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CommunityFitnessHealthEverything you need to know about Abu Dhabi 360

Public health consultant John Bromley discusses how Abu Dhabi Sports Council’s Abu Dhabi 360 program is working to get everyone in the emirate moving more and eating better.
Ann Marie McQueenFebruary 27, 202319 min
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improve heart healthImage courtesy of Abu Dhabi 360

John Bromley’s involvement with health and wellness runs across many different entities – and two nations. Along with being director of the UK-based behavior change organization the National Social Marketing Centre, and a highly-regarded public health consultant, he also helped initiate Abu Dhabi Sports Council’s recently launched Abu Dhabi 360 initiative.

Bringing more than 20 years of experience in developing, implementing and evaluating behavior change programs across the world, he discusses how the Abu Dhabi government is working to get everyone in the emirate moving more and eating better, and why looking at long-term results over short term gains is the secret to a healthier population.

What does the term ‘behavior change’ actually mean?

I used to work in the UK’s Department of Health and I found that a lot of what we were doing was just fixing and curing people, rather than working to encourage the public to live healthier lives, and actually prevent conditions from developing in the first place.

So behavior change is all about looking at the reasons why people have unhealthy habits, educating them and supporting them as they make changes.

I believe that this has a greater impact than just providing more hospitals, drugs or interventions.

But it’s important to remember that you can’t force people to alter their behavior. Instead, we encourage people to really think about what they want out of their lives, and then make healthy changes with our help and support.

A lot of people think education is enough. But you can know how to eat healthy, but not actually do it in practice. It can be difficult to have a healthy lifestyle, and we need to acknowledge that.

I’m hoping that the Abu Dhabi 360 program will really make a difference. The UAE has problems with type two diabetes, smoking and cancer and, although there’s some genetics around diseases like this, everybody knows that how you live your life really impacts life expectancy and the duration of your healthy years.

Public health consultant John Bromley

Is it about looking at the long-term benefits?

Yes, although it can be very hard to focus on long-term benefits rather than short-term gain. After all, if someone brings cake into the office, you don’t immediately think about the impact that eating it has on your later life.

We look at issues from the perspective of the people that we are trying to help, and think about the barriers that they’re facing. It may be that they don’t have access to really good food or opportunities to go and actually exercise.

There might be perceived barriers as well. For instance, some people don’t believe that they can exercise because of a certain condition they have.

We also think about how we can make it easier for people to eat better and move more.

Some of our messaging for Abu Dhabi 360 is about walking to the mosque if you can instead of driving, or parking your car at the opposite side of the mall so you’ve got a little bit more of a walk. This is how we make changes. We’re developing an app that encourages very slow but sustainable lifestyle changes. We’ve got what we call our foundation lane, which starts with people stretching. There are some people who find it really difficult to even stretch and find a lot of pain from stretching, but over time it becomes less painful.

From here you can do seated exercises or exercises with stretching. A slow progression is really important when you’re thinking about these programs. After all, you might not feel the benefits of taking 100 extra steps every day straight away, but soon you will.

Another really good example is smoking. Most people actually stop smoking after maybe two or three times of trying. So we tell people that it’s okay if they fail because they can always try again.

Why is it so important to start slow?

Going from doing no exercise, to many intense sessions a week can be really harmful. Not only in the short term due to  injuries, but also because it might put people off exercising in the future. That is potentially more damaging than actually just sitting down and doing nothing.

Governments and reputable organizations need to put out clear information that says if you’ve not exercised for two to three years, or if you are basically sedentary, then you need to start at a foundation level.

Some young people could easily do five hours of CrossFit a week and become super fit. But not everyone is like that. There will be people who find it challenging just to walk around the park and they need to be rewarded too.

As to what those rewards are, an older person may get to live to see their granddaughter get married. Or they may be able to play with their grandchildren on the floor.

Older people can maintain their flexibility through yoga, or by just walking to keep their muscles working. That old saying of ‘use it or lose it’ is really important. But you need to do it in a sustainable way. We all want to push ourselves a little bit but it’s important to know what our limits are.

It’s important that whenever we are developing these programs, we develop them very, very carefully and recognize that not one size fits all.

