AWE-INSPIRING is the only way to describe the feeling I get when doing my interview write ups. I got the inspiration after seeing the Humans of New York Facebook page and I thought, I know some splendiferous people, let’s share their stories…Everyday people doing some really prodigious things in life!
I decided to interview Shahana after she schooled me in what I thought was my warrior workout program which I was going to start. I learnt that a FITNESS TRANSFORMATION is not just a real life experience of the TV show ‘the biggest looser’ but a journey to living a fit and healthy lifestyle, with the benefit of me gaining a Captain America like physique.
By day: An aspiring child therapist currently working with the largest NGO in the UK, providing interventions and support for children and young people with learning disabilities. Having achieved a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology I am passionate about implementing change and creating awareness around learning disabilities for a better quality of life for children and young people
What makes her tick: A massive foodie, lover of doughnuts, an explorer of countries, cultures, art, photography, street culture and exploring. I’m always curious about and interested in trying new things and meeting different people. I believe that the world is too big for me to standstill, life is progression, progression is moving forward and that’s what I strive for. I am definitely a ‘‘the glass is half full’’ kind of gal, firm belief in loving and investing in yourself first-after all we cannot expect the best from others when we fail to see the best in ourselves. I love listening to the stories people tell, listening to me is love. I am quite sentimental-I would save the sugar wrapper from a first date, and I absolutely love a good laugh-the one’s which cause tears and an ab workout all in one go. Having lived in the UK for 8 years, I have learnt the importance of family, friends, familiarity, and holding onto to the fluffy moments, having a hug for a little longer and taking in all the things we take for granted- like those nostalgic aromas from your mums kitchen or that unique South African sense of humour. Through travelling, I have also had the pleasure of an abundance of all the things I love made easily accessible, and also learning about myself, my defining beliefs, and my passions.
Shahana: I have always been involved in fitness, as a sprinter in childhood, then a brown belt in Shotokan karate in my early days, and running half marathons after my move to the UK. Though exercise has been a part of my life since childhood, I never quite achieved my ideal shape and strength. Physical activity was always quite natural part of my life. The opportunity really opened up for me to invest more of my time and really focus on this transformation after my partner spent some time away in the US for business purposes. I was left with a few more hours in the day and felt I had an opportunity to use the time constructively to really focus on myself and identify just how far I can progress with fitness and weightlifting in particular. It also served as a welcomed distraction. I decided to invest in a personal trainer, James Edward Fitness. James has been an incredible source of motivation, guidance, and above all else knowledge about fitness, from nutrition, to the most effective techniques to achieve your goal. It felt like a natural step to take for me after I had hit a plateau. Working with someone as motivated and passionate who I could trust- because the techniques he used were based on him trying them first and customising plans to his clients level, kept me progressing and interested in every step.
DG: It’s such an exhilarating journey, any specific changes you have noticed to your day to day life?
Shahana: It is exciting and incredible to see the changes. Yes, I have had a complete overhaul of my diet with a stronger more positive connection with the relationship I have with food-I know it sound like a marriage right, but in all honesty, it takes work and commitment to achieve your goals. I have more energy, a good understanding of why I would choose less nutritious options in the past, and learnt which foods actually are causing harm to my body. I discovered that I am gluten and dairy intolerant. Eliminating this from my diet has been life changing in its self. I talk about food because it begins with your diet, they say in the fitness industry that ‘’fitness is 20% exercise and 80% diet, you can’t outrun your fork’’ I have become a lot more conscientious and accountable about what I put in my body, and how many weighted squats or burpees it would take to get rid of it! But like I said earlier, I love food, and what I have managed to do is actually find a balance and what works for me. I am more focussed and happier, the release of endorphins- the science of working out has benefited me greatly. I am definitely less stressed, and when you look good you naturally feel good. It does consume my thoughts though, thinking about my session, thinking about my next meal, thinking about or looking at techniques online, thinking about my next goals- I really throw myself into it, because it is my passion, I never dread my workout and at my lowest it is what I look forward to the most! It comes with a different type of confidence and self-belief as well. It has given me focus, and mental strength. It also opens up a whole new world or this particular non cardio fitness community-the ‘’gym rats’’ a sense of belonging, people who share the same passion and who get annoyed at the same things- like people who don’t rerack their weights, really floats our boat lol.
