Gulf finds itself on inactive lifestyle watchlist

Saudi Arabia third in international list of countries with unhealthy lifestyles

13:12 July 28, 2012

Dubai: Saudi Arabia is third among countries with the highest rate of inactive lifestyles, with Kuwait and UAE also featuring among the ten countries in the high-risk bracket, a new medical study has revealed.

Saudi Arabia, already among the five countries with the highest incidence of obesity, came only after Malta and Swaziland in the unhealthy lifestyle category, according to a study published recently by the Lancet Medical Journal.

Nearly 70 per cent of all adults in Saudi Arabia fail to get any kind of exercise, said the study which was published in the run-up to the 2012 London Olympics.

“Physical activity in our lifestyle is very limited,” acknowledged Lena Al Maeena, co-founder of Jeddah United Sport Company, and captain of Jeddah United Women Basketball team. The limitations could be attributed to “combined factors”, she told Gulf News.

Options for walkways are extremely limited in the ultra-conservative kingdom and even if some people opt to walk, the generally hot weather throughout the year makes it even more difficult to exercise.

Moreover, technology has invaded the daily life of people and “made every thing within a remote-control click”, and many people opt to spend long hours in front of their computer screens or gadgets, Lena said. “Our culture is not a walking culture,” she said.

Asked whether the findings of the study are surprising, she explained that already Saudi Arabia is “with or without this study … We are on the code red.”

Obesity is a major health problem in the country. The number of breast cancer cases diagnosed among women under the age of 25 years old is also among the highest in the world.

The Saudi Health Ministry is shelling out nearly 19 billion Saudi riyal (Dh18.60 billion) a year to treat illnesses and diseases related to obesity, such as heart problems and high cholesterol, Saudi activists noted.

However, the new study provides another reason to put in place more health measures and create more awareness and start more campaigns, Lena said. Physical exercise is expected to be introduced as a regular part of the curriculum of Saudi government-owned schools for girls; it does exist for boys.

Women are not allowed to exercise in public in the kingdom. All sports activities take place in privately-owned clubs, gyms or ranches. Women complain that many of these gyms are for the elite and not unaffordable for the average citizen. Saudi Arabia for the first time permitted women to participate in the Olympics this year. Men, on the other hand, don’t have any curbs on exercising publicly. Yet, the study showed that most of them don’t follow regular and healthy lifestyles.

According to the study’s definition, inactivity is failing to perform any of the following three sorts of activities: 30 minutes of moderate activity such as brisk walking at least five times a week; 20 minutes of vigorous activity at least three times a week; or an equivalent combination of the two said activities.

The study, which used data from the World Health Organisation (WHO), has been published by many Saudi media outlets. One newspaper even sounded a warning that the lack of exercise and prevalent obesity levels could lead to fatal diseases.

The study itself cautioned that the lack of exercise, or what is being described as a ‘couch potato lifestyle’, is causing as many deaths as smoking: nearly 5.5 million. One in ten deaths worldwide is caused by illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and breast or colon cancer, reports said.

In Malta, the percentage of deaths linked to physical inactivity is 19.2 per cent, the study said.

In comparison, the percentages of deaths linked to lack of exercises are 17 per cent and 4.2 per cent in Britain and Greece respectively. The United States has a 10.8 per cent inactivity rate.

Also, among the top ten countries identified with a physical inactivity problem among adults are Kuwait and the UAE, with 64.5 per cent and 62.5 per cent respectively, the study said.

In the first half of the last century, the population of the Gulf region depended on physical activities including fishing, goat herding and pearl diving, for a living, a press report noted. However, the oil boom has changed lifestyles across the region with people employed in desk jobs and drawing on unemployment benefits, it added.

Today, the Gulf region faces a serious diabetes problem.

According to the International Diabetes Federation, an umbrella organisation of more than 200 national associations, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman are among the top ten countries in terms of diabetes prevalence.

Researchers said “governments need to look at ways to make physical activity more convenient, affordable and safer since the issue now is serious enough to be treated as a pandemic”, a press report noted.