We need to stop talking and start taking action on public health

Healthier people are more productive and live longer, so a national fitness strategy is needed, writes Michael Bitzer

A national fitness strategy is needed to drive our future prosperity. Eric Isakson / Blend Images
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It has long been established that good health is key to happiness. It’s also often said that a fit and healthy life goes hand-in-hand with a strong sense of purpose, resourcefulness, commitment and optimism. Studies prove that healthy individuals make more productive and driven employees.

The philosopher Aristotle famously said: “Society is something that precedes the individual.” And, in this vein, it is vital that the pursuit for better individual health is seen not in isolation, but rather intertwined with broader questions about society’s health. Healthier populations live longer and are more productive. Thus a healthy population is key to a nation’s continued economic development.

As the UAE transitions into a diversified, flexible and highly competitive knowledge-based economy, the collective health of the nation has never been more important. The UAE’s long-term prosperity depends on its ability to harness the full potential of its population and continue to explore innovative ways to nurture and develop talent.

Creating and sustaining healthy communities will prove critical in enabling the country to achieve the important objectives that it has set out in Vision 2021.

The time for talking has long since passed. The stark and unforgiving truth is that cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes are on the rise in the country despite increased attention on disease prevention and a number of large scale awareness campaigns. It is no longer sufficient for doctors, healthcare providers, insurance companies and the fitness community to inform the public about the dangers of leading an unhealthy lifestyle, hoping that this will lead to behavioural change. We cannot wait for people to finally get the message – we simply do not have time to waste.

In October, Daman hosted the Creating Healthy Communities conference. The purpose of the meeting was to gather experts together to highlight international best practices on community health and well-being with the aim of learning and understanding more about global success stories with a view to implementing some of the best initiatives here. However, the conference was not simply a platform for dialogue and knowledge sharing: it was a summons to the entire community to take action – an opportunity for experts to strategise and initiate important collaborations about the future health of the nation, a chance to reimagine and re-energise existing initiatives in order to engineer more positive mentalities for healthier lifestyles. Most importantly, the conference provided a prime opportunity for thoughtful solutions and exciting new movements to enable Abu Dhabi to lead the way in changing how people think about healthy living.

In selecting speakers for the conference, we wanted to move away from those who propose traditional marketing techniques to encourage weight loss. Rather, we wanted to embrace experts who advocate a more innovative approach. That’s not to say that previous perspectives are entirely ineffective, but it is clear that obesity remains one of the most pressing health concerns facing the UAE and, therefore, fresh ideas are not only required but are also absolutely essential.

When Jon Duschinsky, the creator of the Ice Bucket Challenge – an initiative that raised more than $30 million (Dh1.1 billion) for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research entirely through social media – agreed to speak, we were delighted. As a leader in community engagement, Mr Duschinsky believes that we live in the era of conversation and thus the best way to facilitate real change is to encourage organic conversations around topics that people care about, and which they will want to share with their families, friends and colleagues.

Mr Duschinsky’s sentiment seems to contradict our proposals to stop talking and initiate real action. However, on further inspection, one realises that it leads directly back to our first premise that humans are social beings and if we want to see real behavioural change, we must engage the entire community around conversations that matter to them rather than focusing on pushing out messages- aimed at individuals – through traditional advertising channels. In this sense, conversing and listening are key, while the effects of advertising and marketing campaigns in the area of sustained weight loss are rather more questionable.

We also welcomed to the conference Mick Cornett, the mayor of Oklahoma City, who inspired his people to lose one million pounds (453,000 kilograms) in weight. Mr Cornett challenged the city to join him on his weight-loss journey, urging the entire community – from families to businesses, schools to authorities and even individual neighbourhoods – to come together to take part.

The initiative successfully engaged Oklahoma residents at a grass roots level, creating a powerful sense of solidarity and initiating important conversations in the community which inspired real change – with more than 52,000 people losing a combined total of one million pounds. The success of the initiative can be directly attributed to its collaborative approach: it brought together every sector of society and empowered them to work together for the collective good.

The conference was an impressive first step in engaging important decision-makers in the UAE around pressing health-related challenges. But, without the coordination and active support of health organisations, authorities, employers and residents, there will be no important second step. Individuals alone cannot be relied upon to achieve the collective health of the nation; nor can individual entities achieve this great feat single-handedly.

It is only by orchestrating clear and coordinated action that embraces every part of society through honest, open and engaging conversation that communities can tackle health challenges and move forward together to ensure collective health and prosperity. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to achieving this goal. It will take time to build an infrastructure, in both a physical and social sense, to best support our plans. But this must continue to be a key priority and we must not lose momentum.

Creating healthy communities goes much beyond losing a few kilograms or embarking on a new fitness regime – it’s about working together for the good of the nation to ensure a bright future for generations to come. Ensuring the good health of residents, our communities and the nation as a whole are key to the UAE’s ability to continue to innovate and thrive as a highly productive, knowledge-based economy.

We are united in our responsibility towards ensuring a prosperous future for our nation and we must be united in our ambitions to find innovative solutions to the shared challenges that we face. But most of all, we can be certain that we will be united in our disappointment should we overlook vital opportunities to advance the collective health of our nation.

Dr Michael Bitzer is the chief executive officer of Daman, the specialised health insurer