DG: What were your short term and long term fitness goals?
Shahana: When I began this intense journey 5 months ago, my main goal was to lift more than 20kgs and build my upper body strength. I wanted to be stronger. Within a month I achieved my goal, but the more I achieved the more I wanted and so my goals progressed. At present my long term goal is to become a personal trainer as part of my holistic approach to therapy for young people and children-possibly a whole new segment 😉 but short term, I aim to become a bit more defined and then maintain my physique and continue learning about the body, nutrition, and training through my own experience.
DG: Is eating healthy just as important as exercising?
Shahana: Absolutely, I could not stress this more; my personal experience is that it really does begin with your diet. As I said before, there is no way you can undo a bad diet in a safe, healthy, and sustainable manner. For me I really strive to find a balance, there are many methods out there and it can all be a bit overwhelming. But to really simplify it-the fresher the better. I started with small changes, I introduced more greens, more colour to my plate and a bit more fruit, and cut out fizzy drinks. After working with my trainer I was lucky to have someone who really taught me about the science of eating to build muscle and equipped me with the knowledge before weaning me off his support with meal plans so that I could do it for myself. Balance is the key, I do not restrict myself from treats and I eat six small meals a day, and drink as much water as I can. What I aim for is nutritionally dense foods, creating a healthy lifestyle for myself instead of feeling like I am constantly on a diet. My friends are often fazed by how much I can actually eat-I do love my chicken!
DG: What workout routine has worked best for you?
Shahana: I am most passionate about weightlifting, and I have found that what works best for me so far has been a combination of weightlifting and interval training. Exercises such as weighted squats and deadlifts- compound movements- are great because of the amount of muscles the body utilises when carrying out these movements. Adding weights forces the muscles to work a bit harder, the more muscle you build the more fat you burn. I am fascinated by the science behind it all and actually seeing the results of understanding why and how it works. With interval training, I find a short 20 minute session of high intensity movements gets my heart rate up, gets me sweating, and gets me my ‘’runners high’’ – the release of endorphins, which makes me happy and energetic even after my workout, and continues burning calories throughout the day. I am most pleased with my body composition when using this combination, however, these routines change depending on my goals. I have used different methods including strength training with heavier weights and lower repetitions per set, and what I currently focus on is volume training, which uses lower weights which I increase by 2.5kg per week, and higher repetitions. I have tried German volume training, used different techniques such as drop sets, stretching before my final repetition, and also holding the position for a count of 5. I have learnt about the importance of that mind muscle connection and really getting a pump from your training.
DG: Please share your workout routine
Shahana: I tend to use each weekday to focus on a different part of my body, so for example, I would have my legs day on Monday and my chest day on Tuesday. The areas I concentrate on are my legs, chest, back, arms, glutes and abdominals. I currently include three days of interval training-roughly 20 minutes on top of normal daily training.
DG: How often do you work out?
Shahana: 5 to 6 days a week, I have a rest day or 2 depending on how I feel. I have learnt that resting your body and allowing your muscles to grow and your body to repair itself is just as important as exercising, in order to continue with your progress and to avoid injuries.
DG: What is your favourite form of cardio for cutting body fat?
Shahana: High intensity interval training, for the reasons I have mentioned but also because my goal is to gain strength and build muscle. Doing cardio training such as running for an hour or more does not work for what I am aiming to achieve. Identifying your goal is key and will dictate which training method would be most suitable to achieve that goal. I find it also useful to carry out your own research, I have researched and followed up on tips and advice throughout my journey and even before I started my journey. I made informed decisions about my path and built a solid foundation before moving on to this in depth training.
DG: How do you deal with cravings for junk food, sweets and salty foods?
