Fitness revolution: how one Baghdad gym is building a community

Finding an escape from the negativity of daily life, locals head to F45 to release their stress

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As Iraq rages with protests and the death toll mounts, a fitness revolution is happening in Baghdad's uptown Karrada district.

Australian fitness chain F45 has set up shop in the city, seeing an opportunity in an increasingly open and driven young population.

The gym is carving out its place not only as somewhere for people to improve their health but also be part of a community.

"With so much negativity around us, it's nice to create something where people are able to vent and get positive vibes from a healthy environment," Yazen Al Timimi, owner of the F45 branch in Baghdad, told The National.

The F45 Training - Baghdad Karada Team. Courtesy F45 Training Karada
The F45 Training - Baghdad Karada Team. Courtesy F45 Training Karada

The US-led invasion that toppled former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 opened Iraq to the world after a quarter of a century of political and cultural isolation. Healthy living was never a priority for the country while it was cut off from the international community.

It was followed by years of civil unrest and conflict, most recently a wave of anti-government protests that has rocked the country for the past four months.

But the surge in health and fitness clubs is a sign that Iraq is slowly emerging from the hardship.

“It’s a place where people can come in, block everything around them and focus on their exercise and sweat out all the negativity,” Mr Al Timimi said.

F45 has become a "mini community" where people can come and feel safe, he said.

Although members come to the gym to relieve their stress, there are some who come to train and then join the protests, Mustafa Salam, one of F45's personal trainers, told The National.

Despite their daily encounters with road closures, traffic and protests, people are committed to attend the classes, he said.

“When we first opened, people were surprised when they saw the gym, because it’s a new concept in Iraq,” Mr Salam said. He's been involved in the fitness sector for 10 years.

The F45 Training - Baghdad Karada Team. Courtesy F45 Training Karada
Women work out at an F45 Training session. Courtesy F45 Training Karada

Since the early 2000s bodybuilding has grown in popularity in the country and is practised in more traditional gyms.

But F45 differs from other gyms in the capital, with upbeat music, no mirrors on the walls and friendly hosts. High intensity group workouts for both men and women last for 45 minutes.

Before the start of any class, new members are introduced to each other with a round of applause.

“Members have a lot of encouragement and motivation from us, to help them improve their fitness level, lose weight, and maintain their health,” the fitness instructor, 30, said.

But security is still an overall concern for residents across the capital. Some people have let that get in the way of maintaining their health and fitness.

Mr Al Timimi says Iraqis are resilient.

“Some days when I hear there’s been a bloodbath on the streets I think that no one will show up, but I head to the gym and I see the classes are full,” he said.

Years of hardship have left people with a feeling of “numbness”, he said.

As the protest movement has normalised the mixing of men and women on the streets, F45 has attempted to do the same with fitness.

The gym contrasts sharply with the Iraq's cultural norms, where women's freedoms have been restricted in recent years.

Gyms were not seen as a place for them, with men and women traditionally training in segregated areas. Some gyms have women-only hours.

“F45 is breaking that cultural barrier, women and men are working out together comfortably in the same room,” Mr Al Timimi said.

The gym is on the expensive side, however, and costs 150,000 Iraqi dinars (Dh460) for men and 120,000 Iraqi dinars (Dh370) for women.

Despite the positive start the gym has had, Mr Al Timimi said the country’s security situation and public services had already taken a hefty toll on the business.

Iraq’s electricity sector never fully recovered from the damage it sustained in the First Gulf War, the 1990s sanctions, chaos and looting that followed the US invasion, or the poor reconstruction efforts that came after that, leaving the country with frequent power shortages.

“Our work out depends on exercises displayed on a TV that is connected to the internet. Our music and workout videos are directly streamed from F45 so we are very dependent on electricity,” Mr Al Timimi said.

The gym has a generator as a backup in case of an electricity cut. "The set up was expensive from an electricity and internet standpoint," he said.

Nevertheless, F45 members have found a way around the chaos of the streets and shortage of public services to ensure they never miss a class.