This South Asian Exercise Coach Is Challenging the “One-Size-Fits-All” Approach to Women’s Fitness

Hina Laeeque coaches South Asian women and champions ethnicity-specific recommendations for movement, nutrition and disease prevention.

For the most part, Edmonton-based Hina Laeeque has lived a fairly conventional life. She went to university, built a successful career in health care, got married and had kids. But in 2016, at the age of 36, Laeeque felt unhappy and irritable, and it was affecting her marriage. She had never really been into fitness growing up, but she thought exercise could help. Going to the gym after work was a struggle, so she started a home-based DVD workout program instead. After three weeks, she was hooked: Both her mood and her home life improved.

“I have never felt better. I got in the best shape of my life,” she says. “I remember thinking every woman needs to feel like this.” Laeeque decided she wanted other women like her to experience the same benefits, and became a certified CanFitPro personal trainer.

There was no roadmap for someone who looked like her. There are few South Asian women in the fitness industry, and even fewer catering to the unique body types, cultural barriers and health challenges faced by South Asian women. This is what motivated Laeeque to launch her (mostly virtual) coaching business, called Empowered Fitness, specifically to help busy South Asian women meet their exercise and nutrition goals, as well as change their mindset around physical activity. We asked her to tell us all about her experiences in the fitness industry.

How are South Asian women excluded from fitness?

It starts really early. One day, when I was in Grade 5, I stumbled upon a morning aerobics program on TV, and I started doing it before school with my little sister. I remember feeling good and being super excited about it, so I went to school and told a friend about it. She said, “Why would you bother? You’re brown—you’ll never have abs.” I really believed her, and thought, ‘I guess brown people can’t get fit.’ As South Asians, my parents really encouraged education, so that’s what I focused on instead.

How active were you growing up?

I was never athletic by any means — I was a bookish child. I specifically remember being the last person chosen for a team. But I grew up in a small town in northern Alberta, where there really wasn’t much to do but go outside and play, so that’s what we did, and we rode our bikes. And I’ve always been interested in athletes. I would watch them at the Olympics and think, Wow, they’re so incredible. So then I studied human biology at university because of my interest in fit people and how the human body functions. In the back of my mind, I think I always wanted to be like those athletes, but I felt that it wasn’t meant to be because of my background.

What made you pivot from your old career to being more fitness-focused?

Discovering a home-based workout program I loved really ignited a passion in me to show other women how they can still be a working mom or a stay-at-home mom, a wife, a friend—or whatever they choose to be—and also focus on filling up their cup. And I saw that this is a need in the community that I really want to help with. I got to the point where I realized this work was filling my cup more than my day job, so I quit to focus on my business full-time.

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Who are your typical clients?

Most of my clients are South Asian women between the ages of 30 to 60. Most of them come to me because they want to lose weight, maybe 20 pounds. These are mostly working women who are just kind of stuck—they have poured their life into either their careers or their children, and they know that it’s time to invest in themselves. When they see someone who looks like them who’s working out—a working mom who’s also doing the nine-to-five grind—they connect with that right away.

So representation really matters.

Yes, we don’t often see fit South Asian women on TV, movies or social media. It is slowly changing, but particularly when I was growing up, it wasn’t that way at all. When you see someone that looks like you doing things and achieving things that are out of the norm, you realize that it’s in the realm of possibility for you as well. We also need to encourage young girls to get into health and fitness just like we now encourage more girls to study science or engineering.

What body types, beauty norms, or social pressures are South Asian women contending with or fighting against?

I think many women have stories about comments they’ve received from older-generation individuals, or aunties, in their community who have made comments on their body or their body type. And that, along with what they see on TV, has led to body image issues among many women—even smart, intelligent ones who are now in their 30s and 40s. And being strong and more muscular is also seen as too manly.

Women can be afraid they’ll bulk up like a bodybuilder.

Yes, that’s a misconception. Lifting weights is essential to our long-term health; it’s actually one of the best anti-aging remedies out there. We lose muscle mass each year after about the age of 35, and definitely more after the age of 40. We want to make sure that we’re preventing that and lifting weights well before. It helps with so many things, whether it’s depression and anxiety, or building stronger bones, flexibility and preventing falls.

We really do need to change the narrative around what looks healthy and how to get healthy. So there is a lot of mindset work I do around what it means to be healthy, being fit and active in our community, and how to encourage healthy eating.

On the nutrition side of things, it really is a lot of coaching around what healthy eating looks like—eating whole foods that are nutrient-dense and reducing things that are fried or cooked heavily in oil. We can still eat our roti, naan and our carbs, but we also need to make sure we’re getting our chicken, fish, or vegan options for protein.

I think there’s still that stigma that we’re just not active. We love to socialize, and it’s often around food and sweets, which is a part of our culture, and I love that. It’s great for our mental health. I just try to change the narrative a bit, saying, ‘Well, we don’t always have to eat like that. And if we meet up, we don’t always have to have a huge, elaborate meal.’ That can be a challenge.

This can be tricky territory to talk about, but do you discuss about physiological, genetic and cultural differences with your clients?

Yes. There’s research that shows South Asian body types are different from those of Caucasians or Europeans. So we actually have less low, lean muscle mass and we carry fat differently—more so around our bellies. That means that we’re actually at higher risk for both heart disease and diabetes, and more so than any other ethnic group. Studies say we’re up to six to eight times more likely to have diabetes, and up to four times more at risk of heart disease compared to the general population. On top of this, we get heart disease about a decade earlier than the rest of the population.

That’s pretty grim.

Yes, it’s really alarming and something that our community needs to be aware of. It’s a factor that we can’t control, which is our ancestry, and then to make matters worse, according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, South Asians are more sedentary and we consume higher amounts of carbohydrates than non-South Asians in Canada. These are all risk factors for heart disease and diabetes.

Do you think more needs to be done to raise the alarm and create awareness about this?

Definitely—all of this highlights the need for ethnicity-specific recommendations in health and disease prevention. Right now the current recommendations for the general population are 150 minutes of exercise per week, but we have research that shows this is not sufficient for both male and female South Asians. A recent study found that South Asians actually need to exercise 20 minutes more a day than their European counterparts in order to have the same cardiovascular risk profile.

So I will always encourage my clients to get outside, get extra steps in and go for a walk. I don’t encourage high-intensity cardio like HIIT training all the time. But as a South Asian community, we need to be active—at a bare minimum—because of our high-risk profile. My clients typically spend an average of 40 minutes working out at a time, with two or three rest days. This is what’s doable—and sustainable—for busy, active people with families.

Next: I Need You to Know: Fitness Is Not One Size Fits All