22 October 2016Last updated

Features | The big story

The fast track to tackling child obesity

Hurtling around a karting track at 80kph helps kids to combat excess weight, poor health and self-confidence issues. Colin Drury meets the boys and girls in top gear – and top form

By Colin Drury
29 Jan 2016 | 12:00 am
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  • Gayatri Unni loves the rush of karting, and the sport has made her physically fitter and mentally tough as nails.

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  • A junk-heavy diet has led to a childhood obesity epidemic here.

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While most parents might think that allowing their children to race at speeds of up to 80kph in a motor vehicle just three inches off the ground is dangerous, it could actually be keeping them fit – and tackling the obesity time bomb in the UAE.

‘Accidents cannot be ruled out,’ notes the governing body, World Karting Association. ‘Competitors take part at their own risk.’

But this adrenaline-packed activity is being hailed as a potential component in improving the health of youngsters in the UAE, helping combat the much-publicised obesity crisis, and boosting self-confidence – all while also developing road safety skills.

Advocates of go-karting, including fitness experts and motor groups, say racing offers children and teenagers all the positives of a strenuous physical workout, along with boosting concentration, focus, self-discipline and problem-solving abilities. Because drivers sweat so much, there is even some suggestion it is good for clearing the skin by ridding the body 
of toxins. Parents Friday spoke to also say they have noticed academic improvements since their children got behind the wheel. More from them shortly.

For now, though, it is hoped a brand-new annual competition for 12 to 19-year-olds, being held at the moment, will encourage more youngsters (and their parents) to get their health and bodies in top shape.

The Students’ Karting Cup UAE is open to girls and boys from across the country, irrespective of their previous motoring experience. Crucially, the contest is different from any such previous initiatives because, to prevent it from being dominated by experienced kids, it will rate youngsters on criteria such as road safety, aptitude and discipline rather than just finishing times.

It is being run at Al Ain Raceway with an initial 200 drivers since January 15. The number will be whittled down to 30 for the final race on February 26. And although this is the inaugural year, the interest means organisers are already planning an even bigger version, with more competitors in 2017.

‘This is about us realising two key things about karting,’ says Sayed Harris Hassan, whose sports services company Prodrive is organising the event with support from Abu Dhabi Racing. ‘Firstly, this is a sport that can appeal to a huge cross-section of young people, whatever their nationality, background, gender or religion.

‘Secondly, if we can get those kids who are interested or just intrigued and give them the chance to get out there on 
the track, it will fundamentally improve their lives in many ways – in terms of health, mental well-being and road discipline.

‘And, if you look at the big picture, having a fitter and more focused population can only be good for the UAE.’

That the nation is struggling with several child health epidemics is an established fact. Chief among them – and at the root of most others – is obesity. Some 40 per cent schoolchildren are overweight, according to research by Dubai Municipality in 2013. A staggering three quarters of all youngsters don’t exercise regularly.

This, in turn, has caused other issues to skyrocket. Childhood diabetes has increased, from affecting 
two per cent youngsters in 2005 to 11 per cent today, found Gulf News. Dr Farouq Mohammad Bafiuddin, president of the Emirates Obesity and Metabolic Surgery Interest Group, told the newspaper that there has also been a rise in anaemia, teenage hypertension and joint problems – all the result of excess weight.

Additionally, many experts, including Professor Karim Meeran of London’s Imperial Centre for Endocrinology, have warned of a ticking bomb in the form of future heart problems in the Gulf as a whole. And while poor diets, having too much sugar and salt, and sedentary lifestyles have contributed to the rise of childhood obesity, so too, it’s increasingly thought, has an over-reliance on the car to get around on a daily basis.

Whereas in European countries, children will walk to school or, at the very least, to the bus stop, youngsters here are either ferried around by expat parents, or buses pick them up from their doorsteps and drop them off at the school gate. Plus, the climate means they can’t play outdoors for a considerable part of the year.

So, perhaps it’s ironic that one answer to such health issues lies in more motoring. ‘I suppose it might sound counter-intuitive,’ says Sayed, a father-of-four and a keen kart driver.

‘But the physical task of manoeuvring the kart at high speeds gives you one of the best workouts any sport will.

‘If you think all you’re doing when you’re behind the wheel is just sitting and steering, you couldn’t be more wrong.

