Almost everyone has obstacles to overcome when trying to get fit, from time constraints to physical limitations.

Ibrahim Mohamed discovered that Somali-American women in Shakopee had more challenges than most: they didn’t know much about exercise and couldn’t find a women-only environment to work out, which many Muslim women prefer.

“They didn’t know how and they didn’t have the resources,” Mohamed said. “They needed accommodation and also they needed motivation.”

Mohamed, president of the Shakopee Diversity Alliance, applied for and received the Neighborhood Health Connections grant from Allina Health and St. Francis Regional Medical Center. He used the $10,300, intended for health-related programming, to create the Somali Women’s Exercise program, or Somali Jimisci.

The 12-week class also met several of Allina and St. Francis’ broader goals, said Tamara Severtson, who works for both organizations.

“This collaboration, this fostering, this sense of community, is really important,” Severtson said. “We want everyone to feel welcome everywhere.”

The first group of 30 women graduated from the program last week. Participants tried Zumba, yoga and strength training classes at the River Valley YMCA in Prior Lake, and swimming lessons at the East Junior High pool in Shakopee. Both locations limited the classes to women only. The YMCA bought shades for the doors to keep spaces private, Mohamed said.

Muna Sharif had been swimming just a few times before. She loved it, she said.

Now, “Swimming is my number one,” she said, adding that the movement soothed her arthritis. “Every time I was doing swimming, I went home and slept really good.”

Caring for themselves

In Somalia, girls play sports like basketball at school and women walk outside for exercise, Mohamed said.

But in Minnesota, “It’s difficult for a lot of us to do it,” Sharif said. Weather is prohibitive, and gyms like the YMCA are coed, which makes many Somali women uncomfortable.

To be successful, the program needed a female coordinator who spoke Somali and knew about fitness.

When Mohamed asked Ayan Ali, a full-time college student and YMCA instructor, to coordinate the program, she said, “Why not? I was interested because I’m so into health.”

Participants most enjoyed swimming and Zumba, a dance exercise program that also includes squats and lunges, Ali said.

“More people came than I expected,” Ali said. “They all enjoyed it.”

Ali tried to send the message that exercise relieves stress, helps people lose weight and is an important part of taking care of yourself, she said.

“What [the Somali-American women] do is they worry about the kids and forget about themselves,” Ali said.

All of the women are now YMCA members, and several have taken regular classes there. The class may change participants’ ideas about exercise long-term, Ali said.

Most of the grant money went toward YMCA costs, gas cards for those driving carpools and paying Ali to coordinate.

Mohamed plans to apply for another grant soon to continue the program with a new group of 30 Somali-American women. This time, nutrition lessons may be added, he said.

“My mission is for women to be active,” he said.