Fitness first? Not in Jordan, where most people choose not to exercise

By Bri Hollis and Jessica Teich // Photos by Jessica Teich

AMMAN, Jordan – Shaded paths wind throughout Al Hussein Park, a multi-leveled, lush space in West Amman. Dirt trails stretch through Sport City, a wooded park on the outskirts of the capital and insulated by trees from the cacophony of honking car horns.

Yet these spaces aren’t teeming with runners trying to punch out a few miles before work. They’re largely empty, a reality that speaks less to the quality of the parks and more to a culture that honors tea time but doesn’t value regular exercise.

Running paths at Al Hussein Park in West Amman remain underutilized, even though the park is one of few areas in the city designated specifically for exercise.

“I don’t think [going to] the gym is very important,” said Ehsan Eljarah, 27, a taxi driver from West Amman. “I have to work and have no time, and work is more important.”

Ahmad Bakheet, 21, an engineering student at the University of Jordan, seconds Eljarah’s notion.

“I play football once a week at the university,” he said. “I play games with my friends, but I am too busy to play more than once a week. I have exams and homework, and that is more important to me.”

And though a healthy exercise regime and diet have been linked to an increased lifespan, improved mood and diminished risk for disease, the Jordanian population remains, for the most part, uninformed.

The obesity rate in Jordan increased from 19.5 percent in 2004 to almost double that – 39.8 percent – in 2010 according to studies from the CIA World Factbook and Hayder al-Domi, professor of nutrition and dietetics at the University of Jordan.

Diabetes is becoming a prevalent issue in Jordan; 13.6 percent of the population is currently suffering from the disease, and an additional 12.4 percent is pre-diabetic. As health problems such as high blood cholesterol and colon disease also increase countrywide, local health professionals are seeking to promote healthier lifestyles.

Nour Hamemeed, a clinical nutritionist at Petra University in Amman, has been working to create encouraging incentives for students to live healthier. She analyzes their lifestyles in order to create personalized exercise and dietary plans – free of charge. But she says the motivation just isn’t there.

“Most people don’t keep up with the plans I give them because they want to lose weight like magic. They end up not sticking to the diet and exercise,” Hamemeed said. “People want to go to sleep fat and wake up thin.”

Dr. Abdelkarim al-Khawaldeh, president of the Jordanian Society of Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism, agreed that many Jordanians aren’t willing to put forth the effort to be healthier.

“Our people are used to the easy life. They want to sit in the car or watch TV or sit at the computer, and they don’t walk a lot,” he said. “They should exercise more, eat small frequent meals, and the main thing is walking; because it is easy, you don’t need to pay money, you don’t need a special time, and you can do it anytime and anywhere.”

Hamemeed collaborated with several other lab technicians in the university’s nutrition department to create the Petra Walk, a program where students, employees and their families are invited on a five-mile walk around the school. Around 40 attendees were present at the most recent event.

“We only had it once last year and once this year, but now we are going to try to have it every two weeks,” Hamemeed said. “It’s more fun because students are walking together and other people can see the students having fun and want to join.”

Part of the challenge, Hamemeed and Khawaldeh say, is that there is no culture of participating in strenuous exercise in Jordan. And in Amman specifically, the city’s terrain further complicates the issue. The majority of roads are clogged with traffic and drivers who do not yield to pedestrians. Sidewalks have steep curbs, are blocked by parked cars or trees and often end without warning. Many are dotted with rubble. In fact, exercising outdoors is so rare that when a runner is spotted, he is often approached and asked from what or whom he is trying to escape.

This forces exercise-seeking residents to either utilize the limited outdoor spaces, or to splurge on a pricey gym membership. With most gym fees averaging around 120 Jordanian dinar a month, about $169, most locals are unwilling or unable to pay.

There is also a widely held belief that exercise is a burden, Hamemeed said. That’s why she emphasizes fun ways to exercise, such as dancing and aerobics.

The second floor of Fitness First Platinum is far from crowded at 11 a.m., a time reserved solely for women. Here, only one woman follows a personal trainer in the gym’s free weights section.

Buthaina Haddad is a testament to how appealing group workouts can be. Lounging in the air-conditioned comfort of Fitness First Platinum, a posh gym in an upscale Amman neighborhood, the 46-year-old mother is a committed exerciser.

As she peeked over a copy of The Jordan Times, she chatted and laughed with some girlfriends, similarly dressed in black spandex and exercise gear. Haddad tossed her hair, curled and highlighted, over one shoulder and explained with conviction the reason she’s been willing to forfeit more than $6,800 to Fitness First over the past four years:

“It’s very important to work out,” said the energetic and fit stay-at-home mom, underscoring the natural feel-good benefits that come with an endorphin rush. “[Exercise] is an anti-depressant. I am happy and refreshed and healthy.”

Haddad works out five days a week, and though she encourages family and friends to engage in a healthy lifestyle as well, almost no one takes her up on it.

This could be changing, though. Other local gyms are beginning to offer special programs to foster increased participation. Incentives include fitness classes, sports competitions and personal training sessions. Most centers also reserve a time window exclusively for women, because Jordanian culture enforces dress and appearance restrictions. Female-only sessions ensure that despite the difference in gender roles, women have a place to feel comfortable and accepted while exercising.

The movement has also slowly begun to penetrate the public school system. Throughout elementary and high school, students are required to attend gym classes once or twice a week as a primary source of fitness education. Jordanian universities have competitive sports teams, though they are far less competitive than their Western counterparts. Students looking to play a sport at the university level submit written applications to earn a spot on the court or field. Universities also offer indoor and outdoor space for recreational athletic activity.

Hamemeed emphasizes the importance of small changes to kick-start the movement. She explains that small adaptations to daily routines can be a strong, motivating incentive to make a permanent healthy change.

“People make excuses that it is too hard to find time and places to exercise, so I tell them other things to do. Go shopping and walk there – and if you drive there, park your car far away. Take the stairs, not the elevator,” advises Hamemeed. “If someone really wants to lose weight and be healthy, despite the circumstances, they will do what it takes.”

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