Dubai wants to have the world’s most active residents, what can other cities in the region learn

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Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al-Maktoum
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Updated 09 November 2018

Dubai wants to have the world’s most active residents, what can other cities in the region learn

  • Sporting initiatives such as the Dubai Fitness Challenge provide an outlet for residents to take part in some form of physical activity and educate themselves
  • In 2016, Saudi Arabia announced a nationwide competition designed to address the Kingdom’s standing as one of the world’s most overweight nations by offering prizes to dieters

DUBAI: Whether it is rewarding dieters with gold, offering lucrative cash prizes to fitness enthusiasts or introducing “biggest-loser” competitions for slimmers, the UAE has led the way in encouraging people to shed excess weight in unexpected ways. But this year a simpler approach has been adopted. The nation is currently halfway through its second annual Dubai Fitness Challenge — an initiative by the emirate’s crown prince that urges residents to include 30 minutes of non-stop exercise in their daily routines each day for a month.

Health experts are urging other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries to come up with rewards for healthy living as concern mounts over rising rates of obesity caused by fast-food diets, lack of exercise and sedentary lifestyles. The month-long calendar of fitness challenge events aims to inspire people across the emirate by demonstrating that healthy choices make for happier lives. The challenge’s ultimate aim is to transform Dubai into the most active city in the world.
The challenge began last year as a city-wide initiative of Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed Al-Maktoum, crown prince of Dubai and chairman of the Executive Council for Dubai Government. “My vision was to create a truly inclusive movement across our city and the wider UAE, to sustainably enhance the health and long-term well-being of people of all ages, abilities and levels of fitness,” he said.
So far, almost a million people — from government entities, corporate businesses, schools and universities — have committed themselves to 30 minutes’ exercise each day. They post updates on their progress on social media under the hashtag #Dubai30x30.
This year, the challenge includes weekend carnivals, five dedicated Fitness Villages spread across the city and thousands of free classes, events and community-led activities that organizers hope will achieve an ambitious target.
“This year, we have a target of one million participants and I urge you all — residents and visitors —to invest in yourselves and your happiness — so you can better contribute to the welfare of your families, your communities and the global society,” said the crown prince, at the beginning of the challenge.
“Last year was a tremendous start for the festival — but we aren’t satisfied with our successes. This year, the event will offer more ease and convenience of access to all communities so that everyone — regardless of age, ability and fitness capacity — can participate daily.”
The challenge is one of a host of innovative fitness initiatives launched to get the country’s residents active and healthy amid rising concerns in the region about the prevalence of non-communicable diseases, such as cardiovascular and lung diseases, some cancers and type 2 diabetes.
It follows a string of innovative fitness initiatives. In 2013, Dubai Municipality introduced its “Your Weight In Gold” campaign, which encouraged participants to lose weight by offering at least a gram of gold for every kilogram lost. Although the campaign was scrapped in 2015, it was the emirate’s biggest — and most expensive — public health campaign, giving out 9 million dirhams (SR9.2 million) worth of gold. Over the course of two summers 56 kilos of gold bullions was given to 10,000-plus slimmers who had lost 54 tons of weight. Earlier this year, the RAK Biggest Weight Loser Challenge set residents in UAE’s Ras Al Khaimah emirate a challenge that offered up to 500 dirhams for every kilogram lost.
In 2016, Saudi Arabia announced a nationwide competition designed to address the Kingdom’s standing as one of the world’s most overweight nations by offering prizes to dieters in a “biggest-loser” contest open to both Saudi citizens and expats. It was part of a national program called “Obesity: The Silent Ghost,” in which overweight and obese residents were encouraged to lose weight through direct support, reward-based incentives and free medication.
Dr. Nahed Monsef, director of strategy and governance at the Dubai Health Authority (DHA), said that weight loss schemes have spurred a country-wide movement to get fitter and healthier — and other countries across the GCC could benefit.
“Changing people’s behavior is hard,” she said. “It is one of the hardest things to empower people to modifying behavior to lifestyle, exercise and diet. People often need a push — and this is what these initiatives do — reward good behavior and motivate people. People know if they lose weight they will get healthier, but by offering people a tangible incentive, it gets people to change their habits and behavior.
“All initiatives across Dubai and the UAE are a result of the burden of obesity and a sedentary lifestyle and the problems they cause, such as hypertension and heart disease. Cardiovascular disease is the number one (cause of) death here, and we have to learn from others — and others need to learn from us — and we have to work together to change people’s habits and raise awareness.”
Jonny Young, the founder of FitnessInDXB, the region’s first and largest community fitness group, believes the wider Arab region can benefit from the UAE’s innovative initiatives. “As a population, we need to eat better-quality food, which is healthy and good for us, and move more,” he said.
“We are starting this journey by focusing on Dubai, but have plans to emulate our success in 2019 in other emirates and countries such as Fujairah, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia,” he said.
“People are waking up to the fact that, as a population, we are getting fatter and sicker. We aim to provide a strong support network within communities to increase awareness of how to combat this problem.”
Art Cozad, CEO of Cigna Insurance Middle East, added: “Heart disease is Dubai’s biggest killer, responsible for 30 percent of deaths. People in the UAE suffer from heart attacks 20 years earlier than the global average. More than 30 percent of adults in the UAE battle with high blood pressure, with the numbers rising rapidly.
“Sporting initiatives such as the Dubai Fitness Challenge provide an outlet for residents to take part in some form of physical activity and educate themselves on the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle. In doing so, they can begin to prevent future issues by improving their heart health and reducing obesity.”
According to the World Health Organization, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) account for 76 percent of all deaths in the UAE — 11,600 every year. There is an almost one in five chance of dying prematurely — between the age of 30 and 70 — from one of these largely avoidable conditions.
“We are witnessing an increasing number of NCDs, especially diabetes, including young people with the disease, something we never saw before,” said Dr. Buthaina Bin Belaila, director for the UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention’s NCDs unit. “The risk factors that cause NCDs, such as having a poor
diet, consuming sugary drinks and smoking tobacco, are increasing.”
The WHO praised the UAE government for raising taxes on energy drinks by 100 percent and sugar-sweetened beverages by 50 percent in 2017. It is working on regulations to control the marketing of fast foods, introduce healthy canteens and increase physical activity in schools.
Dr. Asmus Hammerich, director of NCDs for the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean regional office, said the UAE is an example of a country prioritizing action against chronic conditions in light of the health and economic burdens of NCDs.
A national agenda has been set with 10 goals to be hit by 2021, five relate to NCDs: Tackling cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, obesity and smoking.
“We are very encouraged by the recent legislative action for health in the UAE and some neighboring countries,” said Dr. Hammerich. “As the rise of NCDs has been acutely felt in the Gulf region, WHO is working closely with countries there to strengthen their systems and services to prevent and control these conditions.”

