As a teenager, Mustafa Adnan was fat and lazy. He won’t take offence at that description because those are the words he uses himself. The nurse he saw during a routine medical appointment did not mince her words, either. She told him he was obese and that his blood pressure and cholesterol levels were so high that at the age of just 18 he was already on the fast track to a life of poor health – and probably a short life, at that.
Her words changed Mustafa’s life. From eating takeaways and lounging around on a couch playing video games late into the night, he embarked on a strict diet and exercise regime. He lost almost 40kg and kept it off. He also launched Strike.ae, his outdoor gym on Abu Dhabi’s Corniche. Then along came the Covid-19 pandemic and like so many of us, Mustafa began slipping back into unhealthy habits.
“The problem was, I was eating the same amount but moving a lot less,” he says.
Exercising was even more difficult after he hurt his back during a home workout. By July, Mustafa had gained 20kg and his weight was back up to 116kg, almost the same as when he heard those stern words from that nurse.
Determined not to go back to those days, he set himself the challenge of recapturing his pre-pandemic weight and fitness in 90 days – only this time, aged 29 and wiser, he would do it better.
“When I was 18, the only way I knew to lose weight was to stop eating,” he says. “I lost the weight but it wasn’t in a healthy way. I became a typical gym freak. I would run up and down the stairs for 25 minutes. I didn’t eat any sugars at all. I wouldn’t even eat certain fruits because I was worried about sugar and carbs, but I wasn’t thinking about vitamins and minerals and I was often dehydrated.”
He did some modelling as a favor for a friend and suddenly found himself in demand for more modelling work, which meant he had other reasons to take care of his body. “It kept me going,” he says.
However, when he faced the same challenge again this year, Mustafa felt he was much better prepared.
“I knew I could do it because I’d done it before and as you get older, you understand yourself more,” he says. “Over the last eight years, I’ve gone from health freak to moderation, because you just can’t think about diet all the time. With family and career, there’s so much else you have to do.
“I don’t have to measure the food I’m eating. I understand how much food I need according to my activity level. If I’m craving a burger and I went intense today, I’ll have a burger. I just know that if I eat more, I need to move more.”
During his 90-day challenge he would have one low-carb day, then a moderate carb day and then a high-carb day, “because I was doing my back exercises, so on those days I would have a pizza”.
Mustafa lost 6kg In the first month of his 90-day challenge, 4kg in the second and almost 5kg in the third month. For the first month, he ate mainly chicken and salads with a cup of oats in the morning as his only carb intake, which he increased gradually over the next two months.
He started his day with a 25 to 30 minute walk, which was easy on his back and joints. In the afternoons, he did some weights. On his rest day, he left the weights but took a longer walk.
He intends to continue with his program for another three months, but with more moderation.
“The 90 days was to push me into a habit,” he says.
Most importantly, he says he now knows his body so much better than he did as an overweight 18-year-old.
“Every 15 days I reassess. How do I feel? Is my diet working well for me? With supplements, I find protein shakes work for me. I am very aware of what I’m doing and I know what healthy feels like. You not only feel lighter, you think more clearly.”
Mustafa hopes his experience inspires others, but warns that any regime takes effort and commitment.
“I would love to inspire people. A lot of friends ask me for advice but they don’t put the work in. I feel sorry for them because the more they delay, the more health concerns they will have. My advice really is very simple: follow the process.”
Mustafa devised his 90-day challenge himself. But what do the experts think of it? We asked three to give their views on Mustafa’s method.
Reem Shaheen, psychologist and founder of Be Psychology Center
I’m always concerned about red flags pointing to an unhealthy relationship with food, so it’s always important to ask: why am I doing this? Every psychologist recommends daily exercise but isn’t six times a week putting some stress on your body? Add in work, day-to-day life, the pandemic – isn’t that a bit too much? Sometimes we ignore the fact that our bodies need to rest and recover.
When what we look like becomes a priority, that’s worrying. Our shapes are largely predetermined anyway so when people engage in trying to change what they look like, you’re creating stress by trying to change your genetics.
