Working towards good health

The Life: More employees in the UAE are finding a new source of motivation in their quest to become healthier--the companies they work for.

Fuad Shatara, left, a senior associate at Advanced Technology Investment Company, is a fitness fanatic.
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Fuad Shatara is the kind of co-worker who exercises at his desk, sits on a stability ball to strengthen his core strength and posture and always watches what he eats both in and out of the office.

"Do you have the grilled chicken sandwich?" he said during a recent lunch at Cafe Arabia. "Brown bread, but no cheese, no mayo - just tomatoes, onions and mustard on the side," he added.

"And can I change the French fries to grilled vegetables?"

Until recently, it was all too easy for Mr Shatara's colleagues at the Advanced Technology Investment Company (Atic) to poke fun at his health-conscious habits.

But for months now, the senior associate at the Mubadala Development subsidiary has joined more than 50 colleagues as they have undergone a detailed fitness assessment done by an outside health expert, and participated in a wide range of activities such as pedometer walking, skipping and cycling challenges, as well as a three-day office-wide detox where only healthy foods could be eaten without any coffee or smoke breaks.

Mudadala is a strategic investment company owned by the Abu Dhabi Government.

Atic's company-driven initiative is part of a larger push by local businesses to boost the health of their employees. Concerned by statistics that show rising obesity and diabetes in the emirates, some firms are bringing in outside experts to host workshops on nutrition and provide tips on how to exercise at the desk.

The programmes can cost anywhere from Dh500 (US$136.11) a month for a small business to Dh3 million for a 12-month programme at a large company located offshore.

Atic employed Michael Haddin, who runs Haddin's Fitness in Abu Dhabi and is set to start the third phase of its health programme in January. "Corporate wellness is quite a new concept in the UAE," says Mr Haddin, who is near to finalise a one-year deal with an oil and gas company.

"So to get people [and companies] seeing the benefits, you have to give them a taste at first."

Other companies are using a little peer pressure to motivate employees to get healthier.

Members of the management team at Fitness First Middle East, which oversees a chain of health clubs in the UAE, have spent months training together for a charity event in which they will cycle across all seven emirates starting on Monday and finishing on Friday.

At Millennium & Copthorne, a hotel company, more than 200 employees in the UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar are walking a total of 632 km for World Diabetes Awareness Month. But the company's health initiative goes beyond one event.

Millennium is holding a competition where employees can submit recipes for menus for diabetic guests in hotels throughout the region. The contest, which will reward a winner with Dh5,000, follows a recent initiative where Millennium teamed up with a hospital in Abu Dhabi to launch a special menu at its hotels to help diabetic customers control their blood glucose levels, body fats and blood pressure.

Millennium also plans to launch a health campaign next year.

"We will have talks and specialists from [local] hospitals who will come visit," says Nadia Mounib, the marketing and communications manager at Millennium & Copthorne.

"It's more [about] awareness," she adds. "I'm not sure how many of our staff have diabetes, or are [at risk of it] due to unhealthy eating."