For me, it wasn’t a moment. It was the something missing. – Rhea Patel

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For me, it wasn’t a moment. It was the something missing. – Rhea Patel

When you think of fitness role models, who comes to mind? Joe Wicks? Kayla Itsines? Jessica Ennis-Hill? It’s no wonder that the South Asian community has a lack of representation across the fitness and sport industry – where is the representation that we aspire to be?

Growing up, I was very privileged to go to a great school where playing sports was just as important as academics. I was forever the ‘token brown’ in any sports team – and I wasn’t filling a quota – I was entitled and good enough to be there. But there was always an underlying apprehension that I had to prove the worth of my selection. You subconsciously judge your opponent when you line up on that netball court or lacrosse pitch – what did they think of me? The 5’2” small Asian girl as Centre – this is going to be easy right? So you push yourself harder, make sure that they know you’re just as good as all the others and then you end up getting (wo)man of the match – making it just that bit more satisfying. It’s only recently that I’ve been reflecting on this and it’s probably a feeling my school and University teammates (who are also my best pals) didn’t even know crossed my mind.

It got me thinking – our culture and upbringing moulds you to believe that shaping your mind is much more important than shaping your body. ‘Success’ is defined by your qualifications and career – and I was doing alright at that.

I’d followed the path that was built out for me – graduated with a BSc in Economics, qualified as a Chartered Accountant and was progressing well within my firm – a stereotypical ‘successful’ CV for a British Asian.

The infrastructure of a graduate programme runs away with you and, before you know it, you’ve completed three years of countless exams and the mouse in the client audit room becomes part of the furniture.

It’s only natural in a profession which is associated with the connotations of ‘lifeless’ and ‘boring’ that something more rewarding could be out there. I’ve always been a people person, yet accounting is all about the churn – numbers, reconciliations and deadlines.

That is when a colleague introduced me to Escape the City– basically a hub for those in finance looking to find more rewarding work using their skillset. It changed my view on what I could achieve with my day. I went from a permanent accounting role to a contracting one. I started splitting my day into two parts and decided to live by design, not default.

The second part of my day would start when I left the Excel spreadsheets, using my hobbies, such as netball and singing, to ignite the feelings of satisfaction that I was lacking by constantly running on the corporate treadmill.

But I still had that hunger to do something more personal and rewarding.

Lining up at the start line of the 2016 Virgin London Marathon, it reoccurred to me that the stigma associated with South Asians being the ‘unathletic population’ was more prevalent than ever. British Asians represent 7.5% of the UK population – out of the 39,000 runners, I could count the number in my group on both hands (and one was my sister)!

I decided to qualify as a personal trainer, determined to get out there to inspire and keep people active. I moved to a new area in London and saw huge potential to bring together local residents to form a community of like-minded people in the form of outdoor group fitness all year round.

That’s when One Element Docklands was born – a fitness franchise based on pre-season sports training – it’s a sports club for anyone and everyone, whatever your ability. We know each one of our members personally – often catching up for a post session coffee or at the annual One Element festival. It’s not just fitness, it’s an incredible community.

We turned the lockdown hurdle into an opportunity. Who knew that an outdoor fitness club could seamlessly transition into a live online Zoom community overnight? We’re now keeping even more people active and offering a much wider range of sessions (yoga, weights, stretching and Pilates) to complement the HIIT. I never thought you could bond with members over a screen but it’s happening!

Those subconscious hurdles of judgement do still cross my mind.

What do my parents think? We run 10k’s together, they gym everyday, my mum has never missed an online OE HIIT session. It’s rare for their generation to be so into fitness – they love it and I’m grateful that they’re sharing this journey with me.

From the fellow Asian community pondering why we’d choose to exercise outdoors in the rain or during the colder months. My answer is this: there’s an incomparable sense of achievement – you’re building bonds with the group, you’re undefeatable, you’re outside in nature and you feel that endorphin rush like no other. Outdoor exercise is actually one of the best medicines for physical and mental health and it is only over the last year that people have come to that realisation.

What do others actually think of an outdoor fitness club being run by an Asian female – it’s unheard of. Will the session be challenging enough? Does she know how to do a press up (FYI women can do press ups and NAIL it)? If it was the same sessions run by an ex-rugby playing white male, would we attract a wider demographic of people?

I’m guilty of it too. When I first started One Element, I felt like I had to justify to people that I was an accountant as well as a personal trainer – like they’d think less of my achievements if I didn’t – is a personal trainer considered ‘successful’?

What I’ve come to realise is that success is a feeling – it’s not always what’s on paper. We’re keeping the world active and carving a fitness space for South Asians in a somewhat crazy world and I am here for it. It is so much more rewarding than I’d ever have imagined (and I’ve kept my day job alongside!).

How do I find time to balance a full-time job and run One Element? It’s the saying we all love to hate: find a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life. Running One Element isn’t work – it’s the something missing.

By Rhea Patel | @oneelementdocklands

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