Our programs produce amazing results for people with chronic conditions as well. For example, for the past seven years I have been monitoring a class for people with Parkinson’s disease.

You would expect that their condition would cause them to deteriorate over time, but by working out in a community setting, they have been able to maintain their fitness levels and their ability to work. Their cognitive abilities and their strength haven’t reduced at all over the last five years.

Can some chronic diseases be prevented?

I’ve done quite a lot of work on how MRIs are communicated to patients. Because some physicians will tell people that problems or damage in their back or knees is down to ‘wear and tear’. This can be the wrong thing to say because it immediately makes people think they need to do less working out or less exercise. But actually, it’s the opposite. The more walking you do, the more the muscle will build up around your knee and it will get used to actually being used and working.

In fact, I think a lot of people could actually reduce their pain levels if they increase their activities slowly. Drugs and clinical procedures can often cause more harm than good because if you have a new knee, you have to stay off it for at least a month or two.

What is Abu Dhabi 360?

It’s all focused around community events, the app that we’ve just launched and campaigning. We’re hoping to work with Livehealthy and other organizations to get really accurate, trustworthy information out there.

Most importantly, we’re hoping to work across the government and make it so that different parts work together effectively. We’re not going to have multiple apps, and we’re not going to give out information that contradicts what other departments are saying. We will also ensure that the events we host are right for each particular segment of society.

We’ll be working very much with the Family Foundation to target older people and families, and with schools and colleges to increase the amount of statutory physical activity that young people do.

We’re also working with the Department of Health on a program to increase the numbers of what we call general practitioners. This means that if people have a problem with their knee, they don’t actually have to go to a knee surgeon, they can go to a general practitioner who will look at them as a whole. Because sometimes the problem can be caused by a different issue in another part of their body, and actually be nothing to do with the knee itself. Ideally a general practitioner will look at you with a holistic overview and consider whether it’s something as simple as sitting incorrectly that is causing you problems.

We also recognize that it’s difficult to exercise in Abu Dhabi in the summer. When it’s 50 degrees and humid, who wants to go for a walk? We’ve got to find alternatives for people that still keep them active. We know that it’s unrealistic for some people to do 30 minutes of intense activity every day, or eat five portions of fruit and veg a day.

Where will we see the initiative?

Some things will happen behind the scenes. For instance, we’re working with some of the planning authorities to make sure that any housing developments make it possible for people to walk to local shops and other places.

But everyone can download the Abu Dhabi 360 app, and take part in various programs developed by the Abu Dhabi Sports Council. They’ll be rebranded as 360 soon and they are focussing on getting people to try new things.

We all like to do what we know, but doing alternative types of exercise or doing it in a different way can make an impact. There will be campaigns around that, but we’re not spending huge amounts of money on promotional stuff or big widespread posters and adverts. It’s going to be very subtle and it will just direct people to where they can actually do things.

It isn’t a mass fitness program. That would be a waste of money. It’s very much directional, about working across government, and looking at making changes over the next year and in five or 10 years’ time. This is not for people who are looking for a quick fix.

The more supportive and engaging information we can get out there the better.

What is on the Abu Dhabi 360 app?

It’s available now on Apple and Android and it’s still in its early stages. So we’re looking to increase the amount of content steadily.

First it asks you a number of questions about your level of fitness, what you want to achieve, and then it  gives you advice and support based on that information. It’s more of an interactive app filled with information rather than just an activity app.

I would suggest that everyone begins with the beginner programs. To be honest, I often do the five-minutes warm up, 10 minutes of vigorous exercise and then five minutes stretching because that’s often what I feel my body wants in the morning.

There’s no point in really forcing yourself and making yourself feel worse than you need to. There’s nothing wrong with being happy in the slow lane.

We recommend a combination of all different types of exercise. You just need to make sure you do the right exercise for how you’re feeling as well.

To find out more about Abu Dhabi 360, visit

Ann Marie McQueen

Ann Marie McQueen is the founding editor-in-chief of Livehealthy and host of The Livehealthy Podcast. She is a veteran Canadian digital journalist who has worked in North America and the Middle East. Her past roles include features editor for The National, trends writer and columnist for the Canadian newspaper chain Sun Media, and correspondent for CBC Radio.

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