Saudi Arabia: Exercise Can Prove Dangerous to Women

There has already been intervention by government ministries towards women and exercise.  Last year many fitness facilities for women were declared illegal if they were not approved by government ministries.  Instead of being viewed as a business, because these were places where women exercised rather than shop or get their hair done, government approval was required.  And now another setback has occurred for women who live in Asir Province.  There is a popular street in Asir where women like to walk or job (properly covered and attired) between the evening prayers.  However the Haia (Muttawa) has now banned the street declaring it is unsafe for women.  The Haia stated their reasons for banning is that the street is poorly lit and in an area of town known for drug addicts and other crime.  Fitness enthusiast R.S Al-Shahri contradicts the Haia claim and says that the street is well-lit and safe.  The name of the street was not identified in the Arab news article.

In Riyadh along King Abdullah Road, there is a stretch of the street which is referred to as “Pregnant Ladies Street” since it is also a popular area where many women (and families) like to walk after the evening prayers.  By then the sun has gone down and the day is more comfortable and suitable for walking.  Yet when compared to the population of Riyadh, it is only a very small representation that walks.

Many of the Saudi schools, primary and secondary, do not have physical fitness for children.  Women are not encouraged to exercise.  Unless a woman is very motivated and disciplined to work out within her home, not every woman can easily arrange her schedule to go out and walk or organize transport and pay the fees to join a private fitness center.  On the other hand, men can go out in modest shorts and jog as they wish.  Fitness centers for men are in abundance.  One can see the male fitness centers from the streets and see the men working out through the large plate glass windows which are typical fronts for these facilities.

While the men may work out, women are expected to either gather in each others homes where they enjoy coffee, tea and sweets or get together and stroll leisurely at the malls while they shop.  I’ve not observed an emphasis on encouraging women to also have regular fitness programs.  Keeping fit is not about vanity, it is mandatory to keep one healthy and strong.

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42 Responses

  1. Exercise also keeps your brain functioning at its peak. It is a great anti-depressant. Your health truly depends on it.

    What else will they curtail from a woman’s life?

    She is not allowed freedom of movement, of thought, of speech, of health…what’s left?

  2. This is one of the reasons there is a big problem amoungst Saudi women with diabetes. No exercise, unhealthy food, it all contributes.

  3. Theres nothing like a good hard sweat to make you feel good. I wonder if any of the women have a really nice gym in their home……because under their abaya, i mean arent they vain???

  4. I am not a big exerciser, but love sauna. Anyone knows where in Riyadh I can buy home infrared sauna? Not the portable one, but made of wood. I tried searching the net, but there is no info about it. I know that in Bahrain it is available…

  5. Umm, how to say this? That’s the whole point. Women are not supposed to be healthy and strong, because then they would be harder to control – they would be able to put up resistance to abuse.

  6. I’ve heard all sorts of ridiculous excuses here for women not exercising – we shouldn’t go out of the house creating unnecessary temptation “just walking around”; we have to wear unislamic attire (such as swimming suits – even the “islamic” ones are viewed inappropriate by some); no DVD’s with scantily clad instructors or music for home exercise; vigorous exercise might break the hymen (bike riding is a big no no), we might build up muscle, thus making our appearance less feminine….blah, blah, blah. The movements of prayer are enough to refresh the mind and condition the body. Okay, I’ll acknowledge those benefits of prayer, but what is forgotten is that in the good old days, men and women were naturally physically active just to get through their day and survive. We have dangerous sedentary lifestyles now, so exercise must be encouraged for all.

  7. a fit woman is a dangerous woman…in more ways than one. hence the lack of facilities to support female fitness.

    they sure now how to control them at every last angle, don’t they?

  8. sabiwabi, I wouldn’t say they *know*. They sure do try, but I am told that when there’s a will, there’s a way – if a woman *really* wants to do something ‘they’ don’t want her doing, she’ll find a way…

  9. There’s nothing to say here. It’s all an abomination. I had to chuckle about the muttawa talking about too many drug addicts. Hello!!!! Drugs in KSA! If the muttawa know about it whey are they not dealing with the druggies instead of women?? It’s just too bizarre for me first thing in the morning. So all the rules and regulations in the world are not going to keep out drugs and alcohol either.

  10. @Lada- for a sauna in Riyadh, all you need to do is step outside :-) My very first impression of Riyadh when I emerged from the airport was that it felt like a dry heat sauna. You know the kind with the sign that says “Plesase don’t throw water on the rocks.”

