Tag Archives: health

how to gain 7 pounds in 60 days …

… it’s easy – just move to Riyadh.

Yes, that’s right my friends, you might notice that I will be a bit pudgier around the edges next time you see me. So now that I’ve put it out there, no need for any polite inquiries (“Hmmm, there’s something different about you, Camelgirl … did you change your hair?”).

My weight has pretty much been steady for the past several years. I would say I am just average in height and weight – a standard US size 8-10 (sometimes I fit size 4 – vanity-sizing at its best!) Is that average nowadays? I’m not sure.  Anyway, most people who know me know that I really enjoy good food and meals are one of the highlights of my day. For the most part, I have been able to get away with just exercising maybe 3-4 times/week.

This strategy clearly has not worked for me in Saudi Arabia. Since coming here 2 months ago, my pants have been steadily and definitively getting tighter on me. I am still averaging about 3 workouts per week , but clearly the Saudi lifestyle has had a significant impact (despite sweating it out around the Pregnant Woman’s Walk). I can identify several factors at play here:

1. Eating late. Dinner time averages at around 9:30 pm here. Then it’s bedtime shortly after (hey, I need my 9 hours!), so instead of burning off the calories by being up and about for the rest of the evening, my food is being happily stored away somewhere safe … like around my hips. (See also #3 below.)

2. Dinner preceded by dessert. Although an excellent idea in theory, it does not bode well for the waistline. As you may know, it’s traditional to serve Arabic coffee and dates when you have guests come over. Nowadays, it is also very fashionable to serve chocolates, mini cup-cakes, squares, and other delectable sweets alongside the dates. It’s irresistible.

Of course, following dinner, there’s the usual dessert buffet too.

3. The ubiquitous housemaid. Most households (and I’m talking about just your standard middle-class Saudi family) have at least one housemaid who, as far as I can tell, works all day, 7 days a week. Note that this is a practicality more than a luxury for most, given the size of people’s homes and families, as well as the (im)practicalities of everyday life in Saudi (e.g. the traffic, women can’t drive, shops closing for prayer time 4 times a day …). We have a lovely, cheerful lady from Indonesia working for Camelmum. She is pretty busy, cleaning the house, doing laundry, washing the dishes, preparing meals, mopping the floors, sanitizing the bathrooms, dusting the furniture (amazing how much fine dust accumulates here)  … I have to admit to being a bit spoiled by it. And even when I’m cooking, I can’t deny that it is nice to have someone help with the grunt work that comes with cooking, like chopping up the onions, or washing the pots and pans afterwards. All these little tasks one usually has to do at home definitely add up, and there’s a noticeable effect when you suddenly are relieved of those responsibilities. It’s no joke when people expound housework as an effective workout routine.

4. Car culture. As I’ve discussed before, Riyadh is not exactly a pedestrian-friendly city. People drive everywhere. Bike-to-work week? Walk-to-work week? Nope, won’t hear about those. And there’s no public transportation to speak of, so no stairs to climb in metro stations or sprinting to catch a bus. And on the escalator: stand left, walk right? Not standard practice here. The general sentiment seems to be that escalators are more for riding rather than for facilitating movement.

Ok, ok, I know what you’re thinking. I can’t blame things completely on the Saudi lifestyle. There are definitely days that we could have dinner at our usual hour … and I suppose I could do some of the dishes and chop my own onions! Maybe my eyes are bigger than my stomach. And the pre-dinner sweets? I could say no (sometimes). Obviously I need to go to my gym more frequently, but then that would mean organizing with Camelman to drive me, but usually he has to go to work when I can go to the gym, so that means I have to arrange for another driver to take me, and then that means I’d have to make sure that I fit my other errands around the prayer times, and then … well, things get complicated.

y’allah ya banat! (go girls go!)

Another tentative but positive step forward this week as it was announced that Saudi Arabia is “considering” implementing physical education programs for girls! This announcement comes just days after Saudi Arabia announced that it has submitted a list of female athletes who could potentially participate in the London Olympics this summer.

