Ihoma Nwigwe a.ka. The African Fitness Queen is the founder and CEO of Selfitness, a foremost fitness and health destination. The passion for fitness goes back to her childhood and parents who didn’t let her unrealised dreams of joining Nigeria’s Olympic track team stop her from playing sports throughout her academic career.
A graduate of Quinnipiac University, Connecticut where her fitness journey began, she majored in Health Science and minored in Sociology. Dropping from a US 12 dress size to a 7, she went from spin novice to instructor in Elite Fitness gyms across the US. Moving back to Nigeria five years ago to set up her business, her passion for aerobics sees her elevating the standard in Nigeria’s health and wellness industry. A certified Zumba instructor, she is also into meal planning and prepping.
After being in the fitness space for over 10 years, she is launching her product line for both women and men. In this interview, she talks about discovering her love for fitness, her upcoming projects, the importance of diet in fitness, how to effectively practice healthy eating amongst other issues.
How and when did you discover your love of fitness? Did it stem from personal experience?
I started my fitness journey at a very young age. Both my parents were into fitness, my mom was a Physical Education (P.E) teacher and my dad played football and lawn tennis representing Total in the Oil and Gas games, I think it was called then. I remember just around the age of eight or so, my mom would always take us to the stadium for morning jogs.
You and your siblings are known in the showbiz scene, is this deliberate?
(Laughing) Not at all. My brother and I are practically in different spaces when it comes to what we do. I do not see what I do as entertainment, though interesting.
Would you say your upbringing played a role in shaping your present path?
I would say very much so. Like I said earlier, we were raised by parents who loved fitness and my parents made sure to enroll us in various sports such as lawn tennis and so on. I remember we had tennis instructors growing up and had sessions every Saturday. Then, my mom would also take us jogging with her very early in the mornings, sometimes to the stadium and sometimes we would jog on the road. I realized soon enough that I was a fast runner and that started my love for track and field.
You have a new project coming out soon, what can your fans look forward to seeing from you?
Yes, Curvy Girl Magic is a project I came up with a few months ago. I got to a point where I felt an emptiness with my love for fitness. I felt like I needed to try something different, reach out more to people who may have never been in the fitness/gym space before, or fell off the bandwagon. I always knew I wanted to work more with women hence the birth of Curvy Girl Magic.
What made you decide to start this program?
I know a lot of women are afraid to start this journey or not even sure where or how to start. I also know that a lot of people aren’t willing to invest in keeping fit, so they do not see the need for gym memberships. I decided I would introduce this program for free to women over 70kg, get them together in a positive space and train them in a fun environment. Sooner or later, I was confident they would fall in love with the lifestyle and I was definitely right.
What is the importance of diet in fitness? Would you say it is more important than actually exercising?
I think they are both very important. Let me clarify that diet is more important if you are trying to lose weight, diet takes about 70 per cent and exercise, 30 per cent. However, when it comes to general fitness, both are highly important. If one is trying to lose weight, you cannot keep eating crap and exercising and expect to see results. However, if you start eating right and start losing weight, exercise is very important as well to keep the body toned so you don’t end up with flabby skin. Also, cardio exercises are highly important for your cardiovascular system (it helps with having a healthy heart.)
Your soon-to-be-launched product line would be out next month, who exactly will it cater to?
I have two lines, Selfitness products which are mainly gym accessories like resistance bands, gloves, sandbags, squat belts, squat shoulder pads, and a few men’s items and Curvy Girl Magic which is 100 per cent dedicated to curvy women. As a curvy woman myself and after over 10 years of being in fitness, I have learned a lot about women’s fitness clothing and understand what would make most curvy women feel comfortable and sexy at the same time. So, CGM products are mainly gym clothing, waist trainers, thigh trimmers, and little girls’ swim-wears. The gym wears can be worn even if you are not at the gym. You can leave the gym and still feel good enough in them to go shopping or go for a quick bite.
There are several known names already in the fitness space in the country, what stands you out?
