Meet the trailblazers behind Egypt's booming fitness scene.
Over the past few years, there's been an undeniable, almost unprecedented, boom in the fitness field in Egypt. Egyptians have slowly but surely realised the value of incorporating fitness as well as a healthy diet into their daily routines, a shift that's owed to a handful of fitness professionals, enthusiasts, instructors, sportspeople and all-round trailblazers; men and women whose exploits go beyond a hobby. These are the people leading the way, the people fuelling Egypt's increasingly eclectic and encompassing fitness scene.
SHERIF BENDARY // TWC
“Two years ago, I put a lot of effort into training for an African Championship,” retired Kung Fu and kickboxing champion, Sherif Bendary tells CairoScene. “Then ten days before we were meant to go, my club told me that they didn't have the budget for me to travel. That was demotivating. I didn’t want to compete anymore.”
It was at that point that the seed for Train with the Champions (TWC) was planted. “I decided instead of getting demotivated, why not put more energy into helping others, training others and in helping them start their fitness career.
Based in Zamalek's El Gezira Sporting Club, TWC took its first steps in 2017, with Bendary looking to build a community and incorporate travel into the TWC fitness experience. For the combat-sports veteran, fitness has a holistic impact.
“Sports have helped me a lot in my personal life, in my work and even in my studies. At the point I decided to start training others, I was done with my journey as an athlete and I wanted to help people and support them on their fitness journey and put them on the right track."
Stay tuned for more throughout the week, as we put the spotlight on each and every one of these boundary-pushing Egyptians.
FARIDA SALEM // EMPOWER
Oh, you don’t want to make money? Do you think starting a business just for women is going to go well for you?” These are just a couple of the comments that football fanatic and founder of Empower, Farida Salem, faced when establishing the trailblazing women's football academy in 2018.
"We start at age 4," Salem explains. "At Empower, we believe that you are capable of learning a new sport or skill at any age. So my goal is to actually empower young women and girls to do what they love and become proficient at it."
Aiming to make football in Egypt more accessible to women, Empower was inspired by Salem’s own struggles to be accepted into Egypt’s male-dominated national sport.
"I struggled to play because of the lack of support for women in football,” says Salem. “Whenever I’d walk onto the field and try to play with the guys, they’d be like what? You’re going ruin the game, you won’t be able to keep up. You’re not as fast or as strong. So when I was younger, football wasn’t really an option, but now it’s getting better.“
Still, Salem is under no illusions that women’s football in Egypt has a long, long way to come. The Egyptian women’s national team has never qualified for the Women’s World Cup and has barely made a mark on the Women’s African Championships. Maybe Empower can be a catalyst for change, but at its very base, it offers Egyptian girls and women to play without restriction and that in itself is an achievement.
“I believe in the girls and I believe in the game so I want to provide this opportunity for them here, where they belong, home."
AMINA NAGUIB // B-URN
"Sometimes it's crazy, I just want to curl up in a ball and hide, which I do a lot of the time," says Amina Naguib, who faced an uphill struggle from day one when founding, B_URN, a fitness community based around a very specifically curated workout. "When starting B-urn, I started out of a small apartment in Giza. I didn't have any trainers, I didn’t have a team so I was doing a lot of the work on my own. I only started with three machines."
For its work-outs, B-URN relies heavily on the Mega Reformer, a 10-foot-long, 250-pound multi-functional machine hailing from California, with classes broken down into 45-minute sessions.
Since opening in 2008, B-URN has amassed a loyal following-come-movement that has even coined its own term, ‘the happy’.
"With B-URN, it's not just a workout. It's an experience and a release that you get physically, emotionally and spiritually and that's what we call ‘the happy’. It’s a mixture of science and magic, “explains Naguib.
Happily admitting to relying on a network of support in balancing family with fitness, B-URN has become an enterprise, with Naguib also releasing a B-URN sportswear line, which feeds further into B-URN as a lifestyle. "Fitness has gotten me through every single part of my life,” says Naguib. “You don't have to be fit all the time, though. I'm not. You should try to insert little bouts of fitness into your day. Life is all about balance and that's what we preach.”
SARA TAHA // VIBES
“It’s a combination of different things,” says Sara Taha, co-founder and CEO of Zamalek-based fitness boutique, Vibes, which launched in 2018. “In Egypt, the fitness industry is limited in that there isn’t always that element of entertainment. I wanted to create a space where people can move and have access to a range of different services.”
