Karen Campos Bhatia journeyed from flab to fab and says she can see through excuses for sedentary lifestyles

We do a double take when Karen Campos Bhatia, the clinical nutritionist and exercise physiologist, or magician as some of her clients refer to her, discloses she was an overweight teen.

“When I say overweight, I mean I was obese,” she emphasises. Hers is a story of success both at the personal and professional levels, where she first transformed herself and over the years, with her insights into clinical nutrition and exercise physiology, lives of others who sought her help.

On a balmy afternoon, enjoying a day off, she tells us her clients cannot take her for a ride. She can see through excuses and knows by experience that it is indeed possible to make health and fitness part of one’s lifestyle. “There are people who come to me saying they’d like to lose weight in a month’s time before a wedding and I refuse to sign them up. I want complete commitment and an understanding that only a lifestyle change works,” she says.

Karen rewinds to share her journey from an overweight teen to a fitter self. “I was always interested in sports and wanted to know about eating healthy but didn’t know how,” she reminisces.

Understanding her love for food, her mother encouraged her to study hotel management. Once into the course, Karen realised it wasn’t her cup of tea, literally speaking. A shift in focus came through her aunt. “One of my aunts, concerned about my health, suggested I try Atkin’s diet. I tried it and lost 8-10kgs, felt lighter and fabulous. But it didn’t work beyond a point,” says Karen.

Once she had experienced the surge in energy and confidence levels, there was no stepping back: “At that time, internet was at its nascent stages. I had to rely on articles and published information. I decided to pursue a degree in business management and simultaneously did a short course in fitness. I went on to do a bachelors degrees in business administration, a separate bachelors and masters in Clinical Nutrition and Exercise Physiology and Lifestyle Management,” adds Karen.

Born in Hyderabad, Karen moved out of India for seven to eight years. She got married and continued to study in the Middle East: “I was able to qualify in stages with US certification. I set up my practice in 2002 and continued to add on services as I trained,” says Karen.

Karen feels we, as a country, have much catching up to do in these areas. “The texts read by nutritionists here are lagging behind by at least 15 years. In the West, one wouldn’t find so much conflicting information,” she argues, underlining the role played by mainstream media. “In the west, only qualified professionals will be called upon to share their views on health and fitness,” she says.

She does much more than helping people put their lifestyles back on track and thereby shed excess weight. Karen works with doctors, helping in disease management and rehabilitation, and physiotherapy following surgeries. Athletes and teams seek her help for nutrition, exercise programmes and motivation. She also helps corporates and hospitals set up their own wellness centres.

Karen founded Vigor Health Consulting 10 years ago and now has clients spread across five countries. On a typical day, Karen works from 10 to 5, alternates clinic days with administrative work. There’s always time for her children, personal interests and a vibrant social life.

The experience of straddling different roles helps her understand the plight of other multi-tasking women who come to her. “We chalk out schedules for women who feel they aren’t able to pack in too many things. We show them how to prioritise,” she says. This prioritising stems from the understanding that it’s okay to say no when one feels pressed for time. “Women have a tendency to feel guilty. When you take on more than you can handle, you end up doing things sub-standard. I tell women to draw a line where they are at one end and every one else, including their husband and children, are on the other. It’s fine to have some time for yourself,” says Karen.

Karen does some amount of mind reading with her new, prospective clients. “I analyse people — their body language, receptiveness, how they interact with me and their attitude. If I feel they lack in commitment or not yet ready to start a programme, I dissuade them from joining. Everything that’s done in the wellness space requires commitment,” she says.

Different methods are employed for people with varied motivational levels. “Some require a firmer hand. These people like to have someone to report to. Some need emotional support since they have problems elsewhere,” Karen points out. This is where a counsellor steps in and in certain cases the individual is made to be a part of group sessions. “Social dynamics help where individuals encourage one other. If you have high stress levels at home, it affects the way you eat and your lifestyle. We first work on that,” she adds. There’s ample hand-holding through the programme but at the end of it, there’s also a maintenance period where the individual is weaned away and encouraged to take charge of his/her lifestyle. “During this time, people still come to us for reviews. If one can maintain their new weight for at least two to three months after the programme, there are higher chances of maintaining it for a longer duration,” says Karen.

Health and fitness industry is a burgeoning one but you won’t see Karen doling out nutrition and fitness tips through the mass media. “I am not in the commercial space. The day I start doing it, I know I will be diluting my standards. Health and fitness requirements are personal and tailor-made to suit each person,” she smiles.

Mistakes we make

“The biggest problem when it comes to weight loss is people wait for the last moment to make a change. The trigger for change could be an emotional one, where one has been criticised and cannot take it any longer. Or it could be a health concern where you’ve been given a wakeup call. This is when we are at our weakest and look for a quick way out — through fad diets, over exercising, etc — all of which are harmful to the body,” explains Karen.

Karen urges us not to surf the net for diets that promise to us slimmer in the quickest possible way. “A diet has to fit into your lifestyle habits,” she says.

“Don’t over do anything — diet and exercise, or even talking too much about being on a diet. Take it in your stride and make it part of your routine,” she says.

A kettle and home-made meals

Once, Karen worked with college students living away from home, at the mercy of greasy campus food. “The girls weren’t allowed to have hot plates or stoves in their rooms. But they were allowed to use kettles. Luckily, they could go home on weekends. So I gave them recipes; they packed cooked meals from home in small portions and kept these in deep freeze in the hostel refrigerators. They ate one portion at a time, heating it up by immersing the packet in the hot water from the kettle. We also chose some items from the hostel canteen. This was a huge success for me.”

Fitness, her way

What does Karen do to stay fit?

“Since I spend most of my working hours indoors, I prefer to exercise outdoors. I exercise four days a week and my workouts are a combination of pilates, brisk walk, running or riding my bike. If I feel I am not getting enough, I step into the gym.”