When it comes to fitness credentials you don’t get much more qualified than Dubai’s Baraa El Sabbagh, a US registered dietitian, certified sports nutritionist, personal trainer, recipe book author, podcaster and regular TV contributer. She’s also pretty handy on Instagram! Her signature eight-week transformation programme has garnered numerous fans and guarantees results with its combination of exercise and sensible dieting for achievable gains over a manageable timeframe.
With many people staying at home at the moment, we couldn’t think of a better person to ask about whether not going to the gym will send us down an unhealthy path and a few other nutrition queries we had to pose.
With gyms on lockdown and parks closed, how do you recommend people stay fit at home?
Maintaining an active lifestyle doesn’t necessarily mean hitting the gym daily, but rather be conscious of the small activities through out the day that can make a difference. It helps to have a fitness companion like my Apple Watch which reminds me to close my rings everyday.
There’s plenty of ways to stay fit at home! There are YouTube videos for literally every interest: yoga, pilates, strength training, and dancing. Just 30 minutes of movement can boost your energy and uplift your mood.
But if someone is looking for a more structured approach, they can try any workout app. With my app, I give people the option to choose a beginner, intermediate, or advanced level. The best part? You don’t need to go out and buy new equipment. Maybe a resistance band could take your workouts up a notch, but nothing is mandatory.
What food can you recommend in order to keep you healthy and boost your natural immunity?
Fruits and veggies all the way! Keep your fridge nice and colorful with bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, celery, apples, oranges, kale, spinach and all types of berries (for the antioxidants). Extra items to have on hand are garlic, tea, Manuka honey, and turmeric.
The other basics include a variety of protein, like chicken and fish or plant-based protein options like lentils, beans, or tofu. A nice chicken soup will do wonders for the soul, especially combined with onions, celery, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, and garlic.
Is there any equipment you have which helps you stay fit at home?
I absolutely love using the Apple Watch as my fitness tracker. It acts as my accountability buddy by reminding me to get up every hour to close my standing ring. During home workouts, it’s easy to get distracted so your heart rate can easily drop. I like to use the Workout app to keep my heart rate in check to make sure I’m pushing myself enough.
I love keeping resistance bands at home, as a personal trainer, I find this to be the easiest and most convenient way to make an exercise more challenging. I also love plugging in my Airpods Pro when I’m about to get started as it cancels out all the noise going on at home and helps me stay focused.
What are your top three exercises (which don’t involve any apparatus) that can be completed quickly in the morning which do make a difference?
To pick my top three exercises is definitely a challenge, since there are so many exercise ideas that can really get you going in the morning. But if I had to choose, I would go for these:
. Squats are known as the “king of exercise” for a reason. They stimulate almost all of the muscles in the body and target the biggest set of muscles, i.e. your legs! Bodyweight squats can be easy for some people, so I recommend adding a little challenge by turning them into jumping squats, adding some resistance bands, or carrying some books overhead. This is a great chance to get creative!
. Plank with shoulder taps. Doing a proper plank can be enough, but adding shoulder taps in there helps work on your balance and adds a challenge for the upper body.
. Push-ups. I know this one can be tough to do for a beginner, but baby steps go a long way with push ups. If you’re not yet at the full push-up, you can start with wall push ups, then knee-push ups and work your way to a full push up that engages your chest muscle, triceps, and abdominals.
. For a BONUS exercise, I would choose everyone’s least favorite move: the BURPEE. It gets your heart rate up, it can include a squat and a push up, and it stimulates your core.
Tell us about your regular eight-week fitness programme. How did you come up with the cycle?
I realised a recurring problem my clients had was keeping a balance between fitness and nutrition. They could be completely committed to working out three days a week, but what they were eating was hindering their results, or vice versa.
So I decided a personalised programme was the way to go! I wanted to be a virtual coach for people all around the world, there to answer every question throughout the week and to support and motivate along the way. Each person that signed up got a unique experience, from their meal plans to the workout program. They check-in with me at the end of every week by email or WhatsApp about their progress throughout the programmes, and we make changes as we go.
