Istanbul (AFP) Afternoon prayers are over in Istanbul's popular mosque and the silver-haired men turn their gaze from the imam to the sports instructor in the white polo shirt.
A dozen worshipers and the imam with the long, carefully trimmed beard stand straight, their feet planted on the thick turquoise carpet of the Abdulhamid Han mosque.
Then they raise their knees, swivel their shoulders and jump up and down, exchanging muffled laughs and shy glances.
For 15 minutes, they follow the instructors' movements, getting more exercise than they had in many years.
“A person is like a vehicle. Just like we need to maintain our vehicle, when we do sports, our organs improve,” said Servet Arici, a worshiper at the mosque.
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 in Istanbul's Bagcilar district, one of the most densely populated and disadvantaged in the city.
To his right, the veteran of the group, Huseyin Kaya, 75, says he is delighted to “make every part of my body move”.
“It makes a difference,” says the bearded former taxi driver, his forehead creased with wrinkles under his black skullcap.
The instructor, Fatih Yamanoglu, said the daily routine was enough “to prevent future injuries and make life easier” for the elderly men.
Between 25 and 35 worshipers work on their flexibility each day after midday and late afternoon prayers, Yamanoglu said.
“They are rejuvenated”
Women, who in Turkey pray more often at home, are currently excluded from the project.
But Bagcilar's council, led by a mayor from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Islamic AKP party, said it was open to the change.
The employment rate of women in Turkey is less than half of the officially recorded rate of men, making them particularly vulnerable to a sedentary lifestyle.
More than half of Turkish women have a low level of physical activity, compared to around one in three men, according to Health Ministry data.
This deficit in female fitness is found “in many countries,” said Serap Inal, director of the department of physiotherapy and rehabilitation at Istanbul's Galata University.
Residents of disadvantaged neighborhoods in Istanbul exercise less than their counterparts in more affluent neighborhoods, adds Inal.
In a country where the share of over-65s has almost doubled in 25 years to more than 10 percent, offering gym sessions in mosques “could be a good idea”, Inal said.
“However, I would suggest taking them outside and exercising in the fresh air,” she said.
The imam, Bulent Cinar, is delighted that his mosque is now more than a place of worship, attracting fitness-conscious worshipers from neighboring mosques.
He also said he was ready for a “female instructor” to lead the exercises in the women's prayer room, calling for the initiative to be extended to Turkey's 90,000 mosques.
“After doing these exercises, the quality of their prayers improves,” the imam said.
“They move more easily. They are rejuvenated.”
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