Kerava fitness project integrates newcomers through exercise

A simple recipe for integrating immigrant women into Finnish society in Kerava has proven very successful. In addition to health benefits, the Kerava exercise project builds social networks and even friendships.

At a gym in Kerava Areena, a group of women are learning a Finnish folk dance called "Letkajenkka".

But this is much more than a dance lesson.

It's part of a sports project that aims to welcome newcomers to Finland by introducing them to their community through group exercise. Not only does it speed up the integration process, it creates invaluable social networks.

According to the project's fitness coordinator, Tarja Schneider-Lehto, the approach is based on the idea that exercise is key to overall wellbeing. In addition to being fun, it's a great way to meet new people who live in your neighbourhood.

Schneider-Lehto is tasked with the job of encouraging immigrant women to come out and participate.

"For some women exercising together is a totally new experience," says Schneider-Lehto.

Different approaches to exercise

Studies indicate that immigrant women tend to exercise less than immigrant men. Though cultural and religious issues may have prevented women for participating in sports in the past, the most common reason is universal - a lack of time.

Newcomers to Kerava may not have a social network that allows them to find a babysitter. As such, organised childcare for the Kerava project meant that Gülistan Kaymaz was able to participate in the classes.

"It's fantastic that childcare was organised, it means that I really have my own time," says Kaymaz.

And it's not just about song and dance. Different types of sports activities are also available.

Sevyet Göcdemir, who is originally from Turkey, has been paired with volunteer Joanna, who has also become her friend.

"We walk together and go to the gym," says Göcedemir.

The programme, called Kerava Kodiksi (which roughly translates to "Kerava, my home"), started last spring. It has been so popular that a second group will be added next spring.