By Sonya Rehman
Founded in 2014 by two fitness fanatic sisters, Mahlaqa Shaukat and Noor-ul-Hira Shaukat, the popular fitness studio, AimFit, holds every essential ingredient of one day becoming a booming fitness empire in Pakistan.
With three branches in Lahore and one in Islamabad, ninety employees, and countless members (‘AimFitters,’ as the sisters like to call it), the Oxford graduates have gone on to create a fitness movement in a city known primarily for its culinary decadence and hence, its bulging waistline.
With high intensity workouts (dance, weight training), pilates, yoga and more, AimFit’s mission is pretty straightforward: to provide female-centric fitness amidst a supportive community that encourages a circle of sisterhood for health, well-being and self-esteem.
In conversation with AimFit’s founder, Mahlaqa Shaukat speaks about what inspired her to don the entrepreneur hat straight after grad school, how her own fitness journey helped her kick depression to the curb, the business of fitness in Pakistan and more…
Let’s start from the beginning; you became an entrepreneur at 24! What inspired you to launch your very own fitness start-up?
Mahlaqa Shaukat: Noor and I were both into sports as kids. In fact at Oxford, we both picked up rowing. After graduating in 2012, I moved to London and joined a consultancy firm. Since London can be quite grim at times, I found myself struggling a bit with depression and decided to sign up for a dance class. It looked like so much fun dancing to all these hip hop tracks. That’s when my life really began to change. The only thing that kept me going was the class. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d wind up in the fitness industry.
So that dance class was when the penny dropped…
MS: Precisely. My physical transformation was already happening (thanks to the classes I had enrolled in). I was losing weight and I just knew I didn’t want to go back to consultancy. So when I moved back to Lahore in August, 2014, I checked out some of the local gyms and realized they weren’t for me. The gym culture didn’t inspire me. I wanted to be a part of classes which were fun and challenging. I’m the kind of person who enjoys hitting the limit of fitness and then pushing the envelope further. It was around this time when I began toying with the idea of doing my own thing.
You mentioned there was a yoga studio in DHA, Lahore, that you’d frequent every now and then…
MS: Yes, I found out the studio was free during the day, so one day I spoke to the owner and the rest is history. That day, I got onto my computer, thought of a name on the spot and made a Facebook page. We had our first-ever AimFit class on the 1st of September, in 2004, barely a few weeks after I moved back to Lahore. In London, I had done a 2-day fitness training course on a whim, but I never planned on becoming an instructor. The studio was horrible by the way; there were cracks in the mirrors and the music system sucked, it was far from ideal.
But you still wound up with 25 women in your first class; what was the response like after that?
MS: It really took off. Noor did a Zumba certification after that, and a few months into the business we had over 40,000 (mainly organic) likes on Facebook. We run AimFit like an institution, not a fitness studio. There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes that people don’t know about. Our instructors go through a very systematic, in-depth training process. Once they qualify, we match them to our programs. Also, AimFit is female-centric fitness. We only run one, holistic male program.
Do you end up with a surplus of instructors over time?
MS: We always have a little bit of a surplus. But we’ve also run into issues where some instructors have left, gotten married, moved abroad, or simply because they’ve wanted to branch out into their own thing. In this sector, like in other service industries, this is a big problem because it’s so people dependent.
How do you make sure people don’t copy your routines and start their own classes on an independent basis?
MS: Everyone has to sign a contract, the paperwork is air-tight. We have had a couple of incidents like that, but it doesn’t really matter to us because every three months we change our routines and bring out new material. But the people who work with us have a great relationship with AimFit. Our community online is very strong, if you join our Facebook group, you’ll notice how positive it is. There’s a lot of positive reinforcement; our clients love us and that’s what has made us popular.
How do you run four studios given you live in Dubai and Noor’s based in London. Isn’t it challenging?
MS: We have managers and a well-oiled system, but it’s not like we haven’t run into our fair share of trouble! We’ve definitely experienced dips, but we ride the tide. I guess it’s just about being consistent.
You must have come across quite a few AimFit success stories over the years…
MS: There have been many. I remember one time, this older woman told me that when she joined AimFit she was clinically depressed, on medication and on the verge of a collapse. It was quite moving because she said after her classes she felt fitter and happier than she ever has in her entire life. The success stories really keep us going, because this business is quite taxing.
There’s magic in a sense of community, don’t you think?
MS: Absolutely. It’s definitely the fact that you’re part of a bigger movement and community. Then there’s that sense of achievement, the feeling of; God, did I just do that? Then there are the changes your body undergoes thanks to physical movement; the rush of endorphins. It’s so real. You know, our dance class is such a happy team. Dance programs impact the body in such a good way. It kills depression.
What’s the future of fitness in Pakistan?
MS: It’s here to stay because with the way our lifestyle is evolving, we don’t really have an option. I have a lot of interest in nutrition. Think of it this way, if you’re putting together a building with styrofoam bricks, what would the building be like? Similarly, if you eat junk, you’re weakening your structure from the inside. Diet plays a big role when it comes to fitness and you simply cannot ignore what you’re consuming. Because to work-out, you have to fuel your body. And if you think of food as fuel, you sure aren’t going to turn to fast food.
What are your future plans for AimFit?
MS: We definitely have plans to expand. I tell people my vision is to make Pakistani women the fittest in the world! So we honestly do anything and everything that’s in line with this vision. Even if someone doesn’t join AimFit, we’d be happy if they joined the fitness movement. Also, regarding expansion, we initially wanted to move to other cities, but for now, in the next two years, we want to launch three more AimFit gyms in Lahore.
What advice would you give to someone who desperately needs to turn their life around and get healthy?
MS: The first step is for them to realize that they’re doing it for themselves. Fitness really is worth it. It changes the way you feel from within. Also, be consistent and don’t expect quick results. You have to stick to it. A lot of people who’ve seen me now (after I’ve had my baby), have said that I look the fittest I’ve ever been in my life. The key truly is the long-term consistency factor. Your body never lies. If you aren’t being fair to it and aren’t sticking to a fitness regime, you’ll see it. You just have to power through the fitness journey.
The Friday Times