Looking for an endorphin boost? Try this type of exercise

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Boxer Ramla Ali reveals the workout that gives her the most endorphins at the gym, and discusses why braiding her hair when she’s training is a sign of strength.

Looking to be inspired by incredible women? Welcome to our regular column, ‘This is what strong looks like’.

This week, boxer Ramla Ali tells Stylist about intimidating men at the gym, endorphin-fuelled workouts and why she is superstitious about braiding her hair when she’s training. Ali is a Pantene Power of hair ambassador, celebrating giving more women great hair days. She was also recently spotlighted by Meghan Markle as a woman who is breaking barriers across the world. 

What does ‘strong’ mean to you?

I don’t really believe being strong is only a physical attribute – anyone can work hard in the gym and become physically strong. In a boxing gym you will always see big guys who at first glance look scary and intimidating, but once you get to know them, they are just as insecure as the next person. Being strong to me, means mental strength and having confidence in yourself. A lot of strength can come from being proud of yourself.

ramla ali hair braid gym
Endorphins and exercise: Boxer Ramla Ali says that "braiding my hair puts me in the mental state to take on anything".

What impact do you think mental strength has on your life?

Mental strength is hugely important in my life. It’s what has shaped me as a person and as an athlete. Within sport I believe that mentally I’ve grown massively over the last 10 years, and that’s evident in my results. For a long time I was shy and timid and that had a lot to do with the people I had around me. This impacted my life, my mental state of mind and my confidence. I would dress and hold myself differently. Interestingly, my hair gave me a lot of mental strength – I’m superstitious about the way I braid my hair when I’m training and fighting, it’s a symbol of my strength. It puts me in the mental state to take on anything.

How do you motivate yourself? (Not just for gym, but also in life?)

In my eyes, motivation is the key to success. What sets you apart as an elite athlete is not how hard you can work in the gym, but how consistent you can be with it. Are you willing to be disciplined each day with your diet, with your fitness, with your state of mind? Are you willing to sacrifice social occasions for the greater good of yourself? There are many days where I just want to relax and go out with friends, but I have a constant need to do better. I strive to succeed, and this pushes me on.

Over the last few years my motivation has changed. It’s no longer a selfish desire to have more medals, belts and achievements to my name. Now I feel a huge sense of responsibility to educate my community on the importance of health and nutrition. I want to encourage women to participate in sport and build a greater awareness of important issues that plague East Africa; it’s this that motivates me more than anything.

ramla ali meghan markle
Endorphins and exercise: "The majority of people in gyms don't have any idea what they are doing or why they are doing it."

Looking at physical strength: some women feel intimidated at the gym. What’s your best advice for getting through this?

The best piece of advice I could give is to be brave and walk in without thinking about it too much. I know at first glance that gyms can be intimating places, but it’s all about taking that first step. Once you’re inside and you meet people, you realise that everyone is on those same mission: to better themselves mentally, physically or spiritually. It’s also important to remember that the majority of people in gyms also don’t have any idea what they are doing or why they are doing it. Even if you get the impression they do, they really don’t. So you’re not alone. Don’t be scared to ask for help or advice, either.     

What should we remember when looking at other people’s fitness regimes on social media? And in fact, social media in general?

Within the fitness industry, most people use social media to share their best days and moments. It’s not the reality or how they train. I try my best to show both sides of the process on my social media channels. I don’t want people to think that all I do is live a glamorous lifestyle and enjoy constant sporting success. I don’t. I’m human. You’ll never see fitness influencers failing or being unsuccessful in their regimes, but the reality is that you need to fail. You need to not be able to finish the workout or the weight you are trying to lift in order to understand your boundaries. Only then can you begin to set your own goals. Failing is just as important as success, it determines progress.

I’m grateful for social media in a lot of ways as it’s helped me connect with other boxers and athletes from different disciplines. However I’m very wary of the need to feel gratified online and I don’t believe that it’s healthy for your state of mind. 

boxer ramla ali natural hair
Endorphins and exercise: "The best endorphins I get from a workout come from sprinting or high intensity boxing."

What’s your advice for women who are looking to gain strength, both physical and mental?

Everything starts with diet. What you eat and put in your body will determine your physical and mental state of mind. Going to the gym to gain strength is important, but eating healthily and living a clean lifestyle is 90% of the job. If your goals are to gain physical strength, have a low body fat percentage and feel better about your overall appearance, then variation is key. Going to the gym and doing the same workout week in week out on the treadmill or cross trainer is very limiting and won’t deliver results. 

If you look around you at the gym and you see the same people year after year making no physical or mental progress, you have to ask yourself, is the way they are training working? You need a combination of high intensity work with strength exercises. Compound lifting with explosive Olympic lifting. Dynamic movements with static. Mentally for me, I love doing it all, but the best endorphins I get from a workout come from sprinting or high intensity boxing. I love lifting weights, but you don’t get the same sensation as when you’re gasping for air and pushing through a pain barrier which once seemed impossible to breakdown. 

Ramla Ali is an Pantene UK Power of Hair ambassador, celebrating the transformative power of hair to make women feel stronger and more powerful. With products for every hair type, Pantene is on a mission help more women have great hair days. Discover Ramla’s Pantene Gold Series favourites at Superdrug     

This piece was originally published on 9 October 2019

Images: Courtesy of Pantene, Getty

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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Commissioning Editor at Stylist. Follow her on Twitter

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