|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
18 - 24 April 2002
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
(photos: Sherif Sonbol)
Mind over matter
This fitness professional tackles things from the inside out
Profile by Yasmine El-Rashidi
Anyone you ask will tell you that Gina Grant is in the wrong field. She is a nutritionist and personal trainer by both profession and training, but in reality, therapy seems to be more her thing.
"You have to change this article you're doing," she says at one of our meetings. "Completely," she asserts.
I pause, anxiously, expecting the word 'cancel' to pop up.
"I've decided," she continues, "That I am really a therapist," she laughs. "I had two crisis cases today. I spent almost an hour and a half talking them through it."
That should not surprise anyone who knows Grant even remotely well. She is a people's person, and making people come to terms, accept, and ultimately embrace themselves, is the ultimate point of her multi-tiered training quest.
"Imagine if you can make one person happier about themselves," she says, the passion overflowing from the serious glint in her eye and her dancing hands. "That's phenomenal."
Her point is indisputable, but it is few and far between, it seems, that one comes across a person who derives pure pleasure from the process of putting others in a state of bliss.
Or even a fraction of it, for that matter.
"Even if they just feel that much better about themselves," she says, her fingers indicating less than an inch. "That is still incredible. But I'm not into just making people happy with the way they look," she adds, quickly, and sternly. "I want people to walk away with a sense of self-satisfaction, self-worth, feeling pleased with what they did, and feeling 'I want to do this for the rest of my life'."
People come to Grant, for the most part, to lose weight. Or that is what they say, at least.
"It's much deeper than that though," she says. "When a person has a problem with nutrition, it more often than not -- but not necessarily -- is psychologically founded. Quite often, problems in the environment are taken out emotionally on food. They turn that [their weight problem]," she explains, "into the issue. That's not the real problem, but they have made it the primary concern so as not to deal with the core."
It takes her clients -- particularly the women -- little time to recognise that they have come to the wrong source if their primary goal is skinny.
"I don't do thin, I don't like thin. Thin is not attractive, it has no shape. Thin is blah," she says in one, gasping, breath. And then smiles.
The goal is health. For herself, her clients, and anyone, in essence that crosses her way.
"I don't want osteoporosis. I don't want to shrink. I'm short enough," she laughs. "I don't want to be 50 or 60 and hobbling around. Yes I want to look good - who doesn't? But I do not want to do it to impress the people. I want to do it for me. I want to do it to stay fit and healthy. The stronger you are, the more longevity you have -- it's a fact."
It is what she wants for herself, and it is what she would like to pass on to her clients.
"If you can help someone achieve that feeling of 'I want to take care of myself for the rest of my life', it is the best thing you can do for someone," she shares. "And it goes far beyond arms looking good or a six pack. I have clients that will never have that, but so what. They are healthier, and enjoying things they thought had left them. Fitness has become an integral part of their lifestyles. They now schedule things around their training. Do I think that is obsessive? Absolutely not. I think it's phenomenal, because they are choosing to take care of their health."
Her role has been key, and her support pivotal to the change in perspective. Her reach, however, does not over-ride her perception of herself. She knows what she is, what she can do, and where and when it is time to draw the line.
"You have to be very careful," she says, leaning slightly forward in her black leather office chair. "I've been trained as a personal trainer and nutritionist. Part of my training is to try to get information out of people. Yes, I can help people in a secondary manner and steer them towards professionals I think may help them. But you need to know your own limitations, and you cannot juggle with people's mental health -- you just can't. I'm a nutritionist, not a nutrition therapist."
Nor a therapist, for that matter. But when Grant gets on with her job, clients, it seems, can't help but open up.
On a typically busy weekend morning at Gold's Gym, Maadi -- where she is aerobics director, nutrition consultant, personal trainer, and soon-to-be- educational director -- her presence is impossible to miss. She laughs, and jokes, and laughs more with almost every single client that comes her way. Or not, for that matter. People seek her out. With questions, concerns, crises, or simply, just to chat.
"I never thought people would be so responsive to the way I train," she says, repositioning herself in her chair. "But they respond the way they do because I train from the heart. I don't train them as a 'trainer,' because I don't train them as 'a client.' Everyone is an individual and they should be treated as such. Just because I train you one way, it doesn't mean it will work with another person. If you fall into that," she warns, "then you fall into trouble."
That is not to say that things click every single time. Grant is good. Very good. In fact, people call her great at what she does. But she isn't perfect. And she knows it.
"You think I was the best personal trainer for every person that came my way," she says, her voice changing to laugh-stern tone. "No, I am absolutely not. I've had my disappointments shall we say, where I haven't been able to connect [with the client]. And I take that as a personal failure. But more importantly, I need to take it as a learning experience. I passed that client on to a fellow professional, because at the end of the day, they deserve the best -- every person does. I may be the best personal trainer in Africa, but maybe not with that person. And it doesn't mean they are at fault. They still deserve the best, and the best I can do for them is pass them on to someone that can help them better than me."
Smart move, it seems.
"I still see this woman," she says, referring to her disconnected client case. "And she's having a much better time, and so I feel I did something good for her. She was appreciative of me, but she never walked away with that kick in her step. Now she does."
