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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — It's past midnight, but a dozen Palestinians are still running and sweating at a gym in the Gaza Strip.
During Islam's holiest month of Ramadan, Techno-Gym transforms into a late-night hot spot for young men struggling to stay in shape. In addition to self-discipline and prayer intended to bring adherents closer to God, the month is famed for its lavish meals and heavy desserts that follow a daylong fast.
"I come here during Ramadan to maintain the vitality of my body," said Anas al-Najjar, a music teacher, on a break from a set of back-muscle exercises. "As I have been training for a while, it's not good for the body to stop in Ramadan."
On a recent night, pop music mingled with the clanging of dumbbells and metal weight plates as fitness enthusiasts grunted and panted. The gym's black-and-yellow color scheme and bright blue lighting had a disorienting effect as the clock ticked into the early hours.
The Ramadan routine, with high-calorie fast-breaking "iftar" buffets, sugary staples and hours of sedentary screen time, is a headache for fitness trainers. A growing group of middle-class men in Gaza are preoccupied with the prospect of gaining weight.
A main culprit is the Ramadan dessert known as "qatayef" — fried pancakes stuffed with sweet cheese or nuts, soaked in homemade sugar syrup. A sliver of cheese qatayef contains some 350 calories. Fitness trainers acknowledge that it's hard to resist after a day of deprivation.
Ammar Abu Karsh, a trainer, said he tailors meal and workout plans, especially for Ramadan, taking into consideration the month's unique diet, but his clients often get off track.
"We have a problem in our customs and legacy because eating desserts and qatayef can never be found in any dietary plan," he said. "People say 'it's just a month and it will pass, so why should I deprive myself.'"
Abu Karsh has supplemented his Ramadan workout plan with intensive cardio sessions for "those whose bodies gain weight fast," scheduled in the late afternoon before the iftar meal.
With the gym's hours extended until 2 a.m. for the holy month, some Palestinians come late at night to hone their muscles and work up a sweat.
Over the past decade, the gym business in the Gaza Strip has boomed.
Some 120 gyms, two-thirds of which are professionally equipped, are scattered throughout the territory, according to Tareq Abu el-Jedyan of the Palestinian Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation. It's a significant spike from Gaza's pre-2000 gym count: a mere 10.
"Sports culture and awareness has gained online, allowing for more gyms to open," Abu el-Jedyan said. "Today, things are also more professional than in the past ... trainees get to know how to exercise right with the correct technique."
The upscale Techno-Gym opened three years ago, complete with a swimming pool, steam and sauna rooms and modern bodybuilding equipment imported from Italy.
The gym, which primarily caters to workers in banks, telecom companies and aid agencies who have the cash to spend, serves as a rare respite from the misery of life in the enclave, where unemployment surpasses 50%, tap water is undrinkable and electricity cuts are routine. The frequent cycles of bloody clashes with Israel have compounded daily struggles.
An Israeli-Egyptian blockade, imposed after the Hamas militant group seized power in 2007, and an intensifying political schism with the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, has thrown Gaza's economy into free fall, deepening poverty and worsening humanitarian conditions.
"As I live in Gaza under siege and pressures, such beautiful and neat gyms help us replace the pent-up energy with something good for our health," said al-Najjar.
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