How active lifestyles, sports and fitness programs are enabling Arab women to beat obesity, manage weight

Special How active lifestyles, sports and fitness programs are enabling Arab women to beat obesity, manage weight
Saudi women are stepping up the pace when it comes to personal health, with community-based sports participation increasing rapidly in recent years as a fitness culture takes hold. (AFP)
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Updated 11 August 2022

How active lifestyles, sports and fitness programs are enabling Arab women to beat obesity, manage weight

How active lifestyles, sports and fitness programs are enabling Arab women to beat obesity, manage weight
  • Article in The Economist attributes obesity among Arab women to social conservatism restricting outdoor exercise
  • Saudi efforts show why such perceptions are outdated as women take charge of their health and lifestyles

JEDDAH: Obesity rates worldwide have been steadily rising over the past half-century, reaching a point at which experts say many nations are way off schedule to meet the World Health Organization’s 2025 global nutrition targets.

Mindful of the pressures that high obesity rates place on local healthcare systems, to the detriment of quality of life, countries such as Saudi Arabia are working hard to promote fitness and challenge people to change their sedentary lifestyles.

According to a recent study by Ohio State University College of Medicine, obesity and the associated health implications cost the Saudi healthcare system $3.8 billion in 2019 alone, equivalent to about 4.3 percent of the Kingdom’s total annual health expenditure.




Keeping weight under control is nevertheless easier said than done in the age of globalization. (AFP)

Excess weight and obesity — defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that can impair health — is not only a concern in the Arab world. More than a billion people worldwide are classified as obese, which means that they have a body mass index (a measure of body fat based on height and weight) of 30 or higher, and the number is rising.

According to the WHO, obesity is more prevalent among women than men, with factors such as sociocultural issues, economics, genetics and biology all contributing factors. Worldwide, obesity affects 15 percent of women and 11 percent of men. In the Middle East and North Africa, this gender gap is even wider, with 26 percent of women classified as obese compared with 16 percent of men.

A recent article published by The Economist attributes the problem in the region to two key factors: Socioeconomics, on the grounds that the cheapest local foods are usually the most unhealthy, such as bread and rice; and culture, on the grounds that pervasive social conservatism in the Arab region can prevent women from participating in outdoor exercise or shedding calories passively in the workplace.

The reality is, of course, more complex than that. The perception of Arab women as mere sedentary housewives appears grossly outdated as women in the region increasingly enter the labor force, take charge of their diets, and seize new opportunities in the worlds of sports and fitness.




Obesity and the associated health implications cost the Saudi healthcare system $3.8 billion in 2019 alone. (AFP)

Keeping body weight under control, in any case, is easier said than done in the age of globalization. Arab countries, too, have experienced significant lifestyle changes and rapid urbanization that have introduced many additional high-fat foods to the market alongside the pre-existing unhealthy eating habits, including the traditionally carbohydrate-rich Arab diet.

Populations of the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, have found themselves at the sharp end of these developments. Notably, obesity levels have soared in recent decades owing to a mix of unhealthy eating, inactivity and keeping “fat in fashion” — a stereotype associated with Gulf nationals on account of their perceived affluence.

Globally, the perception of obesity varies widely. In many high-income and, increasingly, middle-income countries, weight gain carries a social stigma that fuels a perception of individual weakness that undermines the support for comprehensive prevention, treatment and management measures.

Different ideals associated with weight and body shape can found in various cultures. Specific cultural pressures to be tall and thin are postulated to cause people to misreport their height and body weight in an attempt to appear what is deemed more socially popular and desirable.

A similar situation exists in some places in terms of attitudes to excess weight. Many African and Polynesian, and some Arab, cultures associate overweight women with affluence, health, strength and fertility. In the Gulf region at least, however, being fat is certainly no longer in fashion.

Sulafa Kurdi, a photographer and cafe owner, has been overweight almost all of her life. In August 2020, she took the first steps on a nearly two-year journey to get fit and healthy by signing up with a gym. She chose Sweat Army in Jeddah and began her transformation.


“I was waiting for the right time to make the move and turn my life around,” she told Arab News. “Breaking down that wall was tough but, with the support I received from my coach, the journey was what I needed. I wanted to lose weight the healthy way, the right way and the difficult way.

