Image Credit: YZ

The Dubai Fitness Challenge could not come at a better time. I’m 28 years old, 5.5ft, and my weight when I started the Dubai Fitness Challenge was 77kg. 

 I am going to immerse myself so deeply into fitness, health and self-love, to see if it’s the journey or the end goal that will make me happier. I will speak to trainers, nutritionists, doctors  and fellow Dubai Fitness Challenge participants to really show you how important taking care of your body (and as a by-product your mind) really is. 

Stay tuned, as I write a new story every weekday. Scroll all the way down for Day 1

Day 5

Dubai Fitness Challenge: Why everyone needs to start swimming

Here I am taking part in a swimming competition in Dubai. Been swimming since I was 5 years old

Swimming is a pain-free sport that anyone at any age could take part in

I was four years old when I jumped into an Olympic-sized swimming pool for the first time. I recalled seeing people swim on television, so I imitated their movements and started swimming the front crawl to the other end of the pool.

My swim coach, a very tanned and strict bald man, had told my mother to enrol me into a swim team. After that, I swam six times a week as part of a competitive squad until I turned 21.

As someone who hails from the Mediterranean beach-side city of Alexandria, swimming is an essential part of growing up Egyptian. Almost every young child is unceremoniously thrown into the shallow end and taught how to swim. The water-centric upbringing was because of my parents’ love for the ocean.

If you are taking part in the Dubai Fitness Challenge and want to exercise in an effective way that doesn’t have a painful impact on your joints, then swimming is the sport for you.

The benefits of swimming are substantial

Hugo Fernandez, a UAE based personal trainer and swimming buff based in Dubai taking part in the Dubai Fitness Challenge told Gulf News “Swimming is a non-impact sport, that doesn’t affect the joints, so it’s the perfect activity to do at any age. It promotes relaxation of the muscle by releasing the pressure from it. It also helps to improve the posture, as well as aerobic capacity. When I wanted to recover from back injuries in the past, I would swim.”

Fernandez has been training since he was three years old and was taught by his father who still works as a swim coach 24 years later. Fernandez spent his early youth taking part in competitions and training twice a day. As he got older, he himself became a coach.

  Swimming is very beneficial for our body because it’s one of the most complete sports."

This means that we use all of our muscles when we exercise in water, something you don’t get when you work out on land. "Swimming is also some of the best resistance training. It’s a great injury prevention sport, since it doesn’t create any impact on our joints” he said.

I learned to swim because I had to, now I swim  because I love to

UAE resident Hussein Mowafi, 30,  recently started swimming after he learned it was a requirement for many triathelons. He requested swimming lessons for his birthday. "When I started it was hard, but then in time, I progressed and felt more confident in the water" he told Gulf News. 

Mowafi completed the triathlon he was training for, but never stopped swimming. "These days, I swim at least twice a week." He understand the health benefits of regular swimming and continues his water-based training throughout the Dubai Fitness Challenge. 

Swimming to prevent illnesses

Professor Erik Hohmann, the consultant orthopaedic surgeon and sports physician, says one of the best things about swimming is that it is for everyone. “The fact that there is zero impact means that anyone can do it,” he tells Gulf News. “Many weight-bearing activities place substantial force on the knees, hips and ankles. Water allows the joints to be exercised without adding the effects of body weight.”

And it’s a sport that can and should be continued for a lifetime.

Dr Abdullah Sedighi, consultant cardiologist, explains that swimming is one of the best aerobic exercises for heart health. It keeps the blood vessels elastic and prevents them from getting stiff. This in turn lowers the blood pressure especially in people over 50 years old. Swimming also tunes up several heart and blood vessel reflexes making them work in harmony. “Even those who have undergone treatments for heart disease should be swimming,” he says. “There should be no excuse.”

Dr Andrew Jamieson, a consultant endocrinologist, believes that people who suffer from diabetes could improve their illness by spending more time in the pool. “Swimming improves insulin resistance and helps contribute to reducing the potential for diabetes related complications such as blindness and heart disease,” he says.

