Ellen van Gelder
Dozens of grandmothers stand on a public road in a township close to Johannesburg, jumping and dancing to loud music. No car can pass here for the next hour. Four times a week this is the site of the Bophelong Fitness Club. The sweat pours from the heads, the pace is high.
67-year-old Cathrine Mathebe comes running from one of the houses, in a black leotard with a short green skirt. She is the initiator of the sports club in township Tembisa. She started exercising when she weighed 150 kilograms and therefore had difficulty walking. In the meantime, she has started a revolution in her neighborhood and is a gym teacher for 140 women and three men. The oldest participant is 84 years old. She selects the music and devises the steps and exercises.
Obesity and overweight are on the rise in Africa and Asia, researchers write in a new report, presented today as part of World Obesity Day. If governments do not take measures, in 2035 more than half of the world’s population will be (much) overweight.
South Africa is one of the countries where the number of people who are overweight is increasing rapidly. Currently, nearly 70 percent of South African women, and 33 percent of men, are already overweight or obese. As a result, many people also have to deal with related diseases. The country has the most adults with diabetes on the continent (one in nine). It leads to tens of thousands of deaths every year.
The problems with overweight are caused by a combination of not exercising enough and eating poorly. Sport is not always obvious in South Africa. Gyms are too expensive for many people and individual sports, for example by running circles in the neighborhood, is too dangerous because of the crime.
“That’s why we’re doing this together now,” says Mathebe, who teaches for free. “Doctors from the neighborhood are sending more and more people to me. They come with complaints such as diabetes and high blood pressure. But now we are fit. Super fit.”
Soft drinks more expensive
In addition to a lack of exercise, unhealthy food plays a major role in South Africa. “South Africans eat a lot of fatty food, with a lot of salt and sugar,” says public health expert Eunice Montso of the organization HEALA, which fights for healthy eating.
“It is food that is widely available in the townships and is often cheaper than fruit and vegetables, especially with rising food prices. People also drink a lot of soft drinks. And they do that precisely because this is a kind of status symbol. They want to show that they can afford it.”
One of the measures proposed by the World Obesity Federation is to put an extra tax on unhealthy food. Unlike the Netherlands, South Africa has a tax on soft drinks, the sugar tax. Beverages with more than four grams of sugar per 100 milliliters are taxed at nearly 11 percent.
That has positive effects, says Montso. Some soft drinks have become more expensive and research shows that sales have dropped by almost a third since the sugar tax. In addition, soft drink manufacturers have reduced the amount of sugar in their drinks to fall below the margin and thus not be taxed. that yields health benefits, because it contains less sugar.”
The government had announced that it would increase the sugar tax to almost fifteen percent from this spring. That was recently reversed after pressure from the sugar industry; South Africa has many sugar cane plantations and they say that increasing the sugar tax further will lead to job losses.
Zandile Mchiza, professor of health at the University of the Western Cape, speaks of a missed opportunity. She also denounces the screaming advertisements for unhealthy food: “Junk food is seen as cheaper and is available everywhere. South Africans must be protected.”
Not everyone knows what the consequences of being overweight are for health, emphasizes Mchiza. “With all that advertising you think soft drinks only give you energy.”
On top of that, many people don’t want to hear about losing weight. “For many, the ideal of beauty is still full and curvy,” says Mchizadie, who does extensive research on South Africans’ body image.
“If you say they should weigh less, they don’t think about a healthy weight, but they are afraid of becoming very thin immediately. And thin is seen as ugly. That is something for women who do not want to get married, because it is bad in the marriage market.”
The sporting grandmothers don’t worry about that anymore. Gym teacher Mathebe: “Many of us are still not super thin, but we don’t have to. We are healthy and set a good example for our grandchildren.”
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