female, it was something I was incredibly ashamed to ever speak to anyone about. It’s often seen as a problem “we don’t suffer from.” I realized how much I was punishing my health when I developed heart palpitations and was given a heart monitor to wear. I was 19 by this time and at university so I decided to make the most sensible decision: I just went to the gym and ate sensibly! I decided to never punish my body ever again.
How did you come up with the tag/moniker “Her Royal Thighness”? And when did you start really loving and embracing your thighs?
In school, I wanted my thighs to be slimmer. Fast forward to seeing the light, my thighs were actually the first part of my body to react to my training regimen. My quads just kept growing and growing and with a new mindset I loved it. It wasn’t just a moment of self-acceptance but also a reminder of how far I’d come from once loathing my body to now being proud of it. I loved how my thighs looked in jeans, leggings, shorts — they just popped. They are my quads that I built and I love them. I was flexing my quads in the mirror and made the joke to my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, about him addressing me as “Royal Thighness” and we joked that I should make it my social media name.
As a running back, what type of exercise regimen does it take to be in fighting shape for the football season?
Sprint training, footwork drills and compound exercises; bench press, deadlifts and squats primarily. It’s important that I’m not only physically strong but also agile and can carry my own weight comfortably. I’m 72KG (158 pounds) and 5’4″, which is a solid weight for my height.
What about your diet? Are you consuming more of something like protein and less of other things?
My diet is quite flexible. I’m not shy around carbs, particularly on days when I’m doing a lot of sprint training. I need that energy to keep me going. I’m of Haitian descent, as well as Jamaican and St. Lucian, so I cook a lot of mushroom rice, which is called diri ak djon djon.
As for protein, I’m more of a white meat eater so I love chicken and turkey, and salmon is my favorite fish although I have developed an obsession with tuna steaks recently. I’ll treat myself to a medium rare steak once in a while too. I love food and eat a lot, basically! [laughs]
You, like many influencers, use social media to share your many endeavors, including your diet, charity work, exercise and diet, but I know you’ve said that a lot of social media also has a negative impact on the way women look at themselves, particularly their bodies. How do we combat that?
My company Ad Virtus UK seeks to improve the physical and mental well-being of women by practicing self-acceptance through a range of fun group events. As you can see by our social media pages, we have a good laugh and our focus is on normalizing what’s actually normal. Stretch marks, a range of skin shades, different body shapes – it’s all normal, so we want to constantly expose our followers to the beauty of humanity and set the record straight that there is no one model of beauty.
As for combating body negativity, I think it works in two ways. Influencers have a responsibility to be honest about what they share. If they’ve had surgery done on their body then selling a gym regimen to “get to look like me in 30 days” is straight up fraud. Secondly, self-love and acceptance starts with ourselves, so whilst we can unfollow people who make us feel bad about ourselves, we have to ask ourselves why they make us feel bad by just looking at them and see to that problem. What happens if you start a new job and you’re surrounded by people whose appearance makes you feel inadequate? You can’t avoid them, so the truth is, it’s something we have to work on individually and something I worked on myself years ago. I see the beauty in everyone including myself and for that reason whether I follow a fitness buff, Beyoncé or my gorgeous friends on social media, I appreciate their beauty and it doesn’t change or affect the way I see myself in any way, shape or form. It’s powerful and liberating.
I know that outside of football, you also do management, charity as well as PR and marketing work. How do you make the time for everything?
Good question [laughs]. I account for every hour of my day, Not working a 9-to-5 for the past two years has made me realize how much can be done in a day if I organize myself well.
Music was my first love – I was a journalist for MTV during my time as a student, so when I came across a talented music artist named Jafro who needed management, I jumped at the chance. I’ve been managing Jafro for a year now as well as managing a handful of companies’ marketing and social media campaigns in the finance, fitness and sports sectors.
I set up Ad Virtus UK a year and a half ago in order to host monthly fitness and nutrition events for women in London. Our events are “tick off your bucket list” events, so fitness events you’ve probably not tried before like yoga in the dark with UV paint, BeyoncAerobics and Hulafitness. It’s tailored for an exclusive class of women on a first-come-first-serve basis. We all get to take home goody bags and the environment is always fun and empowering. Ad Virtus means “to empower” in Latin. I manage these events every month from conception to completion. I meet with potential fitness trainers to see if they’re suitable to run a class and liaise with sponsors for each goody bag.
As far as charity, my husband has always had a big heart for the community and wanted to set up a charity to reach out to overlooked communities in and around London. Leng Community has been running for 18 months and through this charity we have launched campaigns to support the homeless with the Parcel of Hope campaign. With elderly people we’ve done a MP3 campaign where we went down to a elderly care home that looks after patients suffering from dementia and gifted them with mp3 players with music dating back to their teens. It was such an emotional yet fun experience. We will also be launching a music campaign to support the evacuees of the recent Grenfell Tower fire tragedy to help support their long-term needs.
Because you’re known as “Her Royal Thighness,” could you give us your top three workout moves that you would encourage for quad and hamstring development?
Walking lunges while holding dumbells at a weight you’re most comfortable with. Hip thrusts are awesome for hamstring development when you really focus on pushing up from the heels, firing up, squeezing and coming down controlled. Lastly, Bulgarian squats, they really work the vastus medialis obliques. I can’t forget standard back squats, though. As creative as people get in the gym, you can’t knock good formed squats – they never fail. This summer I’ll be sharing a lot more fitness tips on my website with some awesome guest bloggers so stay tuned!