What I think stands me out is my passion and love for fitness. I realised at a later age that this was and is my purpose on earth. My whole life I have been surrounded by sports/fitness. In high school, I was a sports prefect. I ran sprints and was actually the fastest girl in my school. In college, I stayed consistent, continued in track and field plus lawn tennis as well. While working in corporate America, this was the one thing that also stayed consistent. As a mother of a 10-year-old child who is also a sprinter, I try to stay consistent. My consistency and over 10 years of experience stand me out. My brand represents thick curvy women and I cannot think of anyone else who holds this niche.
Seeing as Nigerians love foreign brands so much, how readily do you think you’ll be able to break into the market?
I do not see this as an issue at all. Foreign brands are expensive and sometimes size limited. My brand focuses on the curvy woman, so size should not be an issue. Also, not everyone has access to obtaining foreign brands; my wears will be more accessible plus affordable. Do not get me wrong, I love foreign brands but I also love to mix and match with other nice quality brands.
Running a business in Nigeria cannot be easy, what are some of the challenges you face?
I think maybe bringing in my products into the country has been the major challenge to date. To be honest, this is still new to me so I can’t say yet what my challenges will be.
Tell us something that has influenced your life and career positively today?
My daughter. She pushes me to be the best version of myself. She literally gives me ideas on how to move forward on this path.
Is there any experience that has threatened to derail you at any point?
Of course. I would not call it an experience per se, but having moved back from the USA, there are also moments where I feel that I could be more successful over there. However, one of the reasons I moved back to Nigeria was to build my brand here and grow this love for fitness.
Lots of women find it difficult to practice healthy eating, kindly recommend a few easy steps that can help them?
First, meal prepping. I meal prep a lot and also run a meal prepping business. I always recommend that my clients meal prep. This prevents you from eating unnecessarily. You actually have your meals ready to eat at every point in time, so you realise that you no longer pick on things you have no business putting into your mouth. Another recommendation that I make is to grocery shop with intent. Write a list of healthy items to buy and make sure you avoid keeping junk food in your house. Stack your fridge with organic foods, fruits, and nuts. That way, if you are hungry, even late at night, you are forced to only grab a fruit or some nuts. Finally, eat every few hours. I hear a lot of women tell me they eat once or twice a day. I recommend that you eat every 3 to 4 hours. When you eat once or twice a day, your body stores it and refuses to process it because it realizes that you will not feed it for the rest of the day. Your body is like a brain, it remembers. Eating once a day slows down your metabolism. Eat small meals every three to four hours.
As a mother, businesswoman, entrepreneur amongst other roles you play, how do you make them all work?
I am thankful to God for strength. I sometimes cannot comprehend my strength as a woman. I have always been someone who works better under pressure. I love to multi-task so it makes my lifestyle easy. I have always depended on me and knowing that makes me get up every day and put in work. I also have a daughter who looks up to me and for me, it’s important that she sees me pursue what I love and I allow her the same.
In your opinion, how can we attract more women to take on entrepreneurship full time?
I tell young women all the time to think through and find out what they love and then work on converting it to a source of income. We should allow women at a young age to explore their passion. For instance, my daughter loves to build things, draw and so on. She can take an empty can of coke and make it into a house. I allow her to build things because I know she loves the craft. She would sometimes even sell her work to my siblings. We need to encourage more women to step out and begin to take on entrepreneurship from a part-time basis and slowly evolve into full time.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what do you think you would be doing?
I would probably be working for someone else, doing something I don’t love. Going to work for someone else and never living my purpose.
Who and what inspires you?
This might sound cliché, but I will say, my daughter. I always say that if we could all have the mind of a child, the world will be a better place. I have an amazing daughter who is resilient, yet kind and thoughtful. She inspires me every day.
What do you do to relax?
Basically I watch TV and binge on Netflix.
What is your guilty pleasure?
I would say Sushi.
What last words would you leave with women inspired by you?
I always say, you never know what your body is capable of unless you push it past its limits. We have this one body, which is God’s temple, so we must take care of it. Feed it right and train it right.