The craze for fitness centres can work out well

Justin Thomas unpacks the recent popularity boom in UAE fitness centres

Participants of the Miss Indian UAE during the dance rehearsal for the Miss India UAE finale at Fitness Mantra in Business Bay in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
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A noticeable new addition to the UAE’s mall-scape has been the proliferation of gymnasia, or fitness centres. Global brands such as Gold’s Gym and Fitness First are now slogging it out for the hearts and minds of the would-be-fit. In addition to the branded mall-based gyms, home-grown facilities are also becoming more numerous. You will even drive past the occasional old-school high street gym. This will typically be called something like “the power house”, and the exterior will feature a larger-than-life poster with a Mr Universe contender posing in briefs, smiling like an air hostess.

If further evidence were needed for the UAE’s current fitness centre boom, then one has to look no further than footwear. From sandals to stilettos to sneakers, there has definitely been a shift in female footwear. Choo and Louboutin are now frequently joined by Nike in the shoe closet, and on the feet of mall-goers.

This trend, however, goes way beyond the UAE. Globally, the last two decades were a period of enormous growth for the fitness industry. In the US, for instance, the number of fitness centres nearly doubled between 2000 and 2008. Many cities now even boast 24-hour gyms, with members using fingerprint ID to gain access.

When house music and the rave scene became all the rage in the 1980s and 1990s, it gave birth to the superstar disc jockey. DJs such as Pete Tong, Sasha and Armin Van Buuren became celebrities. I predict that our current fitness craze will give birth to the superstar personal trainer. There are already a few fabled PTs in the UAE. They are well known on Instagram for their physique, flexibility and freaky exercise techniques. I recently saw a clip of one of Abu Dhabi’s more well-known PTs, harnessed up and pulling a flashy car like some kind of human workhorse. I was impressed.

Like everything else, exercise can become excessive. While the cosmetic and health benefits of regular physical activity are already celebrated, exercise also has a shadowy side. The human body can become a canvas upon which we express our distress, and excessive exercise or dieting ultimately becomes a maladaptive coping mechanism.

For women, this might be labelled anorexia nervosa. For men, the idea of “machismo nervosa” or “manorexia” has also been strongly associated with gym culture. Manorexia tends to involve excessive body building along with binge eating, a restrictive diet, the use of diuretics, repeated self-weighing, mirror-checking and the use of anabolic steroids. None of the above is particularly healthy.

The pathological side aside, mostly we enjoy moderate beneficial exercise, or at least we enjoy the feeling it gives us once the workout is over. My only other issue with contemporary gym culture is that it seems, at times, extravagant and wasteful. Some of us will drive 30 minutes to the gym to work out for an hour and then celebrate the dubious fact that we have just burnt 800 calories. However, many of us don’t consider cleaning up after ourselves, or carrying our own groceries to the car, to be equally worthy calorie-burning opportunities.

I would love to see gyms and workout classes harness all that expended energy for something civic-minded. Bouncing around to hip hop-infused salsa beats is no doubt great fun, but how about a workout class that meets some community need? How about a kind of Zumba, the popular dance-based workout, with brooms, or hammers for more macho gym goers?

Another idea, one I know already exists on the fringes, would be to harness the movement from all those rowing machines, treadmills and exercise bikes to generate and store electricity. There is a gym in Bristol in the UK that started doing this in 2013. In such an eco workout we would offset our carbon footprint as well as our caloric intake: a win-win situation. Rather than just boast about how many calories we burnt, we could also take pride in how many, fossil-fuel-free, watts of electricity we generated.

Dr Justin Thomas is an associate professor of psychology at Zayed University

On Twitter: @DrJustinThomas