More than 36 percent of children aged between five and 17 in the UAE are clinically obese, according to the latest World Health Organization figures. In Saudi Arabia, recorded data shows 23 percent and 9.3 percent of school-age children are overweight and obese respectively, according to a study published by the King Saud bin Abdualziz University for Health Sciences. The trend is global, but with a challenging summer climate, the region has unique challenges in promoting a year-round active lifestyle.
Know the enemy
What is obesity? From a medical perspective, it is defined as excess adipose tissue (or fatty deposits), causing a person’s Body Mass Index (BMI) to score very high on the scale. But it is less about the numbers and more about the consequential health concerns, since almost all of our internal organs are adversely impacted by being overweight.
Obesity means that blood flow is restricted to the brain, increasing the risk of strokes; type 2 diabetes can lead to eyesight issues; additional strain on the heart muscle will ultimately lead to heart disease; and dozens of other complications can arise. Simply put, allowing kids to reach obesity diminishes their chance of a long and healthy adult life — but the risks can be avoided.
Get ready for battle
It is one thing to understand the health concerns, but motivating kids to live a more active and healthy lifestyle is easier said than done. For expert advice, we turned to Marcus Smith, former rugby pro and the founder of Dubai-based InnerFight, a gym and fitness community that has been transforming lives in the UAE since 2008. Smith also recently launched a program for UAE-based kids to develop their physical and mental fitness.
Q: Some kids might feel insecure about joining a gym or a sports team. Are there any tips you can share for getting started?
A: As humans, we are often nervous about new environments and this is totally normal. We have to adopt the mindset that new environments often lead to our development and more enjoyment in life. At first, things will be tough, but it will always be worth it.
Of course, if we have been wrapped up in cotton wool all of our lives then the discomfort of these new environments is going to be very intimidating. This is why I think kids need to be involved in sports from the minute they can walk, so that this great environment becomes their norm. If you have been inactive then you need to start slowly and safely and this is where the right coaching comes into play.
Q: Parents should set an example for their children. How can we reach the older generation and teach them how to be more responsible?
A: In my opinion, adults are actually the root cause of the obesity problems we see today. We have become a society that rewards effort with food and we have become a society that accepts the aggressive marketing of foods that ultimately cause obesity. Like it or not, parents can choose to have 100 percent control over what their kids eat. However, some choose to shun that responsibility and they themselves are a terrible physical example.
We attempt to mirror what we see in our parents for the most part … so if we see them eating poorly, we immediately think that it is ok. If we see them being overweight, we believe it is fine too. The responsibility belongs to the parents and sadly many of them are dropping the ball and allowing their children to reach obese states and, in doing so, negatively impacting their lives.
Q: Do you have any transformation stories? We would love to hear one!
A: Yes, four years ago an Emirati guy brought his brother to me — he was 12-years-old and heavily overweight. Due to his weight issues, his school had told him he was not allowed to play sports anymore. It blew my mind. I immediately put the kid into the InnerFight Intisaar program, which helps Emirati youths participate in sports. Fast forward four years and just a few weeks ago, that same kid rode his bike 85 kilometers with me.
What did we do to the kid? We included him in a safe and fun environment, taught him how much of a positive impact sport can have on our lives by letting him experience it safely firsthand and started to educate him about what food choices he should be making. We then started to set goals and guide him toward them. It was not plain sailing all the way through, it has been a journey, but right now we are looking at a 16-year-old kid who sees life in a very different way.
Where to fight in Saudi Arabia and the UAE
Location: Across the UAE and Saudi Arabia
They say: “Classes for the whole family and kids of all ages, from pool activities, dance and educational classes to martial arts, performing arts and yoga. Sports activities and XFit for kids are also available at selected clubs.”
We say: A well-established gym with a huge range of activities for kids and families.
Fitness Time Junior
Location: Across Saudi Arabia
They say: “Fitness Time Junior is a special sports and fitness center designed for children and young adults between the ages of six and 15.”
We say: A great range of sports as well as air hockey and foosball for an increased social element.
My Gym Children’s Fitness Center
Location: Panorama Mall, Riyadh
They say: “My Gym has developed an extraordinary program and facility devised to help children develop physically, cognitively and emotionally.”
We say: Children will have fun maintaining their health while developing social skills, confidence and self-esteem.
Location: Al Quoz, Dubai
They say: “The InnerFight Intisaar foundation is a community project that gives Emirati youths an opportunity to use physical and mental fitness to make them better at life.”
We say: The best option for intense workouts with world-class coaches — but only for teens and older.
Location: Palm Jumeirah, Dubai
They say: “The first-of-a-kind, all-in-one kid’s fitness center in the UAE.”
We say: Affordable and fun with gymnastics, wall climbing, swimming and even a spa. It is, however, better for younger children.
My First Gym
Location: Downtown Abu Dhabi
They say: “My First Gym’s mission is to take care of the minds, bodies and souls of our families, parents and children.”
We say: Get them started young! My First Gym has programs for toddlers, with field trips and opportunities for hosted birthday parties.