It is no secret that staying active is one of the best ways to keep one’s body healthy. Despite its numerous benefits, however, the idea of fitness is still unfamiliar to most Pakistanis. Staying physically fit has been particularly challenging for most women in the country, many of whom find little to no opportunities to step outside of their homes and engage in basic physical activities. What is more, an acute dearth of well-equipped, female-only fitness centres across the country has made it even harder for women to adopt a fit lifestyle.
Sensing the lack of fitness facilities for females, Lahore-based sister duo Mahlaqa Shaukat and Noor ul Hira Shaukat launched AimFit – a wellness platform offering group fitness classes to women of all ages. After successfully establishing their studios in Islamabad and Lahore, they have now embarked on increasing their online and offline presence across the country.
For the purpose, AimFit has raised $1 million to revolutionise the world of fitness for women, becoming the first VC-backed startup in Pakistan.
The oversubscribed round was led by Indus Valley Capital, a Pakistan-focused fund started by LinkedIn’s former Vice-President Growth, Aatif Awan. The angel investors for the project include an unnamed unicorn founder and the founding team of Atoms, among other high-profile investors.
Towards a fitness revolution
Owing to the Covid-19 lockdown, AimFit had to temporarily close the studios per the government’s guidelines. Knowing that an indefinite break in people’s fitness routines could likely sabotage their progress, the AimFit sisters decided to launch a bootstrapped online offering for its members to continue their fitness routines within the comfort of their homes.
“We envision a planet where a fit and healthy lifestyle is within everyone’s reach. With this goal in mind, we are now working on a viral online fitness platform and plan to double down on our omnichannel model by rapidly expanding across Pakistan over the coming months, before targeting international expansion,” AimFit’s co-founder and chief executive officer Mahlaqa Shaukat told The Express Tribune.
Commenting on the initiative, the founder and managing partner of Indus Valley Capital Aatif Awan, who in his previous role helped LinkedIn grow to half a billion members, said: “At Indus Valley Capital, our mission is to help founders build the most transformational companies in Pakistan. We believe that AimFit will transform the country in an incredible way by bringing fitness to millions of women in their homes.”
He added that being able to achieve fitness goals as part of a community is truly empowering and has a spillover effect into improving other aspects of life, including family, work, and mental health.
“We’re thrilled to partner with AimFit in revolutionising female fitness in Pakistan.”
According to AimFit’s co-founder and chief operating officer Noor Shaukat, while Pakistan witnessed a boost in health and fitness clubs across its major cities over the last few years, the female population of smaller cities and towns remains largely ignored.
“With the increasing proliferation of smartphones and high-speed internet connectivity, AimFit has decided to use its online fitness solution to reach this ignored segment of society,” she said.
“We saw that our pre-recorded fitness classes, ranging from Dance Fitness to HIIT and Yoga, propelled the company into its next phase of growth in the online fitness market during the Covid-19 lockdown. The smartphone technology will now help the brand reach millions of women in their houses, removing barriers to physical fitness existing in a conservative society.”
AimFit plans to use the $1 million investment to build its technology product and expand its studio blueprint enabled by the development of a strong management team.
“The company will be launching flagship studios across major cities of Pakistan in addition to rolling out its online platform across all Tier-1 and Tier-2 cities,” Noor said.
A journey of passion and commitment
The AimFit sisters conceived the idea of a female-fitness studio in 2014, right after returning to Pakistan after completing their studies at Oxford University, United Kingdom.
“We both were deeply passionate about fitness from the outset. In fact, Noor and I were part of our college’s rowing crew,” she said. “Upon our return to Pakistan, we avidly searched for group fitness options for females but could not find a single holistic platform. That is when we decided to start something of our own.”
Citing the Global Wellness Institute, Mahlaqa said that Pakistan shockingly ranked 149th out of 150 countries for ‘recreational physical activity by participation’ in 2018 despite being the fifth-most populous country in the world.
“When we first materialised our idea of a female-only fitness studio, the response we received was incredibly positive from individuals belonging to all age groups,” she said.
Soon thereafter, what initially started as a personal passion quickly expanded from a small rented space in Lahore to four full-fledged fitness studios in Lahore and Islamabad, served by a team of 55 instructors, all of whom were trained and certified by AimFit’s instructor academy.
