Train Like a Kardashian, Eat Like a Giraffe:
Two Lawyers and a Personal Trainer Discuss
Mariam: While I’ve never been thin, I have found that I have been more motivated to get fit since I had my kids. Of course, given the demands of balancing a career with a home and kids, it’s challenging to fit in fitness into my life. Have you found that to be the case Asma and Ayesha?
Asma: I, too, have experienced a rejuvenated interest in fitness after having kids. Pregnancy was my first experience of gaining a lot of weight in a short period of time, and not doing much to stop it because there was a legitimate reason for the weight gain. In other words, having children was the first time I was presented with this major health challenge and I have done a lot to get fit again — though, of course, there’s always more to do. Getting older, having a slower metabolism, etc., all further exacerbate the struggle.
Ayesha: I have been athletic all my life. I’ve played sports competitively since junior high, so entering into the pregnancy phase and maintaining a fit lifestyle was something I was very excited about. I took prenatal yoga, kept active, and post-pregnancy was able to get down to my high school weight! I couldn’t believe it! Everything they tell you about exercising during pregnancy to help you bounce back quicker was actually true! Yay!
Mariam: I feel like in our community which emphasizes modest dress for women, we get lucky in that we don’t have the pressure to look perfect or feel constantly judged for our looks in the same way as many other women. The downside may be though that many women, especially in older generations, do not put much thought into fitness. I don’t know of any of my older female relatives going to the gym or really undertaking any physical activities beyond housework. Do you find that?
Asma: I agree. The loose, modest clothes give us some reprieve. I appreciate that because when we do exercise, we do it for ourselves, not necessarily to show off–at least not in the ways more revealing clothes would allow us to. I don’t think, though, that the fashion is what makes older generations more lax with exercise–since, if that was the case, wouldn’t it have the same effect on us? Instead, I think desi culture in previous generations did not value health and fitness in the same way we do now, in our modern, American context. The trend may be changing in India and Pakistan, too, from what I hear–and that, despite the fact that they still wear modest clothes!
Ayesha: I wouldn’t necessarily say that we are “lucky” because of the modest attire, but rather that it poses challenges in terms of fitness. I have several Muslim women clients who show up to work out and are not properly fitted in moisture-wicking clothing, are wearing maternity pants in lieu of other loose-fitting pants, or are otherwise improperly outfitted (please! no cotton!). It may not sound like a big deal but when you are cranking out push-ups, running laps, and breaking a sweat, the last thing you want to worry about is your clothing, or your hijab, if applicable. So either women come to work out not properly dressed, or, as Mariam said, they’ll toss out the idea entirely.
Mariam: Ayesha, that’s really interesting — I’ve been working out with personal trainers for the past few years, and I had no idea that how you dress for your exercise made any impression on them, or made a difference otherwise. The trainers have been an important part of my plan to get fit and stay that way, but despite everything I struggle to stick with it. I’ve had periods where my diet is amazing and I’m working with a trainer. During those phases I’m at the gym every day, sweating it out next to the many gorgeous Dubai women who look like Kardashians. While that’s intimidating, it’s also motivating, and those phases of “good behavior” are amazing. But then real life hits me – something invariably goes wrong at home or work – and I fall off the bandwagon. That’s when I lose my gym card and break out the chocolate croissants at 3 pm every day.
Asma: My main struggle is travel. It’s hard for me to stick to my exercise regimen when I have to travel, especially when I travel abroad for work. With the stress of jetlag and long work days, fitting in an intense exercise routine makes me feel like I’m adding stress to an already stressful situation. I can always try to work in light exercise, but the usual routine–the one that I’ve seen actually makes an impact–is often too much for me when I’m traveling.
Mariam: Ayesha, if you have to advise other women about making a choice between focusing on diet over exercise, or vice-versa, what would you advise?
Ayesha: Honestly, I would not advise women to make a choice between diet and exercise; the two go hand in hand. I always tell my clients, ‘abs are made in the kitchen’, and diet alone represents about 80% of the effort! After all, what good is it to work so hard in a spinning class for 60 minutes if you (not you specifically) are going to undo it all by eating fast food or snacking on a bag of chips on your way home?
Small changes made over time amount to a big impact. My gym bag is always stocked with one protein shake (Drink Svelte), a Lara bar, and I grab an apple or banana as I leave the house every day. Make a point to keep cut fruit or cut veggies in your handbag or gym bag, non perishable snacks in your car, and drink protein shakes to keep your energy level stable.
