Religion’s influence on healthy living explored by Dubai researcher

DUBAI // The link between religion and healthy living is being researched by a Canadian psychologist who is targeting young, healthy and active Emiratis.

Dr Louise Lambert, from the Canadian University of Dubai, said: “We need to know more about these people living the healthy lifestyle, talking about the barriers to that and how they got over them. You hear so much about the barriers people are facing like ‘I’m a woman, I’m Emirati, I’m Muslim’, but there are people committing to this. I want to know these people’s stories.”

From a public health perspective, she said this is vital information as most studies only focus on those who are unhealthy and inactive.

“Looking at the healthy population, which is happy, will help the group which is inactive.”

The respondents are grouped into those with willpower — who care for themselves as a self-driven issue and responsibility, those who mix willpower with the influence of religion and those who are fully driven by a religious approach to life.

“Religion tells you what you mustn’t do, don’t drink, don’t smoke, but it doesn’t tell you what you should do, such as exercise. People don’t do exercise because God prescribes it,” said Dr Lambert.

She predicts that in her sample of Emirati students from the Higher Colleges of Technology in Al Ain and CUD religion will be unrelated to their lifestyle choices.

“When you’re young and healthy you don’t tend to attribute much to God. When you’re old and dying, God becomes more important because that’s all you have.”

In terms of psychological health, she says those who engage in healthy living tend to be more psychologically healthy and find life more meaningful.

So far the sample has reached around 60 men and women and it will be expanding next to the federal universities — namely UAE University and Zayed University.

Emirati Shaikha Nasser is a part time fitness coach and a prime example of the kind of respondent Dr Lambert is looking for.

She took part in the qualitative research with Dr Lambert.

“I try not to mix fitness and religion,” she said. “I separate both because if I mix, I won’t be able to do anything. As long as I’m not crossing the line, doing anything wrong, it’s fine. I don’t bring religion to everything I do. Some people might say they’re not going to the gym because they hear music which is forbidden in Islam but it’s different when you’re going to work out. You don’t even hear the music. Some girls will also say they won’t go to mixed classes but I say you work in mixed offices. They’re wearing respectful clothes to train, not something that’s short and tight.”

“When people are healthy, they can forget their connection to God but when they’re in trouble, sick or unhealthy, they remember this connection, they start praying more, they ask god for forgiveness to get their health back. That’s true of some people.”

She said for many who choose a healthy lifestyle, it is more about honouring and respecting their traditions than being influenced by religion. Ms Nasser remains covered when she trains and teaches.

“Tradition runs our lives more than religion but people still have ideas like women don’t go to the gym, they don’t teach classes,” she said.

Emirati CrossFit coach, Najla Obaid, says Islam does in fact prescribe a healthy lifestyle.

“Islam highlights the fact that you have to take care of your body, fuel it with food, exercise because that is seen in a the healthier human, physically and psychologically, the better your practice towards the religion,” she said.

“Healthy eating is also clearly stated in the Quran, quality and no overindulgence. ‘Eat of the good things which We have provided for you. (2:173) Eat of what is lawful and wholesome on the earth.(2:168)’.”

She says Emirati women are fortunate in Dubai to have access to training whatever their level of traditional conservatism and religious belief.

“We are very lucky in Dubai that there are women only gyms as many covered women will refuse to train around men due to religious or cultural reasons. Some men to will refuse to train around women for religious and cultural reasons too. The majority of Emirati women prefer women only gyms so that they don’t have to be restricted in what they can and cannot wear. There are some people that will refuse to train in a place with music for religious reasons, but they are a very small minority because it’s not so much something they can change.”


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