How 4 Emirati women are embracing the Dubai Fitness Challenge

Dubai - High-energy cycling instructor, personal trainer or unarmed combat and physical training, these wonder women are certainly spearheading a change

By Nasreen Abdulla

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Futtaim Beljaflah is a cycling instructor
Futtaim Beljaflah is a cycling instructor

Published: Thu 25 Nov 2021, 3:29 PM

With the fifth edition of the Dubai Fitness Challenge underway, the changes the city has seen in terms of fitness has been immense. More people are getting health-conscious and various kinds of boutique gyms are opening up. However, the most significant one has been the increasing number of Emiratis spearheading change in the fitness industry. Today, we introduce to you four Emirati women who have been creating ripples in their own ways.

Futtaim Beljaflah is a personal trainer and cycling instructor at CRANK Abu Dhabi. Mother to a baby girl, Futtaim left her full-time job to concentrate on her fitness career and motherhood and she couldn’t be happier about her decision. “It’s been over a year since I started teaching the Ride classes and it has been the most rewarding experience,” she says. “To motivate and touch people’s lives, that is what keeps me going.”

Fitness did not happen accidentally to Futtaim. She has been active since she was young and has always liked to experiment with new things. “Being physically active is like an addiction for me,” she laughs. “If I don’t exercise, I notice that it affects my mood and stress levels.”

However, her life changed when she attended her first cycling class. “I fell in love with the energy, the music, the movements, and the feeling you get when you walk out of the class,” she says. “It’s different than any kind of exercise, there’s something so powerful about moving to the beat of the music. It’s like my therapy.”

She then knew that this is what she wanted to do fulltime. After gaining her certifications, she became an instructor at CRANK in Abu Dhabi. “The best part about being a cycling instructor is that you become part of other people’s journey,” she says. “No matter what their goal is, how they are feeling that day, and why they are in this class, they are giving me 45 minutes of their time, and that alone motivates me to give them the best experience, so they can leave my class feeling better than they did coming in.”

When she became pregnant last year, the avid fitness enthusiast didn’t let it slow her down at all. “I didn’t change much of my regime during pregnancy,” she says. “I was still teaching my classes at CRANK and did two weight training sessions a week. I was always watching out for my heart rate, and I only pushed to 80 per cent of my maximum heart rate. I added prenatal pilates into my exercise routine to keep my core strength. If your body is used to exercise before pregnancy, then you can safely continue the same regime as long as you make sure that you are feeling comfortable and listen to your body. It is really important to listen to your body as it will tell you when it can continue and when you need to stop.”

Futtaim is grateful for the fact that she didn’t have any complications and continued teaching until the ninth month of her pregnancy. However, she does have a word of advice for other pregnant women who want to exercise. “One of the things that really helped me during the third trimester was a belly band,” she said. “I highly recommend that women use it during their workouts especially as their belly becomes bigger and heavier. The belly band helps support your belly and can help reduce back pain.”

Futtaim is also grateful for the endless support she receives from her family and the Emirati community for her fitness journey. She feels that the attitude towards fitness has changed in the country over the last couple of years. “Years ago, the only option we had was going to a gym,” she says. “Today, you find so many different boutique fitness studios with unique concepts. People are also keen to try out new forms of physical activity, they also look for that community feeling and sense of belonging they get from going to boutique studios.”

She is hoping that in the future, more Emiratis will take on roles of fitness instructors and personal trainers. “Right now, there are a handful of Emirati women in the fitness field, but I would love to see more in the future.”

Noora Toobji, Jiu Jitsu fighter
Noora Toobji, Jiu Jitsu fighter

Noora Toobji is a jiu jitsu fighter, CrossFit enthusiast and certified personal trainer. In addition, she has a day job in the HR department of Emirates. “I always loved fitness as a child,” she says. “Since my kindergarten days, I was always into one or the other activity. I have dabbled with athletics, gymnastics and volleyball. I have also played football with my brothers in the neighbourhood. So, I have always been a very active person. However, I found my true passion a couple of years ago in jiu jitsu and CrossFit.”

