No excuses, we must lead more healthy lifestyles
I recently joined a health club. Now the next step will be to actually go.
I need to lose a few kilos that I have put on in the past few years from sitting for long hours at work behind my desk and not doing much physical activity, in addition to indulging in eating sweets and other not-so-healthy foods. But cutting down on the carbs and desserts while eating more vegetables and fruits was the easy part. Convincing myself to exercise is another matter.
What’s important for me is not just the weight but also getting fit. Going up two flights of stairs, I become breathless. Our sedentary lifestyles and bad eating habits have made us lazy and, yes, fat. Although I’m not that yet, if I don’t start watching my weight and exercising, I could potentially find myself in that category before I know it.
According to a Saudi health official in a recent Arab News story, more than 40 percent of Saudi citizens are obese. The dangers of being obese are the health problems associated with it, such as diabetes, which itself leads to other dangerous complications such as cardiovascular disease and damage to the kidney. The physician in the story stated that 19 percent of the Kingdom’s adult population is diabetic, pointing out that diabetes drains large sums of any country’s health budget. The high numbers, he said, were caused by unhealthy eating habits and low participation in sports.
Ironically, the physician pointed out that, 100 years ago, people died mainly of contagious diseases, especially tuberculosis, but advancements in medicine and vaccinations and improved lifestyles mean heart diseases, which are mainly caused by high blood pressure and diabetes, have become one of the main causes of death, in addition to smoking and cholesterol. So, while pharmaceutical research and medical care have done wonders in preventing and eliminating many contagious and infectious diseases, people with their chosen lifestyles are now creating their own health problems, taking care of which is a high burden on society.
With the exception of genetic diseases, which are a real challenge to health providers, it seems that most of our health problems are self-inflicted. In addition to what we eat, take smoking as an example. A nationwide, cross-sectional survey conducted last year by the Saudi Food and Drug Authority found that smoking was prevalent among 21.4 percent of the population aged 18 years and older — 32.5 percent among males and 3.9 percent among females. And this is just cigarettes; it did not include sheesha or argila, which, I think, would make the percentage much higher.
The survey indicates that, despite the associated health risks — tobacco is considered one of the leading causes of mortality and morbidity — its prevalence in Saudi Arabia has increased from 12.2 percent in 2013 (27.9 percent among males and 2.9 percent among females). The survey also found that cigarette smoking was relatively high in the 25 to 44 age group, especially males. That is alarming. When you have your young generation, who are the backbone of employment and development, smoking their health away, in addition to not eating healthily or exercising enough, it will affect productivity and burden the health services as they grow older.
When you have your young generation, who are the backbone of employment and development, smoking their health away, in addition to not eating healthily or exercising enough, it will affect productivity and burden the health services as they grow older
Saudi Arabia has recently issued several laws that prohibit smoking in public places, including the workplace, as well as regulations on the sale of tobacco and increasing the price of cigarettes. Despite these efforts and the campaigns to raise awareness of the dangers of tobacco use, it seems that it is a very difficult habit to break.
Another issue we need to tackle is the junk food and sugary beverages that our children consume. While many parents may be aware of the unhealthiness of junk and fast food, they are perhaps less aware of the dangers of sugary drinks and give them to their kids as an alternative to water or milk. The American Heart Association recommends that children over the age of two should be limited to 25 grams of added sugar each day and that children should not drink more than one 8-ounce sugary drink per week. Sugar-sweetened beverages add empty calories to children’s diets and may increase the risk of weight gain, obesity and diabetes.
Even the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has included fighting obesity and promoting an active daily life among the policies for its member states in the OIC Youth Strategy. This was adopted last year to provide broad guidelines for the meaningful participation and engagement of youth in overall national and international development efforts. The strategy points out that the OIC’s 57 member states account for 32 percent of the world’s total overweight children, with an overweight prevalence rate of 7.4 percent, compared to 4.6 percent in other developing countries.
In short, we need to do more to raise awareness and promote healthy and active lifestyles from a young age. And with all the recreational and sports facilities already provided and announced for construction, we don’t have an excuse.
• Maha Akeel is director of Social and Family Affairs at the Jeddah-based Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Twitter: @MahaAkeel1