Taha Ahmed: Inspiring A Healthier Life Through Cancer

Sonya Rehman tells the story of how a cancer survivor turned his pain into purpose to inspire a healthier Pakistan.

Taha Ahmed: Inspiring A Healthier Life Through Cancer
Taha Ahmed: Inspiring A Healthier Life Through Cancer
Taha Ahmed: Inspiring A Healthier Life Through Cancer
Taha Ahmed: Inspiring A Healthier Life Through Cancer
Taha Ahmed: Inspiring A Healthier Life Through Cancer
Taha Ahmed: Inspiring A Healthier Life Through Cancer

Taha Ahmed, a 29-year-old entrepreneur, hasn’t had it easy. Three years before the pandemic hit, the young entrepreneur grappled with a cancer diagnosis which changed the course of his life. But prior to being hit with a heart-wrenching diagnosis, Ahmed struggled with other health issues which ranged from a kidney problem, a cervical spine injury and to top it off, osteoarthritis which left him unable to walk for weeks. 

Given his absolute love for health and fitness, Ahmed’s once chaotic health conditions helped him ‘wake up,’ so to speak. His old way of life, his old avatar, his Computer Science degree at Habib University, nothing made sense to him. He simply had to break out of old patterns. He stopped caring about what others thought and what society deemed ‘appropriate.’ 

Since defeating cancer and armed with an open-hearted devil-may-care attitude, Ahmed has coached over 1,000 individuals (in roughly seven countries) via his online fitness coaching platform, particularly during Covid (as the world struggled with poor health thanks to sedentary living). 

Today, with certifications as a professional trainer and as a nutrition coach from ISSA, a Level 5 Diploma in Advanced Nutrition Science from MNU, UK, Ahmed is all set to launch his very own health and fitness app in April, this year. Under the banner of his health startup, Kalorist, the entrepreneur states that he’s going hammer and tongs at creating solid change on home turf so that Pakistanis can take back control of their lives again. 

In a heart to heart interview, Ahmed speaks with The Friday Times about how he put his life back together and what he hopes to do and inspire for others, like him, in Pakistan.

Transitioning from Computer Science to fitness coaching is a unique path. What challenges did you face when deciding to pursue fitness coaching as a full-time career?

Transitioning from computer science to fitness coaching was no walk in the park for me. It felt like doing a triathlon with hurdles thrown in. But you know, the real challenge wasn't the transition itself; it was the time and the environment I was in. Picture this: people close to me laughing at my decision, making fun of me when I bid farewell to the program at college. They even said I wouldn't get a job without that coveted ‘university degree’ and that starting my own business or coaching online was only a pipe dream.

Now, the journey itself was like a roller coaster - thrilling, occasionally nauseating, and definitely not for the faint-hearted. Overcoming my bout with cancer in 2017 forced me to take a hard look at my life, reassess priorities, and pursue my passion for fitness. The challenges were both personal and professional. Most nights were filled with doubts, wondering if ditching a prestigious university degree and a more conventional career path were colossal mistakes. On the professional front, earning credibility in the fitness industry seemed as daunting as climbing Everest without oxygen. However, with some soul-searching and a deep dive into the fitness industry, both locally and internationally, I made peace with my decision and went all in. The transition left an indelible mark on my coaching philosophy. It taught me that both physical and mental well-being are paramount. After years of soaking in knowledge and working with clients, my approach now revolves around evidence-based practices, focusing on education and sustainable lifestyle changes - because, let's face it, quick fixes are so the 2000s.

Kalorist is described as a 'Smart Coach in Your Pocket.' What sets it apart from other health and fitness apps in the market?

Okay, that’s simple. The other apps serve as stepping stones and do not provide guidance, education, or valuable insights. They are only useful if you know how to use them correctly and effectively. Let's talk about MyFitnessPal, the most popular food-tracking app out there. It has a massive food database and allows you to track your food and meals, but it does not teach you how to do so, and the entries are user-generated, making them highly unreliable and inaccurate. To learn how to use it effectively, you must gradually progress. People who are unfamiliar with calories and macros, as well as what foods are nutritious and which have what kind of impact on their health, will have to spend hours upon hours, week after week, and with a lot of trial and error, learning how to track food effectively. They are similar to Excel sheets or Visual Studio Code in that if you don't know how to write code, formulas, or apply logic, the apps are pretty useless to you.

Kalorist differentiates itself by combining cutting-edge technology with a personalized, evidence-based approach to health and wellness. AI integration enables us to provide more than just generic fitness guidance; it tailors recommendations based on individual preferences, behaviours, and goals, ensuring that only evidence-based practices and principles are followed. 

The challenges in integrating AI revolve around ensuring accuracy and relevance, particularly when it comes to the desi food we eat at home, in cafes, and in restaurants. It is difficult to contextualize desi food in terms of calories, macros, nutrition, and so on, largely because of the lack of data, however we’re working hard to develop systems and a seamless experience in which users feel a genuine connection with their 'Smart Coach' and can track all types of foods and use them to achieve their health goals. They will also be able to ask questions about fitness, nutrition, mindset, and other topics, and the app will respond with the most current research and evidence-based answers. This is one of the features I'm most excited about because it will change how people seek help or advice.

