Can a grand vision of 4,000 free public gyms overcome inequality and fight Brazil’s health crisis?
Mosaic, 10 June 2014
The Baptist church in Arthur Lundgren district sits perched on a hill overlooking the sprawling metropolis of Recife, north-east Brazil. It is a little after dawn as the crowd starts to gather and the local residents find themselves spots in the cobbled street and on the narrow pavements outside, squeezing in wherever they can. The air feels warm even at this hour – it’s the 13th of January, and the middle of the Brazilian summer. The women hang their handbags on the church railings. When the congregation is ready and everyone has found their spot, they all turn to the front and raise their hands to the sky. Then they bend over to touch their toes.
For almost an hour, the residents of this neighbourhood will stretch, balance, sweat and lunge. It’s hard to spot the instructor through the throng, wedged in as she is between the church wall and a parked mini camper van, her disembodied voice counting down the exercises above and around the crowd. Children, parents, grandparents – most of them in lycra shorts and trainers – have gathered today, as they do five days a week, not to pray but to work out.
This is just one of thousands of classes taking place simultaneously each morning and evening across Brazil. It is part of a bold vision that’s persuaded government officials to invest over a billion US dollars in free, safe access to regular exercise for anyone in almost every city in this, the fifth-largest country in the world.
With obesity one of the world’s biggest public health crises, policy makers around the world are beginning to realise that exercise might well be the best form of medicine. But it’s a treatment that many people are denied.
Pedro Hallal was a shy PhD student from the south of Brazil. Then, one day in 2003, he found himself invited, pretty much by chance, to an unexpectedly high-level meeting in the capital, Brasília.
It was another world for Pedro. “I went into the room and there were all these guys wearing ties. I was 21 or 22. I was really intimidated.”
The delegate list included experts in the fields of nutrition and smoking, and representatives from the ministries of health, education and sports. The topic was physical inactivity, which was just beginning to be recognised as the link between a number of major chronic diseases previously the preserve of wealthier nations – diabetes, heart disease, obesity. The Ministry of Health needed the experts to tell them one thing: how can we get people moving?