The challenges of exercising for some Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women


Orthodox Jewish women Diana Kurcfeld, left, and Suzanne Triebwasser, right, with running coach Becca Lipscomb at Rockville’s Montgomery High School. “People look at you a little funny,” Kurcfeld says of running in a skirt for religious reasons. “But then, when they find out why you do it, they’ll say, ‘Wow, I really respect that.’ ” (Ricky Carioti/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Lenny Bernstein
Blogger March 20, 2012

In a small Falls Church community center, a dozen or so Muslim women remove their head scarves and long abayahs as they prepare for an hour of vigorous dancing to the salsa and merengue music of their Wednesday Zumba class.

At least, that’s what they told me they were going to do. Before the start of the 7:30 p.m. class, I was politely escorted to the Nur Center’s door. No men are allowed here during the five weekly Zumba classes, so these women, whose faith requires the garb in the name of modesty around the opposite sex, can work out without inhibition.

Lenny Bernstein writes the To Your Health blog. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports. View Archive

“A place like this is really helpful for all the women,” says Hadil Alyamani, the 21-year-old Zumba instructor, who also wears traditional Muslim clothing as we chat before the class. “It’s a real workout. And it’s all women, so they’re very comfortable.”

Among the more obvious obstacles to fitness — time, money, willpower, injuries — the demands of faith don’t often come to mind. But for the devout, particularly women, issues such as modesty and traditional dress can limit an exercise program if options such as the Nur Center are not available.

Before the community center opened on Carlin Springs Road in 2010, Muna Bur’s exercise regimen was largely limited to walking. That didn’t work so well in winter, she said, and the abayah — a tunic that reaches her knees — made it difficult any time of year. “It’s not comfortable to walk with it,” she said on a recent evening as she waited for the Zumba class to start.

Occasionally her mosque would rent a nearby pool for a women-only swim, but those outings weren’t regularly scheduled. A consistent workout routine was impossible, she said.

Now Bur socializes with other women at the Zumba class, and some of the dance fitness program’s more risque moves are no problem, even in front of the studio’s big glass viewing window. Bur said she has lost 10 pounds.

“We dress up however we want. We’re not worried about men,” said Bur’s sister, Maha.

“Before Zumba,” adds Alyamani, “they would tell me they either didn’t exercise, or it wasn’t fun, or it wasn’t as convenient.”

For Diana Kurcfeld, an Orthodox Jew from Olney, maintaining a running program requires some adjustments many women wouldn’t consider. Even on the hottest summer days, she wears a skirt below the knee and sleeves past her elbows, modest garb that is a requirement of her faith when men are present. As a married woman, she must always cover her hair; she wears a scarf or a baseball cap, sometimes both.

“You get used to it,” she said. She has searched far and wide for comfortable running skirts, even importing some from Israel.

Races on Saturdays, the Jewish sabbath, are out of the question, and if Kurcfeld wants to participate in organized group training, she must find groups that run on Sundays. Because she keeps kosher, she brings her own snacks and drinks to races and training runs.

“In some Orthodox circles it’s considered immodest for a woman to be out running,” she added. “. . . It used to be really, really frowned on, but attitudes are changing.”

Other religious Jewish women have told her it’s just easier not to work out in the face of such obstacles, but Kurcfeld, 47, has been active all her life, and she knew when she adopted a more observant lifestyle 12 years ago that she wouldn’t be able to drop her fitness regimen. She wants to run a 50K for her 5oth birthday and from there hopes to move on to greater distances and triathlons.

She also has begun to recruit other Orthodox women to run with her. On the street, “people look at you a little funny. But then, when they find out why you do it, they’ll say, ‘Wow, I really respect that.’ ”

Kurcfeld has begun using Facebook to encourage devout Jewish women to exercise and eat more healthfully, an effort she hopes to someday convert into a full-time business. She posts nutrition tips, training plans, race information and inspirational messages.

“Women in general tend to have support networks,” but there is “nothing directed at Jewish women. We are a community that has a lot of holidays. Holidays are surrounded by eating. I’m trying to give people outlets so they can make choices.”

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