The moment I realised I needed to get stronger

Comments about being weak and one taxing kayak session made writer Faima Bakar realise she needed to get stronger. This is how she’s been working towards that goal.

There’s a word my mum calls me in Bengali: norom. It means ‘soft’. It’s the word you’d use to describe a cake, a pillow or skin. When she calls me that, what she really means is weak. I don’t know where she got this idea from (maybe she’s simply projecting), but for years I internalised that sentiment. I felt weak. 

I can’t really lift heavy things without my arms getting tired, and I’m never the first to be called upon if something heavy needs moving. Even my 18-year-old sister, who likes to wrestle with me, says I can’t put up a good fight. I’m not the strongest person, and up until recently, that was fine. Until it wasn’t.

The change came while on a trip to the Azores, an archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. During an excursion to the pristine lakes of the Sete Cidades, we were given the option to go bike-riding and/or kayaking. Among the cyclists, I was the slowest (I can ride a bike, but London’s dizzyingly fast driving tends to put me off doing it regularly), so I opted to finish cycling early and try kayaking instead. No one else in my group wanted to do it, so I went to base camp by myself and grabbed a kayak.

At first, the cold waters of the lake splashing against my hot skin felt so good. I had the kayak under control and was drifting smoothly along as I was instructed to. On the way back, however, the winds picked up and kept propelling my kayak away from the shore I was trying to get to. Every time I tried to row right, the wind knocked me left. I’d never felt weaker.

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Eventually, my arms got tired and I resigned myself to letting the kayak drift where it wanted. I ended up at another kayak company’s quarters and tried to plead with them to accept my vessel so I could walk the rest of the journey. But the man there insisted I should try to paddle the boat back to its actual home. 

Reluctantly, I headed back into the lake. The winds didn’t relent and I felt tired, frustrated and – unsurprisingly – weak. Why couldn’t I move as fast or effortlessly as other people? Why was I so uncomfortable in myself? How could I be so weak? I burst into tears and grunted loudly, unashamed, as I brought myself, and the kayak I had begun to hate, back to the dock. 

That was the moment I realised I needed to get stronger and fitter. I knew that even a much stronger person would struggle against the wind, but I hated the way I felt about myself at that moment. 

Cycling felt tough on that trip, so I decided to go kayaking instead – and that’s when I had my fitness eureka moment.

Where to start when you know you need to get fitter

Set realistic goals that you know you can achieve

I knew I had to set realistic goals in order to become fitter – not feeling too out of breath after climbing a flight of stairs, for example. I began by increasing my step count, which was difficult at first as I’ve been working from home for nearly three years; there’s not always a reason for me to leave the house. 

Morning walks didn’t work for me – I’d rather snooze than force myself to walk. But lunchtime walks to the park or supermarket to pick up my grocery shopping worked just fine. After work, I started walking to the gym, and if I hadn’t reached my 10,000 steps by that point, I’d hop on the treadmill and walk to that goal. 

Choose beginner workouts

I also started watching beginner strength training videos, learning about targeted muscle workouts and compound movements. I didn’t want to build muscle per se, but lifting lighter weights and getting used to moving my body weight felt important. I knew that the next time I found myself trying a new activity, strength training would make it less of an issue. 

Understand your hormones or particular health challenges

Ironically, the week I started strength training, I also got my first period in six months. I have PCOS, so irregular periods are something I’m all too accustomed to. But six months without a drop of blood felt long, even for me. 

PCOS is a constant battle – I don’t know what’s happening with my hormones half the time or when my next period will be. But it’s something I am trying to learn more about. It feels like the medical industry doesn’t always know what advice to give to the one in every 10 women who experience this condition, so I’m using this opportunity to take a holistic approach to learning about my body. 

Fundamentally, deciding to get stronger has meant prioritising my physical, mental and emotional health for the first time. There might be moments when I don’t feel totally in tune with my body and, as a brown woman in a world with ever-changing beauty ideals, that might be more often than not. But this is constant, daily and consistent work. I’ve stuck to some of the fitness goals I’ve set myself, so now, the challenge is to keep going. I know I’ll gradually get stronger and chip away at that norom label.

Images: Getty/authors’ own

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