UMN students collaborate with RecWell to pilot women-only gym space

Undergraduate students collaborated with the University Recreation and Wellness Center in order to create a comfortable space for women to exercise.

Sumaya Noor, left, and Fahima Osman, right, pose for a portrait outside of the University Recreation and Wellness Center on Saturday, Nov. 16. Noor and Osman initiated a women’s only fitness project after their project discovered many Somali women do not exercise due to a lack of available spaces. 

Nur B. Adam

Sumaya Noor, left, and Fahima Osman, right, pose for a portrait outside of the University Recreation and Wellness Center on Saturday, Nov. 16. Noor and Osman initiated a women’s only fitness project after their project discovered many Somali women do not exercise due to a lack of available spaces. 

Farrah Mina

In an effort to create a comfortable space for women to work out, the University of Minnesota’s Recreation and Wellness Center is piloting a women-only gym space.

Around two years ago, University students Sumaya Noor and Fahima Osman began researching physical activity rates in the Somali community. They found that many Somali women were not comfortable exercising in co-ed gyms due to beliefs regarding modesty. Last month, the RecWell began piloting a women-only gym space as a result of Noor and Osman’s research on perceptions of physical activity in the Somali community. 

They did not imagine that their recommendations would be implemented at the RecWell. 

“Many people mentioned that their reasons for not exercising were due to not feeling comfortable exercising in a space with men or not being able to exercise with their hijabs and their abayas,” Noor said. 

Noor and Osman collected the data in their research by conducting interviews with members of the Twin Cities Somali community who were over the age of 18. Though male participants tended to cite external factors for not exercising, like lack of time, most female participants’ answers were related to modesty, Osman said.

Noor and Osman presented their findings at the Undergraduate Research Symposium last spring. Though they included designating time for female-only gym use as a recommendation of their research, they did not think it was feasible until the director of undergraduate research encouraged them to collaborate with the RecWell.

Prior to the initiative’s launch, Noor and Osman released a survey to gauge interest in the space. The results were overwhelmingly positive.

“People were giving stories like, ‘I never went to the gym before this,’” Osman said. “People were talking about how they don’t go to the Rec because they think it’s uncomfortable, but now that this exists, they will come.”

Although Osman herself prefers working out in women-only spaces, she said female gyms in Minneapolis are both scarce and expensive. “Never did I think I would have access to be able to do something like that,” she said.

The space is available Mondays and Wednesdays from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturdays 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. It is enclosed with curtains for privacy.

Third-year student Maryan Osman was the first person to use the space. It was her first time exercising in a women-only area, and she said it was an empowering experience.

“It’s also a supportive space,” Maryan Osman said. “A lot of the women there are people I know and are from my own community … so it was just really nice to have that space with them — especially since this was created by Somali women, people that identify with them.”

In the future, Noor and Fahima Osman also hope to collaborate with local gyms in the area to increase access to these spaces for women. 

“It’s something that we needed that we didn’t know that we needed,” Maryan Osman said.