He could only wear sandals as he could not find shoes big enough for his feet. He struggled to fit into most cars and when he did, he had to push the seat right back to an almost reclining position. Even walking was a challenge — the task would leave him breathless after just five minutes forcing him to rest. In aircraft, he had to request for an extension belt that would press tightly over his stomach while he struggled in the seat that was too small for his large hips. Shopping for clothes was a daunting experience that he avoided as often as he could.

Such was the life of Mohammad Al Qassimi when until two years ago, he tipped the scales at 235kg before he lost over 100kg by trading in his inactive, binge-eating lifestyle for a healthier one.

Watching the 26-year-old from Sharjah lift weights, cycle energetically on a bike machine and do other intense CrossFit exercises at the gym with his coach, it is hard to believe that just a couple of years ago he struggled to move.

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‘I was ridiculously heavy. I had an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in my left knee, a ligament problem. My knee would act up to the point where if I took the wrong step, it would give way and I wouldn’t be able to walk for a long time.’ And when he did walk, he would have a lot of out-of-breath moments. ‘I practically had no stamina,’ says Mohammad, taking a break from his workout at Dubai’s InnerFight gym, where he is a member.

Mohammad’s battles with weight gain began early in life, a result of bad food habits. ‘I was stuck on fast food early in my life, and growing up it just got worse,’ he says. ‘Burgers were my go-to meal.’

Mohammad struggled to move or even walk when he used to tip the scale at 235kg
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Addicted to sugar, he found it ‘a comfort [food] and I’d have a bag of Skittles a day’. Instead of water, he’d have soda — about five cans a day.

By 2013, and in college, Mohammad, who is 5ft3in (162cm), grew to 175kg.

Initially, he tried dieting and while he would succeed in shedding a few kilos, within days of quitting his diet, he’d put the weight right back on. ‘In college, I avoided fast food,’ he says. ‘I wasn’t addicted to it like I was in high school and went from having it daily to weekly, to once in a while.’

In 2014, Mohammad had a gastric balloon inserted in his stomach for about six months, which helped him lose around 15kg. However, when the balloon was removed, he promptly gained the weight again.

While his burger addiction was under control, his sweet and bread intake shot up dramatically. Cakes, candy, chocolates, muffins and ice-creams were regulars on his plate. ‘There were times I’d eat an ice-cream sandwich — a slab of ice-cream between two slices of bread — as a snack,’ he says.

His dietary habits worsened when he reached his final year in college; focussing on his studies he paid little attention to what he was consuming and ‘I got bigger and bigger’.

When he graduated in 2015 he fell into what he refers to as “the year of darkness.” ‘It was so bad I couldn’t find the motivation or the spirit to get out of my chair, my bed or my room,’ he says.

When his family tried to warn him about the health dangers, he would simply refuse to give ear to them and shut himself in his room
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Falling deeper and deeper into a life restricted to his room, he would regularly binge on takeouts as often as desired, while his physical movement reduced considerably. ‘It got to the point where I lost track of time. I wouldn’t even talk to anybody,’ he says. He declined close family members’ invitations to attend outings making excuses such as ‘not feeling well’ while ignoring messages from friends.

Some family members did try speaking to him about his ways and warned him about the health dangers of staying on the path he was on. But he refused to give ear to them. ‘I’d just shrug it off. [When] family members were reaching out, I would shut myself out in this safe bubble [of his room],’ he says.

However, in September 2016, something sparked from within him when he received a message from a friend he had not seen for over a year inviting him for a visit.

‘For some reason there was this tiny ray of hope and I replied ‘oh sure, I’ll see you today’,’ he says. ‘Suddenly I realised what had been going on. After months of not seeing anybody – friends, family members — I realised what had been going on; I hadn’t been myself. I just thought ‘‘woh, what am I doing to myself’’.

‘I got up, went out and started talking to people in the house. And then thought, ‘what happened, why does the house look different?’.

