This is the second article in a series on Fitness, Weight Loss & Wellbeing. Missed the first? Read to find out what motivated Jemila to take fitness seriously.
I am many things – the best athlete or sports person is not one of them. I have always had to work on my fitness. I learned that early on as the girls’ football team goal keeper and a basketball player in both junior and senior high school. I also learned that loyalty and trust are things I cherish and try to practice. I take one for the team unless or until I am given a reason not to.
And that’s how I found myself in starting position behind a line on a hot September afternoon in Cape Coast gazing at the stacks of hurdles ahead. It was inter-houses sports competition season at Wesley Girls’ High School and Wrigley House needed a representative for the 100-metre hurdle race. Had I trained for hurdles? No. Did I even know how to clear a hurdle? Well, if you count the theoretical physical education lesson, yes. Was I even a runner? Does the ‘panting like a dog on a hot day’ kind count? But it didn’t matter to me – the house needed someone to show up. So, I volunteered.
I cannot remember what signalled the start of the race. However, I do remember that I was soon trailing my six competitors. I also remember the pain as my knee hit the first hurdle and every subsequent one. While the other runners were nearing the finish line, I was only half-way through. I could barely see the crowds of students wearing their house colours, and the finish line looked so far away. I could also hear the cheers for the other competitors. Time slowed and I had what I guess you could describe as an outer body experience:
Outer body me (OBM): Jemi, you’re not going to make it. You can barely feel your legs.
Me: Hmm. Am I even moving? Ouch. Another hurdle I’ve knocked down.
OBM: Maybe you should just stop. You can just run off the side lines. You tried.
Me: But that defeats the purpose.
OBM: The purpose?
Me: Yes. If I finish this, the house gets one point.
OBM: One point? Really? Oya, respect yourself and move aside.
Me: No. I knew I wouldn’t win this. But we can get that one point if I finish.
And so, I finished the race. By that I mean I stumbled through and knocked down all the hurdles – maybe except one. But I finished and the entire school was cheering for me when I finally crossed that line. More importantly, Wrigley House got the point and it made the difference between being almost last and definitely last. That day, I learned something else about myself: I have a resilient spirit. I can do anything I truly put my mind to. Perseverance ought to be my middle name.
In Part II of my series on fitness, weight loss and wellbeing, I’ll talk about my process and experience with exercising and why I think maintaining a fit life is as much about the non-physical (mind, emotions, spirit) as it is the body.
Mind Over Matter: Why Fitness Goes Beyond Nutrition & Exercise
In 1895, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto noticed that 80% of Italy’s land and wealth was owned by 20% of the population. This economic insight was defined as the Pareto Principle. In essence, the 80/20 principle posits that 20% of the input or effort or cause accounts for 80% of the output or result or effect. Today however, you may see the terms 80-20 rule or 80-20 principle being used to describe this phenomenon in areas as varied as business, agriculture, and yes, even fitness. Tim Ferris builds on this concept for fitness in his book The 4-Hour Body – one of my recommended reads.
There is another 80-20 rule at play in fitness, which although related to the Pareto Principle, plays out a bit differently. In this case, healthy weight loss is determined 80% by nutrition and 20% by exercise. Generally speaking, eating healthy and ‘clean’ (non-processed) foods 80% of the time is the most effective way to lose weight. The remaining 20% depends on your exercise and workout routine. If I were to breakdown the 20% exercise element further, I would say there is another 80% that counts towards your progress. That is the metaphysical – your mental state, emotional pulse, strength of spirit. What I like to call mind over matter.
Finding The Right Online Fitness Coaching Program
At 80.5kg, I was already pretty active when I signed up for my online fitness coaching program in November 2017. I was exercising at least thrice a week on average – mainly brisk walks – and I was trying to eat healthy. However, the frustrating thing was that I couldn’t actually see the results. I couldn’t tell if all I was doing was making any difference. I wanted my clothes to fit well again, but I didn’t want a quick fix solution or fad diet. I wanted to learn how to take better care of myself. So, I set off in search of a flexible online fitness coaching program. I wasn’t exactly sure if there were that many for black women like myself, but I had an idea of what I wanted: expert guidance from a fitness coach; a system and tools to stay accountable; the ability to measure and track my progress; and insights into understanding my body.
The April Laugh Lifestyle Change program seemed like the right fit and despite a few glitches here and there it was effective. The before and after photos I had seen on Instagram were real and as advertised. After paying, a team member called me from Lagos to brief me on the sign up. They developed a meal plan that helped me address my nutrition and I soon became one of ‘those people’ meal prepping. I was supposed to send my ‘before’ photo as soon as my membership was confirmed, but it took me a while. I was still struggling with accepting my body for what it was. Eventually, I stripped down, took a good hard look at myself, and took the photos. This was an important step towards self-acceptance and self-love.
Preparing for My Fitness Journey
Exercise constitutes the remaining 20% that determines how successful your fitness and/or weight loss program is. As part of the program, I was expected to exercise a minimum of four times a week; digital incentives were provided alongside occasional fitness challenges. Additionally, the motivation, camaraderie, insights, weigh-ins and accountability from my WhatsApp trainee group and coaches made a world of difference. To top things off and effectively measure my progress, I needed my phone to take post-workout sweatfies (sweat selfies), a tape measure to take my body measurements and vital statistics every fortnight, a bathroom scale, food scale, and an activity tracker.
