Meet the weightlifting Sunderland grandmother who used her own experiences of mental health problems to benefit the community with Weights & Cakes gym

A weightlifting mother and grandmother has revealed how her own mental health issues inspired her to take up the sport and to set up her Weights & Cakes gym in Southwick to help other people with their physical and mental wellbeing.

Zoe Chandler, 50, turned to weightlifting ten years ago after “struggling for years” with her own mental health problems and in particular anxiety and depression.

A key reason behind Zoe’s struggles was the challenges of being a mum to two children with autism and ADHD, and many of the adults who attend sessions at the gym are parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

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Zoe said: “I’ve lived with mental health issues all my life. Having children with SEND can be challenging and many parents can feel isolated, on their own and don’t know where to turn.

"I fell into fitness really, after watching someone doing an Olympic weight lift. It was very dramatic and I thought this is something I could enjoy doing. I tried it, loved it, and since then I’ve won the Northern, British and European Masters (over 35) Championships.

"I also recently lifted 118kg – equivalent of 18 stone – and have qualified to compete in the World Championships. In March I’m going to be competing in the British Championships again and I’ve set myself the target of lifting 123kg.

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“It’s all about improving your physical and mental health. For that two hours it’s just you and your barbell and hitting those targets. When you finish, you always feel so much better.”

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Zoe Chandler, 50, inside the Weights & Cakes gym in Southwick.

After experiencing the benefits of exercise firsthand, Zoe qualified as a personal trainer and started running classes to support other people’s wellbeing and two years ago she founded the Community Interest Company Weights & Cakes and opened the popular gym.

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Zoe said: “The training sessions I ran would always finish with a cup of tea and a slice of cake. It was chance for people to have a chat, share their experiences and not feel isolated.

"For parents of children with SEND, it was a chance for them to see that other parents were going through exactly the same thing. It became known as the Weights & Cakes session which is where the name of the gym comes from and why I decided to continue to offer this opportunity for people to socialise.”

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The gym now offers a whole network of support with access to a trained counsellor and guidance on where both parents and children can get additional support.

Zoe Chandler lifting weights.
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She added: “Every parent has the same story, that they don’t know where to get support. We can signpost people as to where they can go for things like getting a referral to the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Hopefully my own experiences enable me to help support other people going through the same things I did.

"For many parents, being able to share that empathy helps to relieve some of the burden.”

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Opening Weights & Cakes has also had positive impact on Zoe’s own mental health.

She sad: “The gym and helping others has given me a real focus and I’m in a much better mental place than I was. I also have a much better understanding of mental health.”

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Zoe Chandler proudly shows off her Sunderland Echo Business award for Social Enterprise of the Year.

One of the gym’s major roles has also been to provide a community hub for youngsters to train as well as a “safe place” to socialise and even do their homework.

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Zoe said: “We run a number of clubs for different age groups but we also provide holistic support in which every Friday youngsters have access to speak with a trained counsellor. We also run an activities club over the school holidays in which the children can get a free meal as part of Sunderland City Council’s Holiday Activities and Food programme.”

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The dedicated grandmother also hopes her own success in winning both national and international titles can help inspire the children she now coaches.

She added: “I took up the sport at 40, which is really late, and have managed to be successful. Hopefully we can help to broaden kids’ horizons, show them what is out there and inspire them to achieve their own goals.”

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Zoe’s hard-work already looks to be paying off, with junior members at gym having won three good medals in the British Age Group Championships and two further golds at the English Championships.

She said: “The gym has now been designated as the city’s first British Weightlifting Talent Academy. We already have two youngsters who I think stand a really good chance of competing in the next Commonwealth Games in Australia."

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Born and raised 250 miles away in Cheltenham, Zoe has now lived in Sunderland for 22 years and considers herself “an adopted Makem”.

She said: “I moved up with my former partner who got a job in the city. I live in Ryhope now and think the city is fantastic. The beaches up here are amazing and in no time at all you can be out in the countryside.”

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A successful two years was capped off in November when Weights & Cakes won the Sunderland Echo Business award for the Social Enterprise of the Year.

In keeping with the company’s name, Zoe hopes to develop the gym in the New Year to include a designated cafe.

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She said: “It was fantastic to win the Echo award. This year we plan on developing the reception area of the gym into the Cups and Cake Cafe which my daughter Nicole, who has autism, is going to run.

"We are planning on making it available for the children with SEND from Grace House to come and use.”