  11. I’m not sure how feminine an obese woman who finds it hard to walk is but there’s definitely an abundance of them here as I see them in the hospital every day. Its such a shame because these woman are probably only 40-50 years old and they are so frail and unhealthy. The hospital system here is so overburdened with these people. I read a worrying statement in an article on Arab News today about girls exercising:

    “Participants asked Al-Fayez whether the ministry had any plan to introduce physical education for girls in order to solve problems with obesity. She did not answer the question, but offered the view that even male students who attend physical education suffer from such problems. She however urged female students to practice physical exercise to keep themselves fit.”

    To me that says that there is an opinion that physical education may not keep you healthy so why bother doing it in the first place?

    Its good to see some articles in the news about childhood obesity but these people need to get off their big fat behinds and look at all the health problems around them. Surely there’s somewhere in the Quaran that says men and women should keep healthy. If not that was a massive oversight.

  12. The women here die early : <

  13. Some of my Saudi female friends do have gyms in their homes. One friend has the ideal set up with a fully equipped gym in a separate small building on their property and its right beside the swimming pool. It is private so she and her daughters (and any guests) can work out as they please. This is what many families who have the capability (ie, finances) like to do.

    Regarding saunas, I’m not sure. I’ve not seen them myself in Riyadh.

    I do feel badly for women who do not have large courtyards with light, or do not choose to linger in their courtyards. The lack of exercise and the lack of motivation to exercise is sad as it does lead to such a sedentary life. I agree with the comments about too many obese women and at such young ages in Saudi. A lot of women tend to lead a nocturnal life but one which revolves on visiting with other women in the homes, talking and eating foods which also add the pounds.

    It’s sad that too many Saudi girls do not get the chance to ride freely on a bicycle. Or that mom’s can’t run around with their children in the parks not worrying about the abayas. I had great times with my son and I riding down slides together…but I’ve not seen that in Saudi’s public parks.

  14. And so do many of the men. ):

  15. The gyms are a wonderful outlet for women that are usually in the home the most of the day. I don’t see why any man would feel threatened by women who go to them.

  16. The gym I go to here in LA probably has more female attendance than male. Gyms used to be a “guy thing” back in the 1980s in the US but that’s certainly not the case now. In fact, most gyms around here have a staffed daycare are for kids to play in while their parents (usually moms from what I can see!) work out. I think it’s a great form of recreation, and it’s obviously very popular with both men and women. And not only does working out promote good physical health, it’s a known fact that people who get plenty of exercise are in a better mental state of mind than those who don’t as well!

    If Saudi guys are serious about caring for the welfare of Saudi women as I so often have read the Saudi clerics arguing, they should be 100% behind opening up gyms for women and making them easily accessible and “fun” places to go.

  17. Craig- that would then be admitted that a woman is allowed enjoyment in her life besides praying, cooking, eating, and talking (gossip)and having kids and taking care of hubby. Fun? I know some who are hard pressed to define that term.

  18. In eastern we have lots of Gyms ,, i go to one myself ( le rendez-vous) yeah it’s n french lol. I donno about Assir but i wouldnt be surprised they’re very strict.

  19. All businesses have to go through government approval to get a license to open. There are rules and requirements to be followed and met. Gyms for men and women are no different.

    I am not one to defend everything the Haia does. God knows they are not beyond error and fault. But I question whether fitness enthusiast R.S Al-Shahr is fully aware of all the problems and incidents that have occurred for some women on that Asir walking path that the Haia likely had to deal with and which could have led to the closure.

    There are many walking paths in Riyadh. Pregnant Ladies Street is only one. Just about every neighborhood has one somewhere near. I know many neighborhood parks have walking/jogging paths and I see plenty of Saudi women walking them every day – usually in the very early mornings and evenings.

    Fitness centers for men are in abundance but there are several in Riyadh for women. But let’s be realistic. It really is not necessary to have a separate room at home, a courtyard with open space, or expensive equipment to be able to work out and be physically fit. A gym might be be helpful for some who have little motivation to work out on their own but it is certainly not a necessity.

    In my own home country of America where there are fitness centers galore for men and women, exercise tv shows every day, work out DVDs, inexpensive home equipment, plenty of freedom to wear jogging shorts and run where ever you wish, 64% of adults are overweight and 26% are obese. Childhood obesity is skyrocketing. Diabetes rates in the US have doubled over the past 10 years. Obviously, having the freedom to exercise as you wish, where you wish has not done much for Americans. With Saudi Arabia slowly embracing all the western lifestyle and dietary habits that led Americans to such dire health issues we see the same pattern of obesity and diabetes statistics filling medical journals about Saudis. There is a deeper issue to be addressed beyond where one can or can’t walk or workout.

  20. Cynthia,

    In my own home country of America where there are fitness centers galore for men and women, exercise tv shows every day, work out DVDs, inexpensive home equipment, plenty of freedom to wear jogging shorts and run where ever you wish, 64% of adults are overweight and 26% are obese.

