Ethiopia Endorsing Physical Exercise?

The tendency of physical inactivity leading to obesity or overweight is on the rise in Ethiopia. The problem is quite severe in urban areas, especially in Addis Ababa. While regular exercise means that adults have a lower likelihood of dying from; coronary heart diseases, high blood pressure, and stroke, it has long been a neglected healthcare routine amongst the society. Citizens of late seem to understand its importance. An encouraging factor that has led to the opening of many GYMs. The government introduced different initiatives, such as the car-free days and mass sports days, in a bid to encourage its citizens to become more active. EBR adjunct writer Abiy Wendifraw reports.

Mahlet Gizaw, 27, is a Senior Reconciliation Officer at the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia (CBE). She assists 200 to 300 customers a day. Having worked for over five years now, she has felt the growing stress caused by her job and is sorting ways to ease the pressure. “I always try to handle it by whichever means. But physical exercise was not on the list,” she tells EBR.

This continued on until Mahlet won the lottery to join CBE’s gymnasium for free while working for the bank in 2018. She began the workout sessions immediately. But that did not last long. “By the time I arrived at the sports center, I felt mentally exhausted to a point that the simple exercises felt harder. At the bank, it is the job’s nature to stay on high alert,” she says. “It does not matter how many customers you take care of in a day. If you miscount at a single transaction, that is it. After the office hours, all you want to do is go home.”

Mahlet is not the only one unable to do regular exercise because of a stressful working condition. Many of the other citizens in an urban area struggle with the same problem. This has exposed them to a lot of abnormalities in their physical and mental health. Physical inactivity is also becoming a major risk factor for Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), a growing epidemic among the urban population. NCDs account for 42Pct of deaths in Ethiopia. By 2040, they are projected to account for almost 70Pct of the country’s disease burden, up from 17Pct in 1990. Highly worrying is that most NCD deaths in Ethiopia, as in any other country, are premature (before the age of 70), reads the WHO report.

Not only NCDs, overweightness and obesity are becoming common in urban areas, where levels of physical inactivity are three times higher than in rural Ethiopia. According to the latest Demographic Health Survey (DHS), overweightness or obesity has increased from three percent to eight percent over the past two decades. Comparatively, eight percent of women are overweight or obese, whereas obesity amongst men stands at three percent. Such growth is mainly the result of physical inactivity amongst the majority of the society.

Addis, 53, a former bus driver, is a regular morning runner around Ayat-2 condominium. His two daughters, Eldana, nine, and Samrawit, 14, joined him for light workouts starting from mid-July this year.  “I was not in the habit of exercising until I lost a friend due to a heart attack. It had been years since I started to realize that the things I used to do easily, had become harder. My daughters say that I am the fittest and strongest dad. I do not want to let them down and this motivates me even more,” says Addis.

Addis stresses that workout sessions outdoors, does not always make one feel safe and comfortable for many reasons.  “But that is the only alternative as we do not have sports centers around where we live. That is not the only issue though. The cheapest price for a month’s workout in most gyms is ETB1,500. In my observation, gyms are becoming places for highly paid individuals. ”

These days, there is a mounting number of gyms opening in urban areas such as Addis Ababa. In addition, it is becoming a common practice among government institutions to make gym facilities available for their staff. CBE, Ministry of Education, Ministry of  Urban Development and Construction, and Ethiopian Airlines are among those that took the initiative to advocate for a healthy workforce.   The former Ministry of Youth and Sports, now restructured as the Federal Sports Commission, also had an ambitious target of reducing physical inactivity in the nation by making 75 million people (3/4 of the population) engaged in sports and physical activity by the end of 2020. But, as the deadline approaches, the commission seems to have called it off.

Although the plan was averted, the Commission is trying to encourage citizens to engage in sports through competitions, entertainment events and campaigns. “We are trying to use every means possible  to spread the message on the importance of being physically active. In line with this, we sponsor and support the physical fitness television show, which runs early morning at 6 am on Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation,” explains Tesfaye Bekele, an official from the Sports Commission. “The television show also incorporates advice from physicians and other experts. Currently, we are researching and studying how we can incorporate radio as well for the citizens who do not have access to a television.”  

The Federal Sports Commission now plans to have 12 million people involved in different forms of sport (competitions, cultural sports, sports for all and entertainment) within 2019/20. The budget allocated for this task is no more than four million birr.

Car Free Day, a monthly event to promote a healthy life style and fight air pollution, is now becoming common in Addis Ababa and other cities. This is in addition to the mass sports day, every Sunday at Meskel Square, where hundreds of residents of Addis Ababa participate in a collective workout. Designed by the Ministry of Health, the traffic-free roads attract thousands for a walk, aerobics and free medical screening.

“I haven’t had the chance to enjoy the car-free roads so far. But I will. When you take part in such events, like the Car Free Day and the Great Ethiopian Run, you get the chance to listen to your body,” says Addis.

For Mahlet, however, a regular workout seems to be something to think over. She resorted to take care of her body weight by controlling her nutrition. “Luckily, we do not eat carbs and meat often in the family. So gaining weight is not a major concern for me. For me to be physically active, I do not know, though I still really think there is an alternative.”

8th Year • Aug.16 - Sep.15 2019 • No. 77


Abiy Wendifraw

Special Contributor

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