UAE Portrait of a Nation: Emirati sisters’ fitness centre attracts local clientele

One year ago, they opened Tone Fitness, which now has 99 per cent Emirati clientele, inspiring the community to get moving, with classes from yoga to Zumba.

Faced with a lack of choices to continue their old hobby or start a fun new one, the trio bounced back with a great idea for a new business that helps not just them but also a community of fitness minded women.

ABU DHABI // Hind, Mariam and Amna Balfaqeh loved yoga but when their teacher – who taught the three sisters at home – moved to Dubai, the women felt lost.

It left a gap in their lives – and they found there was a lack of class options available for Emirati women who wanted a more active lifestyle.

Determined not to lose what yoga brought to their lives, the sisters began thinking outside the box.

“We didn’t have anything in the community here in Al Maqta so we thought it was a business opportunity,” says Mariam, 33.

A year ago, the sisters, who all work full time for semi-government organisations, opened Tone Fitness. “It was something we did as a family,” Mariam says.

The news of the new facility spread by word of mouth and – with classes from yoga to Zumba – the sisters soon were inspiring others to make it a family affair and get moving. From sisters, to aunts to mothers, the studio crosses the barriers of generation, the Balfaqeh sisters say, as it provides a culturally sensitive space for their clientele, which is 99 per cent Emirati, to work out.

“The women are comfortable,” Mariam says. “For prayer, they know we know to turn off the music.

“It’s cultural sensitivities that they know we notice, like class times changing for Ramadan, these things are important.”

All three Balfaqeh sisters work between eight and 10 hours a day in their full-time jobs so the project has not been easy for them to balance – but it has brought them closer.

“In the beginning there was a lot of shouting,” Mariam says.

“But now we can’t just fall out for a weekend. That’s not acceptable.

“I was very stubborn before but now I have to hear their points of view. We learnt a lot about communication. We’re sisters and really good friends.”

Amna, 29, agrees the sisters have overcome their differences. “Now, everyone knows their responsibilities,” she says. “In the beginning there wasn’t that clarity.

“Now it’s easier and the relationship got stronger. There’s more discussion and less arguing.”

Mariam says encouraging others to lead a healthy lifestyle is “very important” to the sisters and, Amna says, it has been rewarding to see people trying out new forms of exercise.

“They can come here and do many different things and they like that,” she says.

Hind, 31, says running the studio has had a great impact on her life. “It’s changed my life, in terms of both food and exercise,” she says.

It has also allowed her to experience the trials of running a business. “We thought it would be easy,” Hind says. “But getting into it, it’s really not as easy as it seems. It’s been very challenging for me to juggle both jobs. At first it was really hard to balance. I would rarely see family or friends. But it was only for a short time while we set things up.”

As for the future, there is much work ahead, but that’s fine with the sisters. “It’s part of us, part of our personalities,” Mariam says.

When they travel now they are always on the lookout for new classes and ideas, ensuring they stay ahead in the ever-evolving fitness market.

It is a challenge, but one that makes them an even stronger family unit. “We have each other’s backs and our family is backing us and believing in what we do,” Mariam says. “It’s really important for us to have that.”