    Those stats are a bunch of useless crap. I’ve been consistently listed as overweight by those charts since I was in high school, just because I carry more muscle than their “default” generic person. Virtually anyone who is in good physical condition will be classified as “overweight” by any of those various height/wight indexes. I really wish people would stop perpetuating this hoax about Americans being fat.

    It really is not necessary to have a separate room at home, a courtyard with open space, or expensive equipment to be able to work out and be physically fit.

    You’re right about that. I know a couple people who stay in shape just using Wii fit :)

  21. Graig is right, bmi is silly, every well developed musclebound healthy person will be classified as overweight.

    And let’s not forget breasts, not in Graigs case, but I am sure I carry at least 4 kilos of excess fat which should be deducted from my bmi.

  22. What I find concerning is that unlike the USA, there is not the same push for individuals to eat healthy and work out. You do not see those kind of commercials on the local tv stations. At least in the States there is a lot of encouragement from various sources to work out and live well.

  23. the answer is quite simple..just eat less. the stomach, as per the hadith of prophet muhammaed (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), should only be filled one third with food. the other two thirds being for air (one third) and water (one third).

    bidy sizes differ naturally but by follwing this advice, whether you are big or small, you will be healthy and disciplined, inshAllah.

    oh, and fasting is not just for ramadan. there is a great blessing in fasting.

  24. I think most people are aware that if you eat less- yo can loose weight. But it is also WHAT you eat- weight isn’t the only issue- health is. You can be the perfect weight and undernourished.

    Also, whatever weight- without exercise you are unfit and unhealthy.

  25. this business of using exercise as a get out clause for over consumption comes straight outta rome as it’s etrremely hedonistic. if you say, once a day and only fill your stomach a third full then your exercise doesn’t have to involve pounding a way at a treadmill like a mad person.

  26. i meant, eat once a day and only fill your stomach a third full.

  27. Africana, I hope you are joking about eating only once a day. That is a great way to give yourself blood sugar problems and lower your metabolism so that you store fat that much more quickly. It is better to eat several small meals daily than one larger one.

  28. @Africana

    Eating once a day filling your stomach to one-third of its capacity will not give you washboard abs, toned arms, sculpted legs, cardiovascular endurance (ability to walk and climb stairs without your heart skipping out of your throat) and increased rate of metabolism that comes with exercise. Not to mention its various health benefits.

    I also suspect that it will not come even close to providing you with all the nutrients and vitamins you need to function at the top of your capacity. Eating once a day also sounds like a recipe for screwing up your blood sugar forever. No offense but nutrition and fitness science came a lot further than 7th century Arabs could hope to comprehend. Besides, it’s not like their lifestyles were centered around sitting behind a desk all day, getting into the car and going home to sit ass on couch. Remind me again what the average life expectancy was back then?

    Regarding filling the stomach with air, NIH refers to this as aerophagia, and this particular prophetic advice brings you lovely things like gas and burping.
    http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/gas/#cause

    Your remark of using exercise as a get-out clause for overconsumption is a cop-out. Most people who are in amazing shape exercise AND watch their diets very carefully. But since you mentioned it, why yes, if your body consists of muscle rather than fat tissues, you will need more calories to maintain it and will be able to eat more.

  29. Um…I’m also unclear on the “Rome” reference? How is hedonistic exercise straight out of Rome??

  30. obviously, leaving a third of the stomach for air doesn’t mean gulping air into the stomach, it simply means that a third of the stomach should be left clear.

    the desire for food is a very stong one, if not the strongest that a human being feels. this habit of grazing or having lots of food contacts daily is the habit of grazing animals.

    to not give into that desire to eat whenever the fancy takes you is much more difficult than waking up and going jogging and then eating. it is much more of a discipline than exercise plus eating whenever the fancy takes you can ever be.

  31. I was not referring to eating whenever the fancy takes one, but at regular, planned intervals dictated by what is necessary for optimal health.

  32. Okay, when you want to build a fire and have it burn efficiently you need to keep adding wood just a little at a time. It is far more effective to do this than to have a huge roaring fire and get really warmed by it and then let it die out until you are cold and then rebuild a fire. It’s the same with the body and food. It needs to eat 3 meals and maybe 2 small snacks (an apple or a few almonds for example) to run efficiently. If you eat and then starve the body goes into a mode telling itself when there is no food it might starve so better hang onto that fat. If you keep the body fed nicely the metabolism hums along as it should. Also it takes the stomach 20 minutes after it’s been fed enough to get the message from the brain that it is full. That is why when we eat a big huge meal we don’t feel really stuffed until a short time after the meal is finished. We do need to eat but we should leave the table BEFORE we feel full, well before!!

