The Body Complex

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The opening of the first open-air gym in Complexo do Alemão, inside the community’s Espaço Habitacional Poesi (Poesi cultural center), has attracted much attention. One of the initiatives of the partnership between Afro Reggae, a well-known Rio NGO, and Santander bank, the gym has stainless-steel equipment, and a team of trained professionals to assist residents in their exercises.

However, hype created from the venture is another sign of the media’s ignorance regarding life on the urban periphery. Pride in one’s body and health, one of the hallmarks of Rio de Janeiro, crossed the Rebouças tunnel and arrived in Penha almost a decade ago. So says Fernando de Souza Oliveira, a 32-year old businessman, born and raised in Vila Cruzeiro, in the suburb of Penha, North Zone of Rio. Mr. Oliveira has built a network of gyms in the community, each with monthly fees ranging from R$30 to R$60 (US$20-40). He opened his first location with an investment of R$20,000 (US$13,000), raised from the sale of his car and with help from his parents.

Success was immediate, despite the equipment’s poor shape and the fact that Mr. Oliveira had no college education. “In only five months, the gym could not meet the demand of the community, with about 160 members,” says the entrepreneur, who attracted 50 members alone using a megaphone-equipped car and leafleting.

The first gym was improvised in a spacious two-story house, located on Vila Cruzeiro’s main square. The poor quality of the equipment garnered criticism from members however, motivating the entrepreneur to buy better equipment when opening another branch on the other side of the community. “There were many students coming from across the neighborhood,” he says. Since then, his students have been afforded the option to work out at any Fernando Gym. “This has more evenly distributed the students and increased the quality of service,” reports Oliveira.

Members of the gym (open from 5:00am to midnight), come for a variety of reasons. “The motivation comes from the street, because women can be jealous and compare themselves to one another,” muses Fabiana Andrade, 19, a student of law at UFRJ and resident of the famous Vila Cruzeiro.

A handball player and physical education teacher, Clara Medeiros da Costa, 23, also a resident of Penha, says she paid more attention to her figure after going into the city more. “When women from the favela first started to interact more with the rest of the city, the imaginary boundary that existed between the favela and the rest of the city was broken; there were more opportunities to socialize in places like nightclubs, university, and work,” she says. “That helped a lot of women in the favela think about health, both in general and aesthetically. Five or ten years ago, you never would see a woman passing by in the early morning or evening in workout clothes and carrying a water bottle. “

The country’s recent economic boom that lifted many Brazilians out of poverty increased the demand for gyms in the city’s perifery. “Once a worker earns a little more, he spends more and something that maybe wasn’t possible until recently, like attending a gym, becomes more viable,” says Clara. The athlete says, however, that entrepreneurs in this industry will only be successful once they offer more affordable monthly fees and open branches closer to the favelas, so that people won’t have to spend money on bus fare and snacks.

The main motivation for Aline Nascimento dos Santos, a 22-year-old volleyball player and telemarketing operator, was Imperatriz Leopoldinense, the traditional samba school on the outskirts of Complexo do Alemão. Her entire family has been participating in the samba school’s events for as long as she can remember. “Every area has a samba school made up of residents of the surrounding communities. There was always this concern with the body, even before the emergence of [Brazilian] funk. The popularization of funk further popularized gyms, which multiplied throughout Rio in an attempt to meet an unexpected demand.” They all said that the most exercised parts of the body are the lower limbs: legs, calves and glutes, better known as the butt.

Men are also regulars at the gyms. Attracting female attention and keeping fit are the main reasons young men work out.  However, it is not always easy to find time to “pump iron,” as they say in fitness junky slang. “It would be impractical to have to go back (home) to Penha to work out,” says João Carlos Amorim, 25, who goes to school and works in the city center. “Considering the time and money I would spend, I thought I’d better sign up for a gym close to work.”

There is no age limit for physical activity in Complexo da Penha. From the young to the elderly, there is notable concern for staying in shape. “It’s for those concerned with health, people who enjoy their physical well-being,” says Aline, who uses the example of her mother, 38, who works out at the same gym as her. “Actually, I still think that most of the younger girls here are less concerned than the older women, who are already focusing on keeping their body in shape, whether to march with a samba school, go to a club, or just feel good about themselves.”