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How active lifestyles, sports and fitness programs are helping Arab women beat obesity and manage their weight
JEDDAH: Global obesity rates have been rising steadily over the past half-century, reaching such a point that experts say many countries are behind schedule in meeting the Organization’s global nutrition targets world health for 2025.
Recognizing the pressures that high rates of obesity place on local healthcare systems, to the detriment of quality of life, countries like Saudi Arabia are working hard to promote physical fitness and inspire people to change their lifestyles. sedentary.
According to a recent study by the Ohio State University College of Medicine, obesity and associated health implications cost the Saudi health care system $3.8 billion in 2019 alone, or about 4.3% of health care spending. total annual health of the Kingdom.
Excess weight and obesity – defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that can impair health – are not unique to the Arab world. More than one billion people worldwide are classified as obese, which means they have a body mass index (a measure of body fat based on height and weight) of 30 or more, and that number is increasing.
According to the WHO, obesity is more prevalent in women than in men, with factors such as socio-cultural issues, economics, genetics and biology all being contributing factors. Worldwide, obesity affects 15% of women and 11% of men. In the Middle East and North Africa, this gender gap is even wider, with 26% of women classed as obese compared to 16% of men.
A recent article published by The Economist attributes the problem in the region to two key factors: socioeconomics, on the grounds that the cheapest local foods tend to be the most unhealthy, such as bread and rice; and culture, on the grounds that pervasive social conservatism in the Arab region can prevent women from participating in outdoor exercise or passively burning calories in the workplace.
The reality is of course more complex than that. The perception of Arab women as mere sedentary housewives seems grossly outmoded as women in the region increasingly enter the labor market, take charge of their diets and seize new opportunities in the world of sport and business. fitness.
Keeping body weight under control, in any case, is easier said than done in the age of globalization. Arab countries have also experienced significant lifestyle changes and rapid urbanization which have introduced many additional high fat foods to the market alongside pre-existing unhealthy eating habits including the traditionally high carbohydrate Arab diet.
The populations of the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, have found themselves at the heart of these developments. Notably, obesity levels have skyrocketed over the past few decades due to a mix of unhealthy eating, inactivity, and maintaining “fad fat” – a stereotype associated with Gulf nationals due of their perceived wealth.
Globally, the perception of obesity varies considerably. In many high-income and, increasingly, middle-income countries, weight gain carries a social stigma that fuels a perception of individual weakness that undermines support for comprehensive prevention, treatment and prevention measures. of support.
Different ideals associated with body weight and shape can be found in various cultures. Specific cultural pressures to be tall and thin are postulated to cause people to misreport their height and body weight in an effort to appear what is considered more socially popular and desirable.
A similar situation exists in some places in terms of attitudes towards being overweight. Many African and Polynesian cultures, and some Arab cultures, associate overweight women with wealth, health, strength, and fertility. In the Gulf region at least, however, being big is definitely out of fashion.
Sulafa Kurdi, photographer and cafe owner, has been overweight most of his life. In August 2020, she took the first steps on a nearly two-year journey to get fit and healthy by enrolling in a gym. She chose Sweat Army in Jeddah and started her transformation.
“I was waiting for the right moment to move on and change my life,” she told Arab News. “Breaking down that wall was tough but with the support I got from my coach, the journey was what I needed. I wanted to lose weight the healthy way, the right way and the hard way. .
“Within three months of enrolling, I have found the discipline to maintain a healthy lifestyle that I still stick to as best I can. Yes, we all fall off the wagon and sometimes feel sluggish. With the right support, I managed to get back and moving, breaking my own records.
Indeed, contrary to the claims in The Economist article, anecdotal evidence suggests that more and more women in the Arab world are taking control of their physical lives and embarking on a journey to improve their fitness. This in turn has motivated many people to pursue their dream of becoming professional athletes.
Studies have shown that engagement in sports and physical activity is lower in women than in men. Today, various government and private programs provide women and girls with access to sports facilities, encouraging them to become athletes and even role models for younger generations.
This has challenged outdated stereotypes about women in Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab region and misguided notions about social conservatism preventing them from going out both to exercise and to participate in organized sports. .
Nicknamed “Cleopatra Squash”, the Egyptian Nuran Johar has won padel tournaments such as the British Open Junior Championship five times. Meanwhile, Ulfah Alkaabi, one of the best padel players in the UAE, has made her mark on the court.
Halfway around the world, the Saudi Arabia women’s national soccer team won a silver medal at the Special Olympics Unified Cup in Detroit, Michigan this month.
Although Saudi sprinter and first-time Olympian Yasmeen Al-Dabbagh failed in her first race at Tokyo 2020, she is aiming to medal at the next Games in Paris in 2024.
By all accounts, women’s participation in sport and fitness comes down to a community of support. In the Kingdom, the Sports For All Federation has implemented community programs to improve overall health through community sports programs, a powerful tool to create a healthy society in line with the quality of life goals of Vision 2030.
The SFA says its programs and initiatives are created based on a community’s specific needs and what motivates them, and can be easily integrated into their daily routines such as walking, running, biking and other activities. . He says the number of women participating in community sports has increased dramatically.
“Since 2018, we have seen the numbers reflected in our programs,” an SFA spokesperson told Arab News. “The SFA wants to provide women with the right programs and women-led initiatives to encourage them to go further.
“We had a special course for women in our Spartan race, there was space for women at SandClash to compete, and the same goes for our neighborhood clubs across the Kingdom for women who prefer to have their own spaces.
“The SFA has also hosted the Global Goals World Cup, a five-a-side women’s football tournament, and is the first country to add basketball to the games. One of the main goals of SFA is to empower them, give them access to facilities, motivate them and feel part of the community.
Stressing the importance of community physical activity programs, Haya Sawan, fitness trainer and owner of SheFit Gym in Jeddah, told Arab News that such programs help build a strong fitness culture among women.
“There’s been a huge jump in the last five years and you can see more people engaging in some sort of physical activity than ever before. It’s not just about opening gyms, it’s more about changing the mindset and changing the way of life,” Sawan said.
“The region’s unique climate and environment prevent us from covering miles on foot, so we have to work harder to stay active throughout the day. We use the space we have and create programs that fit the space, and using large spaces such as shopping malls and designated outdoor paths for walking or jogging is a great way to engage the public. .
“Initiatives such as the ones started by SFA where they cooperated with shopping malls make it so much easier for people to be physically active. It’s accessible and you can count your steps. It’s a small gesture that makes a difference in the long run. .
That said, self-motivation remains an integral part of any fitness journey, and the changing perceptions of Arab women – and society at large – about their role, status and bodily autonomy have undoubtedly a role to play.
“I strongly believe that your thoughts can truly control your life,” Sawan said. “A positive mindset will always believe there is room for improvement and will see challenges as motivators to overcome, rather than challenges that will hold you back. Everything changes.”