Leaning on her background as a personal trainer, nutritionist and pre-natal and post-natal training specialist, Taha was inspired by the fitness centres of Europe when conceiving a place that offers homeopathy, physiotherapy and several other wellness-related services. Dubbing Vibes a fitness boutique, Taha also looked to give Egypt exercise with a twist.
“Adding that element of entertainment is how we came up with our signature class, which is Run-and-Ride and it's basically what I like to call a sweet escape or a cardio party. We create this environment or this mood and it’s as if you’re partying in a club. The music is very loud,, the lighting is on point and it's a lot of fun.”
Taha, who was initially in the petroleum field, decided to turn fitness into her fulltime job when felt in a rut, in need of a source of catharsis and motivation.
“I was a point where I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I just didn’t know where to start. This feeling is very challenging for me because I'm passionate, I'm ambitious and I don’t like feeling like restricted. So that, for me, was a low point and it's at that point where I developed the concept of Vibes."
ABDULLA HUSSEIN // CAIRO RUNNERS
As the first initiative of its kind in Egypt, Cairo Rnners started with a small group taking to the streets for a brisk run every Friday morning in 2012. Founded by Ibrahim Safwat and Abdullah Hussein, Cairo Runners is now behind some of the country’s biggest marathons and runs, which is owed in part to another element.
“Cairo Runners isn’t just about the running, it’s about exploring and discovering the city. It’s about getting to know your community and the causes you could be contributing to and raising awareness for,” says Hussein.
Deeming sports a pivotal aspect of his life, Hussein strives to spread this mentality of constantly being on the move and adding exercise wherever you can, in whatever amounts you're capable of.
“Initially we just wanted to encourage people to get a little active and incorporate small bouts of fitness into their daily lives,” says Hussein. “Even if it’s symbolically going running at least once a week, that’s what we want. Because the logic is, the first time the person will manage a 4 KM run, the next time it’ll be more and so on. We’ve had a lot of people who ended up running a half marathon; something they never thought they could do.”
It’s this tangible measure of progress and the sheer simplicity of running in the streets that has elevated Cairo Runners to the status of a movement. The satisfaction is almost immediate and it’s something that Hussein channels into pushing people to develop and evolve.
“It’s always beautiful when you win, but I found that it’s much more rewarding helping someone else in achieving a goal."
DEANA SHAABAN // IGNITE
From the world of fashion, to the world of fitness, Deana Shaaban dramatic career change may have raised eyebrows, but she hasn’t looked back since taking a leap of faith that would see her become Fitness Director at Egypt’s first specialised training performance facility, Ignite Egypt.
“I know it feels like a big shift, but I think that both of those things really help empower and change lives,” says Shaaban of both her passions.
Having started as a trainer, Shaaban and Ignite founder, Hussein Abd El-Dayam, would go on to marry and establish Ignite to be as much of a community as it is a facility – one that makes fitness about the people more than it is about schedules, machinery and routines.
“It really does this incredible thing of making you feel like you can take your life into your own hands. I think Ignite has contributed a lot in that respect and in such a beautiful way, because it has always been about the science of human performance. So, it works for a pregnant woman, a stay-at-home mom, or a worker who’s always sitting at his desk, because the idea is, if you have a body then you are an athlete.”
AYMAN HAKKY // THE TRIFACTORY
“You think you’re only going to do it once, but once you cross that finish line, that’s it. You end up signing up for the next one [race], then the next one and so on,” says TriFactory co-founder, Ayman Hakky, about the euphoria of crossing that finish line.
Alongside co-founder, Mahmoud Abdel Hakim, Hakky began organising triathletes all across Egypt under the TriFactory banner, offering others the chance to experience that same high, which he also attributes to the thrill of competing.
“I like the idea of competition. I grew up playing competitive sports, everything from tennis, to water polo. I like the whole concept of having a team to represent,” says Hakky. “With Trifactory, we wanted the concept of combining sports with travel so we’ve organised marathons in Sahl Hasheesh, Gouna, Alexandria and several other destinations around Egypt.”
