Too Hot to Exercise (and Who Really Wants To?)
By Rod Nordland, NY Times, July 7, 2013
DOHA, Qatar—Qatari officials have been racking their brains to find a way to address their country’s epidemic of obesity.
They have built sports facilities, parks, and a splendid corniche in the capital with a seaside promenade and parkour stations; hosted fun runs with hefty cash prizes; set up free body mass index and blood pressure monitoring stations. Anything money can buy to coax their citizens—said to be first-richest in the world and sixth-fattest—out of a sedentary lifestyle, they seem to have bought.
The only thing is, even Qatar’s great wealth has not been able to do anything about the weather, and in a country where highs top 100 degrees Fahrenheit for six months of the year, getting anyone to go out and walk, let alone do outdoor sports, is a lost cause. About the only pedestrians in the summer, when temperatures can top 120 degrees, are expats.
Now the sports health authorities have introduced an ambitious new program, called “Step Into Health: Walk More, Walk the Mall,” that aims to reach Qataris where they live, or at least where they shop—the climate-controlled shopping mall.
Four of the emirate’s major malls are participating, posting maps and walking routes, along with information about how many calories could be burned in the process. The malls are also opening their halls two hours before and after shopping hours, for those who want their exercise free of consumerism.
"Mall walking is the perfect workout, alongside controlled temperatures; it provides a clean and safe environment to exercise," a promotional brochure for "Step Into Health" reads.
The mall walk program is part of a broader effort to encourage Qataris “to walk 10,000 steps and more a day in a noncompetitive, recreational and social way.”
The organizers hasten to reassure people that mall walking need not be strenuous. “Unlike most community exercise programs, Step Into Health is not about working up a sweat,” they say.
The walking routes and speeds they have outlined are not likely to do that—although they will allow plenty of time for window shopping along the way.
At the Hyatt Plaza mall, the designated route (it happens to go by every shop) is 1,200 steps long and should burn 70 calories. The recommended duration is 12 minutes, rather closer to an amble than a power walk.
Obesity is a touchy subject in the emirate. Data from the International Association for the Study of Obesity shows that Qatar has the highest obesity rates in the Mideast, and worse rates are mostly found only in a few South Pacific countries. Some 34 percent of Qatar’s men and 45 percent of its women are obese, defined as a body mass index of more than 30.
Those figures, however, only begin to tell the tale. They are based on the emirate’s total population of about 1.9 million, but most of those are migrant workers. Qatari citizens number only about 250,000. Since most of the migrant workers are construction and other manual laborers, obesity rates among citizens are likely to be far higher than overall figures suggest.
The mall-walking kickoff two weeks ago was pronounced a big success by the government-controlled press, with some 1,000 people showing up to take part—encouraged by handouts of pedometers (free to anyone who registers for Step Into Health), and free raffles of iPhones, laptops and other Qatari-size baubles.
After that initial outpouring of interest, however, there was relatively little follow-up—a common phenomenon, as every gym manager knows. Soon after, the participating malls were nearly as empty in those shopping-free hours as ever.
There was no small amount of skepticism among mall shoppers one recent night.
"Walking at the mall?" asked Abdul Aziz, a retired hotelier strolling purposefully but with only retail intent at the Hyatt Plaza. "We’re doing that already."
Khalid Yazidy, 29, a government employee, said: “Personally, I think they want people to spend more time at the malls so they can spend more money at the malls. They’re saying: ‘Don’t go outside. Spend more.’ “
Mohammad Salek, a 15-year-old who attends a British private school here, said he did not see any need to walk more since he was devout. “When you are praying, you burn 880 calories,” he said, adding that was if you counted all five times a day.
Compared with just 70 for a walk in the mall? Hard to argue against prayer.