He tells the story of the American Olympic gold medallist Gary Hall Jr, who dominated the 1996 Olympics despite being diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes three years earlier. He used swimming to his advantage and maintained a presence at the highest level of international competition for a decade. “Remember insulin treatment does not prevent anyone from taking exercise, and excelling in their sport.”

So even if you feel like, you’ve reached an age where your body isn’t what it used to be, or you suffered an injury, that you can’t put any weight on, swimming is a great way to get your 30 minutes of exercising in during this year’s Dubai Fitness Challenge. 

Day 4

Dubai Fitness Challenge: Do you need to exercise to lose weight?

Is it possible to lose fat without doing any form of exercise? That's me getting ready to do a box jump and dreading it. 

Don’t get me wrong. I actually love exercising. There’s something amazing about feeling strong, being able to lift things and to run up the stairs without losing my breath. I go to the gym four to five times a week, but for someone who works out as much as I do, I don’t look like an athlete. I still have a tummy, hips a chest and slightly chubby arms that no amount of push ups can get rid of.

Then someone once told me… weight loss and fitness is 70 per cent what you eat and 30 per cent how you move. So I wondered: Am I giving exercise way too much importance? Should I be focusing on eating less? Should I even bother with exercise?

I decided to call up my go-to nutritionist Dr. Marilyn Glenville PhD is the UK’s leading nutritionist specialising in women’s health. She is Former President of the Food and Health Forum at the Royal Society of Medicine and author of a number of internationally bestselling books.

She told Gulf News, “Contrary to popular belief, I believe you can lose weight without exercising by changing your diet. However, weight-training exercises are helpful in the process of losing fat faster. As building muscles takes up 5 times less space than fat, you can change your body shape quicker while you look and feel thinner.”

The benefits of regular exercise cannot be exaggerated.  The older we get, the more important exercise is for our health.  Regular exercise has been linked to a lower risk of cancer, dementia, type 2 diabetes, depression, heart disease and a higher tolerance to stress. 

Exercise can have a powerful all-round positive effect on your health. Moderate exercise performed during the day improves sleep quality and can also soothe insomnia.  Exercise also helps to keep your bowels working efficiently and eliminates waste products your body doesn't need effectively.  It also improves the function of your immune system, your lymph system and the ability of your body to keep blood sugar in balance.  It stimulates the thyroid gland hormone production and helps to improve thyroid function, together improving your metabolism. This is especially important if you have an underactive thyroid.

So basically, you CAN lose weight without exercising, by decreasing your calorie intake and incorporating healthier foods into your diet, however working out speeds up the process and has an immense amount of long term benefits.

It’s day 6 of the Dubai Fitness Challenge and I’ve already lost 1 kg! my weight is currently at 76kgs and I feel like my stomach bloating is completely gone. I look much better in my jeans and that definitely cheered me up. I don’t know if it’s the act of exercising that makes me happy, or the result of exercising that completely brightens up my whole day.

Stay tuned to see if I lose any more weight in the next couple of days.

Day 3

Trying out Keto: Will I lose 10kgs in 1 month?

I even went to a seafood brunch while I was on a keto diet... It doesn't stop me from living my life

Day 3 into the Dubai Fitness Challenge and I have great news. Yesterday I exercised and I ate clean! Yay!

By ‘eating clean’, I mean that I’ve been on a Ketogenic diet. I know many people might think that it’s a fad… but guess what… it works! We’ve done so many articles on Gulf News about Keto success stories and one of these very specific success story sits right in front of me this very minute. My colleague Dona, who lost 7kgs in the last 6 weeks. Throughout the the last month and a half, her skin cleared up and she stopped feeling bloated. All achieved by cutting out carbs, sugar and increasing her fat intake. A diet that involves butter, cream and cheese? Count me in!

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A couple of days into the diet and I realised how hard it is not to eat carbs, sugar or even fruits. I realised that I had to plan my meals and snacks. I had to be calculated and focused. It’s been a tough four days, but I haven’t felt as hungry as I thought I would feel. The fat in my diet has kept me full. The last three days of my keto diet were pretty strict, my first two days weren’t so strict to be honest. It was the weekend after all!

