Breaking Barriers: Medical Student Brings Fitness to Somali Women

Published in Medical Students

Author: Staff

In an empty classroom at a repurposed elementary school building in Willmar, Minnesota, third-year medical student, Robin Sautter, created a place where Somali women could exercise in a setting that met their cultural and physical activity needs.

In the transition from their home country, Somali refugee women often had to alter their active lifestyles when entering a westernized country like the U.S. Lack of physical activity contributes to their overall health: physically, socially and mentally. As a medical student and a certified fitness instructor, Robin was motivated to create a fitness class to help these women learn how to stay fit and feel comfortable while doing so.

Discovering a Need

Upon arriving for her medical rotations at ACMC in Willmar, Robin was quickly made aware of a growing issue with Somali women concerned over generalized pain they were experiencing. After speaking with several ACMC physicians, she discovered that many believed the women’s pain was developing from severe de-conditioning that the Somali women faced as they readjusted to life in the United States.

Robin admits she knew little about the Somali community before arriving in Willmar. The community is home to a growing population of Somali refugees and immigrants. After researching she found that the Somali women stayed active in their home country by farming, walking long distances for supplies, and taking walks for leisure. When they moved to the U.S., and in particular Minnesota, these activities were drastically altered, especially during the cold, snowy winters they were not accustom to.

In addition, Robin became friends with several Somali translators including a woman, Mouna, who taught her more about the Somali culture. They spent weekends cooking traditional Somali meals while discussing religion, life in Somali and Mouna’s transition to life in the U.S. “I learned there are so many similarities between our culture and the Somali culture,” Robin reflected, “from their concerns about their health to their love for family and friends, in some ways there is very little difference between us.”

Through these experiences, Robin decided she would focus her required medical student research project on helping the Somali women find ways to stay healthy. “I find myself drawn to communities and populations that are particularly facing barriers to healthcare,” Robin said, “because it appeared to be a specific niche in the community that others had also been concerned about, I felt that this would be a perfect project.”

Somali women working with resistance bands.

Finding the Right Fit
After studying the culture and speaking with groups of Somali women, Robin discovered the barriers that restricted women from working out in the facilities already available in Willmar. These included transportation, financial restraints, language variations and cultural limitations. Because Somali women are not allowed to wear revealing clothing or be seen by men other than their husbands without their head scarves, working out became a challenge. These discussions became the building blocks for creating a fitness class and establishing an environment suitable for Somali women to work out.

After receiving an innovation grant from the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians Foundation, Robin was able to purchase the equipment she would need including yoga mats, dumbbells and resistance bands.
Robin also found guidance from ACMC’s Multicultural Committee and Somali Task Force. It was here that she received suggestions on locations to hold the class, how to work through potential challenges she might encounter and where she met key individuals that would help the program be successful.
After months of planning, Robin was able to launch her Somali women’s fitness class in February of 2016. Over the next four months, Robin taught a variety of workouts spanning from yoga to cardio. The average class size was around 20 Somali women.

“I have a much better understanding of the Somali culture after spending so much time with the women on this project,” Robin said reflecting on what she learned from the experience. “Throughout the course of the classes the women would bring different foods for me to try, share unique dance moves that they liked, and together we figured out how to communicate – even when our languages were completely different.”

Somali women jogging down a dirt road.

The Next Step

With the conclusion of the four-month fitness class project, Robin is now sharing her findings with ACMC’s medical staff and the Willmar community. Her goal is to help others gain a better understanding of the barriers Somali women face during their transition to living in the United States. “I hope that through sharing my observations others can learn more about how to connect with the Somali community and we can all move towards a healthier, stronger, more cohesive community.”

Although her time as a medical student with ACMC in Willmar has come to an end, Robin is making plans to keep her initiative going. Because she knows the importance of a group setting for the Somali women she plans to enlist the help of future University of Minnesota Rural Physician Associate Program (RPAP) students and hopes to get assistance from other organizations such as the local YMCA.

Robin ultimately hopes that the knowledge and confidence she has given to the Somali women will provide a platform to improve their overall health. “My hope is that women are inspired to continue staying active together,” Robin said. “It’s much more fun to exercise in a group, and now they have a safe classroom and equipment to do this!”