Grimy no more: why street gyms are draw­ing in crowds

You won’t find them in five-star ho­tels or up­mar­ket shop­ping malls. But smaller street gyms that keep prices low are boom­ing, writes John Den­nehy

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - John Den­nehy is deputy editor of The Re­view.

Out­side Life­time Fit­ness on Hazza bin Zayed Street, you can hear the mu­sic blar­ing and feet pound­ing the tread­mills. Up­stairs in the gym, about 20 peo­ple are work­ing out – some snap­ping pho­tos and shar­ing them on so­cial me­dia. The trainer, Shefin Joseph, walks the floor and guides mem­bers on how to use the weight ma­chines.

“Ev­ery­one likes a healthy life now,” he tells me. “We charge Dh500 for four months – that’s not a big price, right? So any­one can ex­er­cise. I know one gym charges Dh1,000 for a month. Even guys who are not into ex­er­cis­ing, when they see the price, they sign up.”

Wel­come to the world of smaller street gyms. You won’t find them in flashy ho­tels, up­mar­ket malls or ex­pen­sive coun­try clubs. But take a walk around the streets of the cap­i­tal and its sub­urbs and you will see them ev­ery­where.

Here, prices are low – most have daily rates from Dh25 to Dh35 – and they do not in­sist on ex­pen­sive in­tro­duc­tory fees.

While I’m there, a man steps off the tread­mill and leaves to start work at one of the shops on the build­ing’s ground floor – for­merly known as De­fence Road, the street is famed for its strip of mo­bile phone shops. Four stu­dents who’ve come straight from the Higher Col­leges of Tech­nol­ogy cam­pus are also hang­ing out. One of the stu­dents, Emi­rati Omar Bal­faqeeh, comes to the gym six times a week. For him, it is like a com­mu­nity.

“Th­ese gyms are in the neigh­bour­hood so you don’t have to travel. It al­most feels like fam­ily, it’s closer to your home and it’s cheaper,” says Bal­faqeeh, who is in his early 20s.

“If you ask a coach here what should I do, he will tell you, but in ho­tels you have to pay for a pro­gramme and it’s ex­pen­sive. And you get the same qual­ity of ma­chines here.”

In the past few years, gym fa­cil­i­ties in res­i­den­tial apart­ment blocks have im­proved as rents have risen but ac­cess to a gym is still out of the fi­nan­cial reach of many peo­ple.

For ex­am­ple, one Ma­rina Mall gym charges Dh100 for a day and Dh3,300 for three months, while a five-star ho­tel chain charges Dh250 for daily ac­cess to its health club. Un­doubt­edly many of the older, back­street gyms have tra­di­tion­ally been in­tim­i­dat­ing for new­com­ers. They were male-dom­i­nated and geared to­wards body­build­ing, with a lim­ited se­lec­tion of equip­ment. This en­vi­ron­ment was less likely to be wel­com­ing for women but that’s slowly chang­ing.

Train­ers and own­ers say the trend has moved away from ex­treme body­build­ing to fit­ness and im­prov­ing physique. More women are now at­tend­ing, with gym-go­ers of ev­ery na­tion­al­ity. The hot weather and beach liv­ing only ac­cel­er­ates this trend.

Medo Khalil runs his gym from the base­ment of a build­ing off Delma Street. Khalil, a cham­pion body­builder from Egypt, came to the UAE 15 years ago and opened his Go Fit­ness Gym last June.

“We are dif­fer­ent to the ho­tels. We care more,” he tells me.

“It’s pri­vate so we try to help peo­ple as much as we can. Ho­tels don’t have all the ma­chines ei­ther. We are trusted more, we give them train­ing pro­grammes, teach them the right way.”

Go Fit­ness charges Dh30 for a day and Dh350 for a month.

“Ho­tels or big gyms have mem­ber­ships for six months or a year,” says Khalil.

“Some peo­ple can’t af­ford that and pre­fer to pay monthly. They have to save money for food or to send to their fam­ily.”

Khalil’s gym holds aer­o­bics and Zumba classes and he says about 75 per cent of peo­ple who at­tend are there now purely for fit­ness. In the eight months his gym has been open, Khalil says there has been a marked in­crease in peo­ple at­tend­ing. “Some gyms you go and pay mem­ber­ship and no one shows you what to do. If some­one can’t af­ford to pay for a per­sonal trainer, it doesn’t mean we don’t care. We care and show them.”

Th­ese gyms are in the neigh­bour­hood so you don’t have to travel. It al­most feels like fam­ily, it’s closer to your home and it’s cheaper Omar Bal­faqeeh, stu­dent and mem­ber of Life­time Fit­ness Gym

John Den­nehy / The Na­tional

The en­trance to Go Fit­ness Gym off Delma Street, just one of the street gyms that have sprung up in Abu Dhabi.

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