Cool gym or nightclub? How glow-in-the-dark workouts and party-inspired classes became the UAE's newest fitness trend

The pursuit of burning calories no longer requires walking to nowhere on a treadmill in a dreary space

Spin studio Crank is set in a nightclub environment with a DJ spinning party tracks
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Whether you're part of the movement or just a spectator (for now), it isn't hard to see that the way people exercise is changing. You just need to browse Instagram Stories to observe that a spin class is now just as much about loud music and flashing lights as it is meeting your daily cardio quota. And it's not just influencers taking this approach. Sweaty expeditions that feel more like a night out than a workout are growing in popularity across the region.

From one-off events making their way over to the UAE to boutique gyms springing up on every corner, it’s clear that the age of the fitness rave has not only reached the region but is, excuse the pun, booming.

Party in the UAE

Events that fill social calendars without being set in clubs are a global phenomenon right now, from full-on weekend festivals to monthly evening events – think Stockholm's Sober Sweden event or the UK's Awakening Festival. Abu Dhabi held its third Yas Fitness and Wellbeing Festival in February, for example, while the Dubai Fitness Challenge was teeming with people and activities.  

Mimicking the set-up of a big night out with a fitness spin is becoming a more regular ­occurrence in the UAE, expanding beyond a niche appeal. It's something Sonja Moses is demonstrating by bringing London-born concept HiitBox to Dubai.

Hiitbox involves boxing-inspired workout routines with hip-hop and dance tunes

Moses – the creator of HiitBox and also Barry's Bootcamp Middle East's director of performance – leads a series of boxing-inspired workout routines on stage as a DJ blasts old-school hip-hop and dance tunes, even as a team of "­ninjas" assists the crowd. The first of its kind in the region and the eighth overall, the event was rolled out in October at The Pointe, Palm Jumeirah, in the midst of the Dubai Fitness Challenge.

As a former party girl who worked at London's Ministry of Sound (where many UK events of HiitBox have been held), the fitness professional understands exactly what the appeal is when it comes to blending these two worlds, and how to execute it ­effectively. Moses says she brought her concept to the UAE "because of the drama and the theatrics; people understand that if you're going to go big, then you really have to go big. That's what HiitBox is all about". For a country that often boasts the biggest, fastest and tallest, it's a perfect match.

Fitness Blastoff is a dance-based exercise to the backdrop of Caribbean and hip-hop tunes

Moses isn't alone on her fun-fitness quest. Selena Brown-Donkor, founder and events director of Fitness Blastoff, likewise transported her UK event to the UAE this month. Four hours of dance-based exercise unfolded to the backdrop of Caribbean dance and hip-hop tunes at The Fridge in Dubai on November 9. Plans are in place to bring more sessions to the city next year. "It's all about turning workouts into a proper party," says Brown-Donkor. "It's set in a nightclub environment with club lighting effects, a live DJ spinning loud party tracks and instructors leading simple and fun workouts."

Keeping fit, like so many other things in the social media age, is becoming more about the experience, says Nuno Costa, co-founder and general manager of Crank, a high-octane spin studio that opened in Alserkal Avenue in 2018.

From basic to boutique

Crank's bread and butter is high-tempo spin sessions with a different pumping playlist for every class. The studio is designed around LED lights that lend to the wow factor, while still focusing attention on the motivational instructor. "We opened because we saw a gap in the market to do something a bit more fun that was more of an experience," Costa says. "But I do think we did it at the right time as boutique fitness is becoming a trend now more than ever." And he couldn't be more on the money.

Spin studio Crank has plenty of mood lighting

Following on from names such as SoulCycle in New York and Hollywood-born Barry's Bootcamp (which opened in this region in 2017), the international community the UAE is famous for have brought varying styles of cardio with them. Unlike the mass-brand gyms that reigned in the 1980s, 1990s and even the noughties, boutique studios offer specialised classes without the commitment – no sign-up or membership fees – even if the cost per class is pricey.

Dubai isn't the only emirate cashing in on the party element of exercise, either. Lama Helweh, co-founder of Punch, opened her boxing workout studio in Abu Dhabi last year under a similar premise. Classes such as Punchiit fuse boxing moves with Hiit-style routines in a studio that mirrors a club in its aesthetics. "We have invested in a superior light and sound system that is engineered for the space, and every instructor goes through vigorous training," says Helweh.

Rather than an absence of options in the capital, Helweh determines that it’s a lack of motivation that prevents people from taking charge of their health. “With the increased popularity of fitness events and obstacle course races, we realised that people are drawn to the experience of fitness, and not the act of exercising on its own.”

Punch Abu Dhabi is bringing nightclub-style workouts to the capital

Fitness and mental health

But as well as a brunch-free way to spend our spare time while improving our physical health, the rise of the fitness rave reflects the growing awareness to improve mental health in the UAE, too. In 2019, the Ministry of Health and Prevention launched an initiative of digital solutions to help tackle the growing issue, while a YouGov survey found that seven in 10 people would be open to seeking professional help for mental health issues. Countless studies show that both exercising and socialising can have positive effects on mental health.

Brown-Donker describes her event as food for the mind, body and soul, while Costa stresses the social aspect of Crank, from engaging with instructors on social media to the community vibe embedded into the set-up.

The trend – from one-off events to weekly sessions – can be game-changing for both ­fitness fanatics looking for something unique and newcomers searching for that inviting entrance into the ­perceived dull or daunting world of exercise. Enclosed and often in low light, the environment feels protected from peering eyes inside and outside the room; you’re soaking up the energy of others, while indulging in a sense of privacy all at once.

"It's not just the music, the trainer or the workout; it's all of those combined in this enclosed space," says Moses, stressing that exercise that feels more like a night out serves as a form of escapism from the struggles we all face on a daily basis. "When you're in a room and it looks like a nightclub with music blaring, you can't really think about the problems you had before you walked in. You get on with it and just lose yourself in the music."