By Rod Nordland
1 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 hillside road 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 draw their citizens — said to be first-richest in the world and sixth-fattest — out of a sedentary lifestyle, they seem to have bought.
2 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 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) for a large part 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 are even higher, are expatriates.
3 Now the sports health authorities have introduced a new program 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 in the program, called “Step Into Health: Walk More, Walk the Mall," 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.
4 “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.
5 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 Middle East. About 34 percent of Qatar's men and 45 percent of its women are obese, defined as a body mass index of more than 30.
6 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.
7 The first mall walk two weeks ago was pronounced a big success by the government-controlled news media, 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.
8 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.
Adapted from The International Herald Tribune, Tuesday, July 9, 2013