ProductiveMuslim caught up with Zarah Choudhury-Alani, an inspiring Muslim woman who started a life-changing journey to reclaim her health and fitness when she finally decided that she had had enough of being overweight; and who is today an inspiration to thousands through her Zarah’s Now or Never fitness and health program.
Zarah currently has over 20k+ followers, which she reached within just a year and a half, ma sha Allah. But Zarah’s transformation sure didn’t start off with the intention of making her story the inspiration it is to so many today. So we asked her to tell us her secrets of what made her take that first difficult step towards weight loss and stay motivated, and how she maintains her fitness and new healthy lifestyle.
1. You have helped so many women through your Zarah’s Now or Never (ZNON) fitness program. Please tell us what convinced you to lead a healthy lifestyle, and what inspired you to turn it into a fitness program?
When I reached my highest weight of 175lbs (80 kgs), I felt so unhealthy, insecure, and depressed most of the time because I personally didn’t feel good about myself. I realized that I was only getting older with each day that passes me by. That’s when I decided to stop and start. Start a habit to gradually change myself, to bring self-betterment and to achieve what I had already established within my mind and heart. I was on a mission to succeed. I held on to my faith that, in sha Allah, I was going to loss my excess weight, and that I would get through it.
When I did finally accomplish my goal, that’s when people started coming to me, asking me what I was doing and if I could help them. So, I happily shared. That’s how ZNON began. I started a public Facebook page called Zarah’s Now Or Never. It’s a weight loss page that encourages women to lose weight through clean eating and daily exercise, for good health and improved appearance.
I didn’t want others to be alone like I was, so my very first group on Facebook was made to help women around the world, regardless of race or religion. It started off with a handful of women, but then it expanded to three separate groups to handle the huge numbers to keep my members’ privacy protected and safe. These large groups, consisting of 5,000+ members that I coached on Facebook were very successful, where over 430 women lost weight with ZNON within a year, Alhamdulillah. I was humbled and wanted to continue further offering more help.Eventually it was wasn’t really organised, having huge groups without a professional platform.
That’s when I decided to create an all women’s website. A place that will cater to the needs of women, from detailed diet plans to professional workout videos. Women need a place to enhance ourselves without being in the eyes of public. It was important to create a place where women can freely enjoy other women’s company and work towards self-betterment.
Early on in my journey, I realized how crucial it was to not only loose excess weight but get fit, as one could face loose skin and a saggy body while losing weight. So, I joined the gym even though I was very nervous, insecure, and out of shape. But He paves the road for us. From working out daily, I discovered a passion to get fit and to do it the proper way to achieve great results. People mocked me at times, since they thought a then 34-year old mother of two could never attain a toned body.
I shunned away all negativities and went in to Collin College in Plano, Texas, and signed up to become a certified personal trainer. That’s when I fell in love with the fitness world. Using my knowledge and skills, I started fitness classes for the women in my community, training a huge group of women at the Plano masjid in Dallas for over a year. It was a great and humbling experience. It exposed me to women from various health backgrounds and ages, from their early teens to the elderly.
There was a huge demand for awareness on what to eat and how to burn calories effectively and in healthy way, etc. It was important to help guide people towards proper exercise and that’s when I hired a video team to shoot professional workout videos catered for women on my website. Those videos are not on YouTube and are not allowed to be anywhere public as I’m not comfortable to perform many exercise positions publicly. Therefore, they are only on my website. They target all the areas that are of high concerns for women. Although, I did do a cardio video that is free for all women around the world to benefit from. It’s called “Run with Zarah” on YouTube and Dailymotion. It was done right before Ramadan 2014 for women to benefit from, as it is difficult to go to the gym during Ramadan due to fasting and prayer obligations. I just wanted to make it easy for stay-at-home-mothers to get their intense cardio workout in the comfort of their own homes.
Also found on my website are detailed diet plans and fitness plans for overweight women. There’s sample meal plans, juicing recipes, a fruits and vegetables dictionary so you don’t have to leave the site to search calories per each fruit etc., a BMI calculator to determine how much body fat you have and what your normal range should be, a health and fitness journal section, and a section for makeup and fashion.
2. What are some of the challenges you faced in the beginning, and what can those who want to start their weight loss journey learn from them?
When I started my journey I had zero support, not knowing where to start and what to do. I just kept googling, self-experimenting, trying various methods until I discovered my main key to weight loss: 15oz (approximately two glasses) of green tea at room temperature, before the consumption of any meal or snack. I started off with 8oz and realized the tummy fills up with 15oz or more. Therefore, there is less room to eat afterwards and forces one to practice portion control.
The most important thing to weight loss is a calorie deficit. There’s no way around it. Start incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your daily routine, which are not only low in calories, but very nutritional and beneficial for you. Start with salads and a brisk walk for 30 minutes a day. If you are at the gym, try the elliptical for 30 minutes per day. It is recommended that one should burn at least 500 calories per day through cardio workout.