Why Saudi Arabia and Middle East must plan for Alzheimer's care challenge

Many people wrongly associate dementia with ageing, experts warn. (Supplied)
Updated 8 min 22 sec ago

Why Saudi Arabia and Middle East must plan for Alzheimer's care challenge

  • World Alzheimer's Month is marked every September to raise awareness and challenge stigma
  • Experts say misconceptions about dementia in Saudi Arabia and wider region must be challenged

ABU DHABI: Incurable and increasingly prevalent, dementia is a disease that today affects about 50 million people worldwide. Millions more are diagnosed each year with the most common neurodegenerative form: Alzheimer’s disease. The risks generally increase with age, but many people develop symptoms of dementia before they reach the age of 65.
Inheritable genetic conditions can lead to familial or early-onset Alzheimer’s, which can afflict people as young as 30.
Despite growing awareness of the global impact of dementia, experts say lingering misconceptions around the disease persist in the Middle East, often leading to late diagnosis, stigma and social isolation.
World Alzheimer’s Month, an international campaign to raise awareness and challenge the stigma that surrounds dementia, is marked every September.
The 21st of the month is recognized as the official day to improve public awareness and attitudes regarding the disease.
Experts say there is an immediate need to challenge misconceptions and help some of the most vulnerable people in Middle Eastern communities.
“In my experience, awareness about Alzheimer’s is quite low in the region, so people don’t know too much about this disease,” Dr. Karoly Zoltan Vadasdi, a neurology specialist at Dubai’s Canadian Specialist Hospital, told Arab News.
“There’s an immediate need to take steps or some measures to address this lack of awareness because Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia in elderly patients, especially those above the 60-65 age group.”
There is no known cure for Alzheimer’s, which can start developing decades before obvious symptoms emerge. The disease, which is notoriously hard to slow down, continues to baffle medical scientists despite years of extensive research.
Part of the problem with developing a cure is that the causes of Alzheimer’s are still not fully understood. The disease is also challenging to combat because it is not caused by an invading pathogen, but arises from an individual’s own biology.


● Although dementia mainly affects older people, it is not a normal part of ageing.

● Early symptoms include memory problems, increasing confusion, reduced concentration and personality changes.

● Middle-stage symptoms include forgetfulness about recent events and people’s names, becoming lost at home, increasing difficulty with communication, and needing help with personal care.

