In a region with such a strong outdoors legacy, obesity and a sedentary lifestyle have become the norm
Here's one way to tackle the obesity crisis – hike around the Arabian Peninsula
It seems a bittersweet irony that as I was hiking around the Arabian Peninsula researching my new book on the region’s culture and geography, experts were meeting in Abu Dhabi to discuss the growing problem of child obesity.
The child obesity forum in the UAE capital earlier this month raised the alarming news that parents are sleepwalking towards an obesity crisis. Experts have been racking their brains about how this issue might be tackled.
Nearly forty per cent of residents in the UAE are classed as clinically obese; a study published by BMC Public Health journal in 2012 ranked the UAE as the sixth heaviest country in the world.
The number of children and youngsters affected is the most concerning factor. There are more than 124 million overweight or obese children and adolescents worldwide. In the UAE, 13 per cent of children are obese and the numbers are rising.
It’s ironic that in a region with such a strong outdoors legacy that obesity and a sedentary lifestyle have become the norm. It was not all that long ago that the concept of going outside and walking was not considered strange; in fact, it was positively virtuous. There are Bedouin songs written about the courage of those nomads who moved from place to place, not only to survive but to thrive, to experience hardship for hardship’s sake and in doing so, keep alive a tradition that has gone on for thousands of years.
Nowadays if you so much as contemplate walking to the mall, you are most likely to be asked if you’ve had too much sun.
Walking as a pastime has all but disappeared from the Gulf region. Complaints that it is too hot, or that there is nothing to see anyway, are rife. And anyway, why would you walk if you can drive in an air-conditioned SUV?
I would argue that there are two good reasons to walk – and at a time of year when the tendency is to overindulge, it has never been more prescient. Firstly, there is plenty to see if only you look for it. In the months I spent travelling around the Arabian Peninsula researching my book, a lot of time involved trekking. It was hard and sweaty a lot of the time, but also incredibly rewarding. By travelling on foot in places like the Empty Quarter or the Musandam peninsula, or walking across Sir Bani Yas island, you get to see things at a slower pace than the average tourist and notice things that others will miss as they zip by in their 4x4s.
How many times do you get to come face to face with a desert fox, a gazelle or an Arabian leopard – or in the case of Sir Bani Yas, a giraffe?
Travelling by foot is what we as humans are meant to do and how we are meant to experience our environment. It is how we have evolved as a species and by denying ourselves this natural exercise, we not only remove a fundamental requirement of our natural state of being but we also put ourselves at biological risk.
By not walking, we are falling into an obesity crisis. Children in the UAE on average spend less than one hour a day outdoors, according to research from the family leisure firm Fun City, and most of their free time is taken up with playing on computers and virtual communication, rather than essential real-time interaction in a natural environment.
Of course, there are plenty of ways this can be remedied. There are numerous sports clubs available and gym membership is at an all-time high. That said, many people are put off by organised sport, and gym membership more often than not simply means turning up for a smoothie and a wallow in the jacuzzi.
Fewer people are taking the opportunities available on their doorstep, to explore and discover the outside world.
Ras Al Khaimah is pitching itself as the next up-and-coming adventure destination in the Middle East with a whole host of activities planned, from ziplines to the Jebel Jais Via Ferrata hiking trails. Al Qudra lakes offer the opportunity to undertake mini desert expeditions and camp under the stars, and if you’d rather stretch your upper body, kayaking the mangrove swamps around Abu Dhabi can be a great way to spend the afternoon and get some fresh air.
Further afield, there are several well-trodden, and not so well-trodden, walks available for the intrepid explorer. I spent a week walking the length of the Dhofar peninsula in Oman at the tail end of the Khareef, from Hasik to Mirbat, one of the most remarkable landscapes anywhere in the world. It involves having your own camel caravan and taking along some seasoned jebalis as guides, but this only adds to the experience and gives a little flavour of what the old spice trail really used to look like.
With a bit of planning it really is possible to unleash your inner explorer, regardless of your experience, and do something that will not only leave memories to last a lifetime but also help develop a lust of adventure that can have an enormously positive impact on your children and in the long-term, make better sense for your health – and your pocket.
By 2040, healthcare spending in the UAE is predicted to more than double to $47.5 billion as obesity levels increase. This is concerning for everyone and the only way to combat it is to start now with the next generation, before it is too late.
According to Dr Shatha Al Ghazali, school environment plays a critical role in the successful campaign against childhood obesity. As she said at the Abu Dhabi forum: “We envisage the UAE school environment to be one that promotes the health of the children, healthy food options, physical activity opportunities and mental wellbeing. The biggest challenge is reaching out to children in a language they understand and appreciate.”
But, of course, the responsibility lie not just with schools. It is equally the duty of parents to encourage and foster an interest in life that goes beyond gadgets and computer screens. With so many opportunities for adventure in the region, there is no excuse for not getting children and adults alike out into the mountains and desert to experience life as it is meant to be lived. Children understand adventure and all of us have an inner nomad, who sometimes needs to wander.
Levison Wood is a historian, documentary maker and the author of Eastern Horizons, recounting his trip along the Silk Road. He will be teaching a writing masterclass at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature in March next year