After training for years as a swimmer in Denmark, on the recommendation of a friend Dalya Darwish tried a single intro session in crossfit and became instantly hooked. A few years ago, she relocated to Egypt to continue to pursue her love of crossfit and has been coaching and training hard. Since then she has become a national crossfit star, winning the title of ‘Fittest Woman in Egypt’ and becoming the number 1 female winner in the 2016 Crossfit Open in Egypt. Now nearly 8 months pregnant, she is still training and coaching, managing to push us to our limits in a crossfit session without even breaking a sweat. Her instagram page with nearly 5,000 followers has become a platform for her to push the boundaries and call for a shift in the way we view pregnant women. We spoke to her to find out a bit more…
In Egypt, there is the belief that pregnant women should spend their time relaxing and eating to produce a healthy baby, where do you think these ideas comes from? Why do you think there is a tendency to ignore the mass of scientific evidence which says exercise during pregnancy can be good?
It is because of the older generation. I have the example of my grandmother. She doesn’t want me to wear heels, she doesn’t want me to swim, she doesn’t want me to walk! If it was up to her, I would be lying on my back for 9 months and doing nothing but eating, and staying ‘healthy’ in her mind. So I think it is the older generation. And I think that our generation should push it a little bit more to show it is okay, we’re not sick. It’s not for everyone, I struggled for the first three, four months. I didn’t work out much, only once every three weeks with just a short work-out because I was really really exhausted.
If you think that the older generation are to blame for these beliefs, do you feel that now, with new generations coming in, there is a movement to bring about change?
I wish there would be more. I still think that people are staying in their safe-zone. I get a lot of questions from girls my age and younger, ‘is this is really healthy?’, ‘aren’t you harming your baby?’ and stuff like that. I am actually surprised that we are almost in 2017 and girls my age and younger still have that mentality that when you are pregnant, you are sick.
In light of these stereotypes, what has been the public response to you openly promoting exercise when pregnant? Has it generally been encouraging? Have you experienced any criticism?
No one has criticized me, just questions. ‘Are you sure this is okay?’ ‘Have you spoken with your doctor?’ A lot of concerns, but my answer is normally, I would never do something to harm my baby. I have consulted with my doctors to check that it’s okay and I’ve read a lot of stuff; books, online, so I’ve done a lot of research. I know what I’m doing. I know what is safe and what’s not safe. So like I would never do box jumps because of the high impact, I’ll do step-ups instead. So I scale the workouts, I don’t do any heavy heavy lifting. But you are actually able to lift about 80% of what you used to before you became pregnant. It depends on what you did before you were pregnant. If you just wake up one day and are like, ‘oh I’m pregnant, I’m gaining a lot of weight’, you shouldn’t just start a rigorous routine, that would be unhealthy. If you were living a healthy lifestyle and working out before, you can do almost anything, as long as you scale it.
According to doctors, doing exercise whilst pregnant can help with issues such as back-pain and building up stamina. What are the benefits that you personally have felt from exercising when pregnant?
To be completely honest, not much! I’m almost 8 months pregnant now, I suffer from back-pains now, they are almost killing me, so my workouts are not more than 10-15 minutes. But when I finish the workout, I feel happy, for like half an hour or something and when I take my shower I can feel that I am so exhausted. I don’t work out two days in a row; I have to have a break in between. But I heard from a lot of people, that having exercised will help me in delivery and afterwards. Getting back to my pre-pregnancy fitness will be easier. I have this goal to compete in a year so to achieve that, I have to keep moving and keep it up.
For any pregnant women out there reading this, what types of exercise would you recommend for them to try out?
It depends on what you’ve been doing before pregnancy. If you haven’t been doing anything before getting pregnant, you should go slowly. Maybe do some yoga some pilates, stretching, maybe swimming. Swimming is really good for the weight. If you’ve been doing crossfit then just scale everything, make sure you don’t push too hard and when you get exhausted, take a break.
Obviously you can’t push yourself as hard physically once you are pregnant, how easy did you find it to work out your new limits?
It was difficult to find my new limits. Because I used to compete, so I was used to pushing really hard. I started out working out with my friends who also compete. So they could lift a lot of weight and do everything really fast, whereas I get exhausted by just looking at stairs! So that was really hard. But you get used to it. I’m not the first not and I the last woman to get pregnant and train.
How important do you find diet and nutrition to keeping up a challenging exercise routine when pregnant?
I am one of the lucky ones, I have only gained about 9kg. I don’t necessarily diet, but I’m not eating for two. I don’t have that mentality of ‘oh I am pregnant so I can just go loose’. I did that actually for two weeks and I gained like 3kg just in that two weeks. So I was like, okay that’s not healthy. It was because I couldn’t work out, I’m tired and I have back pains, so I’m just going to eat whatever I want. So when I gained 3kg in two weeks that was just a little bit too much for me. I am eating the same, just adding a little bit more carbs. The baby lives off carbs, that is a known thing. I don’t have any crazy cravings, so I’m lucky. I am eating the same as I used to, a lot of fruit, drinking a lot of water. I do eat a cake and some chocolate once in a while, because I know in three months, I need to go back on a diet for training then. So I’m not holding back but I’m not going crazy.
As there is a tendency for women to disappear from the limelight once they are pregnant, how important do you think it is for pregnant women to have role models such as yourself?
