‘Exercise for Sanity, not Vanity’: Lavina Mehta MBE’s ‘Feel-Good’ Isolation Workouts

MBE Lavina Mehta

Lockdown brought us virtual quiz nights, a renewed enthusiasm for jigsaw puzzles and countless banana bread bake-offs. It also brought attention to health — encouraging many of us to exercise to either compensate for gyms being closed or as a starting point in our fitness journey.

Personal trainer and wellness coach Lavina Mehta was awarded an MBE this year, for her efforts to inspire South Asians to get more physically active during the lockdown, with her workouts aimed at senior and more vulnerable members of the community, who are particularly susceptible to diseases like diabetes and high cholesterol compared to many other ethnic groups.

I feel totally blessed and truly honoured. I never expected to receive this honour from Her Majesty, the Queen. My mission through lockdown was to give back and help as many people, of all ages, including the elderly to ‘Feel Good’ physically, mentally and emotionally. As I have only been a personal trainer for 2.5 years (having re-qualified after giving up my previous corporate career with my third son 12 years ago), it’s surreal and humbling to know that I share the Honours list with so many incredible people.

Encouraging the older South Asian generation to get moving and active isn’t always an easy thing to do, we had a chance to chat with Mehta on how she did it.

I devoted lockdown to providing free, daily virtual workouts to not just individuals and families, but also to the vulnerable elderly and less mobile, to keep them healthy and mentally positive from home. With community centres unlikely to open soon for the vulnerable, I continue to provide these free sessions and I’m dedicated to this cause, with COVID-19 disproportionately affecting BAME communities, with increased risks for those with diabetes and who are overweight.

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The result has been nothing short of fantastic. Elders feel like they have a purpose and structure to their day, in addition to combating loneliness and feeling part of a virtual community.

The hundreds of messages we’ve received have been amazing and so positive, from 97-year-olds to some in wheelchairs, with Alzheimer’s, to those suffering from mental health issues due to isolation. So many have either never exercised regularly before, let alone on platforms like Zoom/YouTube/Facebook and even Instagram (but have now become so technologically savvy!).

They don’t feel like they have to burden their children to organise getting them to community centres, logistics, etc., and can work out safely from the comfort of their home. Having my 73-year-old mother-in-law with me really helps inspire and motivate them and overcome language barriers.

When you think about workouts, images tend to fill your head of 10k runs and intense weight-training but Mehta’s concept of ‘exercise snacking’ is something we can all adopt during our days working from home.

Exercise snacking benefits were first outlined in a 2014 study published in the Journal Diabetologia, which found that ‘dosing exercise as brief, intense exercise snacks before the main meal is a time-efficient and effective approach to improve glycemic control for individuals with insulin resistance.’ You don’t need to use bitesize sessions as a ‘starter’ before meals either, as a recent study identified that blood glucose levels fell by the same amount (40 percent) whether participants completed 30 minutes of brisk walking or broke down walks into 5 or 6 minute ‘snacks’ spread throughout the day when compared with no activity at all.

Studies show that exercise ‘snacks’ (small bursts) can lead to a 40 percent reduction in blood sugar and blood fat levels. Many health experts also argue that ‘exercise snacking’ could trump a single 30-minute session, as it encourages regular movement throughout the day and is less likely to result in long amounts of time sitting, that are linked to slow metabolism, poor blood sugar control and a decrease in the body’s ability to effectively break down fat.

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Mehta’s focus on staying healthy and warding away diseases the community is susceptible to is a refreshing narrative. Comments about being too thin or too fat plague females from such a young age, which can lead to insecurities about their bodies. Mehta relates, having been bullied herself for being underweight.

It’s complicated being brought up in a culture of expectation. There is so much pressure, not just from the media, but also from other Asians, and from both Western and South Asian culture to look a certain way — to be thin, be fair and bounce back to a size 8 after giving birth. Criticisms like these (about body shape or weight, the darkness of skin tone etc.) are common elements of negative commentary, unfortunately.

Nowadays, there’s even more added pressure from social media on how the “ideal” female body should look, western ideals of thinness and the rise in eating disorders. Research has shown that young girls of South Asian heritage in the UK are at a particularly high risk of developing eating disorders — specifically bulimia.

Beginning that journey is always the tough part and can be really intimidating, but starting small is her advice.

My ‘Exercise Snacks’ are the perfect way to do this and I have lots of free workouts like my ‘Feel Good in 5/10 mins’ series on IGTV to help get started. Build up gradually. You can start with one bite-size snack and then combine some into a meal! I also have a free ‘Feel Good in 21 Day Workout Plan’ on IGTV for all ages and levels. Think about your ‘why’ – the deep reason you want to do this, as this will help with mindset and especially at a difficult point in your wellness journey. It’s important to find something you enjoy.

I am a big promoter that wellness is a journey, not a quick transformation and I want it to be sustainable and become part of their long-term lifestyle. I’ve been through it, so I know there will be ups and downs – it’s about consistency, patience and perseverance. Women face so many and trust me those feel-good endorphins will really help boost your mood to help you enjoy the journey!

Rather than aspire to look a certain way, Mehta encourages us to look at exercise as a way to feel good. Whether through ‘exercise snacking,’ playing a sport or going for walks, using movement as medicine is a great way to start investing in your health.

The message I want to portray is that it’s not just about ‘your ideal weight.’ We should exercise to love ourselves, invest in our health and feel good – body and mind. Hence my slogan over this pandemic has been to ‘Exercise for sanity, not vanity.’

Follow Lavina Mehta MBE’s workouts on Instagram and find out more at Feel Good With Lavina.

By Safeera Sarjoo

Based in London, UK, Safeera is a journalist and social media manager working in the education sector. Better representation particularly … Read more ›