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Iraqis' thoughts turn to matters of weight

After years of avoiding violence by hunkering down at home, on a steady diet of TV, cigarettes and hearty food, many have emerged out of shape. Some are heading to the gym.

February 15, 2009|Monte Morin and Caesar Ahmed

BAGHDAD — As Iraq awakens from a years-long nightmare of sectarian violence, many Baghdad residents are thrilled by signs of their newfound stability: manicured parks, fully stocked markets and the absence of militias.

Not so thrilling: their own reflections in the mirror.

After retreating into their homes to escape violence and living off a steady diet of satellite television, cigarettes and hearty, high-calorie food, many have emerged from their homes out of shape. Some are heading to the gym.

"Before, we worried only about being killed by a militia or bombing," said one man at a Baghdad gym. "Now, you will not die by an [improvised explosive device], you will die of heart attack."

The Iraqi government hopes to promote fitness by subsidizing sports centers, according to officials at the Ministry of Health, which does not keep statistics on gym use by Iraqis.

The renewed interest in fitness has also spawned a new class of entrepreneur -- gym owners who offer personal trainers and guarantees that customers will lose weight and shape up for anywhere between $20 and $150 a month.

At perhaps a dozen or so packed fitness centers, owners are importing sophisticated cardio and weight machines from the United States, along with truckloads of fat burners, weightlifting supplements and detoxifying teas.

"People just want to be in better shape," said Fahed Abed, a Baghdad University student browsing the shelves of a supplement shop, one of several that have sprung up in the last year.

Even under Saddam Hussein, Iraq had supported a small culture of weightlifters and bodybuilders, many of whom worked in security details. Often they grunted out sets in dingy rooms that offered little more than a weight bench and a mixed collection of free weights.

When coalition forces led by the United States toppled Hussein's regime in 2003, long- established gyms prepared for a renaissance.

Gym owner Sabah Talib immediately changed the name of his Elegant Bodies gym in the Karada district of Baghdad to Arnold Classic Gym, in honor of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former champion bodybuilder. Talib said he had long wanted to make the change, but that officials under Hussein prohibited him from naming the gym after a foreigner.

Talib also filled his gym with photos of the former Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia, began a correspondence with Schwarzenegger and held a bodybuilding contest on the street in front of his business.

That gym renaissance, however, was short-lived.

Weightlifters were quickly targeted by militias and insurgents as suspected collaborators with U.S. forces. Why would they have such muscular physiques unless they belonged to security details or were working out at famously well-equipped gyms on U.S. bases?

"The situation was good for one year," said Haider Adel, 25, a onetime bodybuilder and the owner of the Academy Center for Sport Nutrition, a supplement shop.

"Then the terrorists started killing bodybuilders," Adel said. "We lost a lot of them that way, including my coach. Everybody was afraid to go to the gym. Most bodybuilders went to Syria."

Things started to change after the U.S. troop buildup in 2007 tamped down sectarian and insurgent violence in the capital. Bodybuilders began returning to Iraq, and entrepreneurs and gym owners found it easier to buy and import modern gym equipment and supplements.

Today some Iraqi gyms carry a wider variety of equipment than chain fitness centers in Southern California, although they offer fewer machines overall.

"Many of the champions are starting to come back to my gym," Talib said. "I'm happy to say that for the last year things are better."

At Karada's International Dragon G.Y.M., customers must climb a damp, dark stairwell before they enter the packed fitness center. Its walls are painted yellow, and enormous mirrors reflect a collection of new Hammer Strength fitness machines, their seat cushions still wrapped in blue shipping plastic.

Owner Ali Abbas, 29, has decorated the gym with large photos of himself posing at competitions in Las Vegas and standing beside bulging U.S. weightlifting champions. A battered and tinny loudspeaker blasts Western pop music.

Abbas said his customers include a mix of military and police personnel, as well as a collection of professionals and students. He specializes in whipping overweight Iraqis into shape.

"They tell me how much they want to weigh and when, and I will get them there, guaranteed," said Abbas, who earned the money to open his gym by working as a United Nations bodyguard.

As evidence, Abbas pointed out a short, bearded man who was huffing through a set of sit-ups nearby. The man, Hayder Adil, a 25-year-old medical student, said he weighed more than 300 pounds three months ago. He dropped to 178 pounds after working out five days a week and severely reducing his calorie intake.

Adil said he felt compelled to get in shape when a professor at medical school singled him out during a lecture on body mass index.

"He picked me out as the most obese person in the class," Adil said. "Now, some of my friends don't even recognize me."

The benefits of working out at Iraqi gyms have mostly gone to men; women are allowed in only one day a week. But that situation may change.

"This is a Muslim country still," said Abbas, who sees a business opportunity. "I hope to open a second gym very soon. This one will be just for women."

--

monte.morin@latimes.com

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