‘You’re using every muscle in your body, putting real strain on your upper arms, legs and stomach. You’re having to 
fight against G-force and that requires real fitness.’

Health experts agree. The famed US-based exercise guru Samir Becic has written how the adrenaline rush on the track ‘sharpens your senses, dilates blood vessels, and opens air passages, which will allow all your cells to receive more oxygen’. And along similar lines, Dr Ryan Penny, the co-founder of The Wellness Brothers health consultancy in Dubai, notes that ‘any activity that gets the heart rate up is good for us and that certainly includes karting. How often do you see an overweight Formula 1 driver?’

Just as importantly, the sport offers an incentive to stay in shape. ‘If you’re over 80kg when you get in the car, you’re carrying dead weight and you won’t be able to go as fast,’ says Sayed, who is from India but now lives in Al Ain. ‘That’s a huge motivation for children to watch what they eat, say no to sugary drinks, and generally keep active.’

Sandhya Unni is just one parent who has seen that motivation translate into practice. Her daughter Gayatri, 13, has been racing for about a year, and Sandhya says the transformation has been remarkable.

‘She was never overweight, so it would be wrong to say it’s helped her lose lots of weight,’ says the homemaker, who lives in Al Garhoud. ‘But she’s definitely stopped drinking too much pop, which is probably every parent’s dream.

‘The real change has been more mental. Her concentration and focus have improved, and she’s challenging herself. Earlier, she was very laid-back. Now there’s a sense that she’s capable of achieving things and she aims to push herself more. It’s given her a tougher edge, which you need. She was always a good student, but her determination to do well has increased.’

Has Gayatri noticed the change in herself? The teenager, a student at Cambridge International School, ponders a second. ‘I suppose so,’ she says. ‘But I really love it. It’s such a buzz. When you’re doing it, you don’t think about anything else. All you want to do is win. When I get out of the car, I just want to get back in again.’

Daniel van Haven feels something similar. At 14, the Dutch youngster of Jumeirah Lakes Towers has been karting just six months, ‘but it’s already my favourite sport, except football, obviously’.

And procurement officer dad Ronald, also a kart enthusiast, is equally happy he took it up.

‘His confidence is growing all the time,’ Ronald says. ‘Maybe that would have come naturally as he grew older anyway, but when you’re racing round the track, reacting to situations at high speed, dealing with problems at 60-70kph, it gives you a certain inner strength and belief for when you’re out of the car too.

‘You feel if you can handle the vehicle, you can handle anything, and that’s such a powerful quality to possess.’

Perhaps it seems a strange suggestion, but teaching children how to bomb round a race track might also teach them to be safe drivers. And such lessons are very important in the UAE.

While official data released this month showed improving levels of road safety here – thanks to a number of successful government initiatives – there were still 560 people killed on the country’s highways between January and October last year. As many as 5,605 were seriously injured.

The most common causes were sudden swerving and failure to maintain a safe distance between vehicles.

‘If you can instil in kids a culture of respect for road rules, highway regulations and, most importantly, other transport users, I think safety on our roads would undoubtedly improve,’ says Sayed. ‘What better way to do this than on the karting track with real road experts?

‘You hear of so many young people getting in accidents because, yes, they’ve passed their test, but do they really know how to handle a car? I would say that kids who have been karting for a couple of years are better drivers and far more sensible too, because they know what it takes in order to handle a motor vehicle.’

All of which leaves just one lingering question – that of the sport’s high-speed dangers.

Can kids racing at 70kph – even ones trained in the importance of road safety – ever be completely out of risk?

‘No, they can’t,’ says Sandhya. ‘But then, you could be hurt doing any sport. I would argue this is far safer than playing cricket or football – you’re far less likely to be injured.’

All youngsters are kitted out in fire-resistant clothing, protective padding and helmets, while the cars themselves have specially built steel frames for maximum security in the case of accidents. Moreover, marshals are present at every race.

Importantly, there have been no major injuries (or worse) caused by teenage karting in the UAE since the first course was opened in Jebel Ali in 1972.

‘I’ve seen some accidents, but that’s part of the thrill,’ says Gayatri. ‘No one has ever been hurt. They just look a bit embarrassed afterwards.’

In the fight against obesity and the quest to improve our young people’s mental well-being, it seems karting might just be the right (fast) track.

For more details visit Entry is Dh400 per driver. Spectators enter for free.

By Colin Drury

By Colin Drury