Hard road: Fear of outdoor dangers is a vicious circle for SA's obese
A study reveals that overweight people in poorer communities don’t feel safe enough to walk
Growing up in Langa, Nomanene Mtatsi used to play carefree in the streets of the township and would walk around into the dead of night.
But as she grew older and put on weight, not only did she feel less energetic, but increasingly felt so unsafe that she walked less. This was exacerbated when she was shot three years ago, an incident that left her traumatised and with a bullet that is still lodged in her lower back.
“I had just gotten off the car when I saw a commotion. Thugs were chasing each other. People started running for cover, but I couldn’t run. A youngster swiftly came behind me and used me as a human shield.
“A shot went off and immediately I felt a burning sensation in my lower back and my legs felt warm. It was blood gushing out of the bullet wound, going down my legs,” she said.
Ever since that fateful day Mtatsi says she feels trapped in her own body and no longer walks around in her neighbourhood because she doesn’t feel safe.
“Since I can’t run or walk fast I would rather stay at home away from danger. I only walk if I’m part of a large group.”
Her circumstances are not unique A new SA study by researchers from UCT, the Medical Research Council and UWC suggests that overweight and obese people in poorer communities don’t feel safe to walk due to fear of crime and speeding cars.
Led by Pasmore Malambo and recently published in the journal Plos One, it found that more than two-thirds or 67% of obese adults felt this way. Thin or normal-weight people felt differently, with 78% not considering themselves to be in danger.
Women particularly felt more vulnerable than men because of low levels of outdoor physical activity, and use of public transport. Obese parents expressed worry that their children may be injured by speeding cars and high crime. People who felt that traffic speed in their neighbourhoods was low were less likely to be obese.
Viwe Sandlana, 54, of Delft, says although he is a man he also doesn’t feel safe outdoors due to obesity.
“I don’t go anywhere after sunset. When I go and return from work I steer clear of crime hot spots as I don’t want to put myself at risk of crime. Apart from running inability I don’t want to have a confrontation with thugs because I know that I will fight them off,” he said.
The African Centre for Cities – a research unit at UCT – which explored how residents felt about the impact of living environments on their health, made similar findings.
Dr Warren Smit said a survey in Khayelitsha found that while the formal side of the township looked conducive to outdoor activity, the reality was that people don’t use the public walking spaces for fear of crime and violence.
Researchers found that major roads and parks were not suitably planned to be safe, as houses do not front on to these spaces. Many areas also lacked street lighting, making them hideaways for criminals.
Smit said another major contributing factor to obesity “is the difficulty to eat a healthy and nutritious diet”.
He said evidence showed that appropriate planning and design of communities can promote safe outdoor physical activity. Upgrading pavements and public spaces, providing cycle paths, improving street lighting and providing sufficient public toilets were some of the solutions.
“Simultaneously, there is a need to create food environments that are more conducive to a healthy diet and nutrition.”