Izween Jamot, a 27-year-old Karachi resident, looked at herself in the mirror and detested what she saw. Weighing 194 kilogrammes, she felt depressed and suicidal. That is when she first slashed her arm. Ten minutes later, she drowned her despair in a big bowl of ice cream.
“I could not sleep at night,” she says. “My doctor told me if I did not lose some weight soon, I could kiss my life goodbye,” she goes on, swallowing a lump in her throat.
Izween’s cycle of grief followed by excessive eating continued for another six years and came to a halt early last year when her friend, a chef, came up with a diet plan for her. The diet consisted of two high protein meals and two high carb ones and it helped Izween shed 50 kilogrammes in a span of five months. This was enough for her to get off the couch and register for a full-body workout routine. “Look at me now. I am running. I am jumping. I am breathing.”
Izween is not the only one in the city to have travelled the distance from self-harm to self-love. Thousands of people like her rush to their nearest gyms – early in the morning or after work hours – on a daily basis in the hope of losing a few extra inches from their bodies.
For some, the motivation is to just look good. For others, like Izween, the impetus comes simply from the need to stay alive.
Fitness was an acquired taste in Pakistan until recently. A handful of people from the local elites, with premium club memberships, would populate a few fitness spaces available in big cities such as Karachi and Lahore. Those who could not afford such luxury would flock to public parks and walk around while their children played on the nearby swings. Housewives, on the other hand, would lock themselves up in their bedrooms and break into yoga poses they had seen in magazines and books.
Now, with gyms popping up all around us, fitness has become a required taste. You cannot escape it even if you want to. But figuring out where to start is often a struggle.
For such beginners, Nusrat Hidayatullah offers a high-intensity fitness programme called The Forty-Two Day Challenge. When she launched it in early 2013, it immediately attracted a large number of people. At one point, it had more than a hundred people taking part in each of its 42-day long sessions. The programme has received mixed reviews since then but has branched out to other cities and places from its original venue — a cricket ground on the eastern edge of Karachi’s Defence neighbourhood.
On any workday, you will find people doing various exercises on the ground opposite Creek Vista apartments. From a distance, their moves look like a well-choreographed performance by a large group of professional dancers. Trainers wearing microphones can be seen jumping on and off a raised platform, doing different kinds of exercises. Their images are projected on a giant screen so that the trainees can all follow them as perfectly as they must. Some trainers can also be seen going around and cheering everyone on. Up-close things are a little less organised: some people at the back look like they have no clue what they are supposed to be doing.
Asra Tanveer, a medical student, lauds the programme as the only thing that has worked for her. “I am doing the challenge for the second time because it proved super effective for me,” she says as she bends down into a squat during a recent session. “I have a hectic personal schedule so I am always looking for a quick fix and this challenge provides that with its diet plans and high-intensity training.”
Kamran Farooq, a gym owner in Karachi, also swears by the efficacy of short but intense exercise regimes — like the one offered by The Forty-Two Day Challenge. In 2008, he suffered an accident that left him bedridden and depressed. Two years later, he shifted to South Africa where he enrolled himself in various CrossFit fitness programmes. This, he says, pulled him out of his depression.
If there is one change that he would like to make in the short-term workout boot camps in Pakistan, it would not be in their format but in their emphasis. They need to change their focus from cosmetic appearance to physical fitness, he says.
His business partner at the gym, Muhammad Usman Saad, has worked as a trainer with The Forty-Two Day Challenge in the past. He is critical of the programme’s very format. “You have 18-year-olds and 50-year-olds training alike,” he says. This, according to him, may cause injuries to some of them.
Saad also believes trainees often have misplaced expectations. “Many people enrol into these fitness programmes thinking that they can make the effort for 30 days or 42 days and then go back to their prior lifestyles. That is not how it works,” he says. “Consistent effort and functional training is what it takes to have a sustainable healthy lifestyle.”
Navaid Hussain, a certified personal trainer, also finds it appalling that many beginners opt for rigorous fitness regimes without first finding out whether these will work for them or not. “Basic know-how of your overall physical mechanisms is imperative before you jump onto the bandwagon,” he says. “Fitness needs to be customised. Fitness fads, especially boot camps and challenges, are anything but.”
Izween happily walks into her Xfit class on a recent February day. Doing a burpee here and a lunge there, she keeps going without ever letting the smile vanish from her face. Half an hour into the session and drenched in sweat, she screams out in pain as she struggles to hold a body plank for 60 seconds. “Hold it,” her trainer shouts from a distance. “Yes, a 100 kilogrammes more to lose,” she tells herself.
The writer is a graduate in media studies from Szabist and a founding member of Cutacut, a digital media platform.
This was originally published in the Herald's March 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.