New ‘health ambassador’ programme to get communities engaged in healthy life choices

Programme will see people with a keen interest in health act as role models who promote a healthy lifestyle among UAE communities

The fast food culture and inactive lifestyles have led to serious health issues in the UAE. Sammy Dallal / The National
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Health ambassadors are to be appointed and trained in workplaces to promote a healthy lifestyle and in an effort to get communities more involved in preventative health measures.

A Department of Health Abu Dhabi (Haad) official revealed the new project at the two-day USA healthcare symposium in Dubai.

Dr Omniyat Al Hajri, director, Public Health Division, said Haad is working on a “major programme” to influence the community into making positive lifestyle changes.

“We want to encourage successful examples - public health ambassadors,” she said.

“It’s easy to talk, for a physician to give instructions, but when it comes to the real change, that person needs a lot of support. We need to create a system where the people who are not providing direct care are helping physicians and healthcare providers.”

The public health ambassador programme, she said, will “focus on people with a special interest in health. We will start with workplaces and using their talents and abilities and their positive energy for change”.

The ambassadors will be trained and certified by the Haad and officials will follow up with each ambassador to see “how many people’s lives they touch”.

“There is a huge room for improvement, we have been looking for many models and nothing has seemed to click until now. We need everybody’s support,” Dr Al Hajri said.

Dr Farhana bin Lootah, of Imperial College London Diabetes Centre in the capital, said the issue is not with the healthcare system but with individuals.

“The role of the healthcare sector is very minimal. We don’t have executive power in the community and prevention is within the community. It is lifestyle choices and that needs to be changed. It starts with the community and the individual,” she said.

“It's evident that that there is a paradigm shift and support from leadership towards prevention in the community, as seen by the many initiatives, like the fitness challenge 30x30 Dubai.”

Co-director of Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine and renowned fitness expert Dr Edward Laskowski said education was key.

“They have to educate people that this is a severe problem. It affects quality of life as well as quantity of life,” he said. “If you have an over-30 BMI, there is a 200 to 400 times increased risk of mortality than with a normal weight individual.

Read more: US to open diabetes training centre in the UAE to share knowledge

“Certainly in the US, we want the magic fix and we are forgetting the foundation of good eating and activity. We have technology that keeps us sedentary, we have tablets, computers, smartphones, video games, so many things that keeps us sedentary. In the world now there is more overfed than underfed, according to WHO.”

Dr Laskowski said that high intensity interval training, or HIIT, is a very efficient way of getting activity that benefits our health. The training involves doing an activity as hard as you can for 30 seconds and then resting for 30 seconds to a minute, or more depending on fitness levels. It can be any activity you enjoy, such as biking, swimming and even walking. “Peddle as fast as you can for about 30 seconds and then go slowly for a few minutes. In total it would take about 15 to 20 minutes,” he said.

“We are finding many of the benefits of shorter-duration exercise as in the longer-duration exercise. People always want to know what is the least they can do and this is a way to attract people to exercise.”

Citing a patient who lost 200 pounds using this exercise programme, he said “you don’t need a fancy gym or a healthy diet”.

“Diets don’t work. Healthy eating works. We forget the basics. There is no magic to it. When we make healthy choices, choose the right food, the right lunch, move our bodies, those things work for everybody.”

The USA Healthcare symposium, which concluded on Tuesday, is one of Discover America’s key events, held for the first time in the UAE. It brought health officials, doctors and experts from the USA and UAE together to help tackle diabetes.

*This story has been amended since publication to clarify that Dr Omniyat Al Hajri works for the Department of Health.