“Within three months of signing up, I found the discipline to maintain a healthy lifestyle that I still stick to as best as I can. Yes, we all fall off the wagon and feel sluggish at times. With the right support, I’ve managed to get back again and move, breaking my own records.”

FASTFACTS

• Obesity is closely linked to chronic health problems, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

• Excess weight and the associated health implications cost the Saudi health system $3.8bn in 2019.

Indeed, contrary to the assertions in The Economist’s article, anecdotal evidence suggests more and more women in the Arab world are taking control of their physical lives and setting off on a journey to improved their fitness. This has in turn motivated many to pursue their dreams of becoming professional athletes.

Studies have found that engagement in sports and physical activity has been lower among women than men. Now various government-led and private programs are providing women and girls with access to sports facilities, encouraging them to become athletes and even role models for younger generations.

This has challenged outdated stereotypes about women in Saudi Arabia and the wider Arab region and the incorrect notions about social conservatism preventing them from going outdoors both to exercise and to take part in organized sports.

Dubbed “Cleopatra Squash,” Egyptian Nuran Johar has won padel tournaments such as the England Open Junior Championship five times. Meanwhile, Ulfah Alkaabi, one of the UAE’s top padel players, has been making her mark on the court.

Halfway around the world, Saudi Arabia’s female national football team won a silver medal at the Special Olympics Unified Cup in Detroit, Michigan this month.

Although Saudi sprinter and first-time Olympian Yasmeen Al-Dabbagh fell short in her first race in Tokyo 2020, she has set her sights on bringing home a medal from the next Games in Paris in 2024.

By all accounts, women’s participation in sports and fitness boils down to a supportive community. In the Kingdom, the Sports For All Federation has been building community-driven programs to improve overall health through community sports programs, a powerful tool to create a healthy society in line with the Vision 2030 Quality of Life objectives.
 




The Saudi female athletes leading the way. 

SFA says its programs and initiatives are created based on a community’s specific needs and what motivates them, and can be incorporated easily into their daily routines such as walking, running, cycling and other activities. It says the number of female participants in community sports has increased dramatically.

“Since 2018, we’ve seen the numbers reflected across our programs,” an SFA spokesperson told Arab News. “SFA wants to provide women with the right programs and female-driven initiatives to encourage them to go further.

“We provided a special course for ladies in our Spartan race, there was an area for women at SandClash to compete, and the same goes for our Neighborhood Clubs across the Kingdom for women who prefer to have their own spaces.




Women’s participation in sports and fitness boils down to a supportive community. (AFP)

“SFA has also hosted the Global Goals World Cup, a five-a-side women’s football tournament, and is the first country to add basketball to the games. One of the main objectives of SFA is to enable them, provide them with access to facilities, motivate them and feel that they are part of the community.”

Underscoring the importance of community-based physical activity programs, Haya Sawan, a fitness trainer and the owner of SheFit Gym in Jeddah, told Arab News that having such programs is helping to build a strong fitness culture among women.

“There’s been a huge jump in the past five years and you can see more people engaged in some sort of physical activity than ever before. It’s not just a matter of gyms opening, it’s more about changing the mindset and changing the lifestyle,” said Sawan.

“The region’s climate and unique environment restrict us from walking for miles, so we need to put in extra effort just to stay active all day. We utilize the space that we have and create programs fitting for the space, and using vast spaces such as malls and outdoor pathways designated for walking or jogging is a great way to engage the public.




The perception of Arab women as mere sedentary housewives appears grossly outdated. (AFP)

“Initiatives such as the ones launched by SFA where they cooperated with malls makes it so much easier for people to be active. It’s accessible and you can count your steps. It’s a small gesture that makes a difference in the long run.”

That said, personal motivation remains an integral part of any fitness journey, and changing perceptions among Arab women — and wider society — about their role, status and body autonomy no doubt has a part to play.

“I am a strong believer that your thoughts can really control your life,” said Sawan. “A positive mindset will always believe that there’s room for improvement, and look at challenges as a source of motivation to overcome, rather than challenges that would stop you from moving forward. Everything changes.”


At least 82 people killed in Iran crackdown in Zahedan since Sept 30: Amnesty

At least 82 people killed in Iran crackdown in Zahedan since Sept 30: Amnesty
Updated 18 sec ago

At least 82 people killed in Iran crackdown in Zahedan since Sept 30: Amnesty

At least 82 people killed in Iran crackdown in Zahedan since Sept 30: Amnesty

LONDON: At least 82 people have been killed in Iran as part of a crackdown on protestors in Zahedan since Sept 30, Amnesty International said on Thursday.