Asma: Losing the weight I gained during my second pregnancy has been much harder than losing weight after my first. I’ve tried everything–a month-long detox where I ate nothing but greens and beans; months of intense workouts (first Jillian Michaels’ workouts; now Insanity). Insanity has actually shown me results…but I continue to struggle to match my diet to my exercise. Exactly as Ayesha points out, though, diet is 80% of the effort. But knowing that isn’t enough to get me to make the necessary changes! And, to clarify, I don’t eat a bag of chips on my home–or, for that matter, ever. I don’t eat junk food or fast food, period. But I do eat white bread and white rice (though not excessively), and make desi dinners (with some controls on oil and salt).
So, for me, my struggle with eating is the struggle to give up these ‘norms’ and adopt far healthier, but less familiar foods. I call that switch, ‘learning to eat like a giraffe’ – i.e. lots of vegetables. And that change seems almost insurmountable for me.
Mariam: Asma, I think it’s pretty common when you have so much on your plate to find that both the diet required and the fitness regime seem intimidating. But I guess for me the exercise was less difficult to tackle than the diet. Ayesha, what tips do you give to women who don’t know how to fit exercise into their daily schedules?
Ayesha: Exercise is movement. Move more! I advise my clients to break up the traditional “one hour workout” into increments, 15-20 minutes at a time. Set your alarm for 20 minutes earlier, get out of bed and move! Walk around the block briskly, do yoga, run up and down stairs, squat, or do burpees! You want to get your body moving to start revving your metabolism. Throughout the day, I have my clients taking stairs, doing mini sets of strength training with bouts of cardio. A simple 15 minutes of cardio and resistance training will get your blood flowing and set a quick blast of oxygen all over your body to keep you energized and able to attack the remainder of the day!
Asma: For me, it’s that Insanity calendar hanging on the wall. It beckons me. Stares at me disapprovingly when I fail to cross off the square for that day. As long as that calendar continues to burn a hole in my wall, and in my mind, I think I should be OK?
Mariam: Asma, that’s interesting, I will have to try the Insanity calendar. For me, the best motivation to get fit was when I was thinking about having another baby. I had a miserable time because I was unfit when I became pregnant with my eldest. At the time I was working a large law firm and my days were awash with stress and caffeine. Every few months I’d swap all my clothes for slightly larger clothes, thanking God for elastic. When I got pregnant I developed heart palpitations and a slight dislocation in my hip, though I had to continue working until the day I went into labor. It never occurred to me to exercise while pregnant, because I figured I was already miserable enough.
It was such a difficult experience that the second time around I made a conscious effort to get in shape before even thinking about a baby, and that made a huge difference for me. Ayesha, have you found that to be generally true? What advice do you usually give to women who are pregnant and working?
Ayesha: I would give all working women the same advice – create a routine that you will maintain. Pregnant women can certainly benefit from maintaining an exercise regime, and I’ve seen pregnant women take spinning classes until they deliver! The post-partum body will recuperate faster if it’s in better shape to begin with, that is for sure. Training during this stage should focus on functional movement, strengthening large muscle groups to ease the difficulties of pregnancy (think strong legs, strong back and arms). Remember to eat healthy too!
is a regulatory lawyer. Raised in the U.S, Mariam moved from a law firm in the U.S. to work at a futures exchange in Dubai, where she is currently the Head of Compliance & Risk. Mariam and her husband, Haroon, have two little boys, Hamza (8) and Maaz (4).
is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of altM. She is also a lawyer specializing in religious liberty. Her work includes U.S.-based litigation as well as international advocacy, which requires considerable travel abroad. Asma and her husband, Shabbir, have two kids, Zaynab (8) and Eesa (3).
Ayesha Akhtar, MPH, CPT
is the quintessential public health fitness professional. With a background in public health, she approaches physical fitness not only for sport-specific performance, but also functional performance to enable her clients to live a better, healthier quality of life. She splits her time between her role as a Health Educator for the Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Chicago and as an ACE-Certified fitness professional. She trains clients privately through her company Stronger Fitter Faster and is a trainer at the Orange Theory Fitness in Oak Park. She has been a runner all her life and has completed half a dozen half-marathons, five 10 mile races, several 10ks and 5ks, a triathlon, and forthcoming, the Ragnar Relay race. Ayesha lives in the metropolitan Chicago area with her husband and two sons.