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Overcoming Exercise Barriers in South Asian women

According to statistics , as a woman, over 40, a member of the BME community, of South Asian heritage and Muslim, I should be as good as stationary! But let’s be fair, it’s not just Asian women that are not active enough, trends indicate that women on the whole just don’t get enough exercise to be of benefit to health.


Nur fitness Gals showing us exercise is fun for all!

The thing is that I am bucking the trend along with a small minority of other women like me (a horrifyingly low 14% in my ethnic group). I know I have been able to overcome barriers because exercise has been a normal part of my family life for generations. I remember spending long summers in Lahore mimicking my grandfather’s Yoga positions and burning off the evening meal with daily brisk walks on the track at the Gymkhana. But this is the experience of a minority of UK Asians. For the vast majority, structured exercise is an alien activity, culturally irrelevant, undervalued and low priority. It is vital to normalise exercise in the South Asian community, after all, we really have drawn the short straw when it comes to genetics and health risks. Think diabetes and heart disease!

shutterstock_44460409When you ask an Asian woman her reasons for not exercising she will answer as most of the population would: time, work, family commitments, confidence, cost, boredom and motivation are some common complaints. These barriers exist everywhere, regardless of race or religion, but for certain communities there are deep-rooted, complex cultural influences on health behaviours  that make overcoming these barriers even more challenging. Much research has been done specifically on Asian communities providing a much needed insight for those involved in developing interventions to engage this “at-risk” group.

I think most sports and physical activity providers are now aware of what they need to do to engage faith groups, e.g. Muslim women, how they can provide culturally appropriate classes and how to improve the facilities they provide to engage and retain participants from the BME communities.

I don’t want to talk about all the negative barriers that prevent South Asians accessing exercise opportunities, or repeat the same old, well-known interventions but rather, I would like to share what I think really works and why! Let’s cut to the chase. I believe there are really two vital ingredients needed to facilitate overcoming all the other barriers:

1.    FUNDING:

The brutal truth is people will just not pay for something they do not value. Classes have to be free or low cost to engage and retain. Service providers must be subsided and supported by councils and public health organisations. Money pumped into these services will ease pressures on the NHS in the long term.


This naturally takes care of many barriers. Female Asian instructors, who genuinely care about the community, will not have to study strategies and interventions to make their target market feel at ease. They can make classes fun, appropriate and culturally relevant quite naturally. They are trusted by the participants.

Role models are not just the amazing athletes and sports champions we see on TV, they are our mums, sisters and neighbours. Local instructors with no sporting background can be trained to provide fun accessible classes like Zumba, Nordic walking, cycling instruction, fitness classes, walk leaders etc. Women need to build their confidence and once they do, I think there will be no stopping them! Once women get moving they will be the ones ensuring their children get active too. Only members of the community can change a community, and a mother is the best place to start.

Real world examples where these vital ingredients are actually being used to benefit the BME communities are Be Active Birmingham and Nur Fitness.

Be Active, Birmingham

This hugely successful project is backed by Birmingham City Council and offers all Birmingham shutterstock_101597713residents free sessions of swimming, group classes and gym sessions at various allotted times of the day.

Amazingly, 60% of participants are from BME communities. Why? Two vital interventions:

It’s FREE! Cost is a massive barrier for Asian communities many of whom live in the most deprived areas of the city. With deeply ingrained beliefs about family, cultural and religious duties being paramount, exercise is so low a priority that even a small cost is too large a barrier to cross. shutterstock_5161999

ROLE MODELS! Be Active has engaged with Saheli, a community fitness organization “dedicated to improving community health and wellbeing…” Founded by the Balsall Heath residents, and now a registered charity relying heavily on funding, it is managed and run by Asian men and women from the local area who are passionate about the service. By using Saheli to deliver exercise programmes, including the Active Parks programme, classes can be tailored to BME participants and role models gently and patiently build confidence over time and inspire women to try activities out of their comfort zone.The latest great success has been engaging a group of Pakistani and Indian women in training for and participating in a half marathon. Brilliant!


Nur Fitness, Middlesbrough

Shazia Noor, Co-Founder of Nur Fitness, an award-winning fitness company found herself “in the right place at the right time” when she was introduced to a key contact in Public Health who asked her to be involved in the Diabetes Prevention Programme. After securing funding for equipment, training and providing classes, ambitious and business-savvy Shazia now runs a very successful service which you can find out more about here. The key to this success?


Heavily reliant upon external funding and sponsors, classes are either free or very low cost. As Shazia herself says “Without funding, I couldn’t run this business”


1235135_550194008363376_2046419824_nNur fitness trained 6 local women to become instructors which  effectively ensured the local women became interested in potential opportunities for their own development and participants became inspired and encouraged seeing their friends/daughters/ neighbours getting fitter

“I quickly realised I needed instructors that different women could relate to: the older women, women who wear headscarves, young mums etc.”

Now looking to branch out to men, Shazia has trained her husband to provide classes to older men at the mosque! Great idea and again breaking down many barriers in one fell swoop!

14824_658889554160487_1703721457970319925_nNur Instructors are not athletes or sports professionals, they are “just regular women” who have a deep understanding of the community and so they can provide fun, relaxed and informal classes tailored to Asian women using Bollywood music and locations that the women feel safe in. No-music classes are provided for the strictest Muslim women too. As women have grown in confidence and fitness, more challenging sessions are becoming popular (Insanity, Boot camp, Kettlebells).The team are always encouraging and normalising exercise in terms of values that Asians hold in high regard: family, education and religion, getting that message across verbally in classes but also through a vibrant Facebook site, Ramadan campaigns and links with mosques and GP surgeries. Nur Fitness has been so successful that it has now become a key for public health organisations to access a group that they previously couldn’t. Through the classes, the instructors signpost the women and families to health checks, mental health services and cervical cancer campaigns


So, there are glimmers of hope for the future and showcases that are proving to be real beaconslighting the way forward. But we need more! And frankly, we need a motivated community fuelled by passionate individuals from those communities who are trained, encouraged and supported to provide fun exercise opportunities in accessible locations at a price that is affordable to those that need it the most.