A meet-up with friends somehow sparked an interest in him to re-examine his lifestyle
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Later that evening Mohammad joined his friend for a gathering, not realising that a group of his old friends would be in attendance. The meeting proved to be an emotional one with some of his once closest allies laying out some hard truths in front of him. ‘It wasn’t an intervention, but I took it at face value as an intervention. It was exactly what I needed.’

Mohammad says while he started to socialise with his friends he also became more aware of how bad his weight gain had become. ‘I wanted to look for ways to lose weight but didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know how to eat healthy again, how to do more cardio or anything.’

As he struggled to formulate a plan of action, Mohammad’s family stepped in to help. ‘They sat me down for lunch and told me ‘enough is enough, we are worried about you. We want you to go through the right direction with food, and everything’. I cried and said I needed to know how to start,’ says Mohammad, tearing up at the memory.

One of his older sisters, Shaikha Al Qassimi, a CrossFit competitor, stepped in and promised to introduce Mohammad to a gym that could help him. ‘Suddenly I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders,’ he says. Shaikha also invited Mohammad to attend one of her CrossFit competitions in Kuwait that November, which he did. It would be an event that would become a turning point in his life.

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‘Looking at everybody doing all the exercises… there was a small smidge of excitement that started to bubble into hype, then exploded into me, literally cheering for her (Shaikha). And at that point I decided I wanted to do CrossFit,’ he says.

His fears about whether he would be able to do the movements and activities were laid to rest when Shaikha assured him that it would take time and a lot of hard work but that he would be more than able to do the exercises.

Within a week of returning from Kuwait, Shaikha introduced Mohammad to Inner Fight, a gym located in Dubai’s Al Qouz area, where he met André Houdet, a coach.

The simple task of walking a short distance often left Mohammad breathless
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André and the owner of the gym, Marcus Smith, told Mohammad in no uncertain terms that if he did not do anything immediately his life would be under threat. ‘I was broken and I wanted to fix myself, so I agreed to change and wanted to get started,’ says Mohammad.

But the going was not easy. The simple task of walking from one side of the room to the other left him breathless. ‘I kept saying ‘I need a break, I need a break, I need to sit down.’ I wanted to give up on Day one but André told me that if I keep going, things will get better.’

André recalls Mohammad’s first day at the gym as they tried to put together a fitness programme suited to his body weight of 235kg.

‘It was a challenging process as a trainer to see what we could do. We couldn’t even do all the measurements because at 235kg, Mohammad couldn’t stand up for one full minute (on the scale). He couldn’t wear shoes, he had to train barefoot. We tried to make him walk 15 metres. I think he took about nine steps and said ‘my knees hurt’ and stopped,’ says André.

Another problem was the fact that most of the equipment in the gym including the bike, rower and the bench, could not carry Mohammad’s weight. ‘I had to extend my toolbox and exercise library to see what kind of normal movements we could adapt for him so he could move,’ says Andre.

Mohammad is a regular at the gym and now weighs 109kg. He is now keen to lose 20 more kgs
Aiza Castillo-Domingo

Once the coach assessed what movements Mohammad could practice safely, he devised a plan that focused on having as much fun as possible while exercising.

‘You have a guy who comes in who hasn’t done any exercise in some 20 years. To make sure he comes in again tomorrow and the day after, you need to create a bond and have a good time. If not, it would be a long journey for him,’ says André.

To start with, André asked Mohammad to commit to attending sessions three times a week and adapted exercises for his physique. They did not even discuss food and eating habits during the first month.

Once Mohammad got into a habit of attending the gym three times a week, André asked him to document what he was eating for a few days followed by providing him with guidelines on what foods he should be consuming.

He was told to cut out mostly dairy, gluten and sugar. The amount of vegetables and protein in his meals was increased.

There were some hiccups along the way with weeks when Mohammad was not losing any weight. An exercise of sending pictures of his food to Andre was adopted and the issue was traced to Mohammad’s portion sizes and corrected.