3. Although there are many things one can do to get fit, what are the most effective tips you would recommend for someone who is just starting out on a fitness journey?
Here are some detailed tips to help you start and stay motivated during your weight-loss journey:
Start Your Journey Now!
Beginning a healthy diet to lose weight and improve your fitness is a goal you should start working on now, even though it can be a bit overwhelming. There are bound to be challenges whenever you start something new, especially when it involves something you do several times each day – like eating and drinking. Still, as long as you don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to change everything at once, you can meet your weight-loss goals. Learn some secrets from those who have lost weight and, more importantly, kept it off. After all, what good is losing the extra weight if you gain it right back?
Follow Healthy Eating
Make a healthy eating plan that includes foods you enjoy along with plenty of healthy, not-too-processed foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean meats, seafood, beans, and nuts. Thanks to their ability to satisfy, these low-calorie foods will actually help you stick to your diet. The most satisfying foods have lots of fiber (like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts) and/or low-fat protein (found in meat, fish, dairy, and soy). Ideally, you’ll slowly wean yourself off your favorite foods that are high in fat or calories, and replace them with more nutritious options.
Take Baby Steps
Change is hard. Making small, gradual changes in your eating patterns is the best way to overhaul your diet. Some experts suggest making just one change each week, to give you time to get used to the new behavior. Your ultimate goal is to establish new eating habits that can be sustained for a lifetime. An excellent way to start is to stock your cupboards and refrigerator with healthy foods, and plan to prepare healthier meals at home.
Set Realistic Goals
Most people who need to lose weight set lofty goals, dreaming of fitting into clothing sizes that may not be realistic for them. Yet losing as little as 5% to 10% of your body weight can improve the way you feel, put a skip in your step, and, most importantly, improve your health. Studies show that losing even small amounts of weight can improve overall health and, specifically, lower blood pressure, and blood sugar and cholesterol levels.
Set weight loss goals that are attainable, and keep in mind that the recommended rate of weight loss is only 1-2 pounds per week. Slow and steady wins this race. It takes time to learn new eating habits that will last for the rest of your life. Don’t be too hard on yourself. We all have different body types and shed/ burn calories differently. Just be persistent and don’t let a day go by wasted. Each day counts. It does matter what we put into our bodies. Don’t leave room for regrets. What you couldn’t achieve yesterday, get it done today. Don’t just think about losing weight and looking great, go for it!
Here are some of the things I did when I started my weight loss journey, a year and a half ago:
Weight-Loss Food and Meals
Fruits and veggies are great! However, during my weight loss journey, I avoided eating potatoes, avocados, mangos, and any high calorie/sugary fruits or veggies.
1) The Key – Green tea: If you can drink 15 oz decaf green tea without sugar before any meal, you’ll notice wonders within a week.
Green tea can be more frequently consumed throughout the day such as up to 10 cups in a day. That’s when I divided my daily consumption into 3 glasses consisting of 15oz per day. Green tea is just like regular tea just slightly less processed.
Thousands of women have tried green tea and witnessed great benefits, although it depends on an individual and how they are balancing their daily food and beverage intake.
According to a study by Harvard University, under Harvard Health Publications, there’s no negative side effects when drinking green tea. Though it has caffeine content, it is nowhere close to the caffeine content found in coffee. But since we all come from various health backgrounds and our bodies react to foods differently from one another, any change in diet should be first consulted with a doctor who knows your health history thoroughly.
2) Breakfast: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It is proven that those who eat a proportionally balanced nutritional breakfast tend to make healthier choices throughout their day. It is also recommended to have proteins such as eggs for breakfast.
Having proteins earlier in the day gives your body more energy and you feel fuller for a longer period. This avoids grabbing unnecessary snacks afterwards. But that doesn’t mean eat 3 eggs or fried eggs drenched in oil and butter, etc. Practice moderation and portion control even in regards to healthy food options.
Many studies, in both adults and children, have shown that breakfast eaters tend to weigh less than breakfast skippers.
Why? Well, one theory suggests that eating a healthy breakfast can reduce hunger throughout the day, and help people make better food choices at other meals. While it might seem you could save calories by skipping breakfast, this is not an effective strategy. Typically, hunger gets the best of breakfast-skippers, and they eat more at lunch and throughout the day.
When we have liquid weekly challenges in ZNON, one should still enjoy their breakfast and then continue on liquids for the remainder of the day.
Preferring a small breakfast, I drink 15 oz water, then my morning coffee with a handful of nuts or a banana. My coffee’s made with 8 oz fat free organic milk, 1 tsp instant coffee, and 2 teaspoon raw sugar, making the meal around 400 calories. The benefits are still good as it’s nutritional with the milk and nuts consumption.
Oatmeal is also highly recommended. After shedding a huge amount of weight, I started eating oatmeal for breakfast followed by tea/coffee. Instead of 1 cup, I would have 1/2 cup oatmeal cooked in 1 cup milk and chop 1 banana into my bowl, always practicing portion control.
