Bosnia Races Against Its Growing Obesity Epidemic

Why you should care

Bosnians aren’t runners traditionally. But a health scare is making them race to fitness. 

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Physically inactive for years after a serious leg injury, Vedran Rodić saw his weight reach nearly 150 kilograms (330 pounds). Then last summer he joined a local running group, quit smoking and stopped drinking the occasional beer. Nine months later, he is 30 kilos (66 pounds) lighter. On February 25 this year, the 40-year-old Bosnian IT technician ran his first half-marathon in Split, Croatia. And he’s no longer a rarity in a country with some of the world’s most worrying lifestyle health indicators.

Bosnians are increasingly turning to running to improve their health, lose weight and beat stress, and, in the process, they’re breaking barriers and trying to correct a growing health crisis in the country.

Cardiovascular diseases are a major public health concern in Bosnia and Herzegovina — 63 percent of the population is overweight — and smoking and food are central to the crisis. Poorer Bosnians often turn to cheap and unhealthy food, while those with deeper pockets stick to the traditional Bosnian diet, which is based on meat and carbohydrates. The country is among the last in Europe where smoking, a widespread habit, is not prohibited in public places.

All you need is a pair of running shoes and a good will.

Nudžejma Softić, Bosnian marathon runner

But more and more Bosnians are now joining running groups across the country. The number of individual runners is on the rise too, but many say they prefer running in groups to stay motivated and to socialize. Where 125 runners participated in the inaugural Sarajevo half-marathon in 2007, some 3,000 ran last year. And at least 15 new races have emerged across Bosnian cities in the past five years.

Nudžejma Softić, who started running to lose weight, became the first woman wearing a hijab to complete the 2016 Vienna City Marathon. In three years, she has run 30 half-marathons and three marathons around Europe and has started the Trčanje i To (Running and That) project, which promotes activities such as running and swimming. Since 2013, the KLIX Running School has helped hundreds learn the basics of running — starting with proper breathing techniques — with the goal of preparing them to compete in the Sarajevo Half Marathon, organized by the nonprofit Marathon Association (which also operates the running school).

“All you need is a pair of running shoes and a good will,” says Softić.

For many, running has been helpful in releasing the stress of living in difficult postwar Bosnian circumstances, with widespread corruption and the world’s highest youth unemployment rate — an average of 67.5 percent over the past decade. KLIX Running School uses the catchphrase that it’s “the most positive story in the city” to attract runners, and that resonates with many Sarajevans. “Something I love the most about being a trainer is seeing how people change from one session to another,” says Jelena Hadžiosmanović, the school’s coach. “They change not only physically in the way they run longer and faster, but they change mentally as well.”

jelena hadziosmanovic photo by zagreb marathon

Jelena Hadžiosmanović, the coach at KLIX, running the Zagreb Marathon.

Source Zagreb Marathon Association

But running is spreading far beyond the country’s capital. In 2016, the central Bosnian city of Travnik launched a 5K night run. The city had neither an athletic club nor a running tradition. But the initiative became one of Travnik’s biggest street events. The first year saw 500 runners, and the number doubled in 2017. Among the participants in 2017 were around 300 children between 4 and 12 years old, who joined a “fun run” — a part of efforts to get Bosnians interested in running early. The organizers, the Center for Youth Education (CEM), are proud of the Travnik night run’s unofficial title as “the biggest small race” in Bosnia. “The more races and running groups there are, the more people will be motivated to take part in them,” says Nedim Pripoljac of CEM, which works to discourage alcohol and cigarette use among youth.

The rush of new races that are emerging across the country is feeding into competition among not only the runners, but also the event organizers, making them craft better and more visited spectacles.

Socially, the larger race — to turn Bosnia and Herzegovina into a healthier country before it’s too late — is long, and difficult. In his recently published Ph.D. research, Adnan Mujezinović, an assistant professor of health at the University of Zenica’s School of Medicine, found that physical activity among the country’s youth remains low. Only 38.1 percent of University of Zenica students he sampled practice intensive physical activity weekly.

But Mujezinović, a runner himself, is encouraged by the growing number of running groups that are emerging. In his classes and during informal conversations, he emphasizes to his students the need for them to pursue sports and manage their diets. “It is good when people gather around a common, positive goal which is to have fun and to stay healthy,” he says.

To individuals like Rodić, the change that running can bring is nothing short of transformative. He feels healthier than ever before. When he started running, he says, “I didn’t know if I could make two steps.” Now, after the Split race, he has already run the 21 km distance once more — in Mostar. He isn’t stopping there.

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