Kalorist is being built on the foundation of Taha Ahmed Fitness' existing online coaching business, which is our most significant competitive advantage. Everything we do is highly purposeful and evidence-based. We don't use gimmicks or quick fixes, and we don't follow diets, meal plans, or fad diets. We do not recommend unnecessary supplements such as fat burners, detox diets, detox meal plans, or teas. It is not the 1970s anymore. We rely on rigorous science and research. This way of coaching, to be honest, isn’t sexy. Because they rarely see immediate results, many people find it to be off-putting. But it works if you're in it for the long haul and want to make significant lifestyle changes that will stick with you for the rest of your life, or as long as possible. In some ways, you could say we want to democratize fitness and nutrition by making actual knowledge and information available to everyone so that everyone can become healthier, happier, and more fit.

Being incubated at the National Health Incubator is a significant milestone. How has this partnership contributed to Kalorist's growth and development? 

The National Health Incubator (NHI) has played a crucial role in Kalorist's journey so far. This partnership has been a treasure trove of support, offering both mentorship and resources. Being part of the incubator has given us access to expert guidance and a network of professionals who truly comprehend the unique challenges health startups face. Within this ecosystem, we've fine-tuned our ideas, validated our strategies, and established connections with key players in health and wellness and also with many potential investors, and we are hoping to raise some funds from Accelerate Prosperity (AP) and the NHI to further invest in our platform’s development.

Given that NHI operates as a partnership between Accelerate Prosperity and Aga Khan Development Network, we're eyeing a potential partnership with Aga Khan University Hospital (AKUH) in the future. This collaboration could involve integrating Kalorist into their patient care and potentially using it for clinical trials, ensuring its safety and demonstrating positive outcomes.

Can you elaborate on how your battle with cancer in 2017 influenced your perspective on fitness and wellness?

It was not just cancer. When I was younger, I had a kidney problem. As I got older, I started having random pains in my body. In 2016, after winning the Mr. Karachi East Men's Physique competition, I suffered a cervical spine injury. Despite winning the title, I suffered significant losses. A few months later, I had difficulty walking or running. After consulting with doctors, I discovered I had osteoarthritis. I was devastated when the doctors told me I wouldn't be able to run or lift weights again. After taking a 6-month break, I returned to it, only to be diagnosed with cancer. I thought I was the healthiest and fittest because of my chiselled abs and veins bulging from my arms. Internally, I was sick and malnourished. Looking for help, I couldn't find a single person who took an unconventional approach to fitness. This inspired me to pursue my passion for fitness, becoming the person I desperately needed to help me deal with the health issues I was facing at the time. 

Moving forward, my experience with cancer had a significant impact on my outlook on fitness and overall well-being. It served as a catalyst for re-evaluating priorities, pushing me to prioritize health and well-being and keep it at the top of my list. The experience taught me the importance of a holistic approach to fitness that includes physical, mental, and emotional aspects. It instilled in me a deep gratitude for the resilience of the human body and the importance of adopting a proactive and preventative mindset toward health. Now, everything I do is to live an enriching and healthful life until I am around 80-years-old or so. This shift is embedded in my coaching approach, which now integrates physical, mental, and emotional wellness as interconnected components of a healthy lifestyle. 

In what ways did your experience with battling (and overcoming) cancer impact your coaching style and the advice you provide to clients?

Overcoming cancer gave a sense of urgency and importance to my coaching style. I approach clients with a heightened awareness of the transformative potential of a healthy lifestyle. The advice I provide extends beyond exercise and nutrition; it encompasses fostering mental resilience, stress management, sleep hygiene, cultivating a positive mindset, and improving relationships with the body. The experience has made me more empathetic and compassionate, reinforcing the understanding that everyone’s journey is unique, requiring personalized strategies for optimal well-being - and that it looks different for everybody. 

As someone who has gone through a significant health challenge, how do you approach the mental and emotional aspects of well-being in your coaching philosophy?

They are both integral parts of my coaching philosophy. I understand that achieving physical health is linked to mental fitness, resilience, and emotional well-being. I help clients practice mindfulness, manage stress, and develop a positive relationship with their bodies and food. Fitness and health should be celebrated, not looked down upon. Most people have a terrible relationship with their bodies and food, which is largely due to society and the internet. But, as coaches, we're working to change that. If I encounter a situation in which I am unable to assist or it is outside of my scope of practice, I refer such people to the right professionals for support, such as therapists.

If there's one thing you've learned over the years, that you've applied in your life, what is it?

It’s to live unscripted. Life isn't a predetermined checklist. It really is a blank canvas waiting to be painted with the vibrant hues of your experiences. Embrace the curveballs and challenges that life throws at you as opportunities for growth and adaptation, for it's in the unpredictability that the true essence of living is discovered - and all my experiences and achievements are the testimony of it.