Hakky had initially organises a one-off triathlon in El Gouna in 2014, which acted as the catalyst for the founding of The TriFactory. Since then, Hakky and co have gone on to organise The Magdy Yacoub Aswan Marathon, the first marathon to take place in Aswan, the annual Sahl Hasheesh Endurance Festival and, most recently, the first ever marathon at the Pyramids of Giza in February 2019, which saw runners from across the world participate. The number of participants at The TriFactory’s events has gone from hundreds to thousands in less than five years and the group’s general success pays testemant to the risk Hakky took in launching it.
"The decision to make this a full time job definitely wasn't easy. The first few months, I wasn't really sure if I'd made the right decision because things just took off a bit slowly in the beginning," says Hakky of leaving the corporate world behind. "Whenever I have doubts, seeing the satisfaction of the participants at our races is what keeps motivated. That's my drive. Everyone should experience this at least once in their life. It’s completely addictive.”
MINT EL MOKADEM // POLE FIT
Initially a way for her to make friends while living in the UK, Manar ‘Mint’ El Mokadem was immediately hooked when she became exposed to the world of pole fitness – so much so, that she began giving lessons in her living room when she returned to Egypt, before eventually opening Egypt’s first official pole fitness studio, Pole Fit, in 2015.
“I used to be an architect. Moving from that field to pole was quite a disaster because I’d started at a time before the industry had boomed and become acceptable in Egypt,” she recalls.
Though she eventually came to gather a loyal following, Mint had to overcome another hurdle when she broke her neck in an accident, two years into her new pursuit. But that didn’t stifle her and out of adversity, came opportunity.
“Breaking my neck ended up being a blessing in disguise, because I started a residency program where I’d host instructors from different countries and eventually I became the national organiser for Pole Theatre Egypt,” says Mokadem. “Pole theatre Egypt is basically a competition that stems from one of the biggest pole competitions in the world, Pole Theatre. The special thing about Pole Theatre Egypt is that the entire audience is female and online coverage is optional which means that for the first time in the world, anyone who is from a conservative background, or veiled, finally has the chance to actually compete.”
Welcoming people from all walks of life, Mint has shaped Pole Fit into more than a workout and it’s helped its participants in more ways than one.
"We’ve had cancer patients who've suffered breast cancer and have had to go through the [mastectomy] procedure. You lose a lot of your femininity when that happens. A lot of people have walked in here just to connect and make peace with their feminine side and their sensual side. A lot of people approach me thinking I'm the fittest person in the world, but I think that fitness, for me at least, is more about being around a community that is supportive. It's walking into a place feeling one way and then walking out feeling so much better. It's about having a good connection between your body and your mind.”
ALI ISMAIL // MOVE
Ali Ismail, founder of Move Egypt, is a prime example of success story born out of adversity. When a back injury stopped him from following his dream of becoming an Olympian, he made the decision to help others achieve theirs.
“I first decided to train people in parks in Barcelona where I was studying," Ismail tells CairoScene. "Then I decided to take it a little further and make my graduation project about Move. I eventually shifted my goal completely and mix my business degree in marketing with my passion for sports.”
Founded in 2015, Move has introduced innovative fitness techniques and rehabilitation programmes to the fitness landscape. Ismail started off with a handful of athletes, a limited amount of equipment and a vision. Now, Move has branches in Zamalek's El Gezira Club, New Cairo, Maadi and 6th of October City.
“ I make athletes' lives a little more professionally-oriented and help them transform their career from semi-professional to world-class,” explains Ismail. “I also work with people who have injuries - back injuries, knee injuries and shoulder injuries. We help them in the process of rehabilitation so that's kind of what makes us stand out from the rest of the market.”
Yassin Gad-El-Hak (AKA Coach Yassin) // TWC
“A fighter prepares with his whole team, but once you’re in the ring, it’s completely you…it’s all you,” says Coach Yassin who, in addition to being a coach at Train with the Champions (TWC), is also a PE teacher. “There’s no one else with you. You’re completely alone and so you have to deal with every single thing that comes at you. It’s the same with life.”
It’s this intense approach that took Coach Yassin into fitness professionally. After deciding that he didn’t want to wear a suit anymore, Coach Yassin stumbled upon Pilates by coincidence, which he fell in love with, and decided to take on full time after his instructor saw something in him. Going into Pilates eventually led him to discover Capoiera, join TWC and become a PE teacher. Looking to ingrain that same passion for sports that he had into future generations, Coach Yassin has found that the one constant in his life has been sports.
