Meet Dubai's Fitness Divas

Meet Dubai's Fitness Divas

13 Jan 2014

We caught up with three inspirational ladies who have made a lifestyle out of fitness and healthy food

Elsie Arslan
33 years old, wife and mother of two, trainer at The Circuit Factory

When did it all begin?
After my second pregnancy, my husband and I moved to the UAE from Canada.  There was so much change: the move, I stopped full-time work when we came here, I was recovering from pregnancy and separately from an illness that made it hard to exercise.  My husband introduced me to The Circuit Factory (TCF), which involves interval training, and even though I had never really exercised before, I fell in love with it to the point that I’m now a trainer at TCF and I work out at Strongman.

What was your weight change?
At my peak, after the first pregnancy, I weighed 190 pounds (about 86 kilos).  My healthy weight is 134 pounds (about 62 kilos).  I’m 165 cm.  

So at that point, fitness and healthy eating weren’t a regular part of your life yet?
I had McDonalds meals about three times a week during my first pregnancy.  I also craved all kinds of sweet stuff.  I was working full-time in finance in Canada, so I had no time to cook for myself or exercise.

How did you start getting fit?
After my first pregnancy, I enrolled in a Weight Watchers programme that helped me lose some weight, but I still had about 15 kilos I couldn’t get rid of at the end.  Then I got sick – mainly due to stress – and lost a bunch of weight, but then found out I was pregnant and started to gain weight – it was all so up and down!  My husband would ask me if I’d been to the gym and I’d just lie and say yes!  It all changed when I joined him at a TCF class.

How was that first class?
He went first and came back absolutely drenched, saying it’s the worst workout he’s ever done, and I said I’ll never try this in a million years.  But then I looked at their website and they have some great motivational videos showcasing people with a range of fitness levels.  So I tried it and suddenly realized that after dragging my feet the first few weeks that I had gained speed and muscle and energy.  My body shape was literally changing.

And you ate better?
You can train ten times a week, but in the end, results really depend on what you eat.  With TCF, you submit a food diary to trainers each week and they give you feedback and a guideline for lean, healthy eating.  It’s amazing.  So day after day, I just showed up, suffered, and made myself go back.

It shows, you look great!  What next?
Now I do squats with 60 kilo weights on my shoulders – I’ve come so far!  Aside from training at TCF, I am studying to be a personal trainer.  It’s motivating for my kids, too; the other day, I saw them wearing workout clothes and pretending to give their friends an ‘exercise class.’  There’s just no going back to my bad lifestyle.

Basma Lababedi 
31, Mother and wife, personal trainer

You worked in media, why the switch to fitness?
I worked in events in media while in Dubai, but I’ve been into fitness my whole life.  It wasn’t a change for me, it’s a lifestyle that has become my profession.  I did gymnastics, ballet and jazz dance from the age of 5 until 21 and became a certified Pilates trainer at 19.  On the side of my media work, I taught private Pilates classes for Emirati ladies.  When I got pregnant (and I had an extremely difficult pregnancy!), I didn’t want to sit at home doing nothing, but I couldn’t work in events anymore – so I decided to pursue a professional certificate in personal training, which I completed last year after studying for eight months.

What was your biggest weight change?
I was 47 kilos before getting pregnant and 69 kilos right after I gave birth in June 2012.  For a petite person like me, that’s a big change!  I started to lose 2-3 kilos a week with healthy eating and moderate exercise, and now I’m close to my normal weight again.

Fitness has always been part of your life, but what about others who never stepped foot in a gym?
It’s never, never, never too late to start.  There is not such thing at all.  My mother-in-law is in her 60’s and she started taking Pilates classes for the first time in her life and she loves it.  She feels and looks good.  

What do you recommend for ladies of all ages?
Girls are scared of doing weights, but they are incredibly good for building lean, toned muscles and promoting heart health.  It’s generally good to aim for a mix in your workout.  Go for some aerobics and cardio, some weights, some yoga, a balance of upper and lower body workouts.  Also, each person knows their own body best, so you have to know your endurance and weight levels and push them to new heights.

What’s a typical training session with you like?
It begins with an assessment, because, like I said, each person’s body is different.  We do a variety of moves to check upper and lower body strength and running stamina.  I monitor heart rate, oxygen intake, and other key factors while you work out.  Based on a handful of factors, I then design a fitness programme tailored to the client’s needs.  Every person has strengths and weaknesses – you may hate running, but enjoy weight training – so I also work on motivating people to build on strengths and improve on weaknesses.  All with a smile!

What’s a good diet while training?
In general, I believe that you can eat everything in moderation, with a foundation of clean eating.  By that, I mean a plant-based diet complemented with lean protein.  Yes, you need to avoid the sugars and carb loading (carbohydrates are very healthy for the body and should never be completely cut out – a switch to brown rice, bread, and pasta is a good start).  The key is not to get depressed and starve yourself.  Fad dients never work.  Just eat clean, work out, and once in a while if you want that chocolate cake, just have a piece and stop obsessing over it.  And drinking lots of water is important.

Jenna Zoe
29, Nutritionist, Entrepreneur

The key to a healthy lifestyle is a balance of clean eating and fitness.  How did you end up on the path to nutrition?
When I was 17, I had health issues that doctors simply couldn’t explain or cure with medicine.  I had candida, which is a yeast overgrowth in the body that results in a host of problematic symptoms.  I tried everything and got multiple opinions – nothing worked.  The worst part for me was terrible skin and no facials, creams, or pills seemed to make a difference.  Finally, my mum suggested I visit a nutritionist who cut out dairy, sugar, wheat – I was on the strictest diet.

Why the diet?
She wanted to figure out if my body was reacting to certain foods in this way and she was right.  I drank wheatgrass shots three times a day and was limited to eating dark, leafy greens and chicken for about 18 months – absolutely nothing else.  My skin cleared completely, my hormones levelled out, and I had more energy that I could recall.  I slowly introduced other foods back into my diet, but avoided refined, processed foods.

What came next?
I went straight to work after high school for Jimmy Choo, studying nutrition on weekends.  I found out many people were looking for creative ways to eat healthy and started making and selling my own sweet treats with no added sugar, dairy, wheat or eggs – yes, including chocolate brownies!  This turned into a catering business, after which I developed the Foods to Love website.  Then came my book, Super Healthy Snacks and Treats, with all my favourite recipes for healthy eating.  My Upcakes brand is dedicated to gluten-free food.

Isn’t it hard to always eat in limits?
That first diet I went on, to discover why my body was reacting this way, was super restrictive and it is not a lifestyle, but I was able to identify what I was allergic or intolerant to.  You can’t have a lifestyle of strict diets where you are constantly feeling disappointed.  That negative emotion hinders well being.  That’s why I focused my book on fun, yummy recipes that also happen to be super healthy.

What are your tips for healthy eating while working out and maintaining an active lifestyle?
If you’re working out on a consistent basis, you won’t get good results if you aren’t refuelling your body well.  After a tough workout, you need enough protein to rebuild your muscles and fibre to flush out toxins.  It’s about clean eating – so limiting processed, refined foods like packaged cookies – and focusing on lean proteins (I’m a fan of salmon and lean chicken) and lots and lots of vegetables.

Favourite foodie tips:  
Dates and nuts like almonds and walnuts

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