“We are now serving an ultra-engaged community of over 10,000 women with over 42,000 five-star fitness experiences to date,” Mahlaqa explained.
More than a startup
AimFit’s impact already goes beyond serving its core members, through its community engagement initiatives ranging from activations in schools to nationally televised children’s home workouts and mass female-only fitness festivals.
"We know that women in our culture, as primary caregivers and nurturers, put their health on the back burner to look after others,” said Noor.
“Scientific evidence points out that a health-conscious matriarch is better for the family, society and economy at large.”
She added that the barriers women face when it comes to adopting a healthy lifestyle – such as lack of information, motivation and skills, the absence of spouse and family’s support, accessibility to places for physical activity, cost-effective services, and managing household duties and fitness – are real challenges.
“AimFit aims to remove these barriers using its dedicated online platform and flagship studio locations, aiming to foster an engaged online and offline female community."
Mahlaqa chimed in: The online platform will be reasonably priced so that more and more women can benefit from it. For us, AimFit is not merely a business venture, it is a movement, so we want to reach out to as many women in the country as possible.”
With a duo of female founders at the helm and a mostly all-female management team, the company is well-aware of cultural restraints that women face.
“We are excited to the shatter false notions of what women can and cannot do. The AimFit team has already converted thousands of women to the cause of fitness. At the same time, we have championed the cause of training, hiring, and keeping women in the workforce with flexible working hours and supportive policies,” Mahlaqa added.
As mothers to young children, Noor and Mahlaqa both fully understand the challenge for women to juggle a career and family as well as prioritise their health and wellbeing.
“We use our personal experiences to help inform both our product, service, and management strategy."
A happy place for women
Shedding light on the services that AimFit offers to its clients, Malhaqa said that the studios cater to a diverse group of women.
“Our programmes are localised to address key customer segments. For instance, our ComboFit programme is designed to cater to females aged 40 and above,” she said. “Similarly, the DanceFit programme, which includes high-intensity hip-hop dance workout, is aimed at channelising people’s energy to positivity.”
Other programmes offered by AimFit include Yoga, Pilates, lifts, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT), with each programme designed in accordance with the ages and needs of the clients.
“We not only want women to reduce weight, but we aim to change their mindset about fitness and motivate them to stay active for the rest of their lives,” Mahlaqa said. “We also want our clients to have fun while working out, which is why our studios boast a vibrant ambience to uplift people’s moods.”
Sharing her experience, Huma, a 32-year-old mom of two, said that she joined the fitness studio because of her long and hard struggle with Sciatica pain.
“It had been eight years since I was first diagnosed with the sciatic nerve pain. I had seen multiple doctors and spent a hefty sum of money on treatment, but to no avail,” Huma said. “I was so hopeless that I used to wonder if I would ever live another pain-free moment. As a young mom of two kids, I used to think my kids deserve an active mother who can engage and keep up with them.”
Huma’s life completely changed when she found AimFit.
“I informed my instructors of my condition on the very first day, and to my surprise, they were equipped to give me easier options so I could also be a part of the fitness class. I finally started to feel alive again and within a few weeks the unthinkable happened: my pain completely vanished. It is safe to say I am addicted to fitness now and AimFit is has become my true happy place.”
Talking about the relationship between fitness and psychological wellbeing, Mahlaqa said that in her experience, people who are physically inactive are not only at risk of developing physical diseases such as heart problems, hormonal imbalance, and diabetes but they are also likely to fall prey to depression and anxiety because of a leading a sedentary lifestyle.
Karachi-based clinical psychologist and visiting faculty at Bahria University Syeda Batool Najam agreed, stating it is impossible to deny the significant association between physical and mental health.
“As a psychologist, I have always suggested my clients increased their physical activity to maximise their wellbeing. Physical activity does not only help with developing a healthier coping mechanism but also improves our self-esteem. As there is a strong correlation between body acceptance and self-concept, a healthier and physically active body can help us develop positive feelings towards ourselves.”
To be one of the first to access AimFit's online platform, sign up via their website at www.iaimfit.com
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