Facilitating fitness

December 11, 2019

After her research showed barriers to participation for Somali women, CBS student Fahima Osman successfully campaigned for women-only workout spaces on campus.

Fahima Osman outside RecWell

The Twin Cities are home to a large Somali community. Like many immigrant communities, rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease are higher here than in their homelands. Numerous factors fuel the discrepancy, and activity levels are often cited as a contributor. 

In her own community, Fahima Osman, a third-year student in CBS, noticed that many Somali women did not feel comfortable exercising in co-ed spaces. With the support of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) and a research mentor, Osman and CLA undergraduate Sumaya Noor conducted research in the local community.

Under guidance of Professor Sarah Reddy Sevcik Tummala in the School of Public Health, the two undergraduate students carried out interviews with individuals at the University and in the community. They interviewed men and women ages 18 to 65. The reasons men gave for not working out varied — from gym costs to lack of time. But about 90 percent of the responses from women mentioned lack of women-only gym spaces as a major barrier. Because female modesty is valued in Somali culture, this wasn’t a huge surprise to Osman.

Osman and Noor presented the research findings at the UROP Research Symposium and their poster caught the eye of Paul Silicano, associate professor in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, and Biophysics. He encouraged the students to present their findings to the University Recreation and Wellness Center (RecWell) staff. Silicano helped Osman and Noor identify key contacts and facilitated the next steps.

After Osman and Noor met with RecWell staff and distributed surveys to gauge interest and preferred times, wheels went into motion. RecWell piloted women-only workout spaces this fall. Currently they’re offering a women-only cardio space from 7 - 9 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday. Women can also gather from 8 - 10 a.m. on Saturdays in the upper fitness center for weights and cardio. Depending on interest and funds, RecWell may begin offering women- only fitness classes as well.

“It’s very exciting that it has finally come together,” says Osman. “One unexpected benefit is building a strong female community centered around fitness. This would have been much more challenging for some Muslim women to participate without this private space.” - Claire Wilson