The fitness industry is booming. In gyms across the country, women are smashing their goals, getting strong and feeling fierce in their own skin.
But if you’ve ever felt intimidated walking into a new class, you’re not alone. Stepping out of your fitness comfort zone can feel overwhelming if you don’t know where to begin, or don’t see yourself represented.
Personal trainers Kaoutar Hannach, Gina Obeng and Eni Adeyemo have all been on their own unique workout journeys and now channel their energies into campaigning for cultural diversity in fitness. They are trailblazers, building inclusive and safe workout environments for all women. Group exercise is not only a great way to improve strength and wellbeing; a welcoming room of like-minded people can push you beyond your perceived limits.
Kaoutar Hannach, 27
Kaoutar discovered a passion for weight training at her university gym, progressing from self-confessed chicken-and-chips addict to a physical powerhouse.
Noticing a lack of fitness role models for Muslim women, Moroccan-born Kaoutar created EVOLVE with K, holding classes and events that speak directly to women from all backgrounds. Her goal is for Muslim and minority ethnic women to have equal representation in the fitness community.
What was your experience of the gym when you first started exercising seriously?
Kaoutar: Luckily my university had a ladies-only area in the gym, which was perfect. But after graduating, I found it really hard to find an equally well-equipped ladies' gym, so I ended up at a mixed gym. The free-weights area tends to be full of men, so it was hard for me at first, especially when I wasn’t as confident with what I was doing. I worked through this by going at times when it wasn’t really packed, and I built my confidence from there. I changed my mentality and thought, 'You know what, they’re here because they have a goal to reach, and I’m here for the same reason'.
How did you become a diversity advocate?
Kaoutar: I went to local fitness events to meet like-minded people, but a lot of the time, I was the only Muslim woman. There were hardly any women of colour. It was a shock for me, because London is so culturally diverse.
I’m not the kind of person who sees something that directly affects me and my community and doesn’t do anything about it. I began by talking on social media about the lack of representation in fitness, and earlier this year I launched EVOLVE with K. My logo shows different women standing together – to me, this represents how the fitness industry should be.
What projects are you currently working on?
Kaoutar: I’m holding a retreat in Morocco next year, which will bring women together for group workouts. We’ll be taking time out from everyday life to build a community, work together and motivate each other.
My events are for everyone – as all fitness events are – but as a Muslim woman, I feel it’s easier for other minority ethnic women to identify with me. I’m bringing awareness to this lack of representation and inspiring every woman.
Does great workout apparel play a role in women feeling confident in the gym?
Kaoutar: One hundred percent. For me, I want to look good but also modest. I want to be able to move freely, be comfortable and supported so that I’m able to smash my workout – and enjoy it!
Gina Obeng, 29
Tell us about Train 2 Slay.
Gina: After my break-up, fitness became a form of therapy. I was doing weight-based workouts, which was seen to be unusual for women at the time, and posting about it on Instagram. I became a personal trainer in 2014.
I started thinking about what I could do to make my classes different. My followers responded really well to outfit posts – whenever I showed my figure, I’d get questions about personal training and comments like 'This has motivated me to get to the gym'.
Train 2 Slay was launched to unite those women who are putting in the hard work, and reaping incredible results. It’s bridging the gap between working out and looking good.
What do you think is so great about working out as a group?
Gina: I’ve created a sisterhood. The vibe and the energy is so different to any kind of class I’ve done before.
I give everyone who attends my class a pledge card, and at the end we do self-affirmations together to remind ourselves of why we’re all doing what we’re doing. It’s not even about the physical, it’s about the mental: self-confidence and overcoming insecurities. There’s a real sense of community in my classes. These women become each other’s biggest fans in terms of motivating each other.
Do you have any advice for those who are hesitant to join a new class?
Gina: Find a class that is both fun and suits your fitness needs. I know from experience that music plays a massive role in how people feel at a class. Also, rest assured that you’re going to make some new friends while you’re there. You open yourself up to so many different people, it can become a whole new social life.
Eni Adeyemo, 26
What makes Barbell Brunch Club different from other group classes?
Eni: I started Barbell Brunch Club last year to unite women in London. We do a class and then go to brunch close by – it’s a girls' day out! I also hold cooking workshops and wellness talks. I bring influencers and personal trainers together to talk about their journey, body image, inclusion, women of colour and the industry in general.
Why are group workouts like Barbell Brunch Club so necessary?
Eni: Unless you’re self-motivated, you might not want to go out of your comfort zone alone. I used to go to all these fitness events and classes by myself – I just thought, 'I’m not going to spoil an experience for myself just because I don’t have anyone else to go with'.
That’s when I realised there was a space to create a community and I came up with Barbell Brunch Club. I want people to want to come because it’s fun and enjoyable – it’s not for any one type of person, it’s for everyone. All the women come from different areas and backgrounds, so it’s nice to hear everyone’s stories. I want everyone to know they’re going to enjoy the experience, and get to know new people.
How can women motivate themselves to take the first step into fitness?
Eni: Your health is so important, so don’t let your setbacks get in the way of how you’ll feel eventually – once you start, your nerves will feel a million miles away. For me, my mental state changed so much when I started to train – even though fitness seems like just one aspect of your life, it can actually help everything, from your mental health to your social life.
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