Ammas Who Lift: Why Tamil Women Should Exercise
My fitness journey while growing a family, and why I feel it’s important for Tamil women especially, to prioritise their health and fitness.
Gaya Navaratnam
Owner + Pre/Postnatal Exercise Coach
Toronto, Canada
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As a Tamil girl growing up in Canada, I loved sports -- I played netball every summer for my Amma’s school (Jaffna HIndu Ladies), tennis with my Appa and siblings, and soccer and volleyball for my high school. 

As I got older and the stresses of university, then adulting, then parenting took over, everything stopped and, honestly, I became really unhealthy.  

But the strangest part?  This felt normal.  And I probably wasn’t alone.  

Playing and being active was something you did as a girl, not as a Tamil woman and definitely not as a Tamil mom, right?  

This is the story of what got me moving again and why I feel it’s important, for Tamil women especially, to prioritise their health and fitness.  

This is hope for a new normal.

Tamil Culture & Fitness

We’re often raised with a sense that parents ought to sacrifice everything for their children.  This is also why we tend to have strong family values and a sense of respect and appreciation for our parents.  

But it can also leave parents feeling drained and underprioritized, with their physical health suffering as a consequence.  It’s pretty standard for Tamil elders to be suffering from a multitude of physical problems and taking an array of medications -- and I think at least part of the reason is cultural.

Ammas especially, can often take on overwhelming levels of responsibility in family life.  We can feel guilty for taking time for ourselves, if there’s food to be made or cleaning to be done or homework to help with.  

Meanwhile, a mounting debt to our health is accumulating.  But sadly there’s no app to check that balance -- until a terrifying medical test result or physical ailments set in.  

I’m pleased to be able to say that I do see this changing, and it makes me happy to see more Tamil females making health and fitness a priority in their lives, as well as becoming personal trainers and health advocates along with me.  I also see more partners and families stepping up to foster healthy and fitness-positive environments.  I think this progress is wonderful, and we need to keep pushing ahead.

My Story

Back in my late-teens, like most university students, I spent my days stress-eating burgers and fries, and not moving much at all apart from walking from class to class.  

I got a small wake up call when I suddenly had chest pains at the age of 20.  While the pain itself was probably benign like heartburn or indigestion, the cautionary trip to the hospital resulted in finding out my cholesterol was way too high for such a young age.  

This was probably the first time I thought about my health as anything but infallible.  We think nothing bad could possibly happen to us when we’re young, and maybe this early dose of uncomfortable truth was a blessing in disguise.  A seed was planted.  I knew I needed to change.  

Sadly, I didn’t have the information, tools, skillset or circumstances at the time, so my health got worse before it got better.  It would be a rocky false start to a very long journey.

The biggest push for me was the thought of having children.  I got married at 22 and we wanted a big family.  I knew I wanted to be strong, healthy and a good role model for my kids.  And I knew I was currently not on that path. 

I gradually managed to use that vision to fuel better daily choices and habits -- eating healthier food, going to the gym, getting more sleep.  With researching and continued learning I was able to modify workouts to help support a healthy pregnancy and how to recover post-baby, regain strength, shed fat, and improve my fitness.

This process, though summarized in a paragraph, took years.  It’s not quick or easy to design your life with space for health and fitness with all the competing priorities we all have.  For the most part, I had to figure all this out on my own from scratch while making a million mistakes along the way, and it’s why I do what I do today: so hopefully other moms don’t have to.  

Four kids later, I am still thrilled to be able play the sports I loved as a child.  All six of us play tennis and basketball, and it felt wonderful to represent Jaffna Hindu Ladies again last month but this time with my daughter as a teammate.  I have felt the benefits of having the energy to take my kids out all day, play and run around with them (they usually get tired before I do!), and be able to carry groceries, carseats and kids with ease and without pain… because I’m an Amma who lifts.

I truly believe that when we take care of ourselves, the benefits come back to those around us, especially our families.  Not doing it is the wrong sacrifice.  

Why Tamil Women Should Exercise

Here are just a few of my favourite reasons why Tamil women should prioritize fitness:

  1. Exercise improves mood, relieves stress and anxiety

  2. Exercise helps us focus and learn, improving productivity

  3. Exercise gives us more energy for our day-to-day lives

  4. By being active, we set a good example for our children

  5. Resistance training builds strength, making daily activities easier and with less pain

  6. Exercise synergizes with other good habits like eating healthier and sleeping better

  7. Exercise helps maintain healthy bones, muscles, and joints

  8. Exercise reduces the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes

What To Do And Where To Start

I believe the first step is to see the value in fitness.  We must acknowledge what science repeatedly tells us: the benefits of exercise are too numerous to ignore.  

The next thing is to feel like you have a right to better health.  Self-care is not selfish.  We need to fight the guilt and excuses we make.  Don’t allow for thoughts like “I can’t exercise because of kids/partner/work/home.”  Bonus tip: don’t let picky eaters at home keep you from creating healthy meals for you and your family.

Encourage and empower those around you (without being pushy) to move more and be healthier.  Maybe give a Tamil woman in your life a little extra love, because this step might not feel natural or comfortable at first.  Swap sedentary ways to spend time with your loved ones (restaurants, TV/movies) for active ones like nature hikes, sports, yoga, walks etc. 

Always be removing barriers to fitness and health -- make things easy, fun and accessible.  Pick activities you enjoy (as opposed to ones someone or the internet told you to do).  Pick ones that require the least willpower and time/energy/travel to sustain.  Pick ones you already have positive feelings about or have side-benefits you’ll appreciate.  For example, women in particular often find exercising in groups more fun and social, so finding communities and classes to join can be a good fit.  

Keep an eye out for those around you struggling to make time for their health and fitness.  Not just Tamil moms, but all dads, grandparents, students, teens, and even younger kids -- no one is immune to these challenges.  Lead by example and also offer help/support.  Maybe that’s pitching in around the house to free them up, maybe it’s inviting them to exercise or play or walk with you.  Make fitness a familial, social and cultural priority, because it gets easier the more we do it together.

My Passion To Support Women’s Health

I believe that you should never sacrifice on your health, no matter what comes up in your life.  

I decided to become a Personal Trainer and Pre and Postnatal Fitness Specialist especially so I can help moms have a smoother, easier and better informed journey than I did.  I offer coaching and programs both in person (including traveling to you) and online, in groups and 1-on-1, to make it as accessible as possible to get support.   

My Mommy & Me Virtual Fitness program aims to create community and fitness for new moms wanting to workout safely and conveniently at home with their babies.  If there’s a new mom in your life, it might be something they really appreciate in these times where access to gyms, Early Years Centres and Daycares are restricted.

Whatever goal you have, you can achieve.  I’d love to be a part of your health and fitness journey.  And despite being a small business, I never turn anyone away due to financial circumstances.  Reach out for support and fitness inspiration: on Instagram or on the web.      


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Gaya Navaratnam
Owner + Pre/Postnatal Exercise Coach | MomZone Fitness
Toronto,  Canada
Gaya's a Certified Personal Trainer & Mom of 4. She knows life is busy. Her passion is ...
Gaya's a Certified Personal Trainer & Mom of 4. She knows life is busy. Her passion is ...
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