  33. @Africana:

    Let me get this straight:

    Is it your contention that eating healthy+exercise is somehow less virtuous or healthy than eating half as much as your body needs? Are you, in fact, saying, that all these people sweating away on treadmills and bikes are nothing but self-indulgent slobs who just use their exercise as a smokescreen for stuffing their guts the second they step outside the gym? When they, silly sods, could just skip a meal and the effect will be just the same? Is that what you are saying?

    Let me also ask you this: Are you familiar with health benefits of exercise, or is this a totally novel concept?

  34. Honestly, I’m aware of this hadith and NEVER heard it applied in this way. Only as a common sense recommendation not to stuff yourself. I’ve never heard the only eat once a day bit.

    I really don’t understand why healthy exercise would mean someone would have poor eating habits? I see no cause/effect here- nor do the people I know who exercise regularly eat like they are in hedonistic Rome.

    Still waiting for some reference on the hedonistic Rome bit? Rome itself? Some part of the Empire? The Republic? Can we have a region, or a century please?

    At the time of the Prophet, people DID get a lot of exercise, unlike today.

  35. People…it’s obvious Africana knows nothing about losing weight, or staying healthy, or about working out for that manner. To state that it’s easy to get up and jog every day…is from someone who doesn’t do it. It’s hard and requires a lot of discipline to work out. And, people who jog everyday…typically don’t eat crappy food.

    It’s alright to have an opinion (I guess), but really it should be based on facts versus just stating a point so that you agree with anything any other muslim cleric throws out. We know that getting up off of your butt and exercising and eating right is how you stay healthy. We know that eating 1 meal as day is extremely unhealthy (you’re not getting enough vitamins and nutrients) , that you should in fact eat 6 small meals a day. And, the fact that women are actually encourage or should I state discouraged to exercise, is just simply stupid.

  36. Yah, BIG problem! Ive been here for 8 months and went up TWO dress sizes! My entire adult life I stayed within the same size and if I did gain, it was only 1 dress size and i’d quickly loose it. I live on a compound and while we have a pool and a big area to jog or walk in, there is still a lot of pressure for the expat women to NOT use them, as there are a lot of skeezy guys who live on the compound and they have no modesty or shame. And ofcourse forget walking outside the compound, I tried that twice, with my son in a stroller and once I had the police trailing us!

    Yah, plus you add in the general depression most women get here…complusion to eat and drink more…more sedentary lifestyle…voila!

    Unhealthy lifestyle and weight gain!

  37. Spkg of eating once a day, in the US there are a lot of people who actually do that, eat only 1 meal a day and go figure, most of them whom I know are actually quite overweight and NOT healthy at all. Sure they eat ONCE a day, but their bodies dont burn the fat and calories as well as someone who eats regularly as their body knows it needs to hold onto what it has to survive another day.

    yah, eating once a day is not good, if there is food available…eat it! Obviously being a glutton is not good, nor is eating as much junk food as possible for every meal but a balanced diet is half of the battle and the other battle is physical fitness-esp in this environment where any sort of physical fitness for women-even brisk mall jogging in abaya, niqab and sneakers garners unwanted attention or worse!!!

  38. The aversion to physical fitness reminds me of a american womans magazine I had as a teenager which wa spublished in 1905, and in it, they had this HUGE article about how unhealthy physical activity is for women, they gave all of these crazy stories about girls being stunted in their growth because they ran around as kids, or women being unable to get pregnant because they worked out. Really, crazy stuff…which is totally not related to being physically active. They also said that women who work out get a larger than average sized chest from their increased air intake and so look very masculine.

    en’shallah things will change here as far as fitness is concerned of else everyones health is just going to get worse and worse! To add to the sedentary lifestyle, many local women have maids or nannies so they also miss the chance to work out by scrubbing floors, washing laundry and running after their kids.

  39. [...] American Bedu points out the decision is not one without precedent: There has already been intervention by government [...]

  40. What I have observed in Saudi is that when Saudi women decide they wish to lose weight (usually for a special occasion) they make a type of cabbage soup and only eat that when hungry. Of course it makes them spend much time in the wash room…

    I should also point out that the “fast weight loss” using soups or other ‘props’ is not unusual and something done worldwide by both men and women. However, it is NOT healthy.

    Discipline, Diet and Exercise are the key and these fundamentals should be taught and practiced in homes and schools.

    A wish of mine is to eventually see all Saudi schools have a choice of athletic activities for females.

  41. [...] Bedu weist darauf hin, dass die Entscheidung nicht ohne Vorgeschichte [...]

  42. I don’t like Saudi Arabia.

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