By Juan Fourneau, Hola Iowa
Muscatine, IA- When Paola Victoria Juarez trains at the Muscatine YMCA, it’s with an intensity, blistering pace, and purpose that few can match. Her workout incorporates weights and has shaped her physique, along with her diet and lifestyle, into one that could easily have been on the cover of any fitness magazine. But today, the biggest role models in fitness do not come from magazine covers, but from social media.
Muscatine resident and native of Venezuela, Juarez has nearly 200,000 followers on Instagram and is becoming a name in this Iowa river town that reaches across the globe. On her page you see her wide range of talents as many of her videos showcase her life outside the gym, but her focus is on fitness. She has weekly HIIT (high-intensity interval training) videos that include a blend of weights and cardio exercises filmed at local parks, her backyard, and other locations to show that fitness does not require a gym membership. Her Instagram page also displays her meals and nutrition plan, with a peek into her life with clips that show her style, beauty regimen, and favorite fashions.
As a young girl in Venezuela, Juarez saw her mom make fitness a priority. Her mother’s gym was a popular spot where many women did cardio, spinning, and Zumba classes. While those high-energy classes were fun, Paola found her passion in the weight room when she was fifteen years old. In a country where most girls preferred dance, pumping iron and lifting barbells was where Juarez felt most at home.
As she became more serious in her training, she sought out additional information. As the years went on and her knowledge expanded, she used social media to find a fellow Venezuelan Instagram influencer who goes by Sascha Fitness. Her real name is Sascha Barboza, and she had a huge influence and became an inspiration for the young Latina. “She was very popular in Venezuela, and she came on the news and was the only woman in fitness that I saw doing that, and I thought wow, maybe I could be like her someday.” Seeing Sascha Fitness blaze a trail as the first woman in her country to become a fitness influencer on Instagram and YouTube who turned her fitness lifestyle into a brand that grew into millions of followers planted a seed in the teenage Juarez.
An extended vacation to the U.S. at the age of 21 led her to Muscatine where Juarez met her husband Antonio. He is a native Iowan and they speak English at home, which has helped her become more fluent. “I don’t speak it 100% but that doesn’t stop me. Every day I am a little better and I practice all the time. Most of what I know I learned on the job.” After getting married, she began to train at the Muscatine Community YMCA where she still does bodybuilding. “It’s bodybuilding but my focus isn’t to lift the heaviest weight, to be the strongest in the gym, but to have health and fitness.” The amount of weight on the bar or machine is simply a tool to transform her body without taking unnecessary risks of injury. “I enjoy lifting heavy weights, but I have my limits. I lift as heavy as my body allows and keeps transforming, but I don’t go to extremes.”
A personal trainer who built a career online, her business began during the pandemic and her first clients were from Puerto Rico. Soon after her Spanish videos and helpful tips on exercise and nutrition began to grow a larger and larger following. She found that the Latino community was aware of the need to exercise and eat well, but there is a lack of culturally relevant information that is easily accessible in Spanish. She felt if she could share some of the knowledge she had learned from her years of training and eating healthily then she could help people. “The Latino community wants to be healthy but they’re unsure of where to go for guidance since they don’t speak English. Or they fear being ostracized at social events like parties if they do not eat the typical foods because they’re on a diet.”
In Iowa, she sees firsthand some of the challenges her Latina clients face. One of the biggest ones is learning to make themselves and their health a priority. Unfortunately, most women are used to putting their needs last, including their health. Many feel the cultural and real pressure as women, mothers, and Latinas, to cook meals their families enjoy, often ignoring what they themselves need for nutrition, so their health suffers and is not a priority. Juarez wants to help more Latinas turn that around. “You have to begin by loving yourself so you can pour love into those around you,” says Juarez.
When she works with clients in the Midwest the biggest challenges are often time, followed by a need for help improving their habits in the kitchen and in their fitness routines. “A lot of women work long hours, starting at 4 am and don’t get out till the late afternoon. They think exercising will make them feel more tired, but it’s the opposite. It gives you life, it gives you energy. If you had a bad day, exercise can be like therapy.”
Paola still has big dreams and goals when she looks towards the future. The ambitious Venezuelan plans to continue growing her online training clientele. In the long term, she would like to have her own line of protein supplements and even her own gym, exclusively for women. A place they can train, eat a healthy meal, enjoy a protein shake or smoothie and be surrounded by a supportive community. “If a woman wants to train in her bathing suit she can. I want to create a place where women feel comfortable and is more than just a gym.”
As an immigrant, Juarez views the American Dream as a path each of us can choose and shape. She could have easily found a job at a local factory or store but she chose a different route, one that is focused on her passion for fitness, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I work hard and there are no paid days off, but I am my own boss.”
Juarez credits her family for their help and support and can often be seen training with her mom. “I don’t do this alone, we’re a team. My husband supported me from the very beginning. We work on content together. My mom helps, too. I started the social media challenges thanks to her. I was excited because there were 100 participants for my first physical challenge. Today when I launch a new physical challenge, there are over a thousand!”
Her advice to the Latino community is to take the first step. “Don’t be scared to start. We all start with little knowledge of how to properly lift weights or follow a healthy diet. Practice makes the master. Little by little, one day at a time, as the Americans always say.”
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