Turkish health scheme turns parks into gyms

Outdoor exercise machines are hailed by citizens in country with few public sports facilities and 40 per cent adult obesity rate.

Open-air Gym by Bebek Park,Bebek,Istanbul.. *** Local Caption ***  _MG_5567.jpg
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ISTANBUL // Whenever he can get a short break from work, Mehmet Cakmakkiran sneaks away for a quick workout. He cannot afford a gym, so he gets on one of the open-air treadmills that have become something of a craze in Istanbul and other Turkish cities.

"I come here every day for an hour," Mr Cakmakkiran, 33, said on a mild and sunny day this week as he worked a cross trainer in a park in Bebek, a posh quarter on the Bosphorus in Istanbul's European part. Like in many parks around the city, Bebek Park has a small workout area with six different machines placed on a hard rubber floor that can be used for free. Mr Cakmakkiran's nine-year-old son Can, who was enjoying a school holiday, joined his father in the park.

The machines in Bebek Park were installed some weeks ago by the municipality, and for Mr Cakmakkiran, who works in a nearby hotel, they make all the difference. "I can feel it already, especially in my legs," he said with a proud smile. Mr Cakmakkiran said he used to be a member in a fitness club for two years, but he had to quit because membership fees were too high for him. "With my pay, it's impossible. I had to stop. So this is my alternative." He said the fitness area was especially sought after on weekends.

In this crowded city of more than 12 million people, many of whom have never joined a sports club because they cannot afford it, the free exercise machines in the parks have turned out to be an immense hit with the public. Hundreds of machines, including cross trainers, stationary bicycles as well as machines for arm, shoulder and back exercises, have been installed since the programme started in 2005, and many big and small cities across the country have followed Istanbul's example.

The rising demand for sturdy open-air exercise machines around Turkey has created a 70 million to 80m lira (Dh156m to 179m) enterprise per year, according to the business daily Referans. Health experts say many Turks do not get enough exercise. According to a study released last year, 50.7 per cent of men and 44.1 per cent of women in Turkey spend three hours or more in front of a computer or television every day. The study said almost 40 per cent of Turks over 20 are obese. The health ministry estimates that there are two million people with serious heart problems in Turkey, and about 130,000 deaths are blamed on heart and vascular diseases every year. Life expectancy in Turkey is 72 years for women and 70 years for men, several years less than in developed nations.

But the Turks' sudden enthusiasm for exercise has led some experts to issue warnings against working out too hard. "If people who are obese and who have not done any sport up to now start doing these exercises without checking with their doctor first, it can lead to problems," said Ahmet Unver, the general director of the Turkish Society of Cardiology. "We don't want the machines to be taken away again. But people should be aware that there are risks, especially if you exercise hard."

In the fitness area of Bebek Park, some think that Turks in general are not in danger of too much exercise. "They are a little lazy," said Alina Sarioglu, a 35-year-old Ukrainian who is married to a Turk and has been living in Turkey for 12 years. As she was going through her routine on the machines, Ms Sarioglu said she was happy about the arrival of the devices in the park and was coming here three times a week. "There should be even more," she said.

As they worked out in Istanbul's parks, many people on the fitness machines seemed unaware about possible health risks. A few kilometres north of Bebek, Tulay Tuna was doing her programme at an open-air gym in the quarter of Tarabya. Together with a friend, Ms Tuna, 53, walks along the Bosphorus shore every day and stops by the fitness machines on her way back home. "I don't even know what part of my body I am exercising," she said. "Maybe there should be somebody here to tell us."

Emrah Binak, a cardiologist at the Turkish Heart Foundation, a non-governmental group that campaigns for more awareness about heart problems, also said there was a lack of information about the correct use of the open-air exercise machines. Still, he said the devices were a potential bonus for public health in Turkey. "Before, people had to pay to do a sport, and many people just couldn't afford it," Dr Binak said.

There was a lack of widely available sports facilities, such as public swimming pools, that are taken for granted in western nations. Dr Binak said he had not heard of any health problems in connection with the workout machines in Istanbul's parks. "Maybe most people there do light exercises," he said. Meanwhile, Istanbul's fitness parks have become the envy of Turks from other parts of the country. Mehmet Babacan from Zonguldak on Turkey's Black Sea coast, who was strolling along the Bosphorus during a visit to Istanbul with his family, stopped to try out the workout stations in Tarabya. He said parks in his hometown had fitness machines as well, but they could not compete with the ones in Istanbul. "In our city, the machines are not as nice, and some are broken," he said.