After some research, I settled on a Fitbit Alta HR for my activity tracker. While I could not swim with it, I could measure my heart rate and the tracker could automatically recognise various exercises. I also liked the fact that there was a community of other fitness conscious people. Like the fitness coaching program, Fitbit also has analytics and digital incentives (badges) to help one stay accountable and challenged. I opted for a smart bathroom scale which allows me to track other elements beyond weight like body mass index, body fat, body water, muscle, bone mass and so on. All my fitness gadgets were ordered on Amazon and delivered by a friend visiting from the US. That said, I’ve since seen similar at Palace (Fitbit), Game and Shoprite (scales) malls in Accra.
As they say, the dream is “free”, the hustle is sold separately. At the end of the day, I was the magic pill – the effectiveness of the program on my journey depended largely on me. I had to dig deep within myself, wade through all my doubts, unkind thoughts about myself and feelings of insufficiency and pull out a generous helping of perseverance. To survive, I needed the unshakeable resolve to be consistent and not quit. I had to be my own cheerleader and coach rolled in one. I had to be in the right frame of mind.
Figuring Out My Workout Routine & Rhythm
I cannot remember exactly how my first week went, but I can assure you that it was painful. Since I had already settled into early morning walks as part of my daily routine as a freelance consultant, I decided to stick to working out in the morning. It gave me the juice I needed for a productive day. I also decided against signing up to a gym. Partly because I didn’t think I was strong enough to endure a personal trainer, secondly because I was still self-conscious about my body and finally, because flexibility in managing my time was a priority.
Working Out at Home & In Accra’s Streets
A typical week day workout consisted of waking up between 6-6:30am, saying my prayers, getting into my workout gear and hitting the streets. I would do a brisk one-hour walk in my neighbourhood covering between 5 – 7 kilometres (km) depending on which routes I took. For weekend workouts, I would take a longer route to clock at least 10 km in under two hours. I have never been much of a runner, but soon enough my body was asking for more. I tried running, but a few episodes left me with a somewhat sprained ankle and so I stopped.
Remember what I said about Ghanaians and our lack of a filter when it comes to other people’s weight? Yeah. One of the things I had to deal with on my route was people – who were not working out I should add – trying to tell or show me how it is done. Walk like this, run instead, ei wooko hinfa? I also dealt with the sketchy leers and stares from men of all ages. Occasionally, I would encounter another woman working out, but the majority of the time it was men and senior citizens. There was also the matter of the uneven, pot hole filled roads which made brisk walking a real obstacle course. And let’s not forget the shards of broken glass and stench from open gutters. However, with time and some adrenaline inducing music or inspirational podcast in my ears, I soon left my self-consciousness in the dust.
Finding My ‘Thing’: Jump Rope Workouts
Once home, I would try an aerobics, Tabata, or dance workout on YouTube. On weeks where there was a fitness challenge for the group, I would participate. Running, jumping jacks, squats, I did it all. Even burpees (which I still hate). Then came the jump rope fitness challenge. The jump rope challenge was a huge turning point for me. Precisely because I hated it. I already had an inkling that anything involving jumping wasn’t really my cup of tea from my previous attempts with Insanity. Jumping is the most in-your-face “you can’t even carry your own weight o” mockery there is. But I signed myself up for this. I paid the fees. So, what did I do? I girdled up, channelled high school hurdle knocking Jemi and did the damn thing.
In my first jump rope workout, I think I did 700 skips in 10 minutes. I don’t think my coach really believed me; so, I started submitting photos of the digital counter on my skipping rope. By day three, I realised I could actually do this. I mean, it was still painful and I would get my feet tied up in the rope, stop and start over, but I was actually doing it. Hmm, just how many jumps can I do in X amount of time, I wondered? And that is how jump rope workouts became the thing that helped me shed 12kg.
Soon enough, I was doing between 1,000-2,000 skips after my morning walk. On days when I woke up too late or didn’t feel like dealing with my obstacle course of a route, I would turn on my speakers, put on some music and just jump rope. Eventually, I added a timer to challenge and track myself. On average I do 100 skips in a minute non-stop. In 30 minutes, I would do about 2000 skips. And in an hour, at least 4,500 skips. The fat started melting away and this encouraged me to continue my jump rope workouts. Today, I can comfortably do 2,000 skips in 15 minutes in two sets (one break).
My Mental Process for Workouts: Carrots & Sticks
All that said, the truth of the matter is that jump rope workouts are still very painful for me. I had to come up with a mental system that both encouraged and challenged me. To be my own cheerleader and coach rolled in one, I literally talked myself through my workouts. I call it carrots and sticks. How does it work?
First, I have to define my goal for the workout. If it’s one of those “I don’t feel like doing this” days, I’ll give myself less and just say, do what you can. This should be easy for you. That gets me started. Then, I offer myself a carrot (motivation or incentive). Sometimes it’s as abstract as “Oh you are going to be so high on the feel-good hormones after you skip”. Other times, it’s an actual thing: ‘Make it through this workout and you can have waakye this weekend’. I keep my mind focused on the carrot for as long as I can.
