For the first time in our planet’s history, our health is at risk not from having too little to eat, but too much. Developing economies across the world are replicating Western trends in consuming more calories each day as access to cheap, plentiful fast food increases. As a result, the global population is, quite literally, expanding.
Yet incentivising people to eat less and move more on a national scale can be tricky, as is evidenced by a number of diet and exercise campaigns in the UK that have, so far at least, been met with a lukewarm response.
These shifts in lifestyle are exacerbated by factors outside our control in certain parts of the world; in Saudi Arabia, for example, where 68% of the population is now overweight, it’s simply too hot to head out for a run.
So, what are governments and health economies around the world doing about it? Some have taken a novel approach to encouraging their citizens to get outside, get active and boost their wellbeing:
The healthiest country in the world (Legatum Prosperity Index 2018) provides every citizen who wants one with a fitness tracker free of charge. The latest iteration even incorporates a heart rate monitor, which gives it more functionality than an (£85) entry level FitBit. Singaporeans are then encouraged to take to the streets in the National Steps Challenge, winning “healthpoints” for every step they clock up around the city.
Those who amass a certain number of points can redeem them for shopping vouchers and energy bill credits and are prompted to “level up” for bigger rewards. Now in its fourth six month “season”, the challenge also gives participants the chance to win S$60,000 (£34,000) worth of prizes in a grand draw.
Creating “a welfare state, in which the entire population can enjoy wellbeing” would be a stated goal, one might assume, of the Department of Health. Not in South Korea. There it’s the mission of the Korean Forestry Service, which is in the process of creating 37 “healing forests” around the country in a bid to improve citizens’ health and wellbeing.
The forest trails will wind their way around sports facilities, meditation spaces, rest areas and convenience facilities and have so far succeeded in enticing Koreans to don their walking boots; around 12.3 million, or 17% of the population, visit each year.
Some employers in a country consistently ranked as one of the world’s happiest (UN World Happiness Index, 2012-18) are going a step further than encouraging exercise at lunch: they’re mandating it.
Employees at fashion retailer Bjorn Borg, water company Kalmar Vatten and construction consultancy Rotpartner are all required to head to the gym on Friday lunchtimes and get a weekly workout in. Other employers, meanwhile, contribute up to 5,300SEK (£466) per year for their employees’ sporting activities, which is tax deductible.
There’s a wealth of evidence to suggest that taking some exercise during the working day is a win-win for both employers and employees; one Stockholm University study found that teams who fit 2.5 hours of exercise into the normal working week are happier and more productive – and get at least the same amount done as those who don’t.
United Arab Emirates
A million people took part in the UAE’s #Dubai30x30 challenge in 2018, in which Emiratis committed to 30 minutes of physical activity every day for 30 days. The initiative included 2 “carnivals”, 250 citywide events, and over 8000 classes and activities, while the specially created Dubai Fitness App helped users to track their workouts, find local fitness classes and compete with others.
NHS Shetland has rolled out “nature prescriptions”, the first of their kind in the UK, to treat conditions including high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other conditions. Healthcare professionals will recommend countryside rambling and long walks on the beach for patients to connect with the natural environment around them and involve themselves more in their own health.