Shahana: Over time I have learnt what my triggers are for turning to these foods, and when it happens I am sometimes prepared. For those times where I feel I am able to exercise restraint, I do so, and I prepare in advance-I always make sure I have nuts or raisins or blueberries, more nutritious options in my car, on my work desk, or in my bag. There are however those moments which catch me off guard, and I even though I have learnt that it is because I am lacking in either carbs or salt, or my sugar has dropped because I have missed a meal, it does not stop me from having that chocolate or that bag of crisps. So I have it and I don’t beat myself up over it, instead I do my best to balance it out through flexible eating where I am still maintaining the amount of proteins, carbohydrates and fat in a day. It goes back to redefining the relationship you have with food and knowing your limit, doing this prevents me from entering into a vicious cycle of binge eating and endless guilt. Over time with my training programme and change in diet, I actually have fewer cravings, though this has taken time to achieve.
DG: What exercise routine would you recommend for someone starting?
Shahana: My advice first and foremost would be to identify your goals, figure out exactly what you are hoping to achieve and invest some time researching different ways to achieve that goal. Having a better understanding of your body composition will help you to identify a realistic goal best suited for your body type and will eliminate vicious cycles of frustration when you find the scales are not shifting, and secondly get rid of that scale. It is never a true reflection of your progress. I am not a professional but what I found worked for me starting off was less long, arduous, steady cardio, but more interval training and classes such as body pump and spin. Starting off it was helpful being in a group and bouncing off the energy of a trainer and other people. It kept me motivated and the environment itself was supportive. I felt less conscious of the level of fitness I was at in comparison to others and I learnt more about the type of workouts which are most effective. I also spent time researching the best body strength exercises and how to improve your form. We all have to start somewhere, I discovered that the more I exercised the stronger I became, It never gets easier, you just become stronger. Fitness is a gradual road of improvement and self-discovery, one size does not fit all, if you have a preference stick with it and keep pushing yourself to go a bit faster, a bit longer, and a bit harder each time.
DG: Many women and even guys are worried about getting big and bulky from weights. What would you say to those people?
Shahana: Don’t be afraid or dismiss something without trying it….I would say ‘’look at me’’ , I train hard as much as 6 days a week and have done so in this fashion for the past five months, and yet I do not feel I am big or bulky. What I am is stronger, defined, toned, and happy. My metabolism is functioning at its prime and I feel the healthiest I have ever been. It is unfortunate that this is a serious misconception especially amongst females and stops individuals from experiencing the tremendous benefits of weightlifting. More and more studies are being conducted and published on the benefits of weight training, especially for females. An important point to consider is that females do not have enough testosterone to build masses of muscle. I would encourage people to make an informed decision about their choice of training and to have an open mind and the courage to test different methods to find which works best for them
DG: What keeps you motivated?
Shahana: A number of factors keep me motivated in different ways. In terms of my actual training-Achieving my goals, keeping track of the improvements I make from adding more weight to using better form, changing my training programme in small ways by adding different exercises or tweaking what I am already doing, taking gym selfies after a solid session when I can see my definition-vain I know J. Feeling like I am taking care of my body and seeing the results of doing so. I look forward to the changes to come. I love what a feel good factor there is to exercising. It is not easy, and I don’t feel it should be, it motivates me to test my limits and push the boundaries, the focus and dedication I show in this arena is the mind-set I aim to apply to other facets of my life, the release it offers from day to day pressures keeps me going back. I am not a person who gives up, there have been times when I would be physically sick from a workout but to me what counts is that after being sick I would get back to it and complete my sets, that mentality of hard work and perseverance will get you what you want kicks in and it drives me. I also often give my body pep talks; especially on leg days-it is a state of mind. When I look in the mirror and I like what I see, maintenance is another strong motivating factor. My extrinsic motivators involve my friends and loved ones showing their enthusiasm and interest in my training, and social media. It is again about that feeling of belonging to a community- likeminded people who can relate to the love, the quirks, and the trials and tribulations of this incredible journey
DG: Your favourite gym tracks that get you pumped?
Shahana: Oooh this is a tough one, my taste in music is quite eclectic and I usually choose depending on my mood and how heavy my session would be, but here are my top 5 in no particular order
- Enter Shikari ‘’ The last Garrison’’
- The Prodigy ‘’Nasty’’
- Dizee Rascal ‘’Bassline Junkie’’
- Steve Aoki ‘’Free your mind’’
- Above and Beyond ‘’Good for me’’ (cool down)
DG: Do you take any supplements?
