Samoans getting Zumba fit, but obesity still on the rise
On a muggy day at Samoa’s Maninoa Beach, tired competitors in an ocean canoeing regatta take a break to let the kids expend some energy.
Barefoot and shrieking with laughter, they run races along the sand, pushing rods of wood with wheels made from empty corned beef cans.
When full, these cans of processed meat fill shelf after shelf in Samoan supermarkets, and are often blamed for rendering 80 percent of adults overweight or obese.
But the active weekend scene playing out on Maninoa Beach is increasingly common in the small island nation, where physical activity rates have climbed drastically.
Between 2002 and 2014, the average amount of time Samoan adults spent doing physical activity — whether for recreation, work or transport — rose from 35 minutes per day to more than two hours.
The vast majority of Samoans are now meeting World Health Organisation (W.H.O.) recommendations in this regard.
Yet obesity and other “first world diseases” are still on the rise, with the government declaring them a “national emergency”.
Dr Walter Vermeulen, who runs weekly nutrition seminars, said he often saw people who complained they had been exercising for years and had not shed any weight.
“Exercise alone will not make you lose weight,” he said.
Instead, he prescribes exercise in combination with a “whole-foods, plant-based diet”.
“A lot [of health problems in Samoa] have to do with this perverse logic that ‘what is good for the rich, is also good for the poor’.”
“Corned beef has now been elevated to a status food, driving farmers to use their revenues from the sale of their health-promoting [vegetables] to buy pounds of tins of corned beef.”
Getting the country back on its feet
Kolisi Viki is a regular health bureaucrat by day, but come 5:00pm she puts on her runners and leads a crowd in swinging their hips to a mix of Top 40, reggae dancehall and Christian pop.
Zumba-style dance fitness has become a national pastime in recent years, and the Samoan Government has capitalised on its popularity by running in-person and televised classes.
Ms Viki said the country was rediscovering its active roots.
“Traditionally Samoan people are very active people, but with all these changes that came about, we became very complacent and we started not being active.
“So over the last ten years a lot of the work that the government has lead with its private partners and its communities is trying to get our communities back up on their feet.”
The Government also jumped on the reality television bandwagon, running several seasons of Samoa’s Biggest Loser in conjunction with one of the national television stations.
Season one winner Su’a Hesed Ieremia said it was hard to diet while everybody around him ate the foods he loved.
“Our people, we love food — we congregate around food,” he said.
“We have family toanai [lunch] on Sundays, when there’s a birthday, it’s a big feast, it’s always food all around.”
Mr Ieremia said he was also working out daily for the program, but he lost almost as much weight in a similar time period while staying with diet-conscious friends in New Zealand, despite hardly exercising.
The rise in both physical activity and obesity may be particularly stark in this little pocket of the Pacific, but Samoa is not alone.
Last year, paediatrician and health blogger Aaron E Carroll wrote in the New York Times that the notion Americans were getting lazier was unfounded.
“From 2001 to 2009, the percentage of [Americans] who were sufficiently physically active increased,” Dr Carroll wrote.
“But so did the percentage of Americans who were obese. The former did not prevent the latter.”
Dr Carroll stressed exercise had benefits far beyond potential weight loss — linking to studies on everything from diabetes to depression to musculoskeletal disorders.
This is poignant given Samoa, and neighbouring American Samoa, have some of the world’s highest rates of diabetes, and mental health services in the former are few and far between.
But Su’a Hesed Ieremia said the healthy eating message just was not gaining traction the way the exercise message was.
Thankfully, he said, the urban elite were realising their increasingly Western lifestyles weren’t all they were cracked up to be.
“What’s the point of having a good job, lots of money, kids, but you lose them all because of not being healthy?”