Sumaya Dalmia is an undisputed pioneer of India’s fitness industry. From starting out as a trainer at gyms two decades ago to leading her own fitness empire SUMAYA--her journey has been arduous, but remarkable. And she does it all with a dazzling smile!
I called her on a busy Tuesday morning. At 11am, while most of us are just beginning our work day, Sumaya had already reached her studio, worked on plans for her clients and completed a training session with instructors. Ask her how she gets it done with such ease and she says, “It is because I am very passionate about what I do. I love my work, I love meeting people, training and sweating with them. I love it all.”
Her love for fitness was cultivated at a young age. From being a sporty girl in school to being a national level athlete at Delhi University’s St Stephen’s College, her passion only intensified over the years. But her fitness journey started in the year 1997 when Reebok opened its very first court for fitness training in India. And she has never looked back since. Today, under her brand SUMAYA, she manages six innovative fitness centres in India.
And how does a powerhouse like Sumaya unwind? Unsurprisingly, sweating it out is what gets her going. So if you’ve been wondering about the secret to her glowing skin and her fit body--this is probably it. To call her a trailblazer would be an understatement, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she was one of the first names that came to our mind for the #POPxoWomenWhoWin series. Over a telephonic conversion, Sumaya opened up about her fitness journey, and the secret behind that unfaltering positive attitude. Excerpts below:
I wake up around 7:30 and go around for a while doing household chores. Around 9, I finish my breakfast and leave for the gym. Then begins the everyday cycle of client assessments, evaluations, and Instagram work. After that I train myself around 4-4:30 and then leave for home. I like maintaining a strong work-life balance and mostly spend my evenings with my kids.
Okay, so this is something that I learnt very late in life. I used to be someone who’d workout for two hours a day, six days a week in my gym. But in my late thirties I realised that I was putting too much pressure on myself. I used to be like ‘if I don’t have an hour, I am not gonna gym.’ Now even if I get just 20-30 minutes a day, I do whatever I can. Typically, I exercise about 4-5 days in a week for sure. Roughly about 30-40 minutes per day.
More than a specific skill, I’d say that it was the realisation that you can never stop learning. Fitness is like medicine, it will keep changing. Just because you workout, that doesn’t make you a trainer. You need to know anatomy, physiology, sports sciences and you need to keep studying it. You need to keep up with the changing protocol.
Also, learning how to train different people has really helped me through the journey. The most common mistake that many people make is that they think that one size fits all when it comes to fitness. It’s so not the case. Everyone’s body is so unique and this realisation is what has set me apart in the last 8-10 years. If I am getting a particular person to commit for three days a week, my session needs to be planned accordingly. And that’s exactly what I do to make sure that they get the results in the committed time.
A lot! Two decades ago, it was more about me educating people about how to stay fit and active. Now, it is drastically different. People are already motivated. This holds true even with young teenagers who by 12-13 years of age want to go to the gym and look a certain way. Now the challenge is to give them the specific fitness plans that they require.
When Reebok had come up with their first court in India, I saw their ad in the newspaper and thought that it was a place to exercise and joined it. Little did I know that it was a place to train and learn how to become a trainer. And I enjoyed every bit of it. While I was doing it, I also started teaching group classes at a small studio in Defence Colony. That is when I realised that I really enjoy training people, touching their lives, inspiring them. Obviously at that point in life, I couldn’t just switch my career because Economics and Commerce was mainstream. I couldn’t just wake up and say, “I want to be a trainer.” Nevertheless, the thought stayed with me and I started pursuing it when I went to the US for my masters. I ended up doing Economics and Sports Science both. That was my big switch and then there was no turning back.
I think my first turning point would be the switch that I made from Economics to fitness. The second turning point would be when I decided to do something of my own. After finishing my studies I was working for other people. When I had just returned to India, I was so over-qualified. I didn’t know what to do, nobody had opened gyms, there was nothing. So I worked for Reebok for five to six years. Then gyms started opening up so I started consulting with them. Finally, I realised that my love was still to teach. So the second turning point would be when I started my own business, which was a small studio, called Bodyworks Den. And that’s where I started teaching people individually and created customised routines suited to them.
The third turning point arrived when I was pregnant with my second baby. My studio was small, I had maxed out, there were only so many people that I could train. I had a client who was also a friend. We sat and discussed if we should just shut it or make it bigger. That’s when my friend suggested that we should make it bigger and offered to become a partner. Thus, SUMAYA was born in 2013.
To be able to have replicated my knowledge to my trainers. You might like Sumaya the person but at the end of the day you are not always going to train with her. This is why the philosophy needs to trickle down to my trainers. I have always imparted knowledge very freely to all my work colleagues so as to empower them with the same amount of passion that I have.
To just not let failure pull you down. To get up and learn and move one. Even though I say this so easily, the experience of this has been very tough emotionally and financially. In the early days of my business, it wasn’t like I didn't lose money. The trainers left after we had spent so much time and energy on them. But I’ve learnt to keep moving and keep evolving. If you believe in something you just have to keep pushing irrespective of the circumstances.
You really need to enjoy what you do. And remember, if you know how to train your body a certain way that does not mean you can train others the same way too. You really need to learn the science of fitness. Expand your knowledge base and study the subject. Also, you should be very clear on whether you want to work for someone or set your own studio.
I unwind during exercise. I know that sounds really funny but that’s how it is for me. I can be having the shittiest day and I just need to break into a sweat to feel really good.