'I hated my job, sitting for eight hours a day in an office - but I followed my fitness dream and have made it my career'
Kaja Choma, who is originally from Poland, tells Stephanie Bell how fitness helped her beat the bullies and led to a dream job as a personal trainer
If you are vowing to make a radical change to your lifestyle in 2017, then you can't fail to be inspired by the remarkable transformation which Kaja Choma has made in her own life in the past 12 months. This time last year, Kaja (25) felt trapped in an office job she hated and realised she wasn't cut out for sitting at a desk all day.
Deciding to turn her love of fitness into a career, she didn't have the luxury of being able to give up her job to study full-time and, instead, looked for a training course which would allow her to continue to earn an income while gaining the qualifications she needed.
Fast forward 12 months and she is starting the New Year with a new career as a fully qualified personal instructor with her own business, through which she has launched a new fitness initiative for Polish women in Dungannon.
Kaja moved to Northern Ireland from her native Poland when she was 14, settling with her parents and older brother in Dungannon. She moved to Belfast, where she now lives, to study psychology at Queen's University, graduating in 2012.
She spent the next few years drifting from one office job to another, with no real idea of what she wanted to do with her life.
Now, after a busy few months juggling her office job with study, and winning a major UK fitness award, she says she can't believe the difference in her life now.
"Within a year I have reinvented my career," she says. "Last January I was working in human resources and I hated it. I didnh't enjoy sitting at as desk for eight hours a day and was really unhappy.
"I graduated in 2012 and have done a number of office jobs since. Then I realised it wasn't for me and I didn't want to be in an office for the rest of my life.
"I've always been interested in fitness and health and was still training a lot, so I decided to see if there was a way I could qualify as a fitness professional."
Kaja found an intensive seven-day training course in Belfast Met which she completed last Easter, qualifying as a level one fitness instructor.
She made such an impression during the course that her tutors recommended her for the World Skills Show in Birmingham where she competed against the UK's top five gym instructors to win first place and come home with gold.
World Skills is the largest skills apprenticeships and careers event in the UK. And Kaja's success in the competition led to her being sponsored to take part in a month-long course in London in December where she qualified as a personal trainer.
She has started the New Year with a whole new set of skills and, instead of dreading going into work every day, she is now excited about what the future holds.
Kaja also has her own website and launched the Polish Fitness Initiative in her home town of Dungannon. Now she hopes to launch a similar scheme in Belfast, as well as rolling out fitness classes for others here.
She says: "I have lots of ideas for what I want to do and, while still working in my office job last year, I decided to launch classes in Dungannon.
"Many Polish women find it hard to access gyms because of the language barrier - some just don't have the confidence.
"But I have the skills and knowledge to help them and I thought it would be a chance to give something back.
"I chose Dungannon because my family live there and I know the Polish community in the town.
"I wanted the classes to be an opportunity for women to socialise as well as look after their health.
"I want to encourage them to exercise and take care of their bodies, and have set up a Facebook page with health tips and ideas to help them make healthier lifestyle choices."
Aside from the health benefits, Kaja's classes can provide a valuable network of support to women who may otherwise feel isolated.
"It is also a chance for them to get away from the kids and all the stresses of life and focus on themselves for an hour.
"I would like to build on it and launch something similar in Belfast for the Polish community there. Of course, I also want to work with local people and possibly link-up with gyms in the city.
"Now I know I have valuable skills and I really want to share that knowledge with others."
Kaja has worked hard to achieve a new life here, devoting herself to her studies over the past year. The icing on the cake was winning the UK World Skills Show in Birmingham in November.
Competitors were required to compete over two days and put clients through a range of bespoke work-outs and fitness classes.
Head of sport at Belfast Met, Paul Boyle, who encouraged Kaja to take part in the event, says: "Winning gold at the Skills Show was an outstanding achievement which was richly deserved.
"When I approached Kaja to see if she was interested in competing for Belfast Met at Worldskills UK, she didn't hesitate and embraced the opportunity to compete against the UK's leading fitness professionals.
"As a result of this whole experience, she has now given up her job to pursue a career in the fitness industry.
"Kaja is a very talented individual who exudes energy and enthusiasm, and I am in no doubt that she will make a name for herself in the fitness world."
Kaja can't believe the opportunities her success has brought her, yet only found out about the event two days before it started.
She recalls: "I had about a day and a half to prepare a two-minute video showing my exercise routines and to fill in an online questionnaire - but I thought, 'why not?'
"Then I won the regional heat and the semi finals, followed by the UK finals," she adds. "It was pretty crazy and Belfast Met was so supportive.
"I won a sponsorship deal to complete an intensive course in London to get my personal trainer qualifications.
"But it was the combination of my competition success and the course which has allowed me to give up my office job and work full-time in my dream job."
And while most of us have probably given up on those New Year's resolutions by now, Kaja has another useful tool in her armoury to get people fit. Having studied psychology she has a greater understanding about why people find it difficult to commit to a healthier regime.
"There are psychological barriers that hold people back such as a lack of confidence as well as not knowing where to start," she explains. "I think the key issue why people cannot reach their goals is not having a real reason to want to change.
"People start full of excitement and enthusiasm for the first couple of weeks and then life gets in the way and they give up. It is important to think about the reason why you want to change your behaviour."
Thankfully the Belfast trainer knows how to inspire: "The motivation needs to be something personal like wanting to be fit and healthy for your kids, to set a good example to them or have better health in the future.
"It's not enough to just want to look better; looking good will be a positive side effect anyway but it shouldn't be the main focus. Be clear about why you want to change."
As a teenager and one of the first Polish families to settle in Northern Ireland, Kaja struggled for some years to adjust to her new life and admits to being very unhappy in her mid-teens until she discovered fitness.
At 16 she joined a local judo club and says that exercise proved a turning point.
"I was a really popular, funny, outgoing person in Poland and suddenly found myself stuck in a place where I didn't understand anyone and was being bullied and laughed at," she recalls.
"I went from being a really lively, happy person to being quiet and depressed.
"It was really awful for me and it wasn't until I joined a judo club that things started to change and I began to feel really alive through movement and exercise.
"Now I want to share my passion for fitness with others. And, I'm grateful to have that chance and look forward to what the year ahead holds."
- Details of Kaja's classes can be found on her new website, www.zdrowylifestyle.com
Met’s Open Day
Belfast Met will hold a Part Time Open Day tomorrow, 12noon-7pm at Millfield Campus and an Information Day on Saturday, January 28, 9am-2pm; as well as a Full Time Open Day on Thursday, February 2, 9am-7pm at Titanic Quarter Campus. There will also be careers advisors available for those unsure of what study pathway to take. For more information visit belfastmet.ac.uk.