Reshaping the body and the mind
Trainer aims to change Muslim women’s view of going to gym
FOR conservative Muslim women, going to a gym filled with men can be daunting and can make them feel uncomfortable.
Thanks to fitness fundi Zaakirah Khalek, such women can be active while staying true to their values.
Khalek, 28, left a cushy, corporate job to pursue her passion, and is now a personal trainer at the Wanderers Sports Medical Centre in Johannesburg.
She understands that Muslim women are not encouraged to attend gym, but wants to change that mindset.
“A lot of my Muslim client base are ladies in hijab, so when I moved to this gym they were concerned that men were there,” Khalek said.
She makes house calls for those who can’t face a testosterone-filled environment.
“If you want to train, you can even come with your hijab,” Khalek said.
“It is so encouraging to see a lot more Indian and Muslim women in their hijabs with running sneakers on, jogging around the block.
“Mindsets are changing and even though you were brought up a certain way, you can still be fit, it’s just your responsibility to exercise.”
Her love for all things fitness began at school and continued after she matriculated.
“I used to be a sprinter in high school and university,” Khalek said.
While studying at the University of Johannesburg, she took up road running as a hobby.
She graduated with a BCom degree in industrial psychology and worked as a human resources consultant for a Johannesburg law firm.
Khalek flourished in her career, yet couldn’t shake her love for fitness.
She became a more avid road runner and joined a running club.
When she saw an opportunity to become a training consultant for Nike, she applied.
Khalek studied part-time towards her qualification in personal training, sports conditioning and training in different environments for two years.
She soon found juggling her commitments difficult and last year, she quit her job to become a full-time personal trainer.
“A lot of people were inquiring about personal training so I thought: ‘Why not take this risk now while I’m not married or don’t have any children?’,” Khalek said.
Her decision paid off as she has quickly built up an impressive client list.
“I enjoyed my HR job but I wasn’t unhappy in the corporate world, but fitness is honestly my passion and I have absolutely no regrets so far,” Khalek said.
Her job can be challenging but it is something she believes she was born to do.
“My client’s success is my success,” Khalek said.
“Since training with me, one client was on chronic medication and was very depressed; she’s off the medication now and is healthy.
“Another client lost 12kg, and little stories like these give me the motivation to keep going.”
A stereotype that Khalek wants to break is that if women do strength training, they will become too muscular and look “masculine”.
“Women often think that by doing strength training they’re going to look masculine, but physically it’s impossible because we don’t have enough testosterone to look like a male,” she said.
“When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a male and I’ve been doing strength training for years. I don’t have the body composition of a male.
“I might have more muscle than the average woman, but I don’t look like a male so that’s just a myth.”
She said women should not starve themselves in an effort to lose weight.
“When you do that your metabolism slows down and your body holds on to any food that you’re eating, and that will actually make you gain weight,” Khalek added.
Her advice for those who fear exercise? Start slowly.
“Some of my clients are very overweight and have very bad eating habits and I advise them to just start doing a brisk walk every day and to cut the junk food from their diet slowly,” she said.
For those who say they don’t have time to work out, Khalek said that they must clear their schedule.
“There is time in the day, you just need to find it. Be selfish a little. Exercising is much more than looking good. It’s about being healthy, avoiding diabetes, depression and even drug addictions,” she said.
CROSSING OVER: Zaakirah Khalek, 28, turned her passion for fitness into a full-time career as a personal trainer, having first worked as an HR consultant.