DUBAI // A health drive at Dubai Women's College has raised the number of students taking part in sport and physical exercise from 15 per cent to 95 per cent in two years, staff said yesterday.
This week is the college's health and physical education week, during which the 2,200 Emirati students will take part in fun runs and vision screenings, and listen to health and nutrition experts from organisations such as the Dubai Health Authority.
As part of the Higher Colleges of Technology, one of three federal universities, the college is a pioneer.
It was the first of the higher colleges to introduce compulsory physical education for its foundation students four years ago.
As far back as 1998, the college encouraged healthy living by banning fizzy drinks, chocolate and trans-fats from its canteen. Last year, french fries became another option scrapped from the menu.
The approach has been paying off, according to Melissa Jones, who took over as the head of health and physical education at the college two years ago.
"When I first arrived, the motivation to be involved wasn't as high as at other schools I'd worked at," said Ms Jones, who worked at schools in Australia and the United Kingdom.
"We've taken it from 15 per cent to 95 per cent attendance and participation just in the past two years," she said. "The girls are now seeing it as something fun that they do with their friends."
Amira al Baloushi, a 19-year-old media student, is passionate about sport. "I present myself as a role model for other girls," she said.
Ms al Baloushi has been playing competitive sport since school, representing Dubai in inter-emirate tournaments at 14, a time when she said exercise was not encouraged.
Muna al Bagh, also 19, is in her first year of a business degree. She had never taken part in sport before college. It was not encouraged at her school, she says.
"My eating habits have changed since coming to the college too," she said. "I concentrate better now and feel much more healthy."
While annual events such as health week are useful, more important, according to Rasha Abdelsalam, the college nurse, is year-round monitoring of students' health.
Those with chronic diseases are checked on to ensure they are taking their medication, given counselling and encouraged to embrace a healthier lifestyle.
"The women here are the future mothers of the UAE so when we educate the future generation, we believe the future community will be healthier," said Bassima al Yah, student services co-ordinator.
The message is not just for the students. Each year, a week-long walking challenge pits departments against one another, with each member of staff given a pedometer and a target of 10,000 steps a day. The team that racks up the most steps wins.
"We're role models so we have to show we're taking the initiative as well," Ms Jones said.
A similar project is being run at the American University of Sharjah, where academics and other university staff and their families are "walking the globe".
More than 500 people have been given pedometers for the 12-week campaign. Organisers are hoping that next time it will also include students.
Lee Mitchell, the Sharjah college's director of wellness, said that even since the launch of health and physical education week on Sunday, more people were taking the stairs and walking to work.
Participants' progress is displayed on electronic boards around the campus - where smoking was recently banned - to motivate and inspire all those registered to walk more.
"Those visual aids have definitely had an impact," Mr Mitchell said. Staff have been comparing their daily steps with each other, he said, and finding ways to increase their tallies.
Good habits learnt early
Initiatives to encourage healthy eating in schools and colleges have had mixed success around the world, and the Dubai Women’s College is a UAE pioneer.
Since 2006, school meals in England have been free from chocolate, crisps, fizzy drinks and low-quality meat under a government initiative, but universities have not followed suit.
In the US, many universities, including Columbia and New York universities, have a compulsory physical education component which counts towards overall grades during the first two years.
However, last year, Michelle Obama, the US first lady, said it was impossible to mandate healthy eating, along with other personal behaviour such as wearing seat belts.
In 2009, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, dropped a compulsory exercise programme for its obese students, for fear of allegations of discrimination.
Dr Howard Reed, the Dubai Women’s College director, said that in time, the provision of a gym – which, when it opened five years ago, was the first in a women’s college – and promoting healthy eating would help the girls form good habits, which would stay with them in later life.
He hoped other institutions would follow suit. That, he said, has been slower than he would have hoped, “but these things take time” he said.
* Melanie Swan