DUBAI // A more active – and healthier – female population is likely to be the lasting legacy of the first fitness competition for Emirati women, which finished this month.
About 1,000 women from Dubai and beyond entered the competition for a first prize of Dh100,000. Ninety qualified for the final stages, completing a short circuit – a 1,000-metre row, three rounds of 30 low squats, 30 shoulder presses using two 5kg dumb-bells, and five 12-metre shuttle runs – within 15 minutes.
One of those taking part was Sheikha Maytha Bint Hasher Al Maktoum. She is from a family with a long legacy of sporting prowess.
Her father, Sheikh Hasher Al Maktoum, is the president of Tennis Emirates, and her cousins include Sheikha Maytha bint Mohammed, who competed in taekwondo at the Beijing Olympics, and the Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, the chairman of Dubai Sports Council.
Sheikha Maytha's parents have always encouraged her to live a fit and healthy lifestyle. She saw the competition as an opportunity to push herself.
"I wanted to test myself to see how I compared [with] the other girls in Dubai," she said.
She usually trains alone at home with her trainer, Derryn Brown. That, she says, means "I don't see other women working out".
She is competitive against herself and during the five-week competition, held in private at the Dubai Ladies Club and Dubai Women’s College, she competed three times, determined to reduce her time. In the end she completed the circuit in 11 minutes and 10 seconds, which put her in 27th place.
Her trainer, Ms Brown, said the Sheikha "loves to always push herself", adding that the competition, sponsored by Sheikh Majid bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, was long overdue.
"The fitness competitions here are for the elite athletes," she said. "Why not do something that anyone can enter? This competition was challenging, but not out of people’s reach."
Sheikha Maytha said one woman in the competition was in her 60s. "I felt that if she could do it, I could too. The competition will help encourage girls to get involved. Even if people are just coming for the prize, it's a good thing."
Ms Brown, who trains several members of the royal family, was impressed by the numbers turning out to compete.
"It shows how many women are out there and active and keen to get involved in this stuff," she said. "It should have happened ages ago."
Sheikha Maytha believes it is in Emirati women’s genes to be strong and active. For previous generations life was much more physical than it is today.
"They love the outdoors. For the older women, only the strong survived," she said.
She admits her family is not typical, however. "We've always been active and conscious of nutrition in the house," she said.
Huda Humood, 20, a second-year student at the Dubai Women’s College, was inspired to get fit when she heard about the competition. She had never before been active but, with the college gym, she was able to get started.
"It was such a pleasure to participate in this fantastic competition," she said. "It was the first step that I have taken to do something to improve myself and make myself proud. It made me feel different, stronger, more fit."
She wanted to challenge herself – and that she did. After training for just two months, the IT networking student finished in 41st place.
"Being first or 50th doesn’t make any difference. All of us are winners." She said the experience was a true "adventure" that had changed her life. "There are lots of women like me who want to go through this adventure again in the future, and I am sure this fantastic competition will spread out in the UAE as well."
Asma Al Lootah, the Emirati founder of the Hundred Pilates studio, hopes the competition will have a knock-on effect. "It's about word of mouth," she said. "Exercise is just not in our culture and it's about getting local women to understand the benefits of a healthy, active life."
Even now, just 10 per cent of her clients are women. "It's a journey," she admits. "They come, but it's about consistency."
She herself is now training to be a pilates instructor. "I feel I have to set an example," she said.