Grimy no more: why Abu Dhabi street gyms are drawing in the crowds

At Abu Dhabi's smaller street gyms, prices are low – most have daily rates from Dh25 to Dh35 – and they do not insist on expensive introductory fees.

The entrance to Go Fitness Gym off Delma Street, just one of the street gyms that have sprung up in Abu Dhabi. John Dennehy / The National
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Outside Lifetime Fitness on Hazza bin Zayed Street, you can hear the music blaring and feet pounding the treadmills. Upstairs in the gym, about 20 people are working out – some snapping photos and sharing them on social media. The trainer, Shefin Joseph, walks the floor and guides members on how to use the weight machines.

“Everyone likes a healthy life now,” he tells me.

“We charge Dh500 for four months – that’s not a big price, right? So anyone can exercise. I know one gym charges Dh1,000 for a month. Even guys who are not into exercising, when they see the price, they sign up.”

Welcome to the world of smaller street gyms. You won’t find them in flashy hotels, upmarket malls or expensive country clubs. But take a walk around the streets of the capital and its suburbs and you will see them everywhere.

Here, prices are low – most have daily rates from Dh25 to Dh35 – and they do not insist on expensive introductory fees.

While I’m there, a man steps off the treadmill and leaves to start work at one of the shops on the building’s ground floor – formerly known as Defence Road, the street is famed for its strip of mobile phone shops.

Four students who’ve come straight from the Higher Colleges of Technology campus are also hanging out. One of the students, Emirati Omar Balfaqeeh, comes to the gym six times a week. For him, it is like a community.

“These gyms are in the neighbourhood so you don’t have to travel. It almost feels like family, it’s closer to your home and it’s cheaper,” says Balfaqeeh, who is in his early 20s.

“If you ask a coach here what should I do, he will tell you, but in hotels you have to pay for a programme and it’s expensive. And you get the same quality of machines here.”

In the past few years, gym facilities in residential apartment blocks have improved as rents have risen but access to a gym is still out of the financial reach of many people.

For example, one Marina Mall gym charges Dh100 for a day and Dh3,300 for three months, while a five-star hotel chain charges Dh250 for daily access to its health club. Undoubtedly many of the older, backstreet gyms have traditionally been intimidating for newcomers. They were male-dominated and geared towards bodybuilding, with a limited selection of equipment. This environment was less likely to be welcoming for women but that’s slowly changing.

Trainers and owners say the trend has moved away from extreme bodybuilding to fitness and improving physique. More women are now attending, with gym-goers of every nationality. The hot weather and beach living only accelerates this trend.

Medo Khalil runs his gym from the basement of a building off Delma Street. Khalil, a champion bodybuilder from Egypt, came to the UAE 15 years ago and opened his Go Fitness Gym last June.

“We are different to the hotels. We care more,” he tells me.

“It’s private so we try to help people as much as we can. Hotels don’t have all the machines either. We are trusted more, we give them training programmes, teach them the right way.”

Go Fitness charges Dh30 for a day and Dh350 for a month.

“Hotels or big gyms have memberships for six months or a year,” says Khalil.

“Some people can’t afford that and prefer to pay monthly. They have to save money for food or to send to their family.”

Khalil’s gym holds aerobics and Zumba classes and he says about 75 per cent of people who attend are there now purely for fitness.

In the eight months his gym has been open, Khalil says there has been a marked increase in people attending.

“Some gyms you go and pay membership and no one shows you what to do. If someone can’t afford to pay for a personal trainer, it doesn’t mean we don’t care. We care and show them.”

John Dennehy is deputy editor of The Review.