“It doesn’t matter if I’m stressed about somebody breaking my heart, or moving continents, or having kids, or about my job… there’s one thing that will always pick me up, and always make me feel good again, and that’s exercise.”
Adela Parvaiz was born in Karachi, Pakistan. She lived there until she was eight. After a five-year stint in the U.S., she returned to Pakistan. In 2002, after undergoing the anguish of a broken engagement, she immigrated to the U.S. where she promptly met her now-husband and father of her two children. She has experienced growing up in the male-dominated culture of Pakistan, managing bouts of deep depression, balancing a career as a high-powered attorney, and handling the natural stresses of raising two children. Throughout these experiences, there has been one constant that has been her biggest asset: exercise. She uncovered a passion for working out, notably by running and participating in Taekwondo. Exercise has enabled Adela to manage some of the most difficult periods of her life. "I work out because I want to stay healthy,” Adela said. “I get a massive burst of energy, it puts me in a better mood, and makes me a nicer person."
Early years in Pakistan: “You were supposed to be a pretty little girl”
Growing up in Pakistan, Adela attended an all-girls school. The focus was solely on academia and not on sports. As a child, she enjoyed playing netball (a precursor to basketball) and badminton, as well as running, but did not take part in athletic activities often. “The environment wasn’t very supportive of girls playing sports,” she recalled. “You were supposed to be a pretty little girl. I was always taught to be feminine. No one around me played sports often, but I enjoyed running because it kept me fit and trim and gave me a lot of energy so I kept that up.”
Years removed from being raised in a culture with well-defined gender roles, Adela now practices the Korean martial art of Taekwondo. Those early years still have an impact. "I still have issues at standing in a horse-riding stance with my legs apart at Taekwondo because I was always taught to be feminine and cross my legs,” she said. “That's one of the reasons I do Taekwondo: to strengthen myself from that image."
Body conscious in Pakistan and the U.S.: “My body went from underweight to overweight.”
Over time, Adela felt pressure to stay skinny and began to work out for aesthetic reasons. "I became obsessive and began working out twice a day,” she said. “I trained with the former Mr. Asia and worked out very hard. I was so thin growing up that my mom would give me medicine to increase my appetite. But later on, I had unrealistic views of my body even though I was very thin.”
After Adela immigrated to the U.S., she began to struggle to manage her weight while balancing work, kids, and the overly generous portions in our supermarkets and restaurants. “When I moved to the U.S., I gained weight with the massive servings and unlimited refills here,” she said. “Then, when I had my first child, I gained 50 pounds. In the U.S., my body went from underweight to overweight. It became a big issue for me. I was working at a top-10 global law firm as a commercial litigation attorney and it was hard to lose the weight with work. Over time, I managed to lose the weight I had gained by running five times a week over the course of over a year.”
Exercise to help manage depression: “Working out was the antidote to my depression.”
After Adela had her second child, she gained weight again and experienced very severe postpartum depression. “My body image played a role in it,” she said. “That was the lowest point in my life. I couldn't even go for a walk. I would sit in my room and cry. I was not working out. I could not get myself together. Many people don’t realize that you don’t just wear maternity clothes when you're pregnant, you wear them after. And it was demoralizing and depressing to me. I was trying to prove to the world that I was on top of my game. Between work and the new baby, workouts became last on my list. I was ashamed to tell people what I was going through. The only people who knew were my husband, my sisters, and one close friend. My doctor wanted to put me on an antidepressant. I didn't want to take them so I started working out a lot. I really feel that working out was the right drug to help. Working out was the antidote to help with my depression. I ran the Monument 10K in Richmond, Virginia, and having that as a goal was really helpful.”
Maintaining sanity as a working mother: “I find ways to incorporate a workout.”
Adela was doing what many mothers do: balancing a high-powered career with raising a family. Over time, she believed that being a full-time stay-at-home mom was best for her. “My dream of being this hot shot lawyer was over because I was not about to let my children take a backseat,” she said. “The straw that broke the camel's back was when my three-year-old would cry when I would come home because he knew the nanny was leaving. That was heartbreaking.”
Adela’s children are now four and six. She integrates exercising into parenting with group Taekwondo classes and finds ways to make time for exercise despite the rigors of being a full-time mom. “My workouts do take a backseat because of my kids,” she said, “but I find ways to incorporate a workout… I take Taekwondo, I’ll run on the weekends, I’ll run when my husband comes home at night, at the gym they have the child watch and I’ll put the kids there for an hour and do a workout.”
“When you haven’t slept all night, getting up at six in the morning is the last thing I want to do. I’m not a morning person. And often I work out at night time. I have a tendency to make excuses, so I will sometimes wear my workout clothes all day long. I will tell myself, ‘unless I work out and sweat in these clothes, these are not coming off.’ I do these little games to find ways to motivate myself.”
Taekwondo is for everyone: “I’m sparring with black belts now.”
Adela began taking martial arts classes not just for exercise, but also for self-defense. One evening, she was running outside and a stranger in a car began following her. “He kept trailing me,” she said. “He wouldn’t stop following me and I was so scared because it was dark out. He sped away but that really scared me. I knew that I could run, but I had very little upper body strength. I told my husband about this and he said, ‘Why don’t you give me your hardest punch on my back. I want to see how hard you hit.’ And I swear I did and he asked ‘Are you massaging me?’ I realized I wanted to increase my strength and be able to defend myself.” Adela spoke her son’s Taekwondo instructor and after her first class she was hooked.
This is a very different experience than what she was used to from growing up in Pakistan. There she “would never take classes with only men or go to the workout area where there are men pumping iron because I was so conscious,” she said, “but in the U.S. nobody cares or looks at me twice. I’m sparring with black belts in Taekwondo now and these guys are massive and practicing choke holds on me.”
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