Personal trainer Nikka Saadat was a very active kid. She figure skated from ages 3 to 15, and she played tennis and ran track in high school. Despite this high level of activity, Saadat describes herself as “chubby” growing up.

“I was always the bigger girl. I was overweight most of my life; it was not easy. There is definitely a complex there,” she recalls.

In college, Saadat—burnt out from her years of sports teams and training—took a hiatus from anything fitness related, and she wasn’t very active for about five or six years, “other than going up the stairs to my apartment,” she says. During this time and despite her inactivity, Saadat says she was underweight—a significant shift from being the “chubby” girl growing up. But to Saadat, it didn’t make a difference.

“I still didn’t love me,” she explains. “So it didn’t matter if I was a larger size or if I was a double zero. I wasn’t happy in myself. It’s not just about weight or size. It’s about how you feel about yourself and loving yourself.”

From timid to trainer

Thinking she wanted to be a doctor, Saadat started at UCLA as a pre-med student. She bounced around between a few different majors, finished college with a biological anthropology degree and started a graduate program in social work—but she wasn’t happy and was still unsure of what she wanted to do.

“The one thing that I always enjoyed was moving, and that was the one thing that I did for myself. That was the one thing that made me feel confident,” she explains.

Saadat started spending time in the gym, testing things out—a lot of what she refers to as “trial and error.” Self-conscious about her workouts, she would go to the gym at 2 in the morning so that no one could see her train. Eventually, she sought out a certification just to gain more information so she could train herself better. But becoming a personal trainer never even crossed Saadat’s mind—until the general manager at her gym, 24 Hour Fitness in Sherman Oaks, California, approached Saadat and asked if she would like to be a trainer.

“I kind of played hard to get for about four months. And then I finally was like, ‘I’m ready to do this,’” Saadat says. “I’ll be honest, I didn’t know if I would be good as a trainer, if anyone would even want to listen to me.”

But, Saadat says, once she started training, her ability to connect with her clients changed her entire outlook. She is able to share her story, letting clients know they aren’t alone—that she understands what they’re going through and that she wants to help them.

“I’ve been there. I’ve been overweight and feeling like this is never going to go away. I’ve been in pretty much every size—overweight, underweight, somewhere in the middle, kind of fit, kind of fat. I’ve been everywhere. I know what it’s like to just feel uncomfortable in my own skin,” Saadat says. “And it can get better.”

It’s about the journey, not the destination

Looking at Saadat, it’s obvious she’s a fitness professional, but she still views herself as a work in progress and doesn’t try to hide her struggles from her clients. She tries to be as transparent as possible, and when she sees them struggling with how they look or if they feel like they aren’t achieving their goals, Saadat says she digs deeper.

“Because it’s not about the numbers. Even when they lose a certain percentage of body fat or they make their weight-loss goal, even if [the body] is changing but [the mind] isn’t, nothing’s going to change,” Saadat says. “I hate to say it, but as a trainer, it’s almost more important to work on the mindset than anything else because how you feel, the way you think about yourself is how you’re going to feel about yourself and nobody’s going to make you happy.”

Saadat knows from firsthand experience that chasing a physique and comparing yourself to others isn’t going to bring happiness because there’s always going to be someone more fit than you. Instead, she says, it’s about living your life doing the things that make you happy and feel good, whether that’s dancing or swimming or weightlifting.

“If you find something in fitness that you enjoy and it makes you feel good, then what else really matters?” Saadat says. “Nowadays, people think that there’s one way to be fit. And that’s just not the case because the reality is whatever you love to do, that’s what you’re going to do. So finding what that is, that’s your best bet to achieving any of your fitness goals.”

For Saadat, fitness is a way to discover new things about yourself. Instead of getting fixated on the numbers or the tiny details that, in the grand scope of life, aren’t that important, she says, it’s about empowering yourself to keep moving forward and having fun in the process.

“You have to be enjoying the process because if you get to the destination and still don’t think it’s all it was going to be, what’s the point?” she says.

Photo credit: Sam Parham