Since then, Noora has participated in several jiu jitsu competitions and won medals. She says her family was initially unsure about her interest in jiu jitsu. “My family loves the fact that I am active,” she says. “They have been supportive of my sporty lifestyle. However, jiu jitsu was something new to them. They were worried I would get hurt. But all that changed when I participated in my first tournament and won a silver medal. Now my sisters and parents will tell anyone who will listen about how I am a jiu jitsu fighter.”

Noora thinks the attitude towards fitness in the UAE has changed magnificently and she feels a huge part of the credit goes to Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai. “The leadership of the country has always encouraged both men and women to be active and to play sport,” she says. “The 30X30 initiative by Sheikh Hamdan has played a huge role in motivating the community to get fitter and better. I think the most amazing time for fitness in the country is now. Every year, I love the fact that for a month the entire city turns into such a fitness-oriented place. And every year, I feel, the momentum of that month carries on for a long time. That is why I feel the people in the city are becoming more health-conscious.”

As she spends her time learning more about jiu jitsu and CrossFit, Noora hopes to see some things related to fitness change in the country. “I want more education about fitness in schools,” she says. “Not just a physical education class. I want the kids to learn about anatomy and nutrition and how fitness impacts the entire body. I also want self-defence classes to be taught in schools to all children. I think that is a very important thing for them to learn.”

Sumaya Al Marzooqi and Bashayer Al Obeidi, Yoga Studio Owners
Sumaya Al Marzooqi and Bashayer Al Obeidi, Yoga Studio Owners

Sumaya Al Marzooqi and Bashayer Al Obeidi are the owners of Sharjah’s first boutique yoga and pilates fitness studio, Barakah. “Barakah is a space that we both always desired,” said Sumaya. “A space where women could practice unique forms of fitness and receive high quality training from specialized instructors in our city. That’s where the idea of the first ladies-only studio in Sharjah came from.”

“We chose the name Barakah to represent growth; a main pillar in every individual’s fitness journey,” said Bashayer. “We opened our studio in August 2020 with the aim of sharing the benefits of yoga with others.”

However, their tryst with fitness started much earlier. “I always had a passion for sports,” said Sumaya. “I began with athletics, then I played for the national shooting team for 6 years before moving to yoga.”

Bashayer’s story was similar. “I experimented with a variety of fitness forms,” she said. “From cardio to weight training to boxing and spinning, I tried a bit of everything. But I can say that my view of fitness took a shift and my true passion for it started as I discovered yoga. It was a way for me to release, recharge and grow stronger, not only physically but also mentally. I felt the amazing effects it had on me after every single session, from stress release to feeling stronger in my body, experiencing a drastic change in my flexibility and mobility, and finding myself in an overall better state mentally.

Both the women were indebted for the support they received from their friends, family and community. “Many of them now practice in our studio which we are very grateful for,” they said. Sumaya has already certified as a yoga teacher while Bashayer wants to start teaching. Both want to spread their knowledge about yoga and want other women to benefit like they did. Most of all, they are impressed by the change in attitudes towards fitness in the country.

“It’s very different than how it was 10 years ago,” Sumaya said. “Women are encouraged to practice different sports.”

“There is now more awareness about why fitness is important beyond traditional ideas of weight loss,” said Bashayer. “It also makes me truly happy to see dedicated spaces for unique forms of fitness such as yoga and pilates now available to the community throughout the country.”

In future, the partners want to see more women getting into fitness. “In a very busy modern world, I wish to see women prioritizing more time for themselves to practice all forms of fitness and focus not just on the body but on the mind as well,” Sumaya said.

“I also hope that we can see an increased shift in mindset and approach to fitness, seeing it more as an amazing tool in our continuous journey to better health and well-being rather than a short-term goal,” Bashayer concluded.

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