Walk at the Shops: How Middle Eastern Women are Walking their Way to Health

Jasmine

By Jasmine Bager, Reporter

Saudi women may not be able to get to the mall on their own, but they do not need any help once they get there. With their loose-fitting abayas flowing in the dusty wind, they form an impromptu human installation of silky black threads–as they fix their gaze into a sea of neon lights. They exit the crawling SUV, and their handbags swing as they lift their arms to wrap the veil around their heads again. The lone security guard at the entrance lowers his gaze in respect, as the women enter the automatic doors. While men dominate the roads, inside the mall, women rule.

But, perhaps surprisingly, instead of shopping, many women now go there to exercise. Much like the mall walker culture in the US, which started nearly 25-years-ago, Arab women are taking it in stride. To avoid the heat and spending the mornings idle at home, women are now using the mall as a way to get out of the house and workout.

Within the long, wide mall halls, Saudi women walk away their stresses and melt away the extra weight. Their trek involves a/c blasting, children shrieking in the nearby indoor playground, incense burning from stores, and colorful displays of the latest fashions at every step. Instead of being enclosed within a gym, she window shops, which is likely her favorite sport. With a cafe at every corner, she can catch up on her tweets and sip a drink, at any of the sofas in the Family Section (men who are unaccompanied by a female must go to the Singles Section, whether the man is single or not). Usually, she does this while her kids are at school and her husband is at work. It is her “me” time, until her friends bump into her and they feast on lunch at one of the dozen food options available at their fingertips. But their feet really do the walking, and at the end of a lap or two, they can arrange to be picked up. Now, retired men also join their daughters or wives. Some young people have started to join on the weekends, but their fancy shoes are often too troublesome to walk fast in. Many working moms and grandmothers push strollers in the weekend and use the time to spot the latest deals.

Exercising at the mall is not only social, it is practical. Every driver knows where the malls are, so ladies don’t need to show them a paper scribbled with a hand drawn map of an obscure location–where many female gyms seem to be. GPS maps on phones are often seen as confusing digital paintings, since roads often change and names are replaced. Malls are well-lit, safe and there is a mall relatively near every residential area. If one person drops you off, whoever picks you up can locate exactly where you are. Each mall entrance has a number (on the inside and outside) so females are able to call whoever is picking them up and say, “please come to Gate 1. How long will it take you–10 minutes? Miss call me when you are outside.” The girl would hover around the area until her phone vibrates. She won’t pick up the call, but will grab her things, go outside and stand with the other ladies looking for their drivers.

Obesity and diabetes are more than trends, these are lifestyle patterns.

The prevalence of overweight and obese adults in Saudi Arabia, The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and other Gulf countries, ranges from 74% to 86% in women and 69% to 77% in men, according to the World Health Organization’s Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean. People have a lot of free time and over-eat (which is the only acceptable social pastime). Many families depend heavily on expat helpers to move around town, and within their own homes. Sugary drinks, salty foods, greasy pans and low physical activity levels make for numerous health problems. With someone organizing their lives constantly, many women (and men) never know how many candy wrappers are in their trashcans. Walking kills the boredom. It helps strengthen the bones, muscles and helps the woman maintain a healthy weight. With access to ladies rooms and cafe tables to rest in, malls provide the best one-stop-fitness.

It’s no secret that caffeine and sugar addiction is common in Saudi, and the Arab World. Since it is too hot to be active during the day, almost all socializing happens after sunset. To stay awake, the average family consumes multiple cups of strong coffee and several pots of sweetened tea per night. Socially, people meet at cafes and sip on caffeine while they wait for stores to open at the mall (the female section remains open during prayer time). Energy drinks (mostly Red Bull) fly off the shelves during exam times. The majority of schools and offices require children and adults to be either awake or at the office/school by 7:00 am. That means that people wake up very early and usually try to push themselves to stay awake for social activities in the early evening and at night. Not everyone chooses to or has the time to nap (especially if a female doesn’t have a ride, she will play with her phone at a cafe and drink coffee while she waits for her friends to drop her home). Cigarettes, fast food restaurants (and sodas) and corner candy shops are also very common. In other words, it is quite easy to get fat if you are sleep-deprived, well-caffeinated and your social options are mostly limited to sitting, eating and laughing.

Obesity has plagued much of the Gulf region for some time—and not just in Saudi Arabia. In Dubai, possibly the most well-known and popular destination in the world, came up with an incentive worth its weight. The Dubai municipality literally asked its residents to trade weight for gold. The result? The first ever “Your Weight in Gold” campaign. For six weeks, 10,000 residents of Dubai volunteered to be weighed in tents and used a combination of diet and exercise to become healthier. In the heat of the summer, and during the Holy Month of Ramadan, it offered gold coins as a reward for losing body fat. At the end of the trial, only 3,224 residents were able to use their improved health to generate wealth.

The winner of this championship, Dubai resident Ahmed Ebrahim Al Shaikh, an architect from Syria, lost 26.3 kg (57.9 lbs) from his body weight during the campaign. He received 63 gram of gold as a reward. It was quite a popular initiative.

So far, the walking culture is pretty informal in Saudi malls. There are little informational stands at these malls, however, where volunteer nurses talk about the dangers of diabetes and obesity to women who pass by. There are even small diet centers located within the mall, where a nutritionist can help set women up with a healthy meal plan. For a flat rate, healthy meals can be delivered to your office or home door (remember, transportation is an issue, so it’s very convenient), or you could just purchase a single meal and eat it right there at the mall. Some bachelors order these meal plans just so that they avoid cooking, but found that their health improved. Traditional Gulf cuisine mostly consists of flavored rice, bread and meat, in various forms. Dates, coffee, tea and pastries drenched in honey are daily snacks. Their food habits aren’t very healthy. It used to be okay to eat that way when they lived as nomads in tents, because they used to constantly move and hunt. Now, they just hunt for their phones to call for pizza home delivery.

After moving cautiously near the silver SUV, the Saudi woman realizes that isn’t her family’s vehicle. Good–she avoided embarrassment. As she reaches for her phone to call her driver again, she finds him honking gently at the entrance, behind a taxicab. She walks in long, elegant strides through the maze of cars, with her shiny tennis shoes leading the way. When she shuts her car door and takes out her phone, she can sit back and relax. Her workout is over.

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