The UAE is awash with fitness studios, ranging from traditional gyms and group classes to boot camps, aqua aerobics and VR-powered workouts. Despite, or maybe because of, regular new openings, many gyms are feeling the pinch as fitness buffs switch from one innovative workout to another. Arguably, the spaces that command loyalty in the long run have community wellness at their core. GetFitChick, a training and nutrition centre inside Train Strength & Fitness in Al Quoz, is one such success story, which not only offers physical and mental support, but also proves that there is still a strong place for ladies-only fitness environments, not least within the Emirati community.
Monica Ah Koy, 47, from Fiji, has been training with the women at GetFitChick for more than three years. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016 and found solace within the group, which she says became like her extended family. Lead coaches and co-founders Salma Ismail and Kirsteen Thain kept in touch with Ah Koy throughout her treatment to offer support.
"It was so sweet," says the full-time mother, who returned to training 14 months later. "It was hard, but you feel so much love and encouragement. Between the trainers and the women you work out with, there is so much support. Now that I look back, it was good for me to be in that female environment."
A fellow GetFitChick member, a 25-year-old Emirati woman, who requested anonymity, first joined GFC to get into better shape for her wedding two years ago. Little did she know then that the group was to become so much more than that for her. "The whole GFC community have supported me through difficult moments and reminded me that we're all in this together. We talk about fitness, health and situations we face in our daily life. We share our own experiences, as well as encourage each other."
This proved vital for the education specialist, when she and her husband decided to get divorced seven months into the marriage – catapulting her into one of the most stressful periods of her life, she says. "I felt heavy physically and emotionally. I was losing my self-esteem, but going to the gym, and seeing my coaches and friends helped me rebuild it and become stronger. Talking to the other girls pushed me to look for the best version of me, instead of staying in the same place and living with the sadness and regret."
Co-founder Thain insists that developing self-confidence must be at the heart of the training philosophy, and that this becomes more effective in a community network. "A transformation can be more than physical – it can be emotional, mental or related to one's lifestyle," she says. In addition to this strong sense of community, Thain wants the women she trains to leave the gym better educated, able to discern from the myths being upheld in the world of health and fitness, understanding the difference between strength training and conditioning, and aware of the purpose behind each movement they are doing.
“There are many places worldwide that aim to exhaust their clients with endless circuits and brutal workouts, to make the client believe they’ve had an effective session [because] they are totally worn out,” she says, adding that this is contrary to what works well mentally and physically in the long run.
Creating a smarter mindset
Ismail says mindset is key. "We want women to change their perspective about their reason for training. What is their 'why'? We want them to shift away from being so obsessed with their body shape and image, and start admiring their abilities instead. With the right programme designed for you and an awareness of how to eat, the body aesthetics will inevitably come. Building a good body strength foundation will in turn lead to a better quality of life."
Ismail adds that in spite of an array of women-only training facilities, there was a gap for people to feel a sense of home, which goes well beyond training hours. “GFC has become a collective of women where we all support and push each other not just in class, but outside these walls as well.”
This has certainly been Ayesha Bin Khali's experience. The Emirati, who has been with GetFitChick for three years, calls the gym her "spiritual place". She says her ability to be more organised and focused on her goals is directly influenced by the discipline she learnt through her fitness regime. "The self-control I have learnt here has carried over to every other detail of my life, and made me a more confident and positive person. It's a place of progress where you can push yourself and grind your ability to be grow and be strong."
Ah Koy, too, felt the community rallying around her once again when she was going through menopause recently, an experience almost as challenging for her as breast cancer, and one that made her fear she had early onset dementia. Even family and loved ones can often fail to empathise with the confusing symptoms, which for Ah Koy included mood swings, weight gain and insomnia. “This year, I feel so much more confident about things because menopause doesn’t only affect your body, but your self-esteem. Being with other women in GFC, and Sal and Kirsteen knowing this about me and helping me get through it, shows the power of community is an amazing thing.”