I still haven’t lost any weight, but I feel less bloated and sort of more energetic. I look slimmer, but the number on the scale hasn’t budged yet. Still stuck at 77kgs. One of the benefits of a keto diet, is that it doesn't slow your social life down. You can still eat out and enjoy fat and cream and butter. 

But on the other hand, I’ve heard some mixed reviews about Keto. Most people say it is life changing, while others say that cutting out food groups can only do more harm than good. I’m ready to give anything a try if I can start to burn fat, instead of carbs for energy.

Just to explain:

■ The Keto diet is low carb diet; so low that the body switches from carbs and sugar to fat for fuel.

■ The Keto diet is not only lower carb, but also it is high fat and moderate protein.

■ Simply put, it means no sugars, processed food, rice, pasta, wheat, fruit, starchy veggies, alcohol and fruit juices.

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Just to really get the facts, I spoke to a nutritionist about her opinion on Keto. Tanya van Aswegen is a registered Dietitian at Valiant Clinic in Dubai. Here's what she said about Ketogenic diet.

 A ketogenic diet is based on a high fat diet (more than 80 per cent fat), moderate protein and extremely low carbohydrates (a 20g) intake. All grains, dairy, most fruit, some vegetables, certain nuts and legumes and pulses are usually not consumed on a ketogenic diet.

Keto is actually not a new thing, it was developed as a method of treatment for children with refractory epilepsy as early as 1920, and it is very effective for that purpose. In the modern world, there are however a lot of claims about the benefits of a ketogenic diet, ranging from weight loss, to antiaging, cognition (or mind clarity) and prevention of certain diseases.

What are the benefits of the Keto diet?

What is positive about a ketogenic diet is that is does discourage the intake of alcohol and refined carbohydrates, and emphasises the intake of non-starchy veggies and good fats, which we can all benefit from.  It has also been shown to be effective in terms of early weight loss and some people use it for reaching their initial goals, but in terms of long term weight maintenance (>12 months) it has not shown to be effective as most people struggle to maintain the keto-lifestyle. 

What about the drawbacks?

The most common initial side effects of a ketogenic diet is often referred to as “keto flu” where people experience (initially) tiredness, headaches, dizziness, nausea, irritability, hair loss, bad breath and constipation while your body adjusts.  The main drawback is that we are simply not sure at this stage what the long-term effects of a ketogenic is on metabolic health and gut health. 

The only longer-term studies that we have was done on epileptic patients which showed risk factors such as Osteopenia (brittle bones), kidney stones, cardiomyopathy and iron-deficiency anemia, but this is clearly a specific patient population. People who embark on ketogenic diets usually have to take specific supplements to off set some of the deficiencies in the diet, most commonly magnesium, potassium and calcium.

I think I'm going to give Keto a serious try. I definitely don’t think that I could last longer than one month on this diet. To be honest, I don’t think I want to.

I love carbs and I believe that eating a small amount every day won’t be so bad. But right now I am ‘Dubai Fitness Challenge’ Yousra, not just regular Yousra. I’m staying on the diet, just to see what happens in the next few weeks. 

Will I lose 10kg in one month? I doubt it... but I'd be really happy with just five. 

Stay tuned!

Day 2

Dubai Fitness Challenge: What food is the real enemy?

It's my fourth day doing the Dubai Fitness Challenge and I already skipped a workout.

I’m feeling a bit better today. I spent all of yesterday eating clean, to the point that I didn’t even crave anything naughty to eat. I also skipped my workout last night. A friend asked to meet me before they went on a trip, so I decided to push my work out to today. This time I made a commitment to my trainer. No way was I getting out of this one. But I ate clean. It counts towards something doesn’t it?

I then thought about my protein intake, my lack of carbs and absolutely no sugar, even natural sugar found in fruit and I felt good about myself. This good feeling made me wonder… Which food is the real enemy?

I decided to go to an expert and I spoke to Dr. Marilyn Glenville PhD. She is the UK’s leading nutritionist, specialising in women’s health. “The real enemy in your food is sugar.” She told Gulf News. “Sugar is nothing more than empty calories – it gives you no nutritional value at all. Worse than that, because sugar is devoid of nutrients, your body has to use the essential nutrients stored in your system to digest the sugar.  So, not only are you getting absolutely no vital vitamins and minerals from the sugar, but your body is also losing valuable nutrients just by eating it. Hence, sugar causes a double whammy on the nutritional front and causes nutritional deficiencies.”

