23 Sep 2016

Super heroes help fight flab in Samoa

12:19 pm on 23 September 2016

Volunteers in Samoa are tackling soaring obesity levels in children with games, gardening and gimmicks.

The Nobesity programme is into its second year and is among privately-run initiatives linking up to fight an epidemic of flab and lifestyle diseases in the country.

At an open air gym on the outskirts of the Samoan capital Apia, a "Super Hero" has a bunch of children in the palm of his hand.

That's what they call the volunteers with Nobesity, a programme that turns exercise into a game and teaches fun facts about food as an antidote to some worrying statistics.

Volunteers including Visceta Meredith (front left) on Samoa's Nobesity programme

Volunteers including Visceta Meredith (front left) on Samoa's Nobesity programme Photo: Nobesity Samoa

"With our first intake the average weight for a 9 to 13 year old is over 75 kg and that's quite a big number for little bodies and it is a growing concern for both parents and the community as a whole," said Visceta Meredith.

Ms Meredith helped found Nobesity, supported by her family firm Business Systems.

They wanted to give back to the community particularly over rising obesity rates.

Adults and children were being affected by increasing urbanisation, reliance on imported convenience food and access to technology.

"Even if they're outside their mostly on tablets, parents' homes. Nobesity Samoa have a great team of volunteers who are willing to just go out for one hour, give the kid some physical activities and at the end we would talk about proper nutrition getting them to start early in making good choices," she said.

Bootcamp weigh-in time

Bootcamp weigh-in time Photo: RNZI/Sally Round

Among the overall statistics - a third of people having no fruit in their diet and 70 percent of all deaths due to non-communicable diseases like diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Nobesity volunteers have taken the programme out into schools and villages, teaching children and parents about good nutrition.

They said it reached hundreds in its first year.

"We've got great feedback from the parents. It just makes parenting easier, because we call ourselves 'super heroes', as something that's easier for the kids to relate to."

Salma Hazelman with her daughters Sara and Sophie

Salma Hazelman with her daughters Sara and Sophie Photo: RNZI/Sally Round

Salma Hazelman, mother to Sara and Sophie, said the programme worked because it involved the parents as well.

"They also start teaching the kids about nutrition. They do food diaries," said Ms Hazelman.

"When you start seeing a lot of fast food, then you start to realise, it's not the kids fault, as a parent this is your fault so you've got to take some responsibility for that and that's what this is doing.

"Is it a challenge? Yes!"

The children scatter and dozens of men and women, all shapes, sizes and ages turn up in exercise gear.

They're taking part in the 1 Touch Bootcamp run by another group of volunteers including Samoan New Zealander Lenny Solomona.

He said 3,000 people had taken part in his bootcamps so far.

"When we arrived in 2014, according to the WHO Samoa statistics, 74.7 percent were obese or morbidly obese so that was the thing that triggered me to come over here because it's my passion."

The boot camps run five days a week and inspire people by running challenges.

"Over the ten weeks we teach them how to eat, we talk about the four pillars, which is your relationship with God, water, exercise and nutrition.

"One of the big things about our boot camp is the support system within the boot camp so everyone comes here, they all have the same needs, they all have the same issues and they get inspired by the others."

Lenny Solomona said it was a wholistic approach without expensive equipment and which cost people just two tala a day (NZ$1).

"We've got a lot of people here who walked in here with sicknesses that they thought that they wouldn't overcome," he said.

"The person that won our last challenge, he's been a huge inspiration to so many of those that attend here.

Lenny Solomona runs boot camps in Samoa

Lenny Solomona runs boot camps in Samoa Photo: RNZI/Sally Round

"He had everything from diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension and at the end of the last challenge that we just ran he was cleared and the doctor was just astounded."

Visceta Meredith said the boot camps and Nobesity were making exercise and nutrition a family affair, which fitted well with Samoan culture.

"I think that's where the failure is. We normally are physically active people in Samoa but it's the food intake. We tend to have big portions all in one go or not having a balance."

There are plans to improve nutrition further by getting the children to take the lead.

"Encouraging them to plant more, have their own fruit patch at home. The kids will be doing their own vege patches for mum and dad and then we'll just assist them."

Nobesity has just received funding for a "sugar-less week" in Samoa to raise awareness about the bad effects of sugar.