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Refugees and asylum seekers welcomed to free fitness classes

University of Portsmouth students have been running exercise sessions for refugees as part of a pioneering project to bring communities closer together.

A six-week pilot project offering refugees and asylum seekers free fitness and physio classes has been hailed a success.

The collaboration between the University of Portsmouth and Portsmouth City of Sanctuary was set up earlier this year to provide opportunities for people to be active and create a site for cultural exchange. Students from the School of Sport, Health and Exercise Science held weekly, hour-long classes for individuals supported by the charity.

Dr Thierry Middleton, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Psychology at the University of Portsmouth, said:

“The ambition for this project was to get people moving in a space that might normally not be accessible, but more importantly use it as a vehicle to bring communities together.

“It was incredible to see how much the participants enjoyed the sessions. One person made the effort to come in for just 15 minutes of a class when they couldn’t attend the full hour.

“We were also expecting only a handful of students to volunteer, but in the end we had more than 30.”

The sessions, which involved strength and conditioning exercises, were held in the Strength, Conditioning and Rehabilitation teaching suite on the University’s city centre campus.

One participant said:

“My mental health has improved 100 percent because of the professionals that are teaching us. The student trainers and the tutor from the University are outstanding. They are very understanding, polite and patient.”

Before the pilot began, students leading the classes took part in a cultural sensitivity induction led by the Portsmouth City of Sanctuary. Roni Edwards, Sports Activity Coordinator at the charity, said:

“These fitness sessions were set up for people from a variety of cultures, who have overcome incredible challenges in their lives. We felt it was important to make the students aware of the cultural differences and similarities between members of the city’s communities.

“Because of this, they felt prepared and confident to deliver classes that everyone enjoyed. “Not only has this project given people an opportunity to reap the benefits of physical activity, it has also helped them improve their language and communication skills, and as a result made them feel more at home here in the UK.”

Ten refugees and asylum seekers, aged 18 and above, were involved in the pilot sessions. These included people from El Salvador, Cameroon, The Caribbean, Iran and Ukraine. The classes were split into male and female groups to make sure all participants felt comfortable exercising. Tara-May Morse and Mackenzie Steele, who are studying BSc Sport and Exercise Science at the University, volunteered to help run the women-only classes. They said:

“Running these sessions has been a huge learning opportunity for us. We’ve loved seeing the women who come to class grow in confidence and feel more empowered. We’ve helped provide a safe space for them to exercise and have fun, and I hope they got as much out of the sessions as we did.” The team behind the project, Fostering Integration and Thriving Through Physical Activity (FITTPA), hopes to continue their work in the Autumn.

Photo credit: Karen Bornhoft/University of Portsmouth