Shahana: I have a protein shake before and after my workout which helps with muscle recovery, I don’t use this as a meal replacement, instead it helps me to get the amount of protein I need for muscle growth which I would find difficult to achieve if I had to eat high protein foods. I also drink an amino drink- Branched chain amino acid (BCAA), during my workout which contributes to retaining muscle and a bit of energy especially useful when I am on lower carbohydrates and lacking in as much energy.
DG: Does it drive you crazy when you don’t get to exercise?
Shahana: Having a rest day does take more discipline then actually getting my butt to the gym, exercise has become a habit for me, I find myself thinking about it a lot more on my rest days-there are so many hilarious memes about ‘’rest days’’ and I can assure you they are all too true! Twice I have been down with the flu and it drove me absolutely crazy staying away and being sensible. I have sustained injuries and again it sometimes means that I need to take some time out and it is pretty tough to stick with it. But rest is part of the programme- I have finally learnt and accepted this.
DG: What do you consider workout heaven?
Shahana: An empty gym, with free machines, weights, and no one asking you how many sets you have left lol! Simple really lol
DG: And workout hell?
Shahana: The exact opposite-too full, having to wait for machines and weights and a serious lack of gym etiquette-yes this exists and it includes reracking your weights and not leaving empty water bottles all over the place lol
DG: What one thing do you never skip in your workout?
Shahana: A warm up ooh and a stretch after my session- one thing I know, but these two are just so important to prevent injury
DG: Do you think that living a ‘best life’ means being fit?
Shahana: I suppose it is all relative, personally my measure of success is actually leading a ‘’best life’’ encompassing good health and fitness. I place a lot of value on my fitness, and the level of my fitness because of the strong positive impact it has on other facets of my life. The benefits to me outweigh the absence of being fit. I am a person who will push myself and my boundaries, I will challenge myself, and this improves my focus and keeps me motivated and feeling great about myself and my life, translating into my career and my relationships.
DG: Is it possible to have the perfect body?
Shahana: My honest feeling around this idea of ‘’perfection’’ is that it creates limitations, it is again relative but chasing perfection can have a negative effect. I aim to make the best out of what I have been given and continue to improve what I have, there is always going to be room for improvement and an area of weakness which has to be strengthened. Instead of chasing perfection I turn it into goals, as I continue to achieve my goals my desire and passion grows. Perfection is especially a tough one for me, I am definitely my worst critic, but I have learnt how to make this work in my favour.
DG: What’s the biggest mistake that fitness newbies make?
Shahana: Personally, I have in the past felt frustrated and relapsed after trying programmes and eating plans thinking I could look like those pictures in a month. I did more damage to my metabolism and to my body image by setting unrealistic and sometimes unachievable goals. I learnt along the way that we are all different and what works for others might not be the best approach for me. The worst mistake I made was looking at women online and trying to get that physique, when my body is just not designed that way, and that whilst it is great to aspire to, admire, and learn from my role models it is unhealthy to try to be them. I continue to remind myself that progress is gradual and it takes time and therefore I should not give up when I do not immediately see results. I find these mistakes to be the most common; I found it most useful to approach health and fitness as a lifestyle change.
DG: Any advice or tips for aspiring transformers?
Shahana: Each of us have had to start somewhere, understanding and accepting this fact will go a long way in keeping you motivated in the long run and on your path to a healthy life. Identifying what works for you and finding a balance is key. Change takes time; unrealistic timeframes creates a cycle of frustration and can be a trigger for slipping back into negative habits. Trust in the process and be kind to yourself, give yourself credit for making the commitment to change. Try to surround yourself with people who have also made this commitment, the support will see you through the down days and it will be much easier to make healthy choices with like-minded people doing the same. Tap yourself on the back for those good clean eating days, and do not allow one bad day to turn into a week or a day. Practically- note your progress weekly; be in tune with your body and the effects of the foods you consume, and research good technique. If possible invest in a trainer- it will be the best thing you can do for yourself, for the cost of night out you could actually achieve the body you have always wanted, the knowledge you will gain from this will be incredible. And finally, please do not be afraid of weight training- try it, no need to go heavy right away, small steps.
DG: Any social media readers can get in touch or follow you on?
Shahana: Yup, I have recently started documenting my changes on Instagram –FITSHABADSHA