[NB: I just have to interject here that for someone who dreaded gym class as a kid, it’s ironic that I am so excited about this news. Perhaps I might have fared better if gym classes didn’t include dodgeball and a guy named Trevor Robertson, who took the game way too seriously! Actually, the only time I didn’t dread gym was when we got to do square dancing, but I digress … ]

There are varying opinions about the attitude of Saudis towards exercise and participation in sports. A recent article in the Guardian newspaper by Saudi blogger Eman Al Nafjan summarized some of the various concerns raised by some religious clerics, such as the issue that women cannot compete in sport with appropriate modesty (i.e. without showing her body). Ms. Al Nafjan also states that “many in Saudi Arabia frown upon physical activity for girls”, citing reasons like “it’s masculine” and that “it’s against the physiological nature of women”. But on the other hand, there is increasing recognition and calls from people within the country for girls to have opportunities to participate in physical activity. This article by Mr. Almamoun Alshingiti last year puts forth several sensible reasons for the need for Saudi girls to exercise, and also sensibly addresses the religious-based concerns raised by clerics about women in sport.

In the last few years since I have been visiting Riyadh, I have noted an increase in the number of venues providing opportunities people to exercise, including the so-called “pregnant women’s walk”, walking trails in parkland just outside of Riyadh, and fitness clubs (although there seem to be more clubs for men than for women). As for fitness clubs, I was happy to find a ladies’ fitness club called Kinetico located just near our place. I should note that this centre offers a variety of all-inclusive fitness classes of the sort that I have not even found in Vancouver, including the Les Mills series, TRX, as well as your standard pilates, spin, and aerobics classes. I should also note that the classes are usually filled to capacity and there’s a line-up for the treadmills and step machines at peak hours. So there’s certainly no shortage of desire and interest!

The need to enhance physical activity and exercise participation goes for both the girls and the boys in Saudi Arabia! As I have mentioned before, there is an alarmingly high incidence of obesity and diabetes in this country. I know that I am repeating myself, but these are serious issues that the society needs to face head-on. All the oil in the world cannot make up for the personal and societal costs of chronic health conditions and illness. Health IS wealth.

go girls go!

Today several newspapers are reporting on a call from Human Rights Watch to ban Saudi Arabia from the Olympics this summer unless a female athlete is included in the delegation.

As usual, the focus is on women’s rights in this country, and rightly so. But I think this also brings to light other important issues around health and wellness that affect all sectors of society.

First, about the girls – there has never been physical education in the school system for girls. Thus a basic culture of physical activity and sport participation for girls does not exist yet. There are few, if no role models for young Saudi girls to participate in exercise. And it all starts at home, as we all know. If the previous generation of women didn’t grow up participating in exercise or sport, it’s more difficult to instill a cultural expectation for these activities for their daughters. Let’s think about that before we even consider the opportunities for female participation in elite competitive sport.

There is a movement among some scholars and government authorities to promote and implement physical education programs for girls in the school system. I know this because I have been working with some faculty at King Saud University who have been closely involved with this process. But it’s a slow process and they are facing lots of roadblocks and objections from different sectors of the ruling factions here. However, at a workshop I recently attended at King Saud University, I was encouraged to hear many of the male faculty, including the Rector of KSU no less, speak of their support for stronger engagement and participation of females in physical activity and sport.

I should note that it’s not as if the rest of the population are highly engaged in exercise and physical activity either. Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest prevalence of diabetes and obesity – statistics no doubt related to limited exercise and physical activity among the population, coupled with changing dietary and other lifestyle factors. There is growing awareness of the importance of exercise in health and wellness here, as in the rest of the world, but there continues to be a challenge in providing diverse opportunities to participate in physical activity.

Even Camelman finds it challenging to locate good places nearby to go for a jog outside, but he usually makes do with running around a swath of empty land near Ad Dir’iyah or just around his own neighbourhood. The only thing he has to deal with is the jeering honks of drivers passing by, who seem to find him amusing. But there are growing opportunities. In the 3 years since I’ve been traveling to Saudi, I’ve noticed an increasing number of fitness centres, including a Curves gym  in the female-only section of the Panorama Mall. There’s also a place called (of all things) the “Pregnant Woman’s Walk”. (No, it does not refer to the specific gait pattern of a pregnant woman!) This is a place where there is an especially broad sidewalk around the perimeter of Prince Sultan University, giving you a good 4 km of uninterrupted walking/running.

So back to the issue of the Olympics and the participation of female athletes: are there even any Saudi female elite athletes who can compete at the world level? Let’s get some gym classes going for the girls first!