x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

The weight piles on, but options for losing it are scarce

With just some small changes the UAE could become one of the healthiest nations on earth. But despite the need that goal remains sadly elusive.

I really thought I would get some exercise when the taxi fares went up, but I didn't. I just stayed home and gained weight. I won't embarrass myself by saying how much, but I will say that it has caused me a mountain of health problems. And when my doctor announced, "Your ideal weight is 65 kgs," I thought, okay, so where do I buy the ticket to this destination? Because that's the only way that I'm getting there.

Losing weight in the UAE is just too hard.

Gyms for women are rare and expensive and even some of the fancy-schmancy ones need a class on getting rid of mold and mildew. "No one exercises in the UAE," says Lama Yamout, a diabetes educator for Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals.

I met her at Sharjah's Kuwaiti Hospital, where she held an impromptu class on diabetes management. "You must at least walk for 30 minutes five days a week," she advised. It's easier said than done.

Someone in Sharjah had the right idea when they put some exercise equipment in Al Majaz Park. It was great. Women, some in abayas, jilbabs and the Turkish hijabs called pardessus were out there every day working up a sweat, with their children in tow getting some exercise too.

Women want to exercise and need a place to do so. In a Muslim society one idea would be to put a ladies-only exercise section in the park, instead of putting it right in the middle, in full view of peeping Toms. Better yet, why not give the guys their own parks full of equipment? Parks fitted out with a cricket pitch, a football pitch, some rowing machines and a track for walking or running might save a lot of trouble on both sides of the fence. Putting exercise equipment in parks is a great idea but it needs some culturally sensitive urban planning.

Recently, the UAE Government announced an extra Dh144 million for the Ministry of Health. I hope some of this is for preventive health care.

How many times have I heard that the UAE is the diabetes capital of the world? There are so many awareness campaigns, including the Dubai Diabetes Walk on November 25. If only there were a walk like that for us all to take part in every day.

Walking is great exercise for all, but a walking revolution will require better places to walk. There should be walking spaces for pedestrians, lanes for bikers, and access for wheelchairs. Fortunately some neighbourhoods in Abu Dhabi, and some higher-end Dubai locations such as the International Financial Centre, do have ample places to walk. But what about the other emirates?

One organisation that might offer some ideas, if not solutions, is the US-based National Complete Streets Coalition, which aims at creating more public spaces to encourage walking, biking and wheelchair access. I'd add baby-pushchair access also; how many times have I seen mothers pushing their babies down the middle of the street because there is no usable side walk?

Also, in a car culture such as the UAE's, walking is stigmatised. I remember suggesting to a friend that we could walk to lose weight. She said: "An Emirati walking? People will look at me."

Perhaps this attitude is tied to a recent Abu Dhabi Gallup Center finding that individuals aged 15-29 are likely to suffer from as much pain as those aged 30-44.

The attitude towards physical fitness has to change. The US National Center for Biking and Walking says children and adolescents need one hour of daily physical activity, and adults at least 2.5 hours weekly.

Look at the time a child spends sitting: as much as four hours on the school bus, five hours in school, three hours doing homework, three more watching TV or playing computer games or surfing the net. Total: up to 15 hours of not moving. There is a dire need for places for kids to play and walk.

In Majaz Park, meanwhile, there are a few climbing frames and two play areas - hardly enough for an area of 30,000 people.

With just some small changes, the UAE could become one of the healthiest nations on Earth.

But that goal will take effort and education, and also requires the resolve for us to incorporate community-orientated design features into our cities.

Physical activity should be a natural part of everyone's daily routine, not a special event that requires a nice T-shirt and a donation.


Maryam Ismail is a sociologist and teacher who divides her time between the US and the UAE