We know exercise is good, so why don't we do it?

Reframing the conversation around health and well-being starts with recognising that every step counts

A fitness programme called Active Parks in Abu Dhabi to encourage residents to exercise regularly. Victor Besa / The National
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Almost all of us, anywhere in the world, need to exercise more. It's not something we don't know, but there is good reason to remind people of the dangers of being inactive.

High blood pressure is a common global health issue that can often be deadly. More than a third of adults in the UAE suffer from high blood pressure – or hypertension – and a large percentage of people don’t even know it, which partially explains why it's called a silent killer.

One in four men, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), have the condition. It can lead to multiple health crises, including strokes, heart attacks and kidney disease. The more encouraging news is that the condition can be prevented or reduced by eating a sensible diet, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly.

These lifestyle changes are often more difficult to accomplish on a long-term basis. But we can build healthy habits and exercise into our routines.

Let’s start by reminding ourselves of why we should all move more. The WHO recommends at least 150 minutes (about two and a half hours) of moderate exercise per week, but studies show that more than 80 per cent of adolescents and 27 per cent of adults globally fall short of this mark.

In the UAE, only one in five UAE school children achieve the recommended amount of physical activity. Sedentary lifestyles lead to chronic illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease and this is an issue parents need to take more seriously. More parents need to ensure that their children go out to play a sport for half an hour a day, at least.

At NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) we encourage students to prioritise and engage in their well-being so they may flourish in academics as well as in their extracurricular activities. All our undergraduate students are required to take two physical and health education courses. The benefits are evident.

We’ve noticed a measurable improvement in more than just our students’ health and fitness thanks to a curriculum that focuses on the wider learning outcomes across four areas: physical activity, nutrition, mindfulness and sleep.

These are principles that we hope will stay with them for life. For starters, exercise does far more than help prevent disease. It triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals that can combat symptoms of anxiety and depression, which leads to improved mental clarity and focus.

Stressing the endocrine system spurs the body into regulating itself through better sleep and rest, to repair itself and grow new cells.

There are also many benefits of team sports, which offer a platform for social interaction and fostering a sense of belonging and community. This is especially important today, given the WHO reports a rise of over 25 per cent in depression and anxiety since 2020, affecting nearly a billion people globally.

The camaraderie of a group also counters loneliness, which is also on the rise and has been shown to be as damaging to physical health as smoking. Belonging to a team or a group provides a support system that can be invaluable – especially in a nation that hosts a diverse population, who all come from different backgrounds and are often away from family.

While exercising is a personal journey, there are steps that can help everyone.

The first is to reframe the language around exercise. Instead of focusing on weight loss as the sole motivation, there should be a celebration of the joy of movement.

People are advised to explore activities they genuinely enjoy – a brisk walk, a swim, a dance class or an outdoor game. Exercise is not solely for those seeking to lose weight. It should be a daily habit for everyone.

The usual advice is to start slowly and gradually increase intensity and duration. One should aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise most days of the week to get into a regular habit. Good habits are vital to success in any venture. Exercise can often have a positive effect on different aspects of life apart from physical fitness, whether work or relationships. People new to exercise will notice the increased energy they have, even at the workplace.

Group activities can add a layer of fun, so people of all ages could consider joining a local sports club or signing up for a community fitness event. There are many activities in Abu Dhabi that are accessible to people of all fitness levels and will appeal to those who are looking for alternatives to a gym workout.

Through Abu Dhabi Sports Council’s Abu Dhabi 360 initiative has a number of accessible runs or cycle rides such as the Al Qana Community Run and the MBZ Fun Ride. There are also a host of Active Parks initiatives and community events attached to the global sports events hosted in Abu Dhabi, such as the World Triathlon Championship Series and the UAE Tour.

My personal preference for a fun approach to fitness is to use the cycle facilities at Yas Marina Circuit, the Corniche and Hudayriyat Island, plus the increasing cycling infrastructure across the city. In Abu Dhabi, there are options for fitness workouts for everyone.

I would also recommend signing up to a challenge, which helps keep one accountable. Setting a goal and share it often makes a person more likely to succeed and deal with demotivation.

Remember also that we are talking about well-being. That might mean getting out into nature, watching a sunset at the beach or sitting by the mangroves for a sense of calm.

Breathing exercises too are especially effective. Apart from movement and calories burnt, a focus on feeling good internally is important. This can help refocus, quiet the mind and reduce stress – all of which are necessary to improve the quality of life, reduce hypertension, as well as the burden on healthcare systems around the world.

Reframing the conversation around health and well-being starts with recognising that every step counts. It’s not about drastic changes but about integrating movement into the day. The goal is not just to avoid getting sick, but to increase well-being and transform our lives.

Published: June 06, 2024, 7:00 AM