We are a fat nation. Modernity combined with long hours of sitting or reclining while watching TV, playing video games and keeping up with our social media networks are taking a toll on us. Snacking on cheap, addictive, high-calorie foods and a lack of regular exercise are increasing our fat cells and boosting our waist and neck sizes.
Obesity increases the risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, hypertension, sleep apnea, stroke, high cholesterol, certain cancers, osteoarthritis, respiratory problems, liver disease, gallbladder diseases and gynecological problems.
The numbers are staggering at the national level. More than 300,000 people die every year because of complications related to obesity. Illinois has the 27th highest rate of adult obesity in the nation at 25.9 percent, and the 10th highest in overweight youth (ages 10-17) at 34.9 percent, according to a recent report by Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Nearly two-thirds of our adults and one-third of our children younger than 10 in Illinois are overweight or obese.
Economic status and the place we live dictate how fit or obese we will be. External environmental factors, such as access to healthy food and safe opportunities for physical activity, affect our choices of food and our access to exercise. If you are a child growing up in the inner city, you are less likely to have access to healthy food and less likely to have access to exercise. That is why the 56 percent of publicly insured children in Illinois are overweight or obese, which is the highest prevalence in the nation, and two out of five African-American children are overweight or obese, which is the third highest in the nation.
There are areas in urban centers, including Chicago, that are devoid of healthy choices and designated as food deserts. These are districts with little or no access to foods needed to maintain a healthy diet but often served by plenty of fringe groceries, liquor stores and fast-food restaurants.
The epidemic of obesity has affected Muslim youth and adults too, and sometimes been exacerbated by the lack of adequate physical exercise in private Islamic schools and some cultural elements among Muslim immigrants. Some young Muslim girls also develop eating disorders, like bulimia and anorexia, to have a satisfactory body image.
Islam teaches us to be moderate in consumption, make healthy choices, conserve resources, and avoid alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs. The Prophet recommended exercise for children and encouraged us to stay strong and fit. He ate a healthy and very lean diet.
Besides connecting us to God, our five daily prayers also clean our spirit, burn calories, stretch muscles and tendons, make joints more flexible and promote healthy postures of sitting and standing. Obesity makes it harder for Muslims to have a good posture during prayer, especially during kneeling and prostration.
Fasting in the month of Ramadan is a once-a-year opportunity to cut down on calorie intake and lose weight. The Prophet did not just reserve fasting for Ramadan but used to fast on other days throughout the year as well.
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Pilgrimage is a hard physical exercise that only can be enjoyed by the physically able and fit.
The Prophet asked Muslims to teach their children swimming, archery and horse riding. It was reported that he used to jog and race with his wife, Aisha, while he was in his late 50s. He encouraged wrestling competitions among youth. He said, “The strong believer is better and more beloved to Allah than the weak believer, while there is good in both.”
Most of the companions were physically fit and strong, especially Hamza, Omar, Ali, Saad, Kahled, Aisha, Safeyya, Asma and many others.
The women also participated in defending the community during different battles. One of the Prophet’s companions, Umm Umara, was instrumental in protecting his life in the battle of Uhud, which indicates that women at the time of the Prophet were exercising regularly and were very fit. They fought side by side with men and sometimes even won in sport competitions.
The Quran describes the physical fitness and strength of many Prophets, especially David, Solomon, Moses and Joseph.
Public health interventions focusing on healthy eating – and environmental change to support these behaviors – have been shown to be successful in reducing obesity and promoting healthy weight and physical activity among children and adults. That is why the efforts of First Lady Michele Obama in her “Let Us Move” campaign to encourage physical fitness, exercise and healthy eating habits should be commended and promoted.
In Illinois, Muslim organizations are leading several initiatives to promote physical fitness, healthy diet and exercise.
The Inner City Muslim Action Network, better known as IMAN, has launched the “Muslim Run” campaign to promote health, wellness and healing in the “hood” through improving access to healthier food in “food deserts,” racial and ethnic healing and alternative business models.
The HEART Women and Girls Project, in conjunction with Altmuslimah, is committed to empowering women and girls from faith-based communities by teaching them to connect a healthy mind, body and soul to achieve an overall sense of well-being.
On April 22, in our annual Muslim Action Day, more than 700 members of the Muslim community led by the council gathered in our state capitol advocating to support, among other issues, the recommendations of the Illinois Marketing Task Force of creating a fresh food fund, now being discussed by the General Assembly, to support local supermarket development projects in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.
We have to deal with this disease at the community level in addition to the leadership level. If we put the same energy that we are putting to address the disease of terrorism, we can easily address this societal disease that kills many more lives than have been taken by terrorism, war and drugs combined.
Dr. Zaher Sahloul is a physician and chairperson of the executive committee of The Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. This column first appeared on the CIOGC’s Web site. A shorter version is used by permission.