I always knew that sugar was what kept me overweight, but I always thought I was alright, since I never actually craved dessert often. However, sugar is not just in dessert. It’s in everything.  They’re in sandwich bread, chicken stock, pickles, salad dressing, crackers, yogurt and cereal, as well as in the obvious foods and drinks, like soda and desserts.

The biggest problem with added sweeteners is that they make it easy to overeat. They’re tasty and highly caloric but they often don’t make you feel full. Instead, they can trick you into wanting even more food. “Because we’re surrounded by added sweeteners — in our kitchens, in restaurants, at schools and offices — most of us will eat too much of them unless we consciously set out to do otherwise. Moreover, sugar can also increase the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s and cancer (especially breast cancer) said Dr. Glenville.

When eating sugar, there is a rapid and high rise in your blood sugar level (blood glucose).  Inevitably, your body responds by producing more insulin from the pancreas to deal with the high level of blood sugar.  The higher your blood sugar shoots up, the lower it crashes down soon after.

 At the drop, your body responds in two ways:

First, it will send you off for a quick sugar fix (like a bar of chocolate) as an attempt to satisfy your cravings and in order to lift your blood sugar up.

Second and simultaneously, it releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol from your adrenal glands and release your own sugar stores to try to correct the low level.

As a result, you end up on a perpetual roller coaster of highs and lows that affects your mood, makes you feel more anxious, tense and irritable because of the stress hormones that are being released, and can further result in weight gain, especially in the middle region of your body. 

So maybe this month, I’m sticking to paleo and keto desserts. Let’s see how long I can go sugar free for.


Day 1

Why I need the Dubai Fitness Challenge now more than ever

That's me with a big smile on my face after completing a nice weekend workout

My life is at a cross roads. This morning I had a strange feeling when I woke up. After reflecting over the last three years, specifically the last two months, I realised. My life is a mess. My eating habits, my spending habits, my insane social schedule and my dependency on a frequently travelling and unavailable work out buddy have slowed me down and perhaps even stalled me from reaching my goals independently.  

Last weekend I binged on pizza, cupcakes, chicken nuggets, French fries and lots and lots of cheese puffs. I felt unmotivated and self-critical. My mind, which is usually organised and compartmentalised felt like it was all over the place… obsessing about what I eat, thinking about what I said wrong the other day and dwelling on why my life isn’t where I want it to be.

Basically, my physical health and my mental health aren’t right, whatever ‘right’ is. How do I know that? Because deep down, something just doesn’t feel right, and you have to trust your gut and your instincts. Then… you have to change.

My solutions when things feel chaotic, is to regain control of my life, thus regaining control of my health and mental wellbeing through planning. Planning my food, planning my work outs, planning my intentions for the day, with the end goal being peace of mind.

I don’t think that ‘losing weight’ will solve all my problems, but the means to achieving that goal is the key. An inherent outcome of ‘trying to lose weight’ is automatically falling in love with yourself and your health. There is so much more to exercise and eating clean than just weight loss. There is the positive effect of happiness and the beauty of witnessing your strength of will.

When you feel happy, you have a better self-image and a better way of ‘showing up’ in your life. You stop sabotaging your mood and you stop sabotaging your body.

I’m 28 years old, 5.5ft, and I weigh 77kg.

Sounds like a lot, but luckily I am tall enough to hide my overweight-ness. I hide it with my clothes and distract from it with my personality. But I don’t want to have to hide anything anymore.

Like I said, this Dubai Fitness Challenge could not have come at a better time. I am going to immerse myself so deeply into fitness, health and self-love, to see if it’s the journey or the end goal that will make me happier. I will speak to trainers, nutritionists, doctors  and fellow Dubai Fitness Challenge participants to really show you how important taking care of your body (and as a by-product your mind) really is. 

Stay tuned, as I write a new story every weekday.