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Dubai trio on the life-changing benefits of fitness

As most fitness fanatics will tell you, the physical benefits of exercise are just the tip of the iceberg, and it's often the positive emotional and mental gains that get people hooked. Aquarius speaks to three Dubai-based women about how getting fit enabled them to turn their lives around

  • Marianne Gates-Brown
    “For me, fitness has never been so much about weight loss. It’s more about being healthy, happy and confident,Image Credit: Grace Paras/ANM
  • Marianne Gates-Brown
    “My training is my meditation – it’s calming – and my bike rides are often where I have my most creative ideasImage Credit: Grace Paras/ANM
  • Marianne Gates-Brown
    “Pilates taught me how to find balance and control from within. It made me confident, strong and happy with myImage Credit: Stefan Lindeque/ANM

“Pilates saved me from myself,” Yvette Franzos, 28, from Australia, says Pilates gave her the strength to overcome years of addiction and eating disorders and gave her new-found respect for her body.

“I was born to a mentally ill mother. Today, she is a functioning, beautiful person, but it took until I was 16 years old for her paranoid schizophrenia to be diagnosed. Her illness became apparent in my early childhood and my parents divorced when my sister and I were still young. Now, we are all very close but, on reflection, my childhood years were tough for everyone. My sister and I tried to support our mother the best we could but, being children, it was hard.

“By nine years old I was smoking. By 13 I was experimenting with substances and drinking regularly. By 14 I’d left school. This self-destructive behaviour became my norm. My escape, the only way I could feel good, was through drugs and alcohol. “When I was 18 my mother began treatment and started getting better. Unfortunately, though, my behaviour didn’t cease as it was already a way of life for me.

“All the while, I was developing severe eating disorders. I would go through periods of starving, purging and bingeing – self–destruction at its finest. It gave me the illusion that I was in control. I was always striving to lose weight. I don’t remember ever looking at my body and being happy during that time. “At my lowest, I weighed around 88 pounds (40kgs). I had gallstones at the age of 19 because I didn’t have any kind of fat in my diet. My gallbladder was so infected it was life-threatening. My period would disappear for months on end. I had no energy.

I was depressed and anxious. “I began to hear the soft whispers of my inner voice telling me I deserved a better life. I was fed up with the way I was feeling... I knew I had to start making better choices. I began running, going to the gym, eating healthier. I stumbled across Pilates and fell in love with it. Pilates taught me how to find balance and control from within. It made me confident, strong and happy with my body. It made me feel connected. “I refocused for long enough to go back and finish school and, aged 22, I followed my best friend to New York. I was happy and excited about life, but once I got there I got a job in a nightclub and soon fell back into my old learned negative behaviours. Once again, my life started to spiral out of control.

“Recognising the pattern, I knew I needed to reconnect with my body again. I began Pilates classes with renewed vigour and quickly established the strongest connection I have ever had with myself, which still exists today. Since then I have worked hard and become a qualified Pilates and Intensati instructor – Intensati is a self-empowering, feel-good exercise class. “I moved to Dubai three years ago and I’m happy here.

I launched my own business, Breathe Believe Life, where I offer Pilates and Intensati classes and run workshops to educate people on how to make positive health, fitness and lifestyle choices. There is no need to torture myself any more... my life is in my control these days and knowing how amazing it feels to be free from that mindset, I would never return to such a state. Pilates, quite simply, saved me – and I feel everyone else deserves the same happiness, health and strength.”

“Fitness has improved my confidence,” Marianne Gates-Brown, 36, from South Africa, says being fit enables her to feel happy in her own skin.

“I was one of the ‘chunky’ kids at school and was never given an opportunity to prove myself in sport. The message from teachers and peers was clear – if you’re not athletic, there’s no point making an effort with you. So began my life of shyness. “After finishing school, I studied radiology at university. My shyness didn’t bother me then... I’m the type of person to have a small group of good friends, rather than a huge group of acquaintances. But I wasn’t a fan of big social groups and I would never have done any public speaking.

“In 2001, aged 25, I accepted a job in Jeddah. It was there, in 2003, I met Richard, a businessman from the UK who is now my husband. Richard’s career has taken us all over the world, finally landing in Dubai two years ago. It was hard to work with all the moving. So, to pass the time, I started working out. In China I started yoga – it became a passion and I trained to become an instructor. It was my first introduction to how fitness can boost confidence... In yoga, nobody’s going to be super flexible unless they are a dancer, or from a yoga DVD.

