Kenyans are becoming increasingly conscious of their health. Not long ago, gyms seemed to be a preserve of the privileged, who after bingeing on unhealthy food or junk, as it is commonly known, would be urged by their doctors to lose weight.
Then, gyms were mostly available in towns and cities, where people would rush from the office during lunch break for a quick workout, or pass by in the morning or evenings. Most hotels housed these gyms which charged a premium, way out of reach of many “common wananchi”.
But today, gyms dot every corner of estates, from Kinoo to Utawala to Buru Buru and Lavington. They have become available, not only to the increasing number of middle-class and the rich, but also to young people who, most of the time, would be idle in the estates. With a daily fee of as little as KSh100, one can workout on treadmills and lift weights for up to an hour.
But it is not only gyms that are a sign that a good section of Kenyans is alive to the idea of exercising for good health and, for some, recreation.
Depending on which estate you come from, you are bound to encounter residents, jogging, walking or even walking their dogs. Writing in an Op-Ed (opinion-editorial) piece in the Daily Nation, Dr Nelly Bosire once said that running early in the morning and late in the evening is also an indication of how safe your neighbourhoods are.
Additionally, it is an indication how the road network is maintained. You cannot run through potholes or pebble-strewn walkways.
Upmarket estates like Kilimani, Lavington, Muthaiga and Runda have well-paved walkways where residents can run, jog, walk and bike comfortably without the fear of straining an ankle. You will see residents, most wearing headphones and designer sportswear and sneakers, running on footpaths and walkways peacefully. Unfortunately, in some estates, like Eastlands and Ngara, pavements pedestrian walkways have been taken over by hawkers, making exercising almost an impossibility.
Hawkers place their wares on the ground, while others operate from makeshift stands. There are also those who sell fruits from wheelbarrows, especially in neighbourhoods like Eastleigh, blocking walkways meant for pedestrians. Pedestrians are thus pushed onto narrow roads, which they have to share with cars and matatus and risk their lives.
Outer Ring Road, a newly-constructed highway is even worse. No sooner was it commissioned than hawkers moved in and set up ‘base’ – temporary structures on service lanes and walkways – creating mayhem, which is exacerbated by rogue matatus dropping and picking passengers at undesignated stops.
According to the Walk Score app, Ring Road in Kilimani has a walk score of 88 out of 100. Walk Sore is a web-based, mobile application which shows that walkable neighbourhoods are one of the simplest and best solutions for the environment, our health and economy.
It gives Thika Road a walkability score of 59 out of 100. This is because, despite Thika Road having walkways and cycling lanes, some in busy areas like Githurai have been taken over by all types of businesses. But in some places like Kahawa Sukari, you will find people jogging and running early in the morning and evenings.
Charles Muriuki, a martial arts expert and taekwondo trainer, even stretches and works out along Kenyatta University after his daily runs, which he has done for six years now.
We caught up with the lean martial arts expert stretching and flexing his muscles at the Kenyatta University footpath. “I find it convenient to work out on the road, it gives me flexibility and an open-air environment conducive for exercising”, he said. He added that in the six years he has been practising along that section, he has seen an increasing number of fitness enthusiasts, which he believes is a good thing.
Indeed, in the developed world, running, walking and cycling on walkways are almost the norm. The well-paved roads and tree-lined streets are conducive for outdoor exercising. Most Kenyans would love to leave their fuel guzzlers at home or avoid the chaotic matatus and instead cycle, but the roads are a big hindrance.
Increasingly, poor road workmanship (which sees potholes emerging as soon as the roads are surfaced), flooding during rainy seasons, and crime in some estates, discourage many people from exercising on pedestrian pathways along the roads.
But there is good news. The newly-completed Phase One of Ngong Road lit up social media like a Christmas tree. Not long ago, driving on Ngong Road was akin to a rush-hour walk in Gikomba, due to the chock full. Enter Japanese contractors and superior engineering. They dualled the road from the Kenya National Library Services to the junction at Kilimani Ring Road, which has now been extended to the junction at Dagoretti Corner, enroute to Karen. Said to be very walkable at a score of 70, Ngong Road has crossing sections for pedestrians and separate ones for bikers, complete with well-marked lines and signage.
There are walkways and paths designated for cyclists. The road’s workmanship is attractive and a joy to walk or cycle on. Unfortunately, sections of the footpaths and bicycle paths on Ngong Road are already being turned into carwash slots. Even car sellers have taken them up, using them as lots to display cars on sale.
This calls for strict enforcement of city bylaws and stringent policing by traffic police, the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA), and the Kenya National Highways Authority (KeNHA), in order to rein in the wayward traders who not only pose a risk to road users, but also deny people a healthy and clean environment.
With most people either lacking money or time for gym membership, pathways and cycling trails are ideal exercising alternatives to promote fitness, which has the health benefit of reducing the increasing cases of non-communicable diseases.
In the past couple of years, Kenya has seen a drop in the number of people suffering from and losing their lives to communicable diseases, particularly ATM – Aids, TB and Malaria. Conversely, the country has witnessed a rise in non-communicable diseases. These are preventable diseases arising from habits like tobacco use and exposure, unhealthy diet, sedentary lifestyles and alcohol abuse.
Doctors are now recommending the avoidance of sedentary lifestyles, especially for office workers. But one does not have to go to the gym to keep fit. A thirty-minute brisk walk, running, jogging or cycling two to three times a week, are just as good and effective in keeping non-communicable diseases like cancer and heart disease at bay.
As the Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi CEO, Ms Asmita Gillani, says, “There is a growing middle-class and people are living more sedentary lifestyles and consuming unhealthy diets. Stress levels are also high, and coupled with lack of exercise, more and more people are getting exposed to and becoming more vulnerable to non-communicable diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes”.
Enter the Covid-19 pandemic, and roadside workouts went to a whole new level
We started working on this chapter from late 2019 to early 2020. It is important to highlight the changes brought about by the outbreak of the coronavirus.
In February, the Government of Kenya, through the newly-appointed Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, banned all meetings, conferences and events of international nature to curb the spread of Covid-19.
This escalated fast, following the first Covid-19 case in Kenya in March 13, 2020. The government asked employers to have their employees work from home, banned all public gatherings including meetings at church services, burials and entertainment spots. A dusk-to-dawn curfew was also enforced.
Overnight, Kenyans, like most citizens of the world, from China to Italy to the United States, found themselves forced to stay and work from home. Online meetings and conferences, commonly known as webinars, became the norm. Soon, people realised that these web-based meetings facilitated by technology through the use of devices like desktop, tablet, smartphone and laptop computers are very different from in-person meetings. People were spending more time in online meetings, which drains energy and strains the eyes, resulting in fatigue and stress.
People resorted to new coping mechanisms, from trying out new recipes in the kitchen, recording memes on social media like TikTok, to running, jogging and cycling.
Estate roads and streets were soon filled with people walking, jogging, running or cycling. This was a welcomed relief to environmentalists and conservationists, who predicted that less cars on the roads would give the planet time to take a breather after decades of industrial pollution.
To health workers, Covid-19, though a great catastrophe of the 21st Century, was a blessing in disguise as it gave people an opportunity to rethink the way they live. People were relooking their attitude towards the environment and on how they treat their bodies. The question is, will this new habit last?