● Late-stage symptoms include memory disturbances becoming serious, behavioral changes, loss of awareness of time and place, and difficulty walking and recognizing loved ones.

● Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia, accounting for 60–70 percent of cases.

However, for those with early-stage Alzheimer’s, which doctors can spot through brain scans and lumbar punctures, the picture is not entirely bleak. Some medications can reduce memory loss, treat changing cognitive symptoms and aid concentration. Nevertheless, experts say it is essential to further educate the public about the early stages of dementia.
According to 2019 statistics made available by the Saudi Health Ministry, there are 130,000 cases of Alzheimer’s in the Kingdom. Despite the high number, public knowledge about the condition remains limited.
For a 2018 report entitled “Perception and attitude of the general population towards Alzheimer’s disease in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia,” author Hussein Algahtani and his research team interviewed 1,698 residents in shopping malls and public places.
They found that while 89 percent of participants had heard of Alzheimer’s, 44.9 percent believed that it is a normal part of ageing.
About a third of those asked believed that Alzheimer’s is treatable with medication, while 24.6 percent thought there is no treatment, and about 30 percent believed Saudi society stigmatizes people with the disease.
“There are many conflicting beliefs about Alzheimer’s disease in the general population,” said Algahtani, adding that conducting a study on “public awareness, attitude and knowledge” of it “is useful in decreasing discrimination and stigmatization.”
“The results of the study suggest that the perception of the general public of Alzheimer’s disease is lagging behind,” he said. “Many wrong beliefs were identified in the general public regarding the causes and management,” he added. “The findings of our study suggest that more information about Alzheimer’s disease would be valuable and beneficial for everyone,” said Algahtani.
“Awareness campaigns and public education are needed to increase the knowledge of the public regarding aspects of the disease, including prevention, causes and management,”
he added. “Dissemination of information about Alzheimer’s disease should be of high priority. Increased awareness will lead to earlier detection of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia cases, and appropriate care and management of those persons.”
The conclusions of Algahtani’s report do not surprise Vadasdi, who said: “The disease is underdiagnosed in the Middle East, which stems from a misconception about Alzheimer’s and dementia.”
Vadasdi added: “Most people incorrectly associate dementia with senility, and believe that declining mental health is a normal part of ageing.”
He said: “It’s true that when people get older they get a bit forgetful and become a little slower in thinking, but dementia is never caused by ageing itself.
“It’s important to emphasize that Alzheimer’s is a neurodegenerative disease, which means there’s a gradual loss of nerve cells in certain parts of the brain.”
Vadasdi said: “Another misconception is that Alzheimer’s or dementia is inherited. People are afraid that if one of their parents has it, they’ll inherit the disease.”
What is undeniable, though, is that full-blown Alzheimer’s is devastating for the patient and has a knock-on effect on family members and friends. “Those who suffer from dementia need continuous, sometimes even 24-hour supervision, depending on the severity of the disease and the loss of cognitive abilities,” said Vadasdi.
“It’s a huge burden for family members, both emotionally and financially. Patients can also suffer from depression or become anxious, agitated or paranoid because of the loss of cognitive functions, including memory, orientation, perception. Family members need a lot of patience when looking after the patient.”
It is believed that more than 2.3 million people in the Middle East and North Africa live with dementia, although the figure is hard to verify.
Some countries have no organization to address the challenge posed by dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Even as he points to an “urgent need to increase awareness of Alzheimer’s in society,” Dr. Hania Sobierajska, a specialist in internal medicine at the UAE’s Bareen International Hospital, praises local health authorities for conducting campaigns and workshops to reduce barriers to diagnosing the disease.
The Saudi Alzheimer’s Disease Association (SADA), one of 90 associations that make up Alzheimer’s Disease International (ADI), provides support and assistance to patients and their families. To mark World Alzheimer’s Day, the Saudi Health Ministry hosts awareness drives across the Kingdom.
Via SADA, the ministry pays for live-in carers and weekly visits by doctors, nurses, psychologists and therapists, in addition to transport costs and medication.
SADA holds workshops, online training courses for carers, and year-round awareness campaigns on TV, radio and social media.
“Six years ago we hadn’t even heard about the word Alzheimer’s, but lately it has become known through word of mouth, albeit merely as a disease about forgetfulness,” said SADA’s Sara Al-Rasheed. Sobierajska said “the number of communities supporting those with Alzheimer’s” across the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc is “insufficient.”
While researchers and scientists continue to hunt for a cure, in a region where over-65s make up only a tiny percentage of the population, cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s are likely to surge as the population ages. Experts say Saudi Arabia and the wider GCC must plan for a health burden that will only grow.