Health and wellness has been on the front of our minds and media pages for so long that it’s pretty much the new normal. But for Zehra from The Fit Nest, whose blog and Instagram posts are inspiring many thousands of women to reach new health heights, it’s the old normal. From her father’s influence as a Phys Ed teacher, to her degree in kinesiology, to her homemade family meals bursting with nutrition, Zehra has long radiated fitness and healthy living.
Zehra is well equipped to help her clients reach fitness and weight loss goals, and transform their bodies. But, in her words, her “true passion is helping women feel strong and confident in their own skin”, which almost always means surpassing previously-held beliefs about what is possible of their bodies.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the senior’s fitness class she teaches at her mosque, where word of mouth has swelled her class to 20 people even on a snowy February morning. Most of her students are women, although several men appear too, and exercise next the women on the opposite side of a temporary partition.
The women slowly fan into the class, equipped with their water bottles, hand and ankle weights, and good cheer. I hear Zehra greet them with a friendly “Hello, Auntie” and feel a wave of familiarity. Like many Asian cultures, I too have been raised to greet the generation older than me with “Auntie” and “Uncle”, terms of respect and connection.
And Zehra is connected to her students, some of whom once were her teachers. Zehra laughs a little at her role now as teacher to these older women. “It’s nice,” she says. I feel like they gave to me, and now I can give something back to them.” And giving it is: as members of the mosque, the seniors can access Zehra’s top-notch class for just $2.
I take a few photographs of the class, but probably not as many as I should. I’m hurrying through it because I want to participate in the class. Apart from the warm up, there is no sitting on the chairs marking each student’s spot – they are mostly used as props and for balance. It’s not long before I am steamed. I intensify an exercise where it makes sense for me. So while most women are doing push ups against their chairs while standing, I make my way to the floor. As I go up and down on my knees, I notice the woman in front of me who is also on the floor, except she is pushing up from her toes.
Throughout the class we are guided by Zehra’s gentle, persistent encouragement, and her students are getting in a solid workout. (So, frankly, am I. In a day and half, I will have trouble bending my legs.) For many of these older women, Zehra’s class is their first foray into their own fitness. They remind me of my own mother, who only started exercising once she retired from paid work in her sixties. There are many reasons why older women don’t work out, including heavy workloads, constant caregiving responsibilities to others, and the lack of a practice or tradition or expectation of women taking care of their bodies for their own strength and pleasure. I suspect for my mom and the women around me, it never occurred to them to try, and that even if they had, there were few opportunities for this crucial kind of self-care.
This is where Zehra can work her magic. In her class, the older women are making up for lost time, finding the joys of strength and confidence and health in their bodies. No one is more delighted by their discoveries than Zehra. “You know how there are some things that feed your soul?” she asks me, smiling. “This class does that for me.”
At the close of class, the students gather their belongings and say goodbye. There’s that unspoken post-workout satisfaction in the air, of having done something good, and having done it well. One woman asks Zehra for advice about a sore knee before she leaves; another shares a laugh as she tucks her hair back into her hijab. I get to meet Zehra’s mother, who I might otherwise have recognized from her similar poise and warmth.
I think again of my mom. She would love this class.
Many thanks to Zehra from The Fit Nest for letting me attend her class and write about it. If you have not already discovered her exploding Instagram feed, you must check it out – you will not find a better resource for practical inspiration for healthy living!