But the 90-day challenge is brilliant because it makes physical activity a habit. My worry is that there seem to be a lot of influencers around telling you that if you don’t exercise, or you haven’t read that book, you’re lazy – even when we’ve gone through trauma! I’m not undermining Mustafa, but his challenge needs a bit of oversight. He needs to examine his goals.
I live my life mostly in a moderate way but to reach any goal, you have to push yourself a bit. That’s the idea of setting a target – it doesn’t mean you have to stress yourself forever and at the end of the day, I find it rewarding. I go to bed feeling I’ve done so much more and I sleep better. I don’t feel pressured by influencers. We don’t know much about them, what research they’ve done, so who are they to give advice to people anyway?
Maria Abi Hanna, dietitian, founder of Nutrition Untold
I really like Mustafa’s approach. What really strikes me about it is that he found what works for his body and this is so important when everyone is moving toward personalized nutrition. Meal plans are becoming individualized and the person who knows best what works for you is you.
Secondly, I love that a lot of Mustafa’s program came from common sense. It’s OK to eat a burger if he feels like it; he knows he’s not going to gain tons of weight from one burger. But if restricting your food one day leads to bingeing the next, I would worry. We also need to be flexible. I am very against food getting in the way of enjoying life.
Regarding exercise, when you stop high intensity activity, as many people did during lockdown, your body reacts more quickly than someone who doesn’t exercise. Your appetite is bigger, so adjusting takes time. This is why people who exercise a lot end up gaining weight when they stop.
You have to find a balance. Exercising four times a week consistently is better than seven times a week for a month and then you stop because life got busy.
Exercise is part of my lifestyle, though we live in a place where it’s hard to be active. I think I have a healthy relationship with food and I love food that is healthy. I’m also very social and you can’t always say no to food when you socialize with Emiratis!
Dr Nasr Al Jafari, functional medicine specialist and medical director of DNA Health & Wellness Center
As we know, obesity is a huge crisis in this country and what Mustafa is doing is extremely motivational. There are lots of nuances with weight and body composition. Often the approach is calorific and trying to create a negative balance. That may work initially but this has been studied for a century and nearly all the studies prove that while people will lose weight, they will rebound and often end up heavier than when they started. The body is far more sensible than we think and has an inbuilt mechanism to compensate so you’re basically fighting your physiology.
A lot of people get hung up on counting calories, weighing their food, doing HIIT five times a week, going to extremes. People like to complicate things. I don’t like talking about calories. Prior to two generations ago we didn’t know what a calorie was and everyone was skinny. As long as you’re eating as close to nature as possible and the quality of your food is good, you don’t have to worry too much about calories because natural food is built in a way that fills you up.
Supplements? You have to be careful because it’s not a regulated industry. The greatest deficiencies in the population here are in vitamin D, magnesium and omega 3, but you can’t go wrong with a good quality multivitamin.
As to exercise, it sounds like Mustafa has built it up gradually. If you go from couch potato to six HIIT sessions a week, that’s a significant stress on the body and it will go into survival mode and store fat, so you’re fighting a losing battle.
I believe good sleep quality underpins everything else. You can be flexible in what you can get away with in your training and food choices, but it doesn’t work that way with sleep.
It’s great to have a target, it motivates us. Slow, steady and sustainable is the way and it sounds like Mustafa is prioritizing all different aspects of his lifestyle to achieve his goal in a natural way.
I’m glad Dr Nas touched on sleep. The three important things to consider before any regime are how you exercise, your nutrition and most definitely, rest. A lot of food has preservatives and it’s hard to know what’s natural sometimes. I test it out for a day and see how my body reacts.
I would never advise people to take supplements because I’m not a nutritionist but whatever I take myself, I take responsibility for. The best advice I can give to anyone is to understand their body better.
Mustafa Adana is a guest on the Livhealthymag.com podcast on December 30, 2020; the experts weighed in during bonus episodes.
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.