Dubai Dreams: Interview with Emmanuelle Bonham on Health, Fitness and Business in the Desert City

By Jessamy Baldwin

There’s no denying it, keeping fit, eating well, getting plenty of sleep and drinking enough water can do wonders to improve our physical and mental health. In fact, it’s now proven that regular physical activity can reduce the risk of many chronic conditions including coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity and mental health problems.

As a society, we’re more health conscious than ever before. The success of healthy lifestyle figures such as Deliciously Ella, Natasha Oakley (A Bikini A Day) and Kayla Itsines (Bikini Body Guide) to name but a few, demonstrate that nutrition and strength are becoming more mainstream and less niche.

In fact, statistics show that the global fitness and health club industry currently generates more than $80 billion in revenue per year. In 2016, there were 201,000 fitness and health clubs worldwide, compared to only 128,000 in 2009.

The world of fitness and healthy living is no longer monopolised by body builders, professional athletes and the LA beach body elite. As we become more aware of the benefits of keeping fit and healthy, and as the industry simultaneously grows, it comes as no surprise than more of us are leaving our 9-5s to work in this ever expanding realm.

I recently sat down with Emmanuelle Bonham, a former PR/marketing professional who left everything behind to follow her passion and work in the health and fitness industry. The 26-year-old now lives in Dubai where she runs her own fitness business and is quickly becoming a household name in her quest to “shift people’s perceptions and attitudes towards nutrition”.

When did you first realise that you wanted to go into the fitness industry?

I’ve actually been into the gym and fitness since sixth form. It then became my hobby and a big part of my life when I started working in Guernsey after university. I had a great group of friends that I saw every day at the gym so there was a huge social aspect. There was a circuit class run at Beau Sejour by Geoff Ogier that a group of us always used to go to religiously and it was his classes that made me fall in love with fitness. I wanted to go on and motivate others to feel the same way I did.

Can you tell me a little about how you got to where you are now?

After school, I went on to Greenwich University to study communications and worked in London and Guernsey in PR and marketing. I realised that I wasn’t passionate about it at all and was bored so decided to do something about it. I studied for six months on the side, while working full time for my fitness instructor qualification. As soon as I’d finished that, while I was still working, I would fly every second weekend to London for four months to complete my course in Personal Training. I was also studying for another qualification that allowed me to teach various group exercise classes using fit after 50 techniques at the same time. It was a very tiring period often with no breaks, but it was completely worth it. I started working for two gyms and GFG part time in the mornings and evenings outside of my regular job. I went on holiday to Dubai in December 2015 had an interview at a small fitness centre and moved a few months later for a challenge. I worked there for just under a year and then decided there was never a better time to set up my own thing.

Describe a typical work day for you?

I usually wake up at 4.45 am and take my dog out for a quick run, then I’ll get ready for my first client at 6 am. After that, I’ll have clients at 7 am, a bootcamp at 8 or 9am, train myself for 2/3 hours and then clients at noon, 2pm, 3.30pm and 6pm. At 7 pm, I’ll train another client or run a bootcamp and then I’ll often have an 8 or 8.30pm client too. When I get home, I’ll quickly eat and work on any nutritional plans, training programming or online programmes that I need to do for clients. Sometimes, if I don’t have a lot of work in the evening, I’ll take my dog out again, depending on the temperature!

What have you personally learnt since you started all this?

Education is paramount, once you think you know enough, honestly you know nothing. There is so much to learn and people’s bodies work in very different ways and there will always be someone with more knowledge. Don’t be afraid to take criticism and always try and learn from those who have more experience than you. Also there is no better feeling than being your own boss and if you want to be successful, the best way is to get innovative and break away from everyone else.

I’ve also discovered that the role of a personal trainer is more of a life coach. Trying to motivate someone to look after their body and health isn’t as simple as giving them a nutrition plan and asking them to turn up to sessions. You have to motivate them and learn what makes them tick as a person and what they will respond to you – so you both get the best results. You are essentially a friend, agony aunt, teacher, doctor and often a parent.

How do you find living in Dubai?

I moved at the beginning of 2016. Dubai is an incredible and strange place at the same time. It has everything you could possibly want in one place, it’s contradictory in many ways, it’s not the real world and you have to stay on top and not get sucked into the shallow parts of Dubai life. However, like anywhere it has its pros and cons and there are parts of Dubai that are amazing – the weather, the tax free income, the beaches, the nightlife, the restaurants and the sheer fact you meet so many people because people are always coming and going. Anything is possible here, there is no ceiling, no idea too crazy and money is rarely an issue. They have projects starting up here that are changing the world.

