Gulf Arabs shun exercise but eat their veggies

In an activity-adverse region, Gallup survey finds Saudis, women stand out.

May 17, 2012 15:57
4 minute read.
The Jerusalem Post

Dubai bank arabs gulf robe 521. (photo credit: Bloomberg)

This Saturday, Food Revolution Day, a global campaign to get people to eat better, is being marked in the Gulf with vegetable-oriented dinner parties, lectures on healthy eating and cooking classes for the kitchen-challenged.

But a new Gallup survey shows they will have to eat a lot of celery washed down with water in order reduce their weight and improve their health: Less than half of adults in most Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries say they exercised for 30 minutes or more at least three days a week. Older Gulf Arabs eat their veggies, or so they say, but younger ones do not.

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Aversion to exercise isn’t quite shared by everyone in the Gulf. Omanis are gym rats, compared to their neighbors, with 52% saying they met the Gallup benchmark. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the rate falls to 42%, in Bahrain and Qatar 38%, Kuwait 35% and in Saudi Arabia a mere 22%, according to the survey, which was conducted among Gulf Arabs last autumn.

Gallup reached some harsh conclusions based on the survey, especially for Saudis.

“Judging by their reported health habits, the prognosis across the region looks somewhat poor. Saudis’ life expectancy of 72 years, for example, is the GCC’s lowest,” Gallup said. “Further, it is lower than in some far less economically developed countries and areas, such as the Palestinian territories and Syria. This is unlikely to improve, given that the majority of Saudi respondents do not exercise at all.”

Obesity is a worldwide problem for the richest nations, but in the Gulf it is especially bad. Statistics compiled by Britain's Government Office for Science found that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have more obese people as a percentage of their population – 35.6% and 33.7%, respectively – than anywhere else in the world except the tiny Pacific island states of Nauru and Tonga.

Rising obesity levels have already triggered a dramatic increase in type 2 diabetes. The At 19.5%, the UAE ranks only behind Nauru for diabetes incidence, and is closely followed by Bahrain, Egypt, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Overweight has been linked to other health risks, including cancer and cardio-vascular disease.

Women are even less likely than men to go for a jog or swim. In Oman, the exercise capital of the Gulf, the gap between the two sexes is 15 percentage points, with just 45% of women saying they exercise at least 30 minutes, three days a week, compared with 60% of men. In Bahrain, the gap is 27 points: Just over half the men exercise but just 24% on women.

In Saudi Arabia, 16% of women exercise versus 27% of men. But they can be forgiven: Women have few options for working out. A member of the top clerical body in 2009 said girls should not play sports lest they lose their virginity by tearing their hymens. State-run girls schools are banned from doing sports, but private girls schools are allowed to offer sports classes.

An effort a year ago to bring school sports to girls stalled in the face of clerical opposition. But last month, the kingdom set up a ministerial committee to consider allowing women's sports clubs, despite opposition to female exercise from religious conservatives.

Saudi Arabia’s official antipathy to women’s sports even earned it the approbation of Human Rights Watch, which published a report “Steps of the Devil” documenting the denial of sports to girls and women.

“Saudi government restrictions put athletics beyond the reach of almost all women. There is no government sports infrastructure for women, with all designated buildings, sport clubs, courses, expert trainers, and referees limited exclusively to men,” the New York-based organization said. “The ban on women’s private, for-fee sports clubs has forced women to restrict themselves to fitness gyms … Membership fees there are beyond the means of many ordinary Saudi women and girls.”

A host of factors have been blamed for the bulge in waistlines, including rising urban incomes, the adoption of a western, fast-food led diet and a decline in physical exercise.

“Twenty years of trying to live healthy kind of takes its toll, especially here in Dubai. You have a few places where you can get sort of healthy food – a few salads, Nandos, a Subway,” said Andreas Borgmann, a co-owner of  Kcal, which serves healthy fast food such as chicken yogurt followed by a “sweet banana sushi” for dessert.  “Nowhere where you can eat exactly what you want.”

Food Revolution Day, which is a project of UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s foundation, which aims to enhance awareness of how bad most people eat and what they can do to change it, namely cooking at home with more utensils than a microwave and a frozen dinner. On Saturday, the Jamie Oliver Foundation is helping people create local food “events” or hosting a dinner party.

In the UAE emirate Dubai, Sarvin Haghighi, a health enthusiast from Iran, is giving a talk on how to “Listen To Your Body” and Ayesha Sayed is leading students from the UAE University organizing a Food Revolution Day event, according to the local daily The National.

In fact, Gulf Arabs eat a little better than they work out, according to Gallup. Between 46% and 58% of Gulf Arab report eating “a lot” of fruits and vegetables at least four days a week. That is, except the Saudis, where the rate falls to a third. Women tend to be bigger consumers of produce than men, even if they exercise less.

But young people are less likely to eat fruits and veggies than older adults, the survey found. For instance, in Oman, nearly two third of people aged 30 to 64 meet the vegetable-eating benchmark set by Gallup, versus just 49% of 15-to-29-year-olds.

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