Kuwaiti-funded schools for Syrian refugees in Lebanon start their 10th academic year

Kuwaiti-funded schools for Syrian refugees in Lebanon start their 10th academic year
Updated 06 October 2022

Kuwaiti-funded schools for Syrian refugees in Lebanon start their 10th academic year

Kuwaiti-funded schools for Syrian refugees in Lebanon start their 10th academic year
  • The pupils thanked the authorities and people of Kuwait for their assistance, which is enabling them to continue their education

BEIRUT: The 10th academic year has started at 12 charity-run schools for Syrian refugees in North Lebanon that were established and are funded by Kuwait.
The pupils thanked the Kuwaiti authorities and people for their assistance, which is enabling them to continue their education, the Kuwait News Agency reported on Wednesday.
It came as a delegation that included representatives of the International Islamic Charitable Organization, the Kuwaiti Society for Humanitarian Excellence, the Islamic Development Bank, and the Islamic Solidarity Fund for Development visited the schools and reviewed their needs.
The news agency said the pupils organized receptions for the delegates, during which they presented various educational activities.
Khalid Al-Subaihi, chairperson of the Society for Humanitarian Excellence, told the agency that the schools cater to more than 9,000 students and are model examples of what charitable work can achieve. He noted that the grades achieved by pupils at the schools are higher on average than those achieved by their peers in mainstream schools in Northern Lebanon.
He also pointed out that the education of students facing dire situations and with great needs, such as refugees, requires much greater effort than teaching youths in normal circumstances.
Hamid Al-Rifai, a board member of the Excellence Society, said: “We realized the difficulties in teaching these refugees and guiding the teachers 10 years ago, when we started to build the schools with contributions from Kuwaiti philanthropists. We solved the problems facing the learning process and developed the teaching techniques to a higher level.”
Atiq Rafiq, director of the education department at UNICEF’s office in Lebanon, thanked Kuwait for the support it provides to refugees, especially in education.
“I am happy to see that these children are receiving education and attending schools,” he said.
Mohammed Al-Jawabra of the Islamic Solidarity Fund said: “Our visit to the schools reveals the strategic work that affects the life of the refugees, and the requirements and needs of the refugee students.”
He thanked charitable associations and organizations in Kuwait for their contributions and said his organization is proud of those who help in the fight against poverty and efforts to provide education.


Turkey names former Jerusalem envoy as new ambassador to Israel

Turkey names former Jerusalem envoy as new ambassador to Israel
Updated 06 October 2022

Turkey names former Jerusalem envoy as new ambassador to Israel

Turkey names former Jerusalem envoy as new ambassador to Israel
  • A career diplomat with decades of experience, Torunlar was Turkish Consul General in Jerusalem from 2010 until 2013

ANKARA: Turkey appointed Sakir Ozkan Torunlar as its new ambassador to Israel late on Wednesday following a mutual decision taken last month to restore full diplomatic ties, two Turkish foreign ministry officials said.
Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu briefed Torunlar on Wednesday night as part of the ministry’s new appointments abroad, the officials told Reuters.
A career diplomat with decades of experience, Torunlar was Turkish Consul General in Jerusalem from 2010 until 2013.
Israel has already named Irit Lillian as its next ambassador to Ankara.
Relations between Turkey and Israel have been rocky since 2011, when Ankara expelled Israel’s ambassador following a 2010 Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara aid ship to Gaza, which killed nine Turkish citizens.
The rift healed when full diplomatic relations were restored in 2016 and the two countries exchanged ambassadors.
Tensions escalated again in 2018 when Israeli forces killed a number of Palestinians who had taken part in the “March of Return” protests in the Gaza Strip.
Turkey recalled all diplomats and ordered Israeli envoys to leave the country.
The latest developments come five months after Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Ankara as part of his first visit to Turkey by an Israeli leader since 2008.


Iran authorities ‘fire at crowds’ using shotguns, rifles, says rights group

Iran authorities ‘fire at crowds’ using shotguns, rifles, says rights group
Updated 06 October 2022

Iran authorities ‘fire at crowds’ using shotguns, rifles, says rights group

Iran authorities ‘fire at crowds’ using shotguns, rifles, says rights group
  • Human Rights Watch demands international pressure to end regime violence

LONDON: New evidence shows that Iranian security forces continue to use lethal force against peaceful protesters around the country, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned.

