A dozen worshippers and the imam with a long, carefully trimmed beard stand up straight, feet planted on the thick, turquoise carpet of the Abdulhamid Han Mosque.
Then they raise their knees, rotate shoulders and hop in place, exchanging muted giggles and shy glances.
For 15 minutes they follow the instructors’ movements, getting more exercise in then they had done in many years.
“A person is like a vehicle. Just like we need vehicle maintenance, when we do sport our organs improve,” mosque-goer Servet Arici explained.
Like the others, the 66-year-old had been doing his daily gymnastics since January, when a fitness project was rolled out in 11 mosques of Istanbul’s Bagcilar district, one of the massive city’s most densely populated and deprived.
To his right, the veteran of the group, Huseyin Kaya, 75, said he was delighted to “make every part of my body move”.
“It makes a difference,” the bearded former taxi driver said, his forehead creased with wrinkles under his black skullcap.
The instructor, Fatih Yamanoglu, said the daily routine was enough “to avoid future injuries and make life easier” for the elderly men.
Between 25 and 35 worshippers work on their flexibility every day after noon and late afternoon prayers, Yamanoglu said.
‘They are rejuvenated’
Women, who in Turkey more often pray at home, are currently excluded from the project.
But the Bagcilar council, led by a mayor from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted AKP party, said it was open to seeing that change.
Women’s employment rate in Turkey is less than half that officially recorded for men, making them especially vulnerable to sedentary lifestyles.
More than half of Turkish women have low levels of physical activity, compared to about one in three men, according to health ministry data.
This female fitness deficit is found “in many countries”, said Serap Inal, director of the department of physiotherapy and rehabilitation at the Istanbul Galata University.
The residents of Istanbul’s disadvantaged neighbourhoods do less sport than their counterparts in better-off districts, Inal added.
In a country where the share of the over-65s has almost doubled in 25 years to more than 10 percent, offering gym sessions in mosques “might be a good idea”, Inal said.
“However, I would suggest taking them out and exercising in fresh air,” she said.
The imam, Bulent Cinar, is delighted his mosque was now more than a place of worship, attracting fitness-conscious faithful from neighbouring mosques.
He said he was also ready to have “a female instructor” lead exercises in the women’s prayer room, urging the initiative to be extended across Turkey’s 90,000 mosques.
“After we do these exercises, the quality of their prayers improves,” the imam said.
“They move more easily. They are rejuvenated.”
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