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Mermaid with a shark’s instinct

Just four years ago, Pooja Arora started out as Fit Mermaids online, she now runs ‘Shape Up With Pooja’.


From an overweight young mother (85 kg) to an ACE-certified Health Coach and Personal Trainer, Bangalore-based Pooja Arora has worked against her injuries and defied inertia to train in Aqua Aerobics, which has resulted in her current 54-kg fit form. It also encouraged her to help others lose weight and train in water.

Q: Let us begin at the very beginning. How did your tryst with fitness happen?
I was always an overweight girl, what with the Punjabi habit of parathas with butter, other milk-based products, and even more parathas! Fortunately, I never had a complex about it, in school or in college. I never participated in sports, but I loved dancing. Then, as I approached marriage, I went on a crash diet to lose some weight.

Q: And what do you mean by “crash diet”?
For nearly three years I used to regularly skip meals and hardly eat much. I had no idea about nutrition or exercising. All I wanted to do was lose some weight, and I managed some too!

Q: Didn’t you try out weight-loss programmes?
Oh sure, I did. But I was never convinced that machines could help you do that. People running these programmes have no idea about dieting, exercising, nutrition, lifestyle changes. They promised me the moon, yet delivered nothing. They cannot differentiate between muscle mass and fat! Now that I am a certified health coach and fitness instructor, I realise they exploit people who are not aware of the concepts of fitness; they promise to help people shed weight without working for it!

Q: What after marriage?
I put on weight, sure enough! During my pregnancy and motherhood I couldn’t resort to crash dieting. That is when I weighed in at 85 kg. Eight years ago, we were on a vacation in Ooty when I had a bad fall. I tore a ligament in my knee, which required surgery. I was told I could no longer sit cross-legged, or squat, or run. I was even warned I might develop osteoarthritis...

Q: How did you feel then?
That was my wake-up call! I realised I wanted to be an active mom to my daughter, then just over a year old. So I began exercising with a vengeance, mainly running. Obviously, I hurt myself again. And so it was back to the orthopaedic, who recommended aqua therapy.

As soon as I recovered, I joined a gym. My instructor was a football coach, who focused almost entirely on the treadmill! I began searching online for alternatives and learnt many variations and routines. But every few months I injured myself – not just the knee, but also my shoulder, then ankle, even my tailbone – and continued to visit my orthopaedic regularly.

Q: Did it never strike you that you were probably not getting it right?
My recurrent injuries forced me to look at educating myself. ACE (American Council on Exercise) was a well-know option, but I didn’t take it up then.

Q: So when did the tide turn?
Over two years, I had lost some weight, training six days a week on elipticals in a Bangalore gym and eating three typically Indian meals each day. Since I had been into some amount of hydro-therapy for my injuries, I looked at FISAF (Federation of International Sports, Aerobics and Fitness) in Singapore. I had a valid visa, so I ended up doing a 5-day core course, followed by a 5-day Aqua Instructor’s course in 2012.

Pooja with her group, which calls her ‘Mermaid on the deck, shark in the water’.

Q: And you didn’t stop at that!
The core course and aqua training was amazing! I lost a lot of weight and became stronger, fitter. I learnt a lot, but wanted to be better prepared to teach. Moreover, as an instructor I could not have scheduled diets to anyone. So I followed it up with ACE certifications as a Health Coach and Personal Trainer. I rounded that up with workshops in kettlebell, functional training and Pilates.

I even did a CrossFit workshop: believe me, it is killing! It is great for well-conditioned bodies; but I see a lot of overweight and unfit people out there injuring themselves regularly, sometimes seriously.

Q: How did teaching come about?
I had already been through a lot and wanted to help others. I launched a group on FaceBook, Fit Mermaids, and soon got a lot of hits. There were requests – mainly for weight loss, but also for other complications – to teach them aqua aerobics. I scouted around for pools and came across two: one in Whitefield and another in Indiranagar.

There was no looking back after that. I now operate from my FaceBook page, ‘Shape Up With Pooja’. I have two batches per pool, six days a week, each with a minimum of 20 people!

Q: What type of people have you trained? What are their goals?
I have had someone in her teens to those touching 70. I have had pregnant women too: the only exercises they shouldn’t attempt – again depending on their state of fitness – is stomach crunches and high leg raises. Most seek weight loss, but there are many youngsters who look to getting fitter.

Pooja with her daughter, an overweight mother.

Q: Could you explain “getting fitter”?
Yes, there are those that go to gyms regularly, participate in athletics and competitive sports regularly. They want to up the physical challenge, and they are surprised at how difficult it is to work out in water. We do Tabata training: high-intensity interval workouts. There are 40 seconds of very high-intensity workouts, followed by 20-second slow-downs, back to high-intensity mode, till you complete 20-odd repetitions.

Q: What is the best compliment you have received yet from your clients?
My clients swearing at me, because I make them work hard! Some of them call me a “mermaid on the deck, but a (killer) shark in water”.

Q: Has anyone ever hit on you during training? How do you handle it?
I believe people will treat you the way you want them to. Yes, in a pool, many are very body-conscious, but more in a shy way.

As a coach, you have to lay down a few rules, lead the class and not let it lapse into idle talk or loose banter. In the end, though, your clients give you a lot of love and respect because you have helped them show the results they dreamt of.

Pooja has completed workshops in Pilates, kettlebells and even CrossFit. She also holds summer boot camps.

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