Appalled by Emiratis' fast food culture, former football player Eissa al Raisi is spreading awareness on benefits of exercise.
Tri Yas competitor al Raisi urges putting fitness first
Eissa al Raisi, dressed in his traditional Emirati khandoura and going about his day job as head of purchasing for an Abu Dhabi research organisation, may appear no different to his compatriots who finish work in the afternoon, head home, have a nap and take their family out for dinner. But such a concept angers him unlike anything else.
"These people say that they have no time for exercise, that they finish work at 4pm, that they need a rest, that they need to spend time with their wives and children," al Raisi said. "But that is just an excuse. I do all of that and more."
Al Raisi, 42, is a father of five, a working professional and, as of today, a triathlete. He will compete this afternoon in the Sprint Distance category at Tri Yas, the world's first triathlon held on a Formula One circuit.
His larger goal is to raise awareness of the dangers of diabetes and high blood pressure as well as promoting the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle.
A recent study entitled Diabetes in the United Arab Emirates: Crisis or Opportunity? - presented at the World Health Care Congress - reported that 32 per cent of the population between the ages of 20 and 79 would be diagnosed with diabetes by 2020 if current trends continue.
"These dangers are becoming a nightmare for the UAE," al Raisi said. "Even in my family, my mother has diabetes and some of my brothers, too. I know I need to actively avoid it and I also try my best to make sure my children live healthily, too.
"I rarely allow them to eat junk food and I get so angry when I see these young Emirati children eating McDonalds and such like."
He recalls a story when three young children - "around 10 years old" - tried to get into the back of his SUV but could not fit. "They were huge; they looked 15," he said. "I just got so angry with them that I told them to get out and get a taxi. I wasn't going to take them."
He said his compatriots must do more than improve their eating habits. They also must exercise before they are told to.
"Too many people decide to lose weight and live healthier when the doctors tell them they need to, but usually by this point it is almost too late because they have joint pains, back pains or are too old," he said.
Having registered for Tri Yas last year, al Raisi will, under the midday sun, swim 700 metres, cycle for 20 kilometres and end with a 5km run. It will be his inaugural triathlon, but he has competed in several marathons since his first in Dubai two years ago.
"It will be very easy for me," he said. "It is not the Olympic-standard triathlon because it is my first time doing something of this sort.
"I didn't want to sign up for something I was not ready for. It is obviously very different because you have to concentrate on three things.
"But I have run marathons in Dubai, Beirut, Prague and Istanbul and will later this year run in Barcelona."
A former footballer with the Al Ain club in the mid-1980s, al Raisi experienced the pain of being unable to stay active when he twisted his knee in 1990 and was forced to retire. The injury saw him alter his focus to his second-favourite pastime, horses. After participating in several endurance races across the UAE, his job took him to the capital and, again, he changed his preferred sport.
"I started running with some colleagues - an American and a British guy - and my first marathon was Dubai 2009. I remember being amazed that there was only 11 Emiratis out of more than 8,000 participants running," he said. "This country has all the facilities required to live healthily, but so many of our people - even the children - are diabetic. These people are suffering."
Al Raisi said he has no intention of experiencing a similar problem and knows that an hour of exercise each day can help prevent health issues later in life.
"The day I was unable to play sport, I was anxious and unhappy," he said. "I love sport and running helped me calm down; it changed my life.
"Now it is my goal to complete an Ironman as well as run a marathon at the North Pole. It has never been done before by an Emirati and would obviously require a lot of intense training because the conditions are just so different, but it would be a real achievement."
For now, however, he is focusing on today's race. After completing twice weekly swims of 1.5km at Abu Dhabi beach, as well as going for lengthy runs along the Corniche and cycling around Yas on those days when it is open to the public, he is confident that this afternoon will pose few problems.
"This is just the start for me" he said. "I have the Dubai Marathon in a couple of weeks' time, then I have the Ras Al Khaimah Half-Marathon, then the Barcelona Marathon. It's going to be a busy year for me, but I am looking forward to it."