The answer to obesity lies in walkable cities

Alarming health statistics in the UAE reflect bad diet and sedentary lifestyles. The solution lies in making cities in the Emirates more suited to active lifestyles.

The campaign to build running tracks and cycle paths in the UAE’s cities to encourage residents to lead more active lives has been brought into sharp focus by the latest alarming health statistics. As The National reported yesterday, doctors at Rashid Hospital in Dubai found the average age when residents suffer their first heart attack is 45, compared to the global average of 65 years.

These findings are just the latest in a steady stream of disturbing news about the health of those who live in the Emirates, who rank among the world’s fattest people and have a corresponding over-representation of chronic health problems like diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. This is usually attributed to a combination of poor diet and inadequate exercise, which in turn is seen as a common consequence of the rapid urbanisation that has taken place in this country.

That poses the question: what can be done to improve the health of those living here? Without seeking to adopt prescriptive approaches like New York City, which sought to ban the sale of supersized sugary drinks, the other approach is to alter cities to make the pursuit of an active and healthy lifestyle easier to achieve.

Abu Dhabi city, for example, is spread out, has very wide streets and highways, and most of its roads do not have cycle paths or sometimes even pavements. All these factors discourage people from walking in their daily lives. As Dr Mohammed Al Raqabani, a Rashid Hospital cardiologist, explained, the bare minimum amount of exercise one should do is 30 minutes of brisk walking, five times a week. A more pedestrian-friendly city would encourage many people to do just that.

As our columnist Ayesha Almazroui pointed out on Monday, Oklahoma City provides a good model to follow. The city was able to make a large cultural shift by starting a conversation about obesity and by rethinking the structure of the town, redesigning it “around people and not cars”. They narrowed the streets, added more pavements and bicycle trails and worked on connecting neighbourhoods with libraries and schools to encourage young people to walk. The city’s health statistics improved remarkably.

That is not the whole answer – more education, awareness and health monitoring are also needed – but this kind of initiative would be a good start to improve health in the UAE.

Published: January 14, 2014 04:00 AM

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