How a Chennai girl gained her health and her weight back, with exercise

Through school, Prashanti Ganesh, now 28, was part of the school sports team, and a state-level track athlete. So when she had a bout of dengue fever when she was 16, it was a major roadblock to being active.

“I came back from hospital, thinner and weaker than before. I lost all my muscle mass,” says Ganesh, who shed about eight kilograms after the attack, weighing in at just 41 kg at her 5’3” height. The effect of the dengue attack lasted long after she had recovered. “I just couldn’t eat food; I’d forgotten what hunger was,” she says. “My family had to make eating a game for me, challenging me to finish a meal.” Even her friends would try to get her to eat more, but to no avail. Eating became a trying task, and as she shrunk, the comments came in: “You take up zero space; you can’t do things on your own.”

Today Ganesh understands it better: “Your stomach is a muscle; it will get used to whatever amount of food you give it.” In her college days, she began eating barely one meal a day. And for that meal? “I used to have ice-cream for dinner,” she recalls.

Poor fitness and nutrition was like quicksand that a demotivated Ganesh couldn’t seem to get out of. “Once you’re in bad shape, you feel like it won’t get better.”

Rediscovering fitness

The bad diet and lack of regular exercise continued until her first job as a reporter, in 2011. It was then that her levels of fitness really began to show. “It was a strenuous job,” she says. “I felt physically weaker.” Her self-image also took a beating. She would be taken aback by her own reflection. “I used to look in the mirror and see a strong athletic person, and now I was looking at a small, thin person.”

And then, approximately six years ago, while reporting on a bootcamp, The Quad, she re-discovered her calling. “I used to go for the occasional run earlier, to stay in touch with my sprinting roots. But after I discovered The Quad, the need to make fitness a priority in my life returned,” she says. Ganesh began chasing health. After being with them for close to two years, she began to think of quitting her job in journalism to intern at The Quad as a trainer. “I spent all of 2014 training at various gyms. In early 2015, I went to the US and interned at several gyms there,” she says. Later in the year, she, along with partner Sandeep Achanta, set up their gym, Strength System.

After entering the fitness industry, Ganesh slowly started gaining her lost weight back. Today, she weighs 50 kilograms. She was careful about one thing, however: she needed to gain muscle to up her weight, rather than fat. Strength training was the charm that worked for her. “Strength training helps you build muscle while also losing fat,” says Ganesh. “My goal was always to be stronger.”

Gaining muscle, not fat

The biggest challenge to weight gain, however, still remained her inability to eat as much as she should. “Working hard every day in the gym is tough. But even that came easier to me than eating all those calories,” says Ganesh, adding, “I would train hard, but not eat enough to supplement it. That was a learning curve.” It was her partner, Achanta, who helped her. “He was the one who would ask me to stick to a diet. He kept me accountable to myself.”

The major change in diet she made was, of course, to add more protein. Being a vegetarian, she had to rely on a whole lot of eggs. “I started taking care of what I ate; I packed all my meals to work. I started eating eggs and taking whey protein every day,” she says. Ganesh has a protein shake early in the morning — as soon as she wakes up — and one in the evening. She has eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner — the latter two supplemented with rice and vegetables. Ganesh trains for six days a week, 90 minutes a day, and her training regimen is geared towards competitions. Today, she is a State-level powerlifter.

On the plus side, she has never had to make compromises on her favourite foods. “I still eat dessert almost every day. If I don’t have the food I like, it would be too stressful.” Moreover, all the training is ultimately worth the high that being healthy gives. “Today, I know that I am self-reliant, be it moving a bed or lifting luggage. I used to seek help but now I can help others — it is empowering.”

Ganesh talks passionately of changing the language of the fitness industry for women. “We are always told to be smaller. Most women don’t like doing bench-presses because it will give them broad shoulders,” says Ganesh. “But for others, that is the goal. We need to overcome these body-image issues and concentrate on gaining strength. It’s okay to put on muscle; muscular is sexy.” Today, after many ups and downs Ganesh says, “I’m just a healthier version of who I was.”

This article is Part One of a series of body transformation success stories.

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