That kick, Grant believes, is a critical part of life.
"Too often people forget the fun element of it," she says. Her eyes widen, her left hand moves swiftly through her reddish-blond hair. She puts her container of pasta salad on her desk -- collaged with a collection of fitness magazines, articles, and papers -- and continues. "You have to have fun with training," she urges. "I like to laugh. It should be an enjoyable experience, not torture."
Although torture sometimes works for the woman nicknamed by one of her few male clients as "Mistress Pain."
"Torture is pleasing at times!" she laughs.
She is serious.
"But you can only push your clients to the max -- that point at which they don't think they can take it anymore -- if you are willing to push yourself that far and more. Because you have to know how it feels. I've trained the top squash player in the country [Ahmed Barada]. I don't play squash. I don't know what it feels like. But I do know how if feels to be so exhausted: to have worked your legs so hard that they shake."
She also knows how it feels to be 20 kilos overweight, to feel like you have gained 10 kilos seemingly overnight, and to have reached a certain level of fitness, and then lost it. It is because of this that her training comes straight from the heart.
"I like training women because I feel I can connect with them." Her eyebrow digs deep towards her eyes. The frown of concern, and deep contemplation about the mind and its force. "I know what it's like to look in the mirror and feel like zift (hell), believe you look like zift, and that directs your whole being. Your existence. I know."
Her Arabic is good. Her accent is good. She has been in the country ten years now, and her colleagues say that "khalas (finished)," she is Egyptian.
"I tell people I'm Egyptian, from Shubra," she laughs. "It really confuses them, because I insist."
The theory of enjoyment is one Grant applies to life as a whole. Especially when it comes to food.
"Why is it that if you eat a piece of chocolate one has failed? If you want chocolate every day, go ahead, but just account for it. You need carbs, you need protein, and you need fat. Just make sure what you're getting from the chocolate is calculated into your daily intake. And you may not even need it every day. I have a client, every time she eats something she thinks is 'not right' she has a guilt trip. It was a holiday, she was at a party, and she ate a slice of cake," Grant says. "She was in a state! I don't care if she ate the whole cake, let alone one slice. Because there is something called life."
It is because she believes so fervently in this thing called life -- and living it to the fullest -- that the British-born, Egypt-cultured powerhouse works in the way that she does. From the inside out, in simple terms. When you can accept the person you are, then everything else falls in place, she says. And when the inside is strong, then you can be strong on the outside.
"It's the Far Eastern philosophy," she says. "That strength comes from within. And that's how I like to work, from the inside out."
The inside, for the most part, begins with the mind.
"If there's one thing I could give to a client, it would be knowledge," she says. "Because once you have knowledge, you can never go back to where you were in the same way. You can digress and regress, but never in the same way, because you have knowledge now, and so you know what you are doing."
Be it combat training, step aerobics, an abdominal class or spinning, Grant's mouth is consistently on the go.
"Please," she calls out in one of her morning classes, "listen to your body. Don't compromise your back. Focus on this," she says, placing her hand on her abdomen. "This is what will support you."
Safety is one of Grant's key concerns -- another part of the parcel of knowledge. It goes in tandem with caring for one's own well-being; the mind, organs, body, and soul. It is this sharing of information, and the passion with which she does it, which has propelled many glum faces, slowly, to glow.
"It doesn't happen overnight," she cautions matter- of-factly. "But somewhere along the line, you catch sight of yourself -- in a mirror or shop window -- and you don't think 'yuck,' you simply just catch sight of yourself. And it's not a matter of indifference, but of acceptance. And it's from that point on, that you can begin to move forward."
It is a tough thing to tackle when it comes to women and weight. But, her clients say, she has worked wonders. And like with all else, it stems from within -- herself.
"I don't have a scale," she begins. "I do not possess one and never intend to. The words 'weight loss' send shivers down my spine. So does the word diet," she says, her face screwing up in mental allergy from the treacherous terms. "How much we weigh is not as relevant as we think. Just get yourself a tape measure. I weigh people once every three weeks. You could be two kilos extra, and psychologically that can be very damaging. But I had a woman that lost just three kilos in two months. But she lost about 12 centimetres. She had gained muscle, which takes up less space and burns fat, but weighs more[hence the minimal scale change]."
Conquering the need to check in with the number on the scale -- sometimes four, five, or even eight and nine times a day -- instills immense satisfaction in this personal trainer.
"People are too obsessed with weight. And I'm talking about weight as a number rather than the way they look," she explains. "And it's a great thing when people walk into my office one, two, six months later, get on the scale, have just lost a kilo or two, but they get off with a big smile. It means that they have taken the knowledge, internalised, and accepted it."
Grant weighs 59 kilos. She stands at 5ft6. Most women in her shoes would say they 'need' to be 50, or 55, kilos. To her, it makes no difference.
"I train with weights," she says. "Heavy weights. My concern is body composition. One could weigh 50 kilos and have 35 per cent body fat. Or they could weigh 54 kilos and have a percentage body fat of just 20, for example. Who do you think would look better?"