There’s a difference between ‘losing weight’ and ‘maintaining weight’. Therefore, the breakfast options of the two can’t be the same if you’re looking for results.
3) Snack, if hungry before lunch: After 15 oz of water, a cucumber or a glass of fresh carrot juice by Bolthouse.
4) Lunch: 15 oz green tea, steamed veggies and salads with grilled chicken pieces, lentils, or beans on top.
5) Snack: Carrots, greek yogurt or fruits.
6) Dinner: I stop eating 4 hours before bed and stop drinking water or any liquids 1 hour before bed. Dinner was always very light for me. Steamed broccoli salad or raw veggies juiced, with either beans or grilled chicken to my salads.
Exercise is an absolute must for weight Loss.
Cardio, Cardio, Cardio! Run! Walk! Anything! As long as you remain active and off the couch. You can’t expect a great body by sitting around. You need to labor for it. Nothing great comes easily. It must be worked for. In order to achieve what you want, you must leave the comfort zone. You can’t expect to reach great heights by making compromises for your taste buds all the time.
You decide what is more important to you: moments of pleasure or years of misery? It’s very easy to eat the wrong foods, but extremely hard to burn it off through hours of labor at the gym. We are only getting older each day. If you don’t change now, when will you? Don’t just long to look great, work for it and go get it. What you couldn’t accomplish yesterday, do it now! Very soon, not only will your mirror compliment you, but your organs will thank you as well.
4. Many people give up early when they don’t see results. What motivates you to stick to exercising and eating healthy regularly?
What motivates me to keep going is seeing the positive changes that weight loss and fitness brought into my life. I am more energetic and hardly sit idle doing nothing. I am also more active with my kids when we are outdoors. Honestly, the most important thing that keeps me going is seeing the 10 years taken off my appearance. Alhamdulillah that itself is such a blessing to keep me motivated to continue with this healthy journey.
5. Basic obligations to our own bodies sometimes get neglected, as we can’t seem to find the time to fit them into our busy schedules. What is a typical day for you?
I always try to balance myself throughout the day. That can only be possible with proper sleep. I try to finish all that I’m working on, whether it’s business or my son’s homework/Qur’an practice, at specific times, then shower and have dinner, after which I put both of my kids to sleep. Then, after completing any other work, I also sleep right away. That way, along with my kids, I also get a good night’s sleep, so I can be more efficient and productive throughout the day.
Here’s a scenario of what my day is like:
I wake up and pray Fajr, then make breakfast for the kids. I wake them one by one, while getting things ready at the breakfast table. After dropping my son to school, I return home with my daughter, play with her and give her fun activities to do while I start working. From massive correspondence via email to Facebook messages, tags, posts, I try to reply to everyone as best as I can.
At times I get exhausted and feel like quitting. But then I think of all the thousands of women that need help to change their lifestyles to much healthier, happier ones. They have become a very important part of my life, and now it’s they who keep me going.
Then I pray Dhuhr, cook and clean if required, before heading out to pick up my son from school. I bring him home and have 1 hour to quickly feed him, get him bathed and changed for his hifz class. When I drop him to his Qur’an class, I take that hour to do grocery shopping or run errands. Afterwards, we come home so I can pray Asr and have my son complete his homework and then we all head out to the gym. I’ve enrolled my kids in the kids club at the gym so I can workout a full hour while my kids are having a great time. Once we return from the gym, I shower, pray and then allow them TV/video games/play time. Then I shower both, feed them dinner, FaceTime their dad and off to bed!
That’s a typical day for me.
6. It can be demanding to juggle the various family, work, social and spiritual responsibilities. How do you balance all the different roles in your life?
There has to be a balance in life. Only an individual will know what their priorities are and how to balance them.
My life revolves around my kids and family. So, everything else must come second around their schedule. I have established a routine that works for me, where I work in the morning hours because I have the most energy at that time to get my projects completed. I also homeschool my four year old daughter and dedicate certain hours to her. I randomly take time outs and drop everything just to give a few minutes of undivided attention to my kids by wrestling with them or just fooling around making them laugh.
Prayer to me is like an essential thing that you cannot go without. My day is naturally planned around the prayer times, so I try to perform them promptly, Alhamdulillah. Of course, I do wish to spend more time in prayer and pray that He brings me closer to Him each day. It is an ongoing battle with my inner self and I struggle daily to maintain equilibrium.
That was Zarah Choudhury-Alani’s life-changing fitness journey and we pray that Allah rewards her for sharing it with us and grants her immense success, Aameen! Click [here] to download the Monthly Weight Loss Planner Zarah has provided for ProductiveMuslim readers.
About the Author
Zarah Choudhury-Alani is a certified personal fitness trainer and founder of ZarahsNowOrNever.com, a weight-loss and fitness website for women. You can also find her on Facebook.