Through videos captured by demonstrators and reporters, as well as interviews with witnesses and security officials, HRW uncovered evidence of the use of excessive and lethal force in more than a dozen cities around Iran.

Weapons including shotguns and assault rifles were deployed against protesters during the security response to the demonstrations, which began last month in the wake of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was killed by a mob after “improperly” wearing the hijab after President Ibrahim Raisi strengthened laws on the headdress.

Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, said: “The Iranian authorities’ brutal response to protests across many cities indicates concerted action by the government to crush dissent with cruel disregard for life. The security forces’ widespread shooting of protesters only serves to fuel anger against a corrupt and autocratic government.

“People in Iran are protesting because they do not see the death of Mahsa Amini and the authorities’ crackdown as an isolated event, but rather the latest example of the government’s systematic repression of its own people.”

A 35-year-old woman from Sanandaj city told HRW: “We had gathered to chant when security forces on motorcycles came toward us.

“We ran toward the alley as they followed us and started throwing tear gas and some started shooting bullets. A man behind us was shot in the leg and fell on the ground. People dragged him into another alley and inside someone’s home. His wound was bleeding very heavily and was very deep.”

At least four videos reviewed by HRW show security forces using shotguns against crowds of protesters.

Another witness said: “Security forces ran toward a 13-year-old boy who was standing among the crowd.

“He was so delicate and small that he didn’t even resist. He was on the grass protecting his head while they were beating him. I yelled ‘Leave him alone!’ and walked towards them. They fired in the air and people started fleeing while they dragged the boy across the street.

“While I was running, I kept yelling ‘He is my brother!’, thinking that was going to provoke their mercy. I saw an officer turning, sitting down, and aiming at me. I saw the fire from his weapon. I got scared and ran away. I had a burning sensation until I got home and realized that I was hit in my chest.”

The human rights organization has gathered a list of 47 people who died during the violence as a result of lethal force, many having been shot.

However, HRW said that the true number of deaths is likely far higher than Iranian state media has reported. At the end of September, state television claimed that the death toll stood at about 60.


Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban

Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban
Updated 06 October 2022

Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban

Judge fines Lebanese bank heist figure, issues travel ban
  • Sali Hafiz last month broke into a BLOM Bank branch with activists from the Depositors’ Outcry
  • Hafiz was widely celebrated as a hero, and went into hiding for weeks

BEIRUT: A Lebanese judge on Thursday fined and issued a six-month travel ban to a woman who stormed her bank with a fake pistol and took her trapped savings to cover her sister’s cancer treatment.
Lebanon’s cash-strapped banks have imposed strict limits on withdrawals of foreign currency since 2019, tying up the savings of millions of people. About three-quarters of the population has slipped into poverty as the tiny Mediterranean country’s economy continues to spiral. The Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar.
Sali Hafiz last month broke into a BLOM Bank branch in Beirut with activists from the Depositors’ Outcry protest group, and stormed into the manager’s office. They forced bank employees to hand over $12,000 and the equivalent of about $1,000 in Lebanese pounds.
Hafiz was widely celebrated as a hero, and went into hiding for weeks.
Her lawyer, Ali Abbas, said that Hafiz turned herself in Wednesday night, and that the bank had pressed charges. Another sister involved in the heist was with Sali.
“The judge decided to let them go on a bail of 1 million pounds each, and a six-month travel ban,” Abbas said in a phone interview from the Justice Palace.
One million Lebanese pounds was once worth over $666, but has since devalued to $25.
Following the incident last month, the Depositors’ Outcry had vowed to support more bank raids, and about a dozen of similar incidents have since occurred.
On Wednesday, Lebanese lawmaker Cynthia Zarazir staged a sit-in at her bank branch with a lawyer, demanding to withdraw $8,500 to cover expenses for a surgery.
These developments have rocked the Lebanese banks, who say they have been unjustly targeted for tiny Mediterranean country’s fiscal crisis. The Association of Banks in Lebanon temporarily closed for a week, before partially reopening last week, citing security concerns.
Lebanon for over two years has been struggling to implement a series of reforms to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund for a bailout program and make its battered economy viable again.