x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Weight camps take aim at Kuwait's obesity problem

About 70 to 80 per cent of Kuwaitis are overweight or obese, a figure that puts Kuwait 11th in global rankings.

Members of a weight camp get some excerise playing paintball in Kuwait City.
Members of a weight camp get some excerise playing paintball in Kuwait City.

KUWAIT CITY // During a recent paintball match, Seema Gadhok and the other participants were competing for something much more important than the flags pitched at the opposite end of an obstacle-strewn field.

The event was part of a 40-day summer camp designed to teach residents how to shed weight. It is Kuwait's latest attempt to promote healthy lifestyles in a society where inactivity and fast food have contributed to surging rates of obesity and diabetes.

"I used to be skinny all my life, and then I went off track somewhere. Something happened," said Ms Gadhok, who had reduced her bodyweight by one kilogramme to 72kg since the programme began two weeks earlier. The Indian researcher's goal is to shed 10 per cent of her bodyweight by the end of the course.

"I think it's the age, the job. So we need to learn how to keep fit throughout life, not just during this time," said Ms Gadhok, who is in her early 40s, as she prepared for another round of paintball. "It's a lifestyle change."

The dieters in the programme, which is run by a health and fitness consultancy called Aymstrong in cooperation with the Dar Al Shifa Hospital, meet three times a week for activities, morning workouts on the beach, lessons about how to select nutritious food in supermarkets and healthy cooking.

Mohammed Jahjah, Aymstrong's Syrian marketing manager, said the programme is based on Western-style camps where dieters live on the compound while they lose weight. The model has been tailored to meet the needs of the local culture where it is difficult for women - who make up 20 of the 24 participants - to sleep outside the home.

"In the US or the UK, people go and sleep in the camp, but that's difficult for people to accept in a society like Kuwait," he said. Instead, the participants are expected to follow a regime on days that they do not meet and weigh-in every week to monitor their progress.

Sami al Bader, a dietician for Diet Care, a health-food company that runs a programme known as Get Healthy Kuwait, said camps that include boarding can be a more effective way to lose weight. Many Kuwaitis travel to live-in camps in Germany, the Czech Republic and Thailand, where they can "benefit from nature and walk around".

About 70 to 80 per cent of Kuwaitis are overweight or obese, a figure that puts Kuwait 11th in global rankings, Mr al Bader said. The reasons for such high levels of obesity include soaring summer temperatures that force residents into air-conditioned environments, cheap petrol and poor public transport that encourage people to drive. Another factor is Kuwait's traditional hospitality based around big feasts.

"Weight loss is always good if it ensures long-term success, so when they go back to their natural environments they can take it with them," he said. "But it has to be done in the correct way. We don't want crash dieting."

"There is a general study that 95 per cent of people who lose weight gain it back within five years," he said.

Yousef al Qanai, the owner and CEO of Aymstrong, said by putting the dieters into teams that compete for points, the programme is utilising peer pressure to reinforce healthy behaviour, adding: "If you start doing things over time it becomes part of your lifestyle."

Mr al Qanai has a personal experience of the difficulties the dieters face. When the fitness instructor was 17, he weighed 130kg. Seven years later, he's slimmed down to 85kg, and this month he completed a 243km, seven-day marathon across the Moroccan desert that bills itself as "the toughest footrace on earth".

Competitors in the Marathon Des Sables, also known as the Marathon of the Sands, carry food, clothes, medical kits and sleeping bags over the dunes and rocky terrain of the Sahara Desert. The distance of the race is equivalent to five-and-a-half marathons.

"It's was a crazy experience. It was extremely tough," Mr al Qanai said. "It was kind of scary, I saw people who couldn't continue, and they just dropped."

By the end of the race, Mr al Qanai's feet were covered in blisters. He had removed two battered toenails to prevent infection. He was dehydrated and suffering from sunstroke. He kept going because "all my beliefs were based on finishing this race, to show the message that I always wanted to show: that things are not impossible".

"This message had to come from someone who had done it," he said.

jcalderwood@thenational.ae