It is important to listen to what your body is telling you and differentiate between an excuse and a genuine ‘I can’t do this yet’.Jemila Abdulai
Secondly, comes the stick (a challenge) – usually after the carrot has been chowed down though and I’m more aware of the pain. For instance: “Ho, it’s only been 10 minutes and you are here crying like a baby? Aren’t you the one who just did 4000 skips in 30 minutes the other day? Where is that girl? Or are you a fluke?” Stick delivered, challenge accepted so I power on. Because I’m not a fluke and if I could do a hurdle race I didn’t train for, I can certainly do this for myself. I keep doing this until I reach whatever goal I have set for myself that day.
Sometimes though, I have to reach outside myself for the motivation to go on. This could be any number or combination of things: looking at my fitbit step goal for the day; attempting to beat one of my friend’s step count on a fitbit challenge; reminding myself of that bridesmaid dress I need to fit into; or even asking my Instagram tribe if they think I can finish the workout. It sounds silly, but it works! It’s gotten me to workout in the evenings (after a morning workout); to workout on a Sunday; to workout while traveling; and even while fasting during Ramadan.
Losing & Maintaining Weight
Looking back, I laugh at my weight loss goals. I thought I was going to lose about 20kg in three months, about 1.5kg a week. And I did in the beginning. Because when you have fat to burn, it burns. Within two weeks of starting the program, I had lost 3 kg and by late December 2017 I was 5 kg lighter. The incredulous look on the seamstresses’ face when she realised I needed a sizeable adjustment on my bridesmaid outfit for a friend’s wedding in Abuja was priceless. I took advantage of discounts to renew my membership and in late April 2018 I recorded my lowest weight at 68.05 kg. I was 12 kg down – not yet at my target weight range, but feeling great!
Leaving the program at 24 weeks was both scary and exciting – scary because I wasn’t sure if I could go at it alone. I was not yet at my goal weight and my burns had reduced. It was exciting because I was looking forward to practicing all I had learned. This is where my Fitbit Fam really came in handy. By then I was recording at least 12,000 steps a day and burning at least 500 calories per workout. I knew I had earned my fitness wings the day I was used as an example of a “fitness freak” at an Ahaspora networking event. All this to say, I had no choice in the matter. I had to keep my fitness street cred. The thing they forget to tell you about street cred though is that you have to fight to keep it.
My Biggest Struggle: Staying Healthy While Traveling
After a good spell of maintaining my weight between 68 – 71 kg, the end began. I’m a traveller at heart and have been blessed to do work that involves exploration. It was clear during the fitness program that staying disciplined while traveling was one of my biggest struggles. Over time however, I figured out how to make it work by traveling with my skipping rope and watching what I was eating. After dilligently doing my jump rope workouts on two consecutive trips to Ouagadougou and Abidjan, I believed I had finally cracked the code on maintaining my weight while traveling. The keyword here is ‘believed’.
In June 2018, I started a season of back to back travel, beginning with the US of all places. I was worried about regaining the weight but I knew better now. After a delicious time in New Orleans, Louisiana, I took advantage of the pedestrian friendly streets in Washington, DC and New York City to do a lot of walking. I was generally conscientious about what I ate. During my week-long visit to New Zealand, I signed up for half-day trips that required a lot of outdoor exploration and walking to keep me active. At the end of my three-month sojourn, I had gained 3 kg – way less than I thought I would.
So where did things go wrong? Although I got back into my workouts when I was back in Accra, I was making way too many allowances with my nutrition. I stayed at about 72kg from August until November. Then, I took a last-minute trip to Tanzania in early December for a training of trainers. I was still doing morning workouts – although not as intense – but this time, I honestly wasn’t as conscientious about my food portions. By the time I got back to Accra, I had gained another 3 kg in 10 days! East African food had succeeded in doing what American food could not. Watch out for those chapatis, people! What is worse, I was due to play maid of honour at a wedding about a week away. That’s when I remembered something I should have been doing after each of my trips: detoxing. Long story short, I was able to get rid of the extra 3 kg in 8 days by detoxing with a diet of mainly fruits and vegetables. My chief bridesmaid dresses fit perfectly.
New Year, New Fitness Challenges
Where am I today? I’m still hovering in the low 70 kgs, but I’m back on track with that fit life. This year, I hope to continue improving upon my fitness and challenging myself. I just completed five workouts this week, four of which were in a gym with a personal trainer. Yes, you read right. After over a year of home workouts, I figured it was time to turn things up a notch and so I signed up for a year-long gym membership. The first week was as painful as ever, but by now I’m sure you’ve figured out how this works: no pain, no gain. I’ll be sharing my gym workouts and fitness insights on Instagram.
In Part III of this series, I’ll touch on some of the interesting and somewhat amusing things I have learned through my fitness journey – especially where nutrition is concerned. In the meantime, leave a comment and let me know your thoughts – what was useful, what was not, your own experiences, recommendations, and so on. As always, thank you for reading.
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.