It’s about accepting your body and respecting its limits. As an instructor, I had to get used to being in front of a class... far from feeling self-conscious, I relished the opportunity to share my passion with others. I used to say, ‘This is what I can do with my body. If you can do more, great!’ “In 2010 we moved to Dubai. Richard and I were both working hard and we soon got stuck in a rut. I remember a moment of self-awareness when I was breathless from climbing a flight of stairs. I’d gained a lot of weight and, having a family history of heart disease, I felt I ought to get my cholesterol checked. Unsurprisingly, it was above the ‘healthy’ level. It was a sharp wake-up call to get fit again.

“Optimal Fitness was just opening and I went along to a spin class in a baggy old T-shirt and found an inconspicuous bike at the back. That class was the start of a fitter, healthier lifestyle... Not only that but, from that first day, I’ve felt welcomed and encouraged and I’ve made great friends there. Fitness has never been so much about weight loss. Sure, I may have dropped a dress size – but that was never my main motivation. It’s more about being healthy, happy and confident.

“I shocked myself by signing up for the 2012 Dubai Marathon in January of this year. It was a huge achievement and one I will never forget. I completed it in five and a half agonising hours and Richard ran the last 400m with me, which still brings tears to my eyes. I’m already registered for 2013. “No matter how busy I am I always find the time to exercise. Optimal Fitness is my second home... the staff and regulars are like my second family.

I’ve traded in my baggy shorts for bright lycra sports gear that I wear with pride. So yes, fitness has definitely helped me overcome shyness... I didn’t even see it happening, or see myself changing, until people at the gym began commenting on it. I asked my husband if he had noticed a change, and he said, ‘Err, yes!’ “To people who want to start working out, but are too shy to go to the gym because they feel they don’t look the part, I would say, gyms can be intimidating, but try group classes... I guarantee most people are feeling the same way.

“I think mentally we all think that being fit means looking like you could run a decathlon. But we don’t all have bodies like that – we should just be happy with the body we have. You don’t have to look a certain way to be into sport, or to be confident. It’s more important to feel good about who you are and to feel proud of what you do. I started off walking and when I got bored of walking I started running little spurts. And now I’m running marathons. I don’t look like a runner, but I enjoy it – and that’s what is important.”

“Working out gives my life balance,” Lea Lehtinen, 45, from Finland first got bitten by the triathlon bug when she was recovering from back surgery. Years later, it became a way for her to make friends and settle into a new life.

“Being from a sporty family, I spent a lot of my childhood in the great outdoors. I came out of the University of Helsinki with a double degree in industrial engineering and marketing. While I was there, I met my husband Tapio. We married when I was 22. He was also career-focused and we both threw ourselves into corporate life. “My twenties were something of a blur. I was totally absorbed by the buzz of the business world. My husband didn’t share my love of sport and the outdoors, so both were brushed aside. It was an unhappy marriage and we divorced when I turned 30.

I threw myself into my work – my job was my life. I worked long hours and travelled a lot. “From about age 38, I started to develop niggling back problems. I ignored it until I became completely immobilised with a slipped disc in 2006. What followed was a long and horrible recovery with two months off work and extensive physiotherapy. Fitness was part of my rehabilitation, so I took up jogging and swimming, and to give myself a goal I entered my first triathlon in 2008. I loved it – and between swimming, cycling and running, training was never boring. It felt wonderful to be strong and active again.

“Two years ago, I was offered a promotion, which meant relocating to Dubai. I love my job, but it’s demanding and, at times, all-consuming. I arrived in Dubai as a single woman and it felt like all I had was work and my only friends were colleagues. It was a life balance I wasn’t entirely happy with. “Early one morning, about 18 months ago, I was walking along JBR beach when I was drawn to a group of triathlon swimmers sea-training. They were so friendly and I envied their camaraderie and enthusiasm. The following week, encouraged by coach Jason Metters, I joined their triathlon club, Tri2Aspire (T2A). The group is incredibly diverse, neither age nor ability is a factor. The focus is getting out there, being fit and healthy and being the best you can be.

Since then, I have formed some of my closest friendships. “My day now starts at 4.30am on most mornings, so I can get my training in before work. My colleagues think I’m crazy, but my fitness gives me such energy. It clears my mind and releases any stress and tension, which can so easily build up when you work in the corporate world. My training is my meditation – it’s calming – and my bike rides are often where I have my most creative ideas. At the end of this month, I will compete in the annual Phuket Triathlon. It involves a 1.8km swim, 55km cycle and 12km run – I completed it in 2011 in 4.5 hours... this time I am doing it with a team, so my focus is more on the team than beating my time.

“I have a new partner now – his name is Pentti and he is also from Finland. Pentti shares my love of fitness and we train together. Thanks to triathlon I feel so much has come together... my back is strengthened, I have the energy I need to perform at work, I can channel my stress and I have great friends – it’s a healthy work/life balance. I feel complete.”



For more information on Yvette’s Pilates and Intensati classes, visit