Al Rehab city in Cairo Rex features

Cairo: Every Friday, Bassem Hassan, an accountant, makes sure he is on the street just at the day-break. The 28-year-old Egyptian joins dozens of others in running on the circular sidewalk of a spacious park in the quarter of Heliopolis near his house in east Cairo.

“My job as well as life burdens as a married man do not allow me time to exercise regularly in a gym,” Hassan says.

“In recent months, I’ve noticed that I started gaining weight and feel lethargic due to the lack of exercises. Upon a suggestion from a friend, I jog at least once during my weekend around the fence of the Maryland,” he adds, referring to a famous park in Heliopolis.

“My persistence has paid off. In a couple of months, I shed some kilos of body weight. Also, running makes me relieved of any stress,” he told Gulf News.

Hassan is one of many people who hit the streets of the sprawling Egyptian capital on Friday mornings, the weekend in Egypt, and national holidays when the road traffic is light.

More than 20 million people are estimated to be living in the Greater Cairo zone that includes Cairo and the adjoining cities of Giza and Qaliubia.

Clogged with motor and pedestrian traffic for most hours of the day, Cairo is one of the world’s top polluted cities.

In recent years, Egyptians, who can afford it, have moved to the outskirts of Cairo to live in gated communities where pollution and car traffic are low.

Osama Mahmoud is one of them.

“Since I moved to the Tagamuh [a Cairo suburb], some three years ago, I have been keen on running as much as possible,” says the 52-year-old auto dealer.

“Running in the fresh air makes one healthy. Doctors among my friends have told me that this is more beneficial for the health than exercising indoor,” he adds.

“This was not possible when I used to live in Abdeen where one had to jostle with cars and people for space on the street,” Mahmoud adds, referring to a populous area near central Cairo that also houses several government buildings.

“Even those who do not have the financial means to buy an apartment in the new communities [outside Cairo] now have the chance to jog on their well-paved sidewalks.”

In recent years, it has become common to see hundreds of Egyptians wearing track suits and running together in leafy quarters such as Zamalek, Maadi and Heliopolis or on the streets of new communities in the October 6 City west of Cairo or Tagamuh on the eastern edge.

These have provided a welcome chance for health-conscious women, who are discouraged from running inside Cairo due to the heavy traffic and for fear of sexual harassment, believed to be a common problem in Egypt.

These runs are organised by individuals or groups.

“I am an avid follower of Cairo Runners,” says Hadeel Farhat, a female engineering student, citing a popular non-governmental organiser of runs in the Egyptian capital.

“I and my friends have participated in most of the group’s recent marathons. The organisation is usually wonderful and the atmosphere is cheerful. You also feel safe from the threat of harassment,” the 22-year-old student adds.

Some years ago, Hadeel once tried to run for fitness near her house in the east Cairo of Manshiyet Al Sadr. “It was a frustrating experience,” she remembers. “There were no proper sidewalks for running. Men and women looked angrily at me, considering me an ill-bred girl. Some men verbally harassed me.”

Now Hadeel is a frequent participant in the running events held on Friday mornings in or around Cairo.

When it organised its first run in December 2012, Cairo Runners said the event attracted around 60 participants. The figure has steadily increased to reach 2,500 runners per event, according to the group.

The mission statement of Cairo Runners is to encourage Egyptians to adopt a healthy lifestyle.

“The aim is to make it a normal thing for people to turn up on the streets of Cairo and exercise,” the group’s co-founder Ebrahim Safwat, said in a recent seminar.

Cairo Runners also promotes good causes through its events.

“We try to raise awareness about some diseases such as breast cancer, diabetes and autism,” Safwat added. “We also raise donations for hospitals, charitable societies and residents of slum areas.”