In 2014, I had a health scare that woke me up to how stress, poor eating habits and sitting too much can literally kill a person. I quit my 9-to-5 job in Abidjan in October 2015 with the intention of dedicating myself primarily to Circumspecte (this platform) and living conscientiously. I wanted to design a lifestyle that allows me to not only be productive, useful and creative, but also to prioritise my health and wellbeing. A year later, I found my clothes a bit too snug; my breath a bit too short. Just a few months shy of my first anniversary as a freelancer and solopreneur in Accra, I realised I was doing to myself what my 9-to-5 and AC-to-AC lifestyle in Tunis had done to me. I attributed it to a slower metabolism and body changes as I hit 30. It was soon clear I needed to make a change – to really take my personal health, wellbeing and fitness seriously. But you know how we humans sometimes do: we waver, false-start, and make excuses.
My Fitness & Weight Loss Journey – The First Two Times
I’ve generally led a pretty active lifestyle, however I’ve also had two previous periods of significant weight gain and consequent weight loss – both as a student and/or recent graduate. The first time I lost significant weight was after senior high school while working at a publishing company in Accra in 2005. To beat the traffic, I would walk from the Airport junction to what is now Accra Mall. The second time around, I was living in France in 2008 and trying to shed off about the freshman ’15’ (more like 20 pounds in my case) from being introduced to American food (read, hormones). Besides the hormone-free and generally healthier French cuisine, I had signed up for a gym. Being on a student budget was all the motivation I needed to take the 20-minute walk from my apartment to the gym each evening. My euros couldn’t go down the drain!
Third Time’s A Charm? My Yo-Yo Weight Spell
Many who make headway on their personal fitness journeys usually say variations of the same thing: “I had tried everything…and then I had a breakthrough.” I’m no different. My ‘everything’ involved walking around my neighbourhood; using free aerobic exercise apps in my room; setting out at 5am with my housemates to take on a 6-week ‘Insanity’ program by Fabulously Fit & Fine and partners; and trying my hands at YouTube workouts. Additionally, I reignited my decade-long love affair with tennis at the Accra Sports Stadium; attempted jump rope workouts – which I absolutely hated – and ate healthy. Or rather, what I considered to be healthy eating at the time. My clothes would be snug, loosen up a bit, get snug again, and loosen up some more. Knowing what I know now, I cannot say for sure whether I actually lost weight or not. Why would I? I was relying primarily on my knowledge of my body and previous experiences with weight loss.
Ghana’s Culture of Fat Shaming
“You’re looking…well o.”
“Life is good, eh?!”
On a good day, you’ll receive a variation of the two statements. On a not-so-good day, a blatant “Ei, you’ve become fat oh!” will greet you before a “how are you?”. Many Ghanaians can’t seem to help themselves when it comes to questioning others on their weight – read, fat shaming? – or for that matter, on anything truly personal. Forget the fact that for all intents and purposes, no two human beings or bodies are exactly the same – not even where twins are concerned. Or that one (wo)man’s “I need to lose weight” may actually be another’s “I need to gain weight”. That doesn’t stop your favourite fruit vendor, the cousin you haven’t seen in a while, or your well-meaning aunt from pointing out that your face, breasts, arms are looking fuller and rounder. The irony? Most weight-related comments don’t seem to be rooted in a genuine concern for one’s health and wellbeing. On the contrary, it’s about how one ought to look.
Foodie and Travel Weight Gain
In early 2017, I had the chance to travel across Africa for work. From an Ebola recovery project in Guinea, to researching financial inclusion in Togo, and reacquainting myself with my former home Dakar, I had no shortage of experiences. As a foodie, I like to explore new places through cuisine and food culture. My job as part of one of my client projects involved eating indigenous African foods and speaking to an amazing group of people about food and climate change in Ghana’s North, Kenya and Zambia. It was refreshing to discover just how healthy and nutritious African indigenous foods are. At the tail end of another client project, I spent some time visiting and working from Dakar. The Senegalese capital – what I regard as West Africa’s fitness capital – inspired me to push harder on my fitness and health goals. But that’s the thing about our human bodies – they only give us back as much as we put into them. I hadn’t actually considered that all the traveling, eating, long days, and limited exercise could and would pile on the weight. It did.
Accepting My Weight Gain
It took me a long time to fully acknowledge the extra folds of skin or the spillover of my breasts. Although I was more active, I hadn’t addressed a very important element of fitness and weight loss: food and eating habits. Instead, I looked forward to my weekend meal of Aisha’s waakye with a food coma to go. To make things worse, I’d just discovered how versatile Ga kenkey could be. I’ll have that with shrimp, one man thousand, fried fish, avocado, and oh, please don’t forget the Starkist tuna and an egg. The truth eventually catches up. One day, everything changed. I tried on a go-to loose outfits on a particularly hot day – only to find it no longer fit. The pants barely made it past my hips. That is when I really started paying attention. Where I used to fluctuate between 60 to 65 kg, I was now hovering just below 75kg. I’d gained at least 10 extra kilos.
My Online Fitness Coaching Experience
My snug-fitting clothes were the wakeup call I needed to finally take the plunge and make a change. After doing a bit of research, I decided to find a fitness coach to help me navigate my fitness journey. I wanted an online coaching programme which was flexible enough to match the rhythm of my work as a solopreneur, but structured enough to ensure that I was accountable and making progress. More importantly, I wanted to understand what was going on with and in my body.
