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Scoping out fitness options in Abu Dhabi

In the 1990s, fitness options in Abu Dhabi were limited to a smattering of dingy ­bodybuilding gyms and pricey hotel health clubs.

“Gyms used to mean a treadmill, a bike machine, some weights and that was it,” recalls Maria Oritz, a self-confessed fitness freak who arrived in the city in 1998. “Classes were practically unheard of.”

The following year, when Abu Dhabi Country Club opened the city’s first substantial fitness ­facility, Ortiz was one of the first to sign up.

But it took another 13 years for Abu Dhabi to start truly diversifying its fitness offerings. Since 2012, international gym franchises such as Fitness First (2012) and Gold’s Gym (2013) have muscled in on the market, as well as the ladies-only gyms Vivafit (2014) and Curves (2016).

But the raft of new facilities that have opened over the last 12 months are of a new breed. Many call themselves “boutique studios”, meaning less equipment and more ­personal touch. It may be the age of automation, but when it comes to the fitness industry, it’s the machines that are being ­replaced by humans.

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New Zealander Brett Bowie is a corporate trainer and fitness fanatic who has been involved in several fitness-related business ventures in Abu Dhabi since arriving in the capital 10 years ago. He has been watching with ­interest the new brand of gyms cropping up.

“There’s been a big move ­towards open space that ­provides variety and more down-to-earth, functional training,” he explains. “CrossFit is a prime example, and also the more ­combat-orientated gyms with plyo boxes, ropes and tyres to flip. It’s going towards a very ­practical, less machine-based type of ­fitness, which people seem to ­respond to really well.”

The boutique studio Fit First Class, which opened last June at Khalidiya Palace Hotel, was set up by Australian Sahar Farzanfar and New Zealander Hayden Thin to provide a personalised service to those wanting to get fit, but also to train up and provide qualifications for the city’s growing number of personal trainers.

Metaxia Kladis, from Greece, has just completed her first six-week training programme. “­Although I was very sceptical at first, I can highly recommend it,” she says. “It’s a one-on-one service delivered at a bright, clean, non-intimidating training facility, without the usual distractions of a gym. I enjoyed the privacy of the space as well as the individualised attention.”

But personal training doesn’t come cheap. A six-week basic package with Fit First Class costs Dh3,300 for initial contact, a ­series of tests, a personalised ­exercise prescription and a ­nutrition programme – all delivered on a mobile app. The package includes three training sessions plus ongoing progress monitoring by the trainer during the six week period.

Nicole Hughes, a human resources professional, has found that Abu Dhabi’s fitness options are generally much pricier than back home in Florida.

“I don’t get any more than I used to get from my old gym,” she says. “Gold’s Gym membership in the US is US$10 (Dh36.70) a month or if you pay ahead for the whole year it’s $100. Gold’s Gym in Abu Dhabi seems to be one of the more cost-friendly options [with membership fees starting at Dh349 (US$95) per month]. The service and equipment are no better, and in some instances worse.”

Bowie also claims the prices some gyms are charging are “­ridiculous”.

“It’s good that people now have so much choice, and that could bring the prices down,” he adds.

But gym membership in Abu Dhabi isn’t always sky high – ­especially if you have the ­advantage of being female. Annual membership for Oritz at Abu Dhabi Country Club is half that of her husband’s, at Dh5,000. Most of the more-­recently opened gyms charge equally high prices for both genders, but argue what you get in return is a lifestyle, complete with fitness competitions, regular social events and a cafe to sit and chat over a protein shake.

“The emphasis now is on ­building a community,” says ­Ortiz. “Many expats now come to the gym not just to get fit, but to network.”

The country club, which ­recently opened its own spa, just lowered their membership fee and hiked up their casual fee, presumably in a bid to attract more loyal customers and ­nurture the community feel.

Primal Gym on Reem Island specialises in martial arts and has its own outdoor space. Lisa Pipps, from the United ­Kingdom, whose husband and son are both members, describes the atmosphere as extremely friendly. “Everyone says hello, people get birthday cakes and all sing ­happy birthday. It feels a bit like a big family.”

But the gym might not suit everyone.

“It’s full of pretty young girls doing ridiculous classes,” Pipps adds. “I did two classes and both times was pretty immobile!”

Abu Dhabi is also now home to a tightknit hardcore community of “crossfitters”. The CrossFit team from Vogue Fitness on Yas Island just came 3rd in the Reebok CrossFit Games, making it the first team from outside the United States to place.

Abu Dhabi’s first warehouse fitness space, MProve Fitness, opened last year with a focus on CrossFit. It also boasts a cafe, protein shop, barbers and a massage and tanning centre. Just this year Arena Fitness – CrossFit Abu Dhabi in Al Zeina became the third CrossFit gym in the capital.

With all the new venues opening up, the market is looking crowded, admits Jessica Araji, the Lebanese-Brazillian chief executive of Let’s Go Gym, which she describes as a “360 degree healthy lifestyle concept” – complete with spa and cafe. Let’s Go Gym launched last year in the Technip Building out by ­Mangrove One, with a new branch scheduled to open soon on Reem Island.

“In Abu Dhabi there is a lot of competition,” says Araji. “I feel like gyms are running fast to bring in new things so they can be the first to boast this type of class.”

Sonia Marques, who ­manages Vitafit, a women-only gym in Khalidiya, admits the competition means constantly keeping things fresh.

“There is a need to keep being trendy and have the new things the fitness industry dictates. Every three months we change our choreographies and workouts, because otherwise the body gets used to it and you plateau.”

As part of that race to innovate, Abu Dhabi now has virtual reality indoor cycling races (at ­Healthpoint Hospital) and the upper body workout Kranking, which is done on an “arm bike” (Abu Dhabi Country Club).

Oritz describes most of the new offerings in town as less “gimmicky”, and more “hardcore”.

Although the capital lost out on the recent Dubai launch of the popular Barry’s Boot Camp, Bowie has also noticed a rise in the number of independent ­operators running outdoor ­bootcamps.

“They’re keeping it pretty down to earth,” he says. “There’s a move away from the ­ego-­driven type of gym which unfortunately still exists. People want an ­exercise regime that’s ­convenient, cost effective and something they feel good and part of.”

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