Very, because if you want to change the stereotype, you have to be out there. That’s why I do it. A lot of people in Egypt are very superstitious, so when you are pregnant they believe you shouldn’t post pictures, or you’ll get the evil eye, or get sick. And I’m doing the opposite; I’m in your face. Yes I get tired, I’ve been throwing up, I get back-pains; I don’t work out every day. I don’t live a perfect life. I try to write that in my captions when I post a picture or a video, that today was a good day or today was a bad day. But I think I need to be out there, to show women my age and younger that it’s okay you can work out, you can do normal things as long as you are healthy.
So was that always the plan from the start, to make a social statement when you were posting these images, or at the beginning was it just a case of taking casual photos whilst exercising?
From the start I wanted to show Egyptian women that it’s okay. I know that some of them will give me some comments, like ‘don’t do this’, ‘it’s not healthy’ and so on. And then I can explain it to them, and show them that when I give birth that he’s healthy and I’m good.
Do many other pregnant women attend your coaching sessions?
Not yet. But, I run a ladies-only session and one girl came up to me, she was trying to get pregnant, and so she was asking me to recommend what she can and can’t do once she actually becomes pregnant. Because she saw me and thought, okay if you can do it, I can do it! Yes!
What do you think needs to happen to encourage more pregnant women to engage in exercise?
We need more things like this interview! We need to encourage women in general, not just pregnant women, but women in Egypt to work out. It’s okay to work out, it doesn’t mean you’ll get bulky or get a masculine figure if you work out. I think in Egypt, they are better now at working out; they are starting to change the mentality, much better than five years ago. I have ladies’ sessions and they are now fully booked three sessions a week, morning and evening. And I guess we just need more people like me, who are pregnant, to post on social media. Because everything is on social media now, so when they see not only me, but another woman and another woman and so on and so on, they’ll say hey, I can do it too!
Obviously pregnant women do have certain different restrictions to the average individual, do you think coaches in Egypt are generally sufficiently trained to know how to safely coach and tailor sessions to their needs?
I don’t know if they do. Obviously I don’t know all the coaches, but in general the perception of a woman who’s pregnant is that she is like an egg, or a glass we have to protect. She’s not allowed to push herself; she’s not allowed to do anything. I don’t do that. No it’s okay, we can do some stuff as long as we don’t get exhausted. I would love to create a group for pregnant women, create a community to show them how to work out.
With childhood obesity becoming a serious problem in Egypt, have you already started thinking about how you plan on keeping your future child fit and healthy?
Oh my god! Don’t get me started, my husband, Ramy Saleh is serious at crossfit as well-that’s how we met. So both of us are really really serious about crossfit and competing and just sport in general. My whole plan is that when the baby comes, he will be raised in the Box (the gym studio). I’ve already seen a crib that I’m going to get to put in the corner and he’s just going to grow up in the Box. That’s my plan. And we eat pretty healthy at home, so I’m not scared of that. I train a lot and his dad trains a lot, all of our friends train a lot, so it would be really weird for him to not enjoy being fit and healthy. It is my biggest fear, is that he’ll grow up and be like, no I don’t want to play sport, I want to play piano.
Are you at all worried about how you will balance a physically demanding career with the apparently very tiring task of raising children?
I know I am going to struggle. I don’t live in a la-la land. I know I’m not going to get sleep for the first 3, 4, 5 months if I’m lucky. But I’m very determined on competing in a year. I am setting myself a goal to work towards. As long as I’m not surprised. Of course I will be surprised by some things because it’s my first child but as long as I know that okay it’s not going to be easy, you’re not going to rest, you’re not going to sleep and so on and so on. I know what to expect. Expect the worst, hope for the best is the way I’m looking at it!
You said in a previous interview that you really want to push girls out of their comfort zones, why do you think this is so important? In your opinion, what makes girls so much more resistant to getting into intense exercise than men?
It’s to do with the older generation again. I have a friend, her mother made her stop working out because she was like, ‘no, no, you’ll get too bulky, nobody wants to marry a girl with muscles’. It’s such a backwards mentality. The biggest problem with Egyptian women is that they think that by working out for an hour three times a week that they’re going to get bulky. They shouldn’t do push-ups, they shouldn’t do any weight-lifting or anything. But what they don’t understand is to get bulky, to get muscles, even to look like I did before I was pregnant, I worked out two times a day at least two hours a day, six days a week, for four years. And I want to be bulky, I love muscles! But I know that for the women in my ladies-only sessions, that’s not the main goal for them. They are so far away from that. My focus is to get them to lose weight, to tone and shape and get them to be healthy. So three times a week for an hour, don’t be scared! There is a long way to go before you would be getting bulky.
Were you expecting these sorts of issues when you relocated from Denmark to Egypt?
I kind of knew that there were only two or three other girls in Egypt that I was competing with when I first got here. I’ve been here for 2 years now and now there are a lot of girls. I remember when I came, I was like the only girl that could do muscle-ups, but now there are a lot of girls doing crossfit and they can do muscle-ups now. I am so happy that they are getting better! We are pushing each other. But I knew when I came to Egypt that crossfit and that girls doing crossfit was very new, but I am very excited to see where it goes from now in the next 5, 10 years.
Make sure if you are pregnant to be aware of your limits and don’t push yourself too hard, but as Dalya shows, you can and should do more than just lying in bed for 9 months! Follow Dalya on Instagram @dalyadarwish.