Lack of exercise is a growing concern globally, with an estimated one in four adults not getting enough physical activity to maintain good health.
It is a growing issue in the Gulf states, as major societal changes driven by rapid economic growth have forced many into sedentary lifestyles with poor diets and low rates of exercise. These lifestyles produce well-understood consequences, including obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and several types of cancer.
Some Gulf states have among the highest rates of obesity in the world, with more than 30 per cent of the population in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia overweight. This is reflected in some of, for instance, the highest rates of diabetes in the world.
The threat of inactivity
Inactivity is a major contributor to the global burden of disease, accounting for around 5 million deaths per year.
The cost of treating preventable diseases caused by lack of exercise is also a financial burden, with estimates suggesting that it could cost healthcare systems US$300 billion by 2030. In addition, the economic cost of lost productivity due to illness and disability is substantial.
Despite these alarming statistics, many countries still do not prioritise physical activity in their public health policies. This is often because exercise is seen as a personal responsibility, rather than a public health issue.
This lack of attention to the problem of inactivity has led to limited investment in infrastructure and initiatives to encourage physical activity. Indeed, a report by the World Health Organisation noted that Kuwait had the highest prevalence of physical inactivity, with 67 per cent failing to meet minimum standards for exercise.
Moreover, increasingly sedentary lifestyles, driven by technology and the changing nature of work, are only exacerbating the problem. In the Gulf, sitting for long hours in front of screens, whether for work or leisure, is becoming more and more common as the economy reorientates around white-collar work, and cities become increasingly dependent on cars.
This inactivity is taking a serious toll on public health, with studies showing that people who sit for more than six hours per day have a higher risk of dying from heart disease and other causes.
It is clear the Gulf region has a serious problem with obesity. Without concerted action, the cost of treating preventable diseases and the impact on productivity will only continue to rise.
The United Arab Emirates is among those nations to take tangible steps to combat obesity, introducing measure to discourage the consumption of unhealthy food and drink. These include a 50 per cent tax on carbonated drinks and a 100 per cent tax on energy drinks.
However, reducing obesity – and lifestyle-related disease – requires increasing the rate of physical activity. Governments, employers, and individuals across the Gulf region must therefore prioritise physical activity and invest in initiatives to encourage it.
References available on request.