Baghdad Sees New Boom in Health Clubs and Fitness

Across a mirrored room from stationary bikes and an occasional treadmill, men in tank tops knock back protein shakes and pump iron to loud hip hop.

It's a common scene in America — and the latest craze in Baghdad.

In a city of few diversions and long cut off from the outside world, the boom in health clubs represents another sign that Iraq is slowly emerging from decades of dictatorship and war.

At least 300 gyms and fitness centers are believed to be operating in Baghdad, compared with about 30 before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, according to people who work in the industry.

The invasion toppled Saddam Hussein and opened Iraq to the world after a quarter of a century of political and cultural isolation. With that exposure came the Internet, satellite TV, cell phones, trendy tattoos, imported consumer goods and a desire to look like a different type of strongman: Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime.

"The arrival of satellite television in Iraq opened our eyes to many things, including the need to be fit," Haidar Mouwaffak, a 28-year-old auto parts salesman, said between reps at the Hummer Gym in Karradah, a central district that has become Baghdad's trend setter neighborhood.

"I want to look good, be physically strong and live in style," Mouwaffak said.

The popularity of health clubs reflects slowly changing attitudes in a country where healthy living has never been a priority.

Taking up smoking is virtually a rite of passage for many young men. The meat-based Iraqi diet is rich in saturated fat, and huge bellies on men as young as 20 are not uncommon.

Although young Iraqi males play plenty of soccer, the solitary pursuit of fitness is so far an indoors-only affair.

Iraqis don't jog.

Nor do they bike.

Most Baghdad gyms are for men only, although some have designated women-only hours.

And at least for men, it's the macho stuff, mostly.

There's a much longer wait at peak hours for the weight racks than for the cardio equipment. Care to enroll in a spinning, yoga or aerobic dance class? Consider moving to neighboring Jordan.

One gym owner even bemoans what he says is the wide use of muscle growth hormones and steroids smuggled from Iran.

Body building had a following in Iraq for years, but it was mostly practiced in hot, smelly rooms with dim lighting and little ventilation.

The new gyms are very different, with nonstop loud music, mirrors covering most of the walls and supplementary protein formulas for sale.

Working out has become one of the few diversions available to young Iraqis. Baghdad has no functioning cinemas or discos and no Western-style cafes where men and women can meet or surf the Web over a cappuccino.

Stage productions are rare and mostly restricted to matinees.

"Where else would the young people go?" said Ahmed Sami, manager of the Dragon Gym in Karradah. "They come here, work out and go home to eat dinner and sleep."

Ali Abbas, 31, who owns the Dragon Gym, says his business is up by about 80 percent since 2003.

"It's a fad," he said. "So many people now want to work out. They want to look good."

On the walls of Abbas' gym — the size of a volleyball court on the first floor of a dusty, six-story building — hang some two dozen pictures of himself posing in a tiny swimsuit during a body building contest in Arizona in March.

Across the road from the Dragon — whose typo-riddled street sign reads: "The Dragin G.Y.M. for Body Building and Fituess" — is the Hummer, which opened only last month.

Hummer manager Zaid Mohammed said he was forced to offer customers lower rates to stay competitive.

"Working out is a fad now, but the business of gyms could soon level off and the weaker ones will close," said Mohammed, a body builder who sports tattoos on both of his bulging shoulders.

Sabah Taleb runs one of the city's older gyms — The Arnold Classic — named after boyhood hero Schwarzenegger. No fewer than 140 pictures of the California governor from his body building days adorn the walls of Taleb's gym, by his own count.

One, hanging in Taleb's office, has Schwarzenegger posing next to the Iraqi at an event in Columbus, Ohio, in 2007.

Although improved security in Baghdad made the gym boom possible, city streets are still not as safe as they were under Saddam.

Taleb, 49, said that before the U.S. invasion his gym was open from 6 a.m. until midnight. Now, it closes at 8 p.m.

"The security situation has improved somewhat, but I cannot remain open until midnight because going home so late could be dangerous for me," he said.

He said some clients show up with a firearm they keep for self protection.

"I tell them no firearms in my gym and ask that they immediately take them out. They can keep them in their cars, but not in my gym."