A new gym in Willmar is bringing fitness with the comfort of women in mind.
The space will have the staples of a regular gym, like ellipticals, treadmills and a few dumbbells. But unlike other fitness centers, only women will be allowed to exercise there. The rule is seen as a boon to the health and privacy of Somali women in particular, who often feel uneasy working out in the town’s co-ed gyms.
“The thing is, women cannot open their hair in front of men,” said Lul Ahmed, a 20-year-old Somali resident who advised the project. “We didn’t have like, (a) private spot that we can open our hair and feel comfortable.”
Jon Haefner, a chiropractor, considered opening a women-only gym after noticing the discomfort Somali women had with exercising at his clinic’s fitness center.
“The problem was, being on cardio equipment … most (Somali women) wear dresses or most of them wear hijabs so there was some concern their clothing would get caught in the equipment,” said Haefner. As a result of the limited privacy in local gyms, Somali women would either feel uncomfortable or not exercise at the facilities altogether.
Haefner set his idea into motion after receiving funding from a Blue Cross Blue Shield program called Healthy Together Willmar. The initiative awarded the Multicultural Women’s Fitness and Nutrition Center $15,000, and Haefner chipped in $5,000. After changing locations twice, Haefner secured a space and the opening is set for late August.
Haefner was not the first person in town to spot the need for more accommodating fitness spaces. Other residents suggested opening a gym in the mosque, or one for only Somali men and women.
But Haefner wanted the space to be more open and inclusive of all women. “I think it’s going to be a well-needed service,” he said. “The whole goal is to make Willmar a healthier place.”
Changing demographics, changing health needs
The need for the “multicultural gym” comes at a time when residents are adjusting to Willmar’s changing demographics.
Between 2000 and 2012, the number of black residents increased by about 200 percent, with the Hispanic resident population growing by 53 percent in the same period, according to a 2012 Wilder Research study. The town is also graying; 15 percent of residents are 65 years and older, MNCompass shows.
Demographic trends coupled with a mounting need for equitable health services attracted Blue Cross Blue Shield to invest $2 million in the community through Healthy Together Willmar. The money is a portion of the $6 billion settlement between the state and the tobacco industry in 1998.
“Willmar is really unique in that the demographic profile of Willmar today looks very much like (what) the rest of Greater Minnesota is going to look like in the next 10 years,” said Sarah Senseman, community initiatives director at Blue Cross Blue Shield.
“If you want to know what the rest of Minnesota is going to look like, you look to Willmar. So we really wanted to engage there, and learn and be able to apply those things elsewhere.”
The five-year initiative, now in its fourth year, aims to improve health outcomes for residents through community-led efforts. Haefner’s gym was backed by the Idea Fund, which gives money to projects proposed by residents focusing on health and relationship-building.
Willmar Mayor Marv Calvin said the town does not face the same kind of racial tensions as St. Cloud. He partially credits that to the initiative, which “has allowed us to express our opinions, express our thoughts and do it in a healthy way.”
“We communicate better, but I also think it’s changed the way our health care is delivered,” Calvin said.
Word travels fast
Although medical care isn’t part of the focus, the initiative is tackling real health problems in the community. Like the rest of America, the Somali community is seeing high rates of obesity among children. Haefner plans to combat this by making a dietician and registered nutritionist available to help with nutrition planning at the gym.
“We’re going to start with exercise and go right into diet, and address both at the same time,” he said.
In an effort to make membership affordable, dues will be paid on a month-to-month basis with no contract. Currently there are 45 people signed up on the gym’s waitlist, but Haefner is confident there will be more, as “word travels really fast.”
“Especial(ly) the old people, they’re just excited to see a private space that they can be the first,” Ahmed said.