The 'heavyweight,' so to speak. The extra weight, knowledge enlightens, is muscle. And muscle, it is common knowledge, weighs more than fat.
To her, ultimately, it is about how she feels. Something she strives to pass on to her clients. Judging by popular client opinion, the weight training -- which increases lean muscle mass and ultimately burns fat -- has worked wonders on the minds of both men and women who have put their fates at the hands of Mistress Pain. And while at times they cannot feel their biceps, or triceps, or legs, because they have gone numb from exhaustion, they are quick to return to her for more. For many reasons.
"I'm very lucky," she says of her clientele, "I really like all the people I'm working with. A couple have become very good friends, but you still have to keep the client-personal trainer relationship and never overstep the line."
But it is the 'personal' part of being a trainer that makes Grant who and what she is.
"Not all personal trainers connect to their clients, because," she explains, "some personal trainers just 'train.' Some are very good trainers, and they can whip you into shape. It doesn't make one personal trainer better than the other. Not at all."
Grant-style training, may, at times, be that much harder on the client. Partly because of the sense of "obligation" to work hard, persevere, and give their training programme absolutely every ounce of everything they have in them; and partly, time has told, because a connection like that is so hard to break. When Grant made the decision to move to a gym across town several months ago, a line of women came to her office in tears. She was moving 20 minutes across the city, and her clients couldn't bear the thought. She had opted for the shift for educational purposes -- moving to a place where she felt she had new things to learn. Her clients' responses, however, made her change her mind. And now, the hard part falls on her.
"Because of where I work, I train lots of foreign women, which means I have to say a lot of good-byes," she says, dazed, falling quietly into the memories in the archives of her mind. "It's tough, but that's life. People move on. But they keep in touch," she says, as if in consolation for herself. "And it's nice to know that at least they walk away with knowledge."
It is her unwavering commitment to educating herself -- continuously -- and educating those around her, which has pushed Grant onto the fitness platform on which she currently stands. She is in demand around the country -- and most recently, she was selected to co-head the first International Sports Science Association centers (ISSA) in the region -- a US-founded association that educates fitness professionals in all areas of the field.
"Knowledge is the foundation of any growth or changes," she says, "I've seen someone literally grow in inches because now she can actually stand up -- she's not trying to hide herself anymore because she's started to acknowledge who she is -- which is a great person," she continues of what she calls her most "profound" experience with a client. "And she's been forced to face her past and its link to her nutritional issues -- an eating disorder. And now she's moved on from her cardio obsession because it burnt calories, to putting it in its place as a fitness tool. Before it was, 'I feel fat because I haven't done cardio,' now, its 'I feel bad, my level of cardio -- fitness level -- has dropped.' And it has taken less than a year," she continues. The pure joy -- for the client rather than herself -- shines on her face. And the passion, as always, jumps out of her eyes, her hands, and her posture. She leans forward. "And although the scale is still an obsession, it has shifted. At least there is a question now: two kilos more, but let's work out what it is. Is it muscle? That's huge."
It is huge to anyone that has been there and knows what it feels like to be caught in the vicious cycle of food and weight and any obsession, for that matter. And when you think about it, it is "huge" too, that a person can be lifted out of their weight-dictated doldrums and finally, 10 years later, begin to face life.
"To see someone turn around like that is the most incredible thing," she says. "At the start you have someone in front of you who openly tells you 'I have an eating disorder' -- and you sense that it is the hardest thing they have said in the past 10 years. It puts a hell of a lot of responsibility on you as a person, a trainer, nutritionist, confidant."
It seems like a vast task, and vast responsibility. But surely, many assume, it should not be so hard if these people are choosing to help themselves.
"You assume they must want to help themselves, or else, why did they bother coming to you? But how long have they been wanting to help themselves?"
She has a point. Everyone's diet, after all, begins on Monday. And while time, care and commitment may be the perfect partners to a client or friend's desire to change, it takes a genuine belief in the person, their worth, and a resolute dedication to helping the person change, to push them up to the next level of life. That first baby step, in Grant's eyes, is the best definition of success.
"It's seeing someone move from coming to you because they want you to help them, to coming to you because they are willing to help themselves, to coming to you because they are ready to move on," she says. "People with eating disorders come to you with as much nutrition knowledge as you, and more," she continues. "I saw this person start with baby steps, and then take leaps. And they may have taken steps backwards, or sideways, but to see someone standing up now straighter, and listening to the way they talk about their perception of other people's bodies. It's..." she pauses. "It's just..." she pauses again. She is speechless, it seems. Watching the growth, it is obvious, has been an overwhelming experience.
This young woman, Grant shares, may be heavier -- on the scale -- than the first day she walked through the doors of the gym, but her mindset is different, her attitude is different, and her perspective of herself, her life, and life as a whole, has taken on an entirely new face. And on top of all that, her weight training and reformed cardio attitude have helped her become leaner, tighter and more sculpted.
"People in the gym come to me and tell me they want to look like her," she says. "She used to just be alive," she continues. "Now she's really living. If you can do that for just one person in your life, it is worth your existence. You've helped, in some small way, bring someone back to life."
It is this giving of life, in essence, which serves as the fuel for her own.
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