'I wanted to give up on day one, but André told me that if I keep going, things will get better,’ Mohammad says of his first try at the gym
Aiza Castillo-Domingo

Mohammad then started to order his meals from a meal prep company to ensure his quantity and quality of food were spot on.

The whole goal was broken down into bricks. ‘First brick was to train three sessions a week. Second brick was to cut down on the volume of what to eat and keep it the same. Next brick was ‘let’s do four sessions a week and be a little more specific with the food’. Then we started to look a little into his habits and lifestyle, and added daily walks,’ explains André. ‘We had to be careful because Mohammad’s joints were not used to moving that much. We had to take it slow.’

Once Mohammad committed himself to getting healthy he followed through with his gym workouts routinely and followed his coach’s advice. However, when it came to food, there were times when he did fall off the track. He ate things that he knew he should not or had greater quantities than he was supposed to. But those moments were infrequent and he would quickly return to his new programme.

These days he has turned a new leaf. ‘I don’t cheat but I treat myself sometimes, consciously.’ A treat, Mohammad says, would be working out how many calories he is supposed to eat that day and then perhaps eating 200 calories extra, or treating himself to something he loves, like peanut butter.

‘I’ve started to understand myself in ways that I didn’t understand back then,’ Mohammad says of his lifestyle transformation
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If he is invited out with his friends to a restaurant, even if it is a fast-food chain, he chooses his food smartly. ‘Earlier, I would have had say steak with mashed potatoes, all the gravy and whatever else it came with. Now I would maybe order a grilled fajita but without the cheese and cream sauce or the other unhealthy stuff,’ he says, with a smile.

Last month, Mohammad was pleasantly surprised when he stepped on the weighing machine: he weighed 109kg.

‘I have 10 times more energy now than I had two years ago,’ he says. He also finds himself increasingly aware of how much more he is able to do and achieve.

The Sharjah resident aims to lose another 20kg, although he says the weight loss is not as big a deal for him as it used to be. ‘Living a healthy lifestyle is more important.’

At the 2018 Dubai Fitness Challenge, Mohammad has taken the role of an influencer
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Two years after he took the decision to change his life, Mohammad is a changed man. He cannot even remember the last time he had a burger or a soda and his daily meals are colourful, varied and nutritious. He values his sleep as much as his time at the gym and even participated in the 2018 Dubai Fitness Challenge as a major influencer.

He is also more confident and has come out of his shell, admitting that he would have been far too shy to do this interview previously. Trying to get established as a voice-over artist, he says, ‘I’ve started to understand myself in ways that I didn’t understand back then.’

His sister Shaikha says she is very happy for Mohammad and what he has achieved. Says Mohammad: ‘My friends are super proud of me. I’ve even inspired some friends to get back to the gym.’

Also read: Love the body you have: how an Emirati CrossFit athlete found acceptance

André’s tips for those seeking a healthier lifestyle

• First step is realisation that this can’t keep going. Reach out to someone. You can’t help yourself, because if you could, you would have. You might have the knowledge to help yourself but you don’t have the commitment. So you need someone outside who can help you.

• Get adequate sleep. If you don’t have good sleep, your metabolism is not good. A lot of other hormones in your body won’t function normally which can be one of the main reasons why you keep gaining weight.

• Look at your nutrition and be honest with yourself. Maybe you need a nutritionist, that’s for accountability. People are fine with letting themselves down but not someone else. If you feel you are not accountable to yourself get someone to be accountable to.

• Strict diets don’t work in the long run. When it comes to diet, go for a more holistic approach. The key is to make guidelines rather than boundaries. Guidelines would be – increase the amount of vegetables and greens, no processed food, eat fresh meat and fish, no artificial flavours or sugars.

Exercise

• Do not set up too many goals to begin with, such as attending the gym every day and changing diet immediately, because you will not be able to follow through. Gradually fix the habits so it is not a drastic change.

You have to realise that there are no shortcuts. It is a long journey, its consistency and there is no end goal. Fitness and health need to be an engrained part of your lifestyle that it never stops.