Of all of the far-reaching effects of the Iraq war, here's one you may not have considered: the decline of the health and fitness of the people who call that country home. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the political and social situations in Iraq have been far from conducive to staying fit.
The banks of Tigris River, for example, a popular spot for walkers and joggers pre-2003, have been conspicuously devoid of active types for the last six years -- it's just too dangerous. And this lack of activity is showing on the waistlines of the Iraqi people: A 2006 World Health Organization survey of more than 4,500 Iraqis reported that 26 percent of men and 38 percent of women, ages 25 to 65, had a body mass index of 30 or higher, qualifying them as obese. Not surprisingly, nearly 57 percent of those surveyed reported getting less than 10 minutes of physical activity per week.
But the recent decline of U.S. troop levels in Iraq could reawaken Iraqis' interest in fitness -- and that could be good news for strength and cardio equipment companies looking to the Middle East market for business. For some manufacturers, it already is.
"We have seen an increase in sales (to Iraq)," said Scott McDonald, of strength equipment company Body Solid. "A lot of our business was initially driven by the servicemen over there, but shipments are also going to (Iraqi) clubs -- I don't think Iraq is different from other countries in the sense that the people there are looking to work on their fitness."
And according to a recent report from the Associated Press, many Iraqis are heading to the gym to do just that. The AP reported that there are at least 300 gyms and fitness centers operating in Iraq's capital, Baghdad, today -- compared to about 30 before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Membership at one sports club in the Karrada District of Baghdad has soared to around 350 from fewer than 100 just two years ago. What's more, rumor has it that the Iraqi government hopes to promote fitness by subsidizing health clubs.
"We've been sending mostly free weights (to Iraq)," said McDonald. "I would speculate that there's a perception that free weights as opposed to selectorized equipment would give you a better overall workout. Free weights are also less expensive -- if you have 300 pounds of iron, you can apply that to multiple machines that may work lots of different muscles using the same set of plates," he said.
Other companies, including Life Fitness, BH Fitness, Fitness Master and Vectra Fitness aren't currently doing business in Iraq, but representatives from each company said they see business potential there. "In the last year, we have seen an increase in inquiries from Iraq," said Stephanie Weiss, of Life Fitness. "It is a region that we will continue to closely monitor."
For most Iraqi clubs, the focus is on strength equipment, though some larger, urban clubs also carry a wide variety of cardio machines.
What you won't see at many -- if any -- gyms are women.
That Muslim tradition, along with continuing safety concerns, gridlocked traffic and temperatures that top 90 F in most Iraq cities everyday from May through September -- might explain why the burgeoning fitness market in Iraq also includes those working out at home.
"I think the fitness market (in Iraq) will be progressive -- but not huge -- in 2010," said Ed Banasky, national sales manager for Fitness Master, whose products are not yet distributed in Iraq. "I believe that there will be a market for lower cost products for the home. Upright bikes, home gyms and folding treadmills would most likely be the main attraction of products because of their small size footprints."
SNEWS® View: We suspect the market in many Middle Eastern countries may be some of the next to experience growth. They are likely ones to keep an eye on.