Physical activity is breaking taboos for women in the BME community

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Nur Fitness is a community organisation that helps women and families within the BME (black and minority ethnic) community become physically and mentally healthier. 

Created in 2012 by Shazia Noor, Nur Fitness has empowered hundreds of women to improve their general health and fitness and open up about their mental wellbeing through a range of programs, including weekly exercise classes, walking clubs, mental health courses and employability training. 

In doing so, it’s been able to challenge views on fitness and mental health that are traditionally taboo subjects in many BME families. 

A significant part of Nur Fitness’ work is based around raising awareness and reducing the onset of type 2 diabetes (T2D). T2D is highly prevalent in the BME community, particularly among women from South Asian backgrounds. 

To break down cultural norms that prevent ethnic minority women making lifestyle changes, Nur Fitness teamed with Middlesbrough Environment City to develop a ‘New Life New You’ (NLNY) diabetes prevention and management programme. This partnership was originally made possible through funding from Public Health South Tees and Middlesbrough Council. The programme has subsequently been able to continue through additional support and funding from You’ve Got This, which also gave it the flexibility to test and learn different approaches.

Designed to help individuals and families lose weight and enjoy a healthier lifestyle through activity and nutritional education, the programme recruited women through community outreach and ran a series of health checks to identify their potential risk of developing T2D. 

Those at risk followed an 8-week programme of supervised physical activity sessions, each followed by reflection, behavioural counselling and advice sessions. Ongoing support was delivered with four months of free Nur Fitness classes, after which women were encouraged to continue with an active lifestyle in whatever way suited them.

Key to the programme’s success was cultural adaptation. As a Pakistani woman, Shazia can relate to women from similar backgrounds. 

Shazia said: “I know how Asian people cook. There’s no measuring of ingredients. We work on taste. I can use this knowledge to give people different, healthier options. I can also show others that the teachings of Islam promote health and fitness to break down barriers and work on changing mindsets. It’s about delivering around those family values.”

To encourage participation from women of other cultural backgrounds, Nur Fitness trained women from the classes to become coaches.

“We wanted to do something bigger. So why not train women from the community to become instructors?  

“We specifically chose a range of women of different ages, races and backgrounds to help deliver the New Life New You classes. If you can see someone from your community who looks like you, talks like you and dresses like you, you’re more likely to think, ‘I can do this too.’ It allows women to participate more freely.

“We also wanted to show women and girls that other women from outside of their culture face the same challenges and can help them live better lives.”

The varied instructors allowed the programme to be delivered in several different languages, including English, Urdu, Hindi, Arabic, Kurdish and Tamil.     

Bringing women together with group classes gives them a sense of belonging. They can make new friends, build confidence and empower each other. 

As well as supporting local women, the work Shazia is doing is packed with learning and insight. This information is of immense value to You’ve Got This and Sport England as it helps them better understand what support this community needs to help them become more active.

More than 400 women have completed the Diabetes Prevention course, and over 60 have completed the Managing Diabetes programme. Participation also led to other positive outcomes. 

35 women and girls learned to ride a bike, and 90% went on outdoor nature walks for the first time. 

“Our outdoor sessions have been one of our biggest successes. We’ve taken groups to places like Guisborough Woods, the Cleveland Hills and Roseberry Topping. 90% of them had never been to these places, despite them being on their doorstep. 

“The most rewarding part of this is that women are now going visiting these places with their friends and families and getting active together. Whereas before, they would just go to a friend’s house.”

“A lot of the women who had never been to a gym or been on a treadmill before starting the programme are now completing boot camps and charity challenges.”   

Other women have been encouraged into employment and inspired to explore new ventures through Nur Fitness’ volunteering courses, basic skills training and confidence-building classes.

Being active isn’t simply a positive health change; meeting new people, trying new things and feeling better about yourself can open doors to a new way of living. 

“I feel so passionate about You’ve Got This and their vision ‘to make active lives a way of life’. They are empowering people to be active in whatever way they can, and being active can lead to so many positive things. The more we work to raise awareness and education about diabetes and mental health in the BME community and the benefits of physical activity, the easier it will be to overcome taboos.”

Nur Fitness now has a centre of its own in the centre of Middlesbrough to deliver its services. This means that women can be active in a safe space among peers and learn how to make small lifestyle changes that improve their well-being and that of their families. Which can only be a good thing for future generations.

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