JACK ZIMBA, Lusaka
ULA Matyai is a 34-year-old fitness freak. Standing at 1.56m and weighing 57kg, she is almost petit with a lively personality.
But the mother of one has not always been like this. A few years ago, she was overweight and less active.
On her laptop computer, she has a number of before-and-after photos showing her transformation. In one photo, she looks almost twice as big as she does now.
At one time, she weighed 83kg – over 20kg excess for her small frame.
Ever since she was a teenager, Ula wanted to lose weight.
“I had always wanted to lose weight. I grew up a chubby girl, I have always been big,” she says.
At school, she got teased a lot because of her weight.
“I was teased a lot so I got used to it. But it really hurt me at first. They called me dumbo, ba mubili, ba bode,” says Ula, who works as an administrative officer for a money transfer company.
She says because of her weight, she always looked older among her peers.
When she completed her secondary school education, Ula started jogging and managed to lose some weight.
But she gained weight again after getting married because she became a stay-home wife and was not very active.
And her husband usually spoiled her with ice-cream, chocolate and biscuits.
“I would eat a lot of those and I baked a lot,” she says.
Sometimes, she tried starving herself in trying to lose weight, but it never worked. Instead, she gained even more. She had also tried a slimming soap.
In 2011, she decided to start running again, but she was too fat to run and so she resorted to indoor workouts.
She had discovered a television channel that offered easy-to-follow instructions for exercising. She, particularly, liked the Zumba dance.
“I made a routine, every morning, I would exercise in front of the TV. I got to a point where I was a bit lighter and then I started running with my husband,” she says.
“I enjoy running. It gives me time to think, gives me time to pray and enjoy the scenery,” she says. “To me, it is a get-away of some sort, which gives me some me-time.”
For Ula, the motivation to lose weight was also her physical appearance.
“I love myself better now, and I’m very proud of myself. I wish I had started earlier,” she says.
Ula says losing weight has also improved her sex life.
“Sometimes you don’t know what you have been missing, until it is put in front of you. There are things I have discovered now that I’m this size. I think my sex life has improved,” she says.
The only downside, she says, is her breasts, which have become smaller.
“The only thing I miss are my big boobs, my boobs have become small. I miss my boobs, but everything else, I don’t,” she says with a chuckle.
To Ula, running is both a lifestyle and an obsession.
“It is a lifestyle because everything I do now revolves around it, and it is an obsession because if I don’t run, I feel terrible,” she says.
And in her quest to lose weight, Ula has discovered a new passion – sports. She is now a marathoner and has participated in a number of competitions.
She took part in the Lusaka Marathon and finished in 14th place. She has also participated in charity marathons.
Ula also had her eyes on international marathons.
“I wanted to run in the Vic Falls Marathon and the Two Oceans and the Comrades Marathon, but I can’t travel because I’m still nursing my child,” she says.
The Two Oceans, which is staged in the Cape Town, South Africa, is a 53km ultra-marathon.
In April 2016, Ula was still running, but what she didn’t know was that she was two months pregnant.
When her routine pregnancy test came out positive, she had to slow down. She resorted to Yoga and other less strenuous exercises.
A few months after giving birth, she gained some weight because she was told she had to eat more food because she was breastfeeding. But she soon returned to her running, she even took part in the Sugar Bush Marathon, which is a half-marathon run.
“Apparently, after giving birth, I became even faster than I was. So, nobody should tell me that because I was pregnant so I can’t lose weight,” she says.
She completed the race with a time of four hours 30 minutes.
In 14 months, Ula managed to drop 26kg and got back to her normal 57kg.
Ula says anybody can lose weight.
“I come from a family of big people, so I think I have busted every myth about being fat: it has nothing to do with your genes, it has nothing to do with being a mother or being pregnant. It is just about eating and being active, that is all,” she says.
Her advice is to eat everything in small proportions with a lot of vegies and plenty of water.
“It is a hard battle because it’s like you are fighting against yourself,” she says.
She says clean eating is the most sustainable way of weight loss.
“Weight loss should not be seen as a short term measure, it should be integrated in your lifestyle,” says Ula.
Her dream is to become a fitness trainer to help other women struggling to lose weight.
Ula is just part of a growing crusade to weight loss and fitness around the country. Suddenly, being big does not necessarily mean being more healthy or more beautiful.
The women have galvanised themselves into groups on social media where they share experiences about weight loss as well as tips on healthy diets. One group has as many as 3,000 members.
“To have people around you with the same struggles is encouraging, and they are there to celebrate with you when you achieve your goals,” says 26-year-old Hope Mulongwe.
“I have always been big. I think it is in the genes, but careless eating saw me gaining more weight,” says Hope.
Hope weighed 124kg when embarked on her weight-loss journey. Mostly, it was because she didn’t like what she saw in the mirror.
“First, you stop feeling good about yourself when you look in the mirror; clothes stop fitting well and you start getting shortness of breath when carrying out basic tasks like house chores,” she says.
But she says it gets worse when people start commenting about your weight.
Hope was making good progress on her weight-loss programme, but when she fell pregnant, she tipped the scales at 142kg.
She blames her weight gain on the misconception that a pregnant woman has to eat for two, and that she has to eat more when breastfeeding.
According to BabyCenter, an online advisory for mothers, eating for two during pregnancy only adds to excessive weight.
“Your body becomes more efficient during pregnancy and is able to absorb more of the nutrients you eat. So, consuming twice as much doesn’t double your chances of having a healthy baby – instead, it’s likely to mean excessive weight gain for you, which can put you at risk for pregnancy complications,” it says.
Besides, with a newborn baby, she had no time to work out and she was usually stressed-up with motherly duties, which turned her into a stress-eater.
However, last November, Hope got back to her exercising regime, determined to lose weight. She has since lost 12kg. Her target is to get down to a two-digit number by June.
“I think I will look fine at 90,” she says.
For Hope, it is the skipping rope that has worked for her. She does between 500 and 1,000 skips daily.
“Skipping is the best for weight loss,” she says.
But for Hope, the battle to lose weight is psychological.
“It starts in the mind,” she says. “It is a decision that has to be made by yourself. No one is in a position to tell you what to do. A decision to lose weight should be done for yourself because you want to be healthier, stronger and fitter.”
But like Ula, she has to admit it is a hard road.
“It is not a very easy road to take but what the mind can conceive, the body can achieve,” she says.