Faris Al Zaabi’s in an Emirati triathlete, as well as an Emirati health and wellness ambassador for Ma’an’s Let’s Connect program. Ma’an is an Abu Dhabi organization that promotes community wellness.
His career in sports started in 2010, when he studied sports sciences at the University of Victoria in Canada. He moved on to a master’s degree in sports management at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.
“Growing up, my family encouraged me to participate in various sports, such as football, basketball and gymnastics,” Al Zaabi told The Livehealthy Arabic Podcast. “I did not realize until way later the benefit of practicing all these sports at an early age. In my studies, I delved into kinesiology and learned the importance of erasing physical illiteracy.”
What do you mean by erasing physical illiteracy?
The term physical literacy comes from kinesiology. The study covers the basics and techniques of movement from a young age: how to dive, how to run, flexibility, and more. These skills help in having an active future. The development of motor skills is the basis of developing in sports.
There is an illiteracy about the importance of participating in sports from a young age, and that needs to be tackled.
Physical literacy starts at a young age in schools and at home. Parents should encourage their children to engage in all sports activities, and that is the first step. However, of course, physical education in school is very important. In the UAE, physical education becomes an optional subject after 9th grade, which means that many students don’t even practice sports in school.
Even if it is just for half an hour a day, exercise is very important. The day consists of 24 hours, how is it possible we cannot find half an hour for physical activity? Even half an hour initiates building sustainable healthy habits. If someone starts with two hours or an hour and a half, for example, then a person might get tired and revert to their old unhealthy habits.
How did you start your work in this field?
I started in college, but actually if we go back to an early age, my interest in sports started in physical education classes at school.
Sport management is split into two categories: competitive sports and community sports. Competitive sports make up a very small part of overall sport activity, so the most important segment is the one that serves the community. Through community sports we can build a healthy lifestyle.
Tell us more about triathlons…
Triathlons consist of three sports: swimming, cycling and running. This sport is an Olympic sport, and there are different competitive distances: sprint distance, Olympic distance and the Ironman distance. The sprint distance is half the Olympic distance. This distance starts with 750 meters of swimming, followed by 20km of cycling and then a 5km run. Between each sport there is a transitional stage. As for the Olympic distance, which is what people compete over in the Olympics, it is double the distances adding up to 1,500m of swimming, followed by 40km of cycling and a 10km run. The Ironman triathlon distance is not affiliated with the Olympic Federation.
I am currently doing both the sprint distance and the Olympic distance. However, under the umbrella of triathlons there are other sports, such as duathlons and aquathlon. Duathlon is comprised of a run, followed by cycling, then another run. The distances vary; in the first run we start with 5km, then cycling for 20km and the last stage is a 2.5km run. The aquathlon consists of swimming and running: swimming for 1km and running for 5km. I also partake in duathlons and aquathlons.
Does the competition depend on distance or speed?
The person who finishes a set distance the fastest wins. Before Covid-19 we all competed at the same time, but during the pandemic, we have been divided into batches. The groups are divided into 10-15 people for social distancing.
Tell us more about your involvement with Ma’an’s ‘Let’s Connect’…
Well, the program has nothing to do with triathlons. Let’s Connect is a virtual program from Ma’an, the first of its kind in Abu Dhabi. The program aims to consolidate social cohesion, create a positive society and promote social integration in the UAE population. The program comprises four sections: health and wellness — I represent this section — business and coaching, community and finally art and culture. It includes various activities and dialogues that take place virtually (currently), with people from different members of society, regardless of gender, age, nationality or cultural background. Of course, this is all with the aim of promoting social integration, and belonging among the residents of Abu Dhabi.
My role as a health and wellness representative is to inspire and encourage members of the community to live healthier lives, both physically and mentally.
What programs are offered so far?
The program consists of five challenges, so far, we’ve launched four of them. The first challenge addressed healthy habits: How do we create healthy habits in our daily lives? The second challenge was: How to maintain vitality and activity during Ramadan? For the third challenge, we shared physical sports stories from members of the community. And the last challenge was the nutrition challenge, where we discussed nutritional advice with a certified nutritionist.
We encourage the listener to virtually share their healthy choices with particular hashtags. We don’t set goals for people; they set their own goals. Our job is to motivate members of the community.
How do you communicate with the community?
As I mentioned, the initiative is virtual, but everyone can reach us and participate through @letsconnect.ae, whether on Instagram, Facebook or TikTok.
Can short-term adjustments lead to lasting change?
Of course, it creates a change in our behavior, but we must realize that changes do not happen overnight. Change comes if we practice and keep practicing. Studies show that something becomes a habit after 60 days of doing it.
Do you urge parents to participate?
Yes, I urge all members of society to participate in health initiatives. However, if parents do not exercise, children will most likely not play sports or exercise. Personally, my father plays sports on a daily basis, and he is my inspiration and the athletes I train with also inspire me.
The responsibility lies with us personally as individuals, we draw inspiration from our family, society and athletes, but we are responsible for ourselves. Of course, physical literacy begins with children from a young age. The most important thing is making sure these habits and instilled and become sustainable.
Any advice on how to make time?
To sum it up in one sentence: investing in your health is investing in your family.
This goes back to their priorities, is your priority your job or your health? I think we can balance both. People face challenges, we either overcome them or learn from them, alternatively they would destroy us.
Lina Elmusa is a literature and coffee lover. She tries to understand the world through language. She's currently exploring the world of media at livehealthy.ae.