The other major reason I created this personalized program is because I’m able to hold people accountable and give them the motivation they need. So many times, people go for a workout or nutrition program and fall off the wagon within a week or two. But with this program, they can count on me checking up on them on a weekly basis to help them stay on top of their game for a whole eight weeks. This gives them enough time to build a sustainable habit.
How do you find the UAE compares to other countries in its attitude to fitness and wellbeing?
I love the UAE’s energy and attitude to fitness and wellbeing. It has something for everyone, from spinning, yoga, pilates, dancing, weight training, skating, skiing, the list goes on! There are always great events encouraging people to get moving, like free yoga classes on Kite Beach, playing beach volleyball on the weekend, to marathons and sports competitions.
When everyone around you is moving and enjoying it, you know that the environment the UAE has set for fitness is a positive one and motivating one.
Who are your fitness inspirations?
I really enjoy the content by Alice Liveing on Instagram, she focuses a lot on functional movement and keeps mental wellbeing a core part of her conversation.
Katrina Scott is another inspiration as she’s had a great transformation over the years. She’s a new mama that’s sharing the real deal after giving birth and dealing with the body changes that happen over time.
What is your life like as a fitness professional? Can you ever let loose? How has social media helped in your career?
I love what I do, so it doesn’t always feel like work to me. I do believe it’s important to set an example for my clients and social media followers but this has become very natural and enjoyable for me. I feel really good when I exercise and eat healthy, it’s not a chore, punishment or anything restrictive and I love sharing that with people. I can let loose and enjoy a burger with fries every now and then because I believe in moderation and not restricting myself of anything.
I disagree with people that say to live healthy you have to cut carbs, diet for weeks, and be miserable the entire time. It’s possible to fully immerse yourself in a healthy lifestyle while enjoying the perks in life, because being healthy IS one of the perks!
Social media allows me to connect with people on the daily. It allows me to understand the stage that my followers are at in their health journey so I can create the content they would most benefit from. There are so many misconceptions out there so it’s my duty to spread as much evidence-based and sound information on social media as I can. Curiosity about health never dies, and I’m grateful for that!
What I love about social media is that it’s a great platform to show people bits and pieces of your life. With regards to my account, it’s like a “how-to” on living an enjoyable healthy lifestyle and caring for your overall well being. Whether it’s through sharing delicious healthy brownie recipes to bodyweight home workouts, it’s always possible.
Tell us about your podcast. What do you discuss and how do you find making it? When did you start and what audience growth have you witnessed?
My podcast is called B for Better Health on Apple Podcasts and it has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my career. There’s a lot that goes into producing one episode, from finding out what the people want, researching it, writing a script, recording it, editing it, and finally releasing it to the public.
I started in November 2018 and at first, of course, you think no one is listening and feedback was barely trickling in. But with time, I started receiving more comments, and notes about what they’re loving most, when they’re listening to the podcast and how it’s now embedded in their Monday morning routine when a new episode is released. The listeners are extremely supportive and I couldn’t do what I do without them.
We discuss subjects like veganism, the importance of protein, how to deal with gym anxiety, how to meal prep like a boss and why carbs are not evil. I interview experts in the health field and get a lot of advice and tips that I love sharing with my listeners.
Who are your three top celebrities that in your opinion exemplify healthy living and good fitness practice? Why them?
Generally, I love anyone who puts the work in, especially when they balance it with a hectically busy schedule.
I find Dwayne Johnson an awesome example of healthy living and good fitness. I actually might be biased because of how much my husband is inspired by him. But I love what exercise represents to him. He mentioned in a podcast with Oprah on Super Soul Conversations that he takes his portable 45,000 pound gym with him when he travels and it’s not just to maintain his physique, but it’s his anchor and it grounds him. I love what exercise represents to him.
Second, Tony Robbins. I know, this one might be unexpected as well. But if you’ve attended any of his events you’ll see him (at 60 years of age) spreading the highest levels of energy, physically and mentally to more than 12,000 people in a room. Energy is huge for me and it’s one of the main reasons that I exercise regularly myself. So to see what he’s capable of achieving because he takes care of his health is phenomenal.
Last but not least. Have you seen JLo? I mean that half time Super Bowl performance, WOW! For similar reasons as above, you can tell she works very hard to have that level of endurance and energy on stage. I’m impressed, amazed, and inspired!
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