You know how you’ll have a conversation or Google a search term and start seeing ads and posts related to it? The eeriness of social media actually paid off; probably the first and only time. Someway, somehow, I chanced upon April Laugh on Instagram. After fretting about the price tag, their legitimacy and scouring their before and after client posts and website for a good week or so, I decided to sign up. I was on edge until I received an actual email and then a phone from an actual person.
For one thing, Nigerians seemed to run the programme. Secondly, it didn’t help that I’d also read about dubious weight loss pills and programs. I know, I know, way to feed into the stereotype. I’m just being frank about some of the things that crossed my mind and have probably crossed the minds of anyone considering a remote service. Is it a scam? Does it actually work? Am I being duped? Will I even hear back from them? Am I being stupid? I didn’t know. But at that point, it was an (expensive) gamble I was willing to take.
My rationale was simple: I rarely hesitate when making an investment in my personal or career development, why should investing in my fitness and wellbeing be any different? And so, I went all in. And yes, it is hands down the most I have ever paid for a fitness product or service, including my Fitbit.
Fitness Motivation: Why I Decided to Focus on My Health
Since the title on this article doesn’t read “How I was duped by an online fitness service”, your guess is as good as mine: the programme was (thankfully) as real as these words you’re reading. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat. But that’s for next time. Let’s back track a bit, shall we? I usually tell my clients to start with why. My initial “fitness why” was that my clothes no longer fit and I didn’t want to spend money buying an entirely new wardrobe. However, that was by no means the only reason. I also wanted to work towards my overall health and wellbeing: to maintain a healthy weight; have more energy; and build strength. Quite cliché, I know. But enough for me to get started.
Continuing and staying committed to my fitness journey was another thing altogether. I quickly learned that I needed more specific reasons for continuing my fitness journey. With each workout, those reasons or motivations began to emerge. Below are 8 of the motivations I’ve used and recycled as motivations when I’m on the verge of making an excuse about why I possibly cannot work out.
Happy hormones and energy boosts
Whoever came up with the phrase “it hurts so good” must have been into some high energy activities. My morning workouts generally consist of a brisk walk of about 6 kilometres and about 15 to 50 minutes of skipping; about 2000 to 6000 skips. On days when I find it hard to hit the road, the anticipation of the post-workout high is enough to get me out of bed. With some feel good hormones (endorphins) in the bag, I feel ready to conquer the day.
Productivity and countering that sedentary lifestyle
As a freelancer and digital media entrepreneur, I do most of my work while sitting behind a computer screen at home or in one of Accra’s coffee shops. I’m not trying to kill myself with too much sitting. The solution: movement. With the dopamine pumping in my system, I soon realised that I was not only benefitting from feeling good, but was also able to focus and be more productive. A double win. So naturally, I kept it up.
Mental health and keeping depression at bay
One of the things I struggled with very early on in my freelancer journey were the bouts of depression and feeling isolated. While I was focusing primarily on my physical fitness, working out in the morning became a reflection and renewal process for me as well mentally. I would plan my day while walking, listen to podcasts on life, business and innovation to learn something new, and do a self-check-in on my emotional health. In a way, fitness became a meditative and self-care process for me. An essential part of my daily routine.
Fitness challenges & accountability (Fitbit)
One of the things that made a huge difference for my fitness journey was getting a Fitbit activity tracker. In addition to gaining data and insights into my workout progress, I get to “compete” with other Fitbit users to see who steps the most in a week, a day, and so on. I also had the benefit of group accountability from the fitness program I took on. There’s nothing like igniting one’s competitive streak to get a workout done.
I usual give this reason in jest. However, there is a lot of credence to it. I’m looking to give my future babies the best home (incubation) possible.
Challenging myself & seeing just what I’m capable of
I always say there are multiple women in any single women. Over the past year, I’ve met a version of myself who knows how to take on a challenge and turn up the heat when needed. One who started off hating skipping, to losing over 10 kilos primarily through skipping. I’m learning just what I’m capable of and always looking to discover more.
(Re)Acquainting myself with my body
When I hit 30, it felt like something had changed. My body didn’t act or react in the same ways I’d come to know two decades prior. In a way, my weight gain was a very embarrassing sign post that screamed “hey, remember me? I’m different now”. And so, we’re getting reacquainted. Through my fitness journey, I’m not just learning new things about this beautiful God-given machine, but also about the unique codes and systems which make my body tick. Many things used to puzzle me and I’m finally gaining more understanding of them. Ironically, I finally accepted many things about my body and self-image, only after deciding to change. And we’re just getting started.
Inspired people inspiring me
I wanted to be self-accountable and so I started sharing snippets of my fitness journey right from the start. However in the course of doing so, many of you have reached out about how inspired you are. I’ve watched some of you take your own baby and giant steps to a healthier lifestyle. On numerous occasions that has also inspired me to get up, get out, and put in work. Following the journeys of numerous others who have walked this path before me via social media has also been a great motivation.
In conclusion, this is an abridged version of why and how I got started on That Fit Life. In my next article in this series, I’ll share some of the fitness workouts and routines that worked me, what I’m still struggling with as well as some surprising insights I’ve gained about nutrition and fitness. Got questions in the meantime? Feel free to drop me a note. Thank you for reading and feel free to share.
Jemila Abdulai is the founding editor and creative director of Circumspecte. Follow her Fitness Journey and other exploits: Instagram / Facebook / Twitter
This article was originally published at Circumspecte.com
Jemila Abdulai is the creative director, editor and founder of the award-winning website Circumspecte.com. A media and international development professional and economist by training, she combines her business, communications and project management expertise with her strong passion for Africa. Besides writing and reading, she enjoys travel, global cuisine, movies, and good design.