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Wednesday, 13 February, 2002, 16:43 GMT
Fighting the flab in Russia
Factory exercises during Soviet times
Soviet-era group exercise could return to the workplace
Russia's President, Vladimir Putin, is so disgusted with the unhealthy state of the nation that he has been demanding a return to Soviet-style fitness regimes across the country. The BBC's Caroline Wyatt finds out how the health drive is shaping up.

At a water aerobics class at an upmarket Moscow gym, Russians are trying to get fit.

Russian drinker
The average Russian doesn't live until 60
This was a pool built for the youth Olympics a few years ago but these days its customers are Olympian in scale rather than ambition.

Today, the average Russian is not quite the lean, mean, fighting machine once honed by the Soviet state.

In fact, many Russian men are more likely to be found sinking a vodka or three at the local bar - and the women are not far behind.

Fitness revolution

But President Putin has revolutionary plans to turn Russia back into a healthier nation.

As a fan of judo who exercises every day, he is setting his own example - and, as a black belt, few are likely to argue with him.

President Putin performing a judo throw
President Putin is setting an example
He wants Russians to take up sport - any sport - and abandon their bad habits.

There are echoes of the past in this new campaign.

Old Russian newsreels depict an age where physical fitness was a key part of the Soviet ideal.

Enforced exercise sessions in the factories every morning did help ensure a rather less wobbly workforce.

As a result, men and women lived longer in Communist times than they do now - with the average Russian man dying before the age of 60, thanks to poverty, alcohol and an unhealthy lifestyle.

Unaffordable pursuit

Although health clubs are springing up in the big cities, just 10% of Russians do any sport or exercise at all.

Water aerobics at a Moscow gym
Only one in 10 Russians does any kind of exercise
Andrei Domashenko at Moscow's Swim and Gym club says putting Mr Putin's campaign into practice could be tricky.

"President Putin says Russians need to pay more attention to their health, and he is right. But we cannot bring back the old state system - we have to find new ways of encouraging people and take their wishes into account."

Forcing the nation back into shape will not be easy.

The problem is that a lot of Soviet-era sports centres have shut due to lack of cash. And joining an upmarket gym costs more money than the average Russian earns in a year.

So President Putin will have to find cheaper ways to fight the flab. That could mean bringing back exercise at work, or new public gyms.

While some complain that the campaign is a distraction from the nation's more serious problems, nobody denies that Russia needs to get fit quick.

See also:

30 Jun 00 | Europe
Russia: Drowning in drink
26 Aug 99 | Europe
Beer is the new vodka in Russia
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