What advice would you give to someone to wants to go into the fitness industry?

The world is obsessed with fitness right now, and everyone wants to be a PT. So make sure you’re 100% sure that you want to work in the industry. It’s extremely long hours, and most commercial gyms will take 50% commission leaving you with not a lot. Find your niche – definitely have something that you’re good at that makes you stand out. Before I became a personal trainer I was a Group Exercise Instructor and was teaching four different programmes so when I started working at gyms, they said what else can you do besides PT and I talked about that. I also had a strong background in nutrition which is absolutely imperative to getting results from clients so make sure you are clued up as much as you can on this.

Also, know how to sell yourself and have confidence within yourself. Know what you’re good at and sell that. Prepare yourself for the journey. You will probably have to start working in a gym to gain experience where the pay won’t be great – have a plan of where you want to take yourself, and what you want to achieve from the beginning and work towards that – working for yourself will always be the best option in this industry.

Why are people starting to care more about health and fitness now?

I could say it’s all down to new research showing us we need to be more careful with what we do to our bodies but I don’t think this is the answer. Sure, new documentaries like What The Health showcase research that tells us what we’re eating is killing us and cause an absolute flurry in the media and on social media. But you only have to read the China Study which was published back in 2005 to know this information. It’s nothing new. A lot of the time, it’s companies selling products, they’ve just gone a different way about it.

Is there a danger with the Instagram generation of young people too obsessed with looking a certain way?

The health and fitness industry wouldn’t be what it is today without Instagram. In a cynical way, Instagram has just made it more socially acceptable to be obsessive, companies then use this to sell products. I 100% agree that there is a danger, but Instagram hasn’t created anything new, it’s just made material much more accessible to everyone. It has become cool and fashionable to want to take care of your body or actually be seen to take care of your body, so of course in the industry you utilise this to your advantage. Brands have jumped on the bandwagon and every other brand now sells a range of workout apparel.

There seems to have been a definite empowering of women in the gym in recent years, encouraging them to lift weights etc, why do you think this is?

Because views towards women have changed. They can do everything men can do and more, both physically and non-physically. It is more socially acceptable to become strong and athletic. Views are changing as to what is seen as physically attractive and more and more women are becoming confident enough not to care how people view them and their bodies. Women are now just doing what makes them feel strong and powerful, and people are starting to realise that lifting weights will not make them into a man. In pure essence, it’s survival of the fittest, and people are not intrinsically attracted to weak people.

What are some of the highlights of your career so far?

I run a bootcamp for ladies in a suburban neighborhood in Dubai, which started out as a few people but have managed to form an amazing close knit group of girls who started out unfit. They are incredible and have formed great friendships in the process.

I also train a group of local women who I’ve worked with alongside their religion and culture to help them think differently about themselves, their image and how others perceive them. I’ve had messages on social media from people I’ve never met saying I inspire and motivate them to be healthy and strong and this is a great feeling to know you’re helping someone you’ve never even met.

Do you have anything exciting on the horizon?

Yes! I’m working on a couple of new projects at the moment, one in the vegan/vegetarian sphere and also a new project that will change the way clients’ progress is monitored. It will also change the way clients interact with their trainer and gives the trainer a true insight to the clients’ habits/life and what exactly they are doing. This will be in an electronic format all online – it’s a big project that will be accessible worldwide once launched in the UAE.

Is there anything specific you’d like to achieve in the future?

I have a giant long list of things I want to achieve but the one I’m working on at the moment is shifting people’s perceptions and attitudes towards nutrition – hence the vegan project to try to make people’s lives healthier and longer.

Get to know Emmanuelle a little better

Favorite quote? All is fair in love and war.

Who inspires you? My family – my parents and my brother.

Favorite Book/Story? Even though it’s a play, definitely Romeo and Juliet.

Favorite Movie? A Beautiful Mind.

Favorite Colour? White.

Favorite Place You’ve Travelled? I love Israel and Palestine, incredibly beautiful and raw. Rome is also incredible.

Describe your perfect day off? Wake up early, head down to the beach and watch the sunrise on the beach, go for breakfast at one of our many healthy cafes, take a drive into the desert and do a little exploring, potentially after that go out for some Arabic food and chill out at home with my dog. I’m pretty simple!

A version of this article (1,2)was printed on on 10th March 2018 in The Guernsey Press.

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