Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 14 October 2019

How construction workers in Dubai are benefitting from free training sessions

The men have learnt walking lunges, side planks, push-ups and other simple movements that they can replicate even when they’re alone

Fitness instructor Hannes Loubser demonstrates a side plank to Dewa construction workers. Photo: Pawan Singh / The National 
Fitness instructor Hannes Loubser demonstrates a side plank to Dewa construction workers. Photo: Pawan Singh / The National 

Dressed in a pair of overalls and heavy black boots, Richard Tawiah, a construction worker for Dewa, pumps out 10 easy table pull-ups from underneath a rickety wooden bench held down by his colleagues. The Ghanaian is one of about 50 men from Dewa who works out once a week with Hannes Loubser, a fitness instructor at Dubai gym Iconic Fitness. Loubser, who specialises in biokinesiology, has been leading a voluntary training initiative since March, with an aim to improve the group’s posture, relieve back and joint pain, and help them eat healthier.

“I can work much better than before and the hours don’t feel so long. I can focus much better, too,” says Tawiah, 32, with a smile. “The pain I used to feel all over my body has almost gone.”

Hannes Loubser, fitness instructor at Iconic, helps construction worker Richmond Tawiah during his workout at the Dewa Sub Station near International City in Dubai. Photo: Pawan Singh / The National 
Loubser helps Richmond Tawiah during his workout. Pawan Singh / The National

Simple movements go a long way

At the weekly sessions held on-site, the men are put through simple movements that they can replicate even when they’re alone in short 10-minute bursts, to help strengthen muscles, bones and joints, with minimal or no equipment. A table becomes a makeshift pull-up and sit-up station, walls are used for drills to strengthen the knees, and the resistance offered by the floor is all that’s needed to train core muscles. “Homework” is doled out for the men to practise through the week, so they can be mock-tested on how many repetitions they can do, and chat about how they feel physically.

Fitness instructor Hannes Loubser, right, demonstrates the right way to workout against a wall to Dewa construction workers. Photo: Pawan Singh / The National
Loubser demonstrates the right way to work out against a wall. Pawan Singh / The National

In merely one week, many improve from four or five to 10 repetitions, looking stronger and more enthusiastic. The men have learnt walking lunges, side planks and push-ups among other routines that will go a long way in making them physically stronger for their regular work, which includes climbing, crawling, and carrying heavy, awkwardly shaped objects over long distances or even up and down stairs.

“We picked up very quickly that the joint pains – in the knees, hips, shoulders, back – that many of the men reported were down to the way they were doing things,” says Loubser, who is working on techniques that will help the men lift and carry objects more safely.

Asamoah Osei, 34, is also from Ghana. He suffered from backache and knee pain, and was tested for high blood pressure when he arrived in Dubai 10 months ago. Although he hasn’t gone to the doctor since, Osei says he feels “very different” – stronger, fitter and happier. Most of all, he and the team feel seen. “We are very grateful to have this opportunity,” he says. “Going to the hospital is expensive; this is helping us more. If you’re not fit, you can’t work. Now I have more energy, I don’t feel tired like I did before and I don’t have so much pain,” adds Osei, who exercises for 45 minutes before he begins work.

Diet is key to manual labour

The men earn about Dh800 per month for their six-day weeks, so their diet is dictated by their income. The team from Iconic ensures that the meals they recommend the workers make cost no more than Dh45 per week, adding in healthy fats such as ghee, and protein in the form of chicken or corned beef.

Getting the men to trust him and the team has been a huge part of the project’s success, says Loubser, first through the physical training and then through the diet. “Without their trust, it wouldn’t have had any impact, so we took time to earn this,” he says.

The Iconic Fitness team provide food packets to the workers. Photo: Pawan Singh / The National 
The Iconic Fitness team provide food packets to the workers. Pawan Singh / The National

Tawiah feels these changes. “We don’t have the food variety here like we do in Ghana, so every day we were eating rice, but it makes you feel very heavy. Now we are being taught how to balance our diet better with the little we have.”

Last year, not long after arriving, Tawiah gained weight and suffered from exhaustion; he was taken to hospital and put on an intravenous drip. He says his heart was “not in good condition” and he was “totally depleted”, but since the changes he’s implementing through the initiative, all that has changed. He understands that the manual work he does requires him to eat breakfast, unlike back home in Ghana, to provide him the strength to get through his day, which often starts at 6am and finishes as late as 9.30pm. By exercising twice a day and consuming a more nutritious diet, he says he can feel the difference.

‘We needed a healthier workforce’

While Loubser shares his time and techniques with the workers, the man behind the initiative is Amit Roy, head of health and safety for subcontractors Danway. “We needed a healthier workforce,” says Roy, noting that many of the men were struggling to make it through long days. “The Iconic sessions are not only educational, but also fun. It’s made a huge difference; overall productivity has improved, the men look and feel much better, and there are fewer complaints about pain. They are taking the initiative to stay active as they can see how it’s helping them. Many go to the gym in the compound now, too.”

Roy constantly encourages and supports the team during and after the sessions and he translates what Loubser says for those who don’t understand English as well. As the men are not compelled to come to the once-a-week sessions – which began as 15 minutes, but now run for as long as an hour – the dedication shown by regular participants proves how powerful the benefits have been, concludes Roy, who calls the Iconic volunteers “a blessing”.

Updated: August 10, 2019 06:05 PM

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