“When I was a kid, all we did was sports. I look at generations today and it’s a bit sad that technology is taking over. For me, sport is what kept me grounded," says he explains. "This generation of kids didn't grow up with sports, so for them practicing a sport is like cleaning your room, or cleaning up after you eat. I've been trying to change that."
A husband and father, Yassin spends his time training kids in the morning and looking to instil old-school values in them and training adults at night and pushing them to reach their maximum.
"I wanted to work with teenagers and make them fall in love with sports all over again. I think it’s very important. Sports have been the only constant in my life, in every single phase that I’ve been in, whether I was messing up, whether I was being good," says Yassin. "The reason I love Capoeira and why I teach it in school, is that it teaches you…it takes you away from being shy because you’re the centre of attention. It helps you break free. This is the way I look at it. Sports for me, is the cheapest therapy out there."
ROWANA BADRY // NOURISH BY R
Any fitness specialist knows that without a good diet, you won't get the results you want. Founder of online nutrition service, Nourish by B, Rowana Badry preaches just that. Launching the service in early 2019, the certified fitness instructor and SFN specialist in fitness nutrition, looks at fitness holistically and, through the service, offers customised nutrition plans, health tips and working out programmes. Having previously worked with Befit as a coach and nutritionist, Badry has always understood how essential nutrition is.
"You can't outwork a bad diet," she tells CairoScene. "Nourish is basically about fun recipes that are effective. People get bored of vegetable or the same old type of bland-type diet food but it doesn't have to be that way. I customise the eating plans to my clients so it's very detailed and it depends on the person whereas I take into account, what they like, what they don't like. I work with pescatarians, mothers who are breast-feeding and basically a range of different people."
A recent new mother herself, she admits that she has also struggled to return to her peak fitness, but her background as a teacher has put her in good stead, not only with those she works with, but also when dealing with her own health.
"I knew it’s going to take me a while.” says Badry, who is also a trainer at LA7 gym. “I used to train new moms into just taking it easy. I see all these new mothers and nobody knows how to do it. They’ll get there though. Just take a deep breath and take it one day at a time.”
This patient, considered approach is what Badry believes can, in the long run, have an impact on every aspect of an individual’s life – something that she has experienced first-hand.
"I think fitness can help anyone overcome obstacles to be honest and it's not just about the work out. I know a lot of people who work out to be able to perform better at their jobs or in their daily lives or in their personal ones."
MOHAMED ABBAS // MOVE
"I went to pharmacy school because I wanted to help cure cancer,” explains Mohammed Abbas, Head Coach and Board Member at Move Egypt. “It's a cliché, but it's what I wanted. When I had a patient die on me, that's what made me realise that I wasn't really helping anyone; I was just helping other people make more money. That's when I switched to fitness.”
With the help of his friend and founder of Move Egypt, Ali Ismail, Abbas quickly found his feet in fitness and, fuelled by this simple wish to help people, became an influential figure at Move Egypt.
“I don’t regret it, I love it and I knew I would excel in it,” says Abbas of the pursuit his own happiness, which came at the expense of the satisfaction of others, most notably his family.
"I was the black sheep in the family when I decided to move from pharmacy to fitness. My father cut me off from everything. But I started all on my own.”
HASSAN GABR // GORILLA INC
"Back in the day, before all of these new gyms started opening, things were very limited,” Hassan Gabr tells CairoScene. "Now, there's so much more access and social media has helped in that tremendously."
It’s this particular point from which the former cross-fit trainer, cooking show host and 2016 Fittest Man in Egypt built online platform, Gorilla Inc. Offering content geared towards helping people achieve a more balanced and healthy lifestyle through tips, tricks and hacks, Gabr has stripped away the tropes of gym and fitness culture, and made the pursuit of fitness much more accessible.
“We’re trying to use technology and social media to influence people,” says Gabr, whose more holistic, lifestyle-leaning content is owed to the fact that he credits fitness with improving his quality of life in general.
"It helped instil a good work ethic," he explains. "I wasn't always this hard-working, very fit man in front of you. I used to go out and party a lot. Fitness really helped me out in my life. I owe fitness a lot.”
Video and photography by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions