Leading Egypt's fitness revolution

Nirvana Zaher
Nirvana Zaher '06 (Kinesiology) coaches clients and leads fitness classes, from spinning and yoga to pole dancing, at LAX Gym in El Gouna, Egypt on the Red Sea.

Former Sac State gymnast Nirvana Zaher is breaking down barriers as a business owner

It took a bold leap for Nirvana Zaher ’06 (Kinesiology) to leave her hometown of Cairo, Egypt at age 16 to become a student-athlete at Sac State.

Her gallant spirit hasn’t dissipated over the past 12 years.

These days, Zaher is pioneering a fitness movement gaining momentum in her home country. Zaher founded The Fitness Playground and works as a fitness instructor, personal trainer and a coach.

And you want brazen? In a country that is nearly 95 percent Muslim and known for its conservative culture, Zaher introduced pole-dancing classes at LAX Gym in El Gouna, a small resort town on the Red Sea.

“I always wanted to introduce concepts into the market that make you say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’” she says.

Zaher doesn’t intend to shock people. She simply wants to make workouts fun and inspire clients to reach their goals. Nirvana Zaher 2

In May, Zaher organized a five-hour spinning marathon, billed as the first event of its kind in the Middle East, and it sold out. The gym holds unique classes like Air Yoga—a form of yoga that involves being suspended in the air via nylon straps—and CrossHiit—a high-intensity interval program that combines body weight exercises, weight training and endurance training. People are responding to Zaher’s all-encompassing approach to exercise.

“I see it as inspiring someone to make changes,” Zaher says. “I’ve been fortunate to train and work with people who understand what I’m trying to do and they’ve given me the benefit of the doubt.

“There is a stigma here sometimes that someone in our industry is there because they can’t get another job. It’s not an occupation that is respected like an engineer or a doctor or a businessperson. But I’ve been able to present myself as an educated woman.”

Zaher was a Big Sky Conference gymnastics champion all four years at Sac State. She was also a school record holder on the balance beam at Sac State and balancing different fitness concepts is a key part of her business model with The Fitness Playground.

The coaching ideas and phrases from Sac State coaches Kim Hughes and Randy Solorio still resonate with Zaher. She says she was emotionally immature when she first came to Sac State, where her brother Sherif Zaher was a tennis standout. The coaches encouraged her to embrace challenges and make the most of each day.

“They would say, ‘Never take things for granted. Every day is a gift. Every day is an opportunity to do something amazing,'” Zaher says. “I really remember those words and I felt really privileged to compete at Sac State.”

After earning her master’s degree in exercise science at Loughborough University in England, Zaher returned to Egypt in 2008. She says eventually her The Fitness Playground business could expand to the U.S., and beyond. But for now she is determined to transform the culture around fitness in her homeland.

“I wanted to take all this knowledge from living, studying and working in the U.S. and try to make a difference here,” she says. “Over the past three years, fitness is booming to a ridiculous extent. It wasn’t in our culture before. Now everybody wants to look good and feel good.”

For more information about The Fitness Playground, visit www.facebook.com/tfpredsea.

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