A variety of factors such as the hot climate makes it difficult to exercise, a prevalent smoking culture, the dining out and takeaway culture, and long working hours, have led to rocketing levels of ‘lifestyle diseases’ such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO)1, cardiovascular diseases are responsible for one-third of all deaths in the UAE each year, with fatalities from diabetes also on the rise. Around 20% of adults now live with diabetes. On 1 October 2017, the UAE imposed significant increases2 on the cost of sugary drinks and tobacco in an effort to encourage consumers to cut down on unhealthy products. The cost of carbonated drinks increased by 50%, while energy drinks and tobacco rose by 100%.
Things are changing, however, with ‘wellness’ rapidly becoming the buzzword in the city. Dubai’s commitment to helping its residents to better health is clear, with bespoke spaces for different forms of exercise starting to spring up around the city.
Last October, local authorities launched the Dubai Fitness Challenge3, designed to encourage residents to factor-in 30 minutes of exercise a day. This initiative aims to encourage better year-round habits and attracted 12,000 people on the first day alone.
How does the Dubai lifestyle affect wellness?
Between avoiding the scorching heat and working long hours, many struggle to find the time or motivation to exercise
A dining out and takeaway culture is well established in Dubai, with portion sizes at odds with the more sedentary lifestyle. This shared love of eating among both Emiratis and expats has been linked to elevated levels of Type 2 diabetes4, heart disease5, obesity and even spine problems6 in the region
Due to the extreme temperatures, taking taxis or driving cars instead of walking is common – even for short distances
Tobacco remains popular in the UAE, with an estimated quarter of adult males classified as cigarette smokers7, while other forms of smoking such as the Shisha, or water pipe, are also common
With people looking to dodge the sun during the summer months – due to its sheer intensity or a fear of developing skin cancer – vitamin D levels can easily become deficient in Dubai. Left unchecked, this can weaken the bones and lead to osteoporosis, and rickets in children.
One session with a traditional Shisha, or water pipe, can equate to ingesting the tobacco from 100 cigarettes or more, according to the WHO8. More than 66% of men and 60% of women in the UAE9 are now classified as overweight or obese, with 40% of children10 also in this category.
While the exact levels of vitamin D required by the body is a source of debate, experts typically set a target of 10 microgrammes of vitamin D per day11 for anyone over the age of four. It is recommended that vitamin D supplements12 are taken by pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, as well as vulnerable groups, such as the elderly.
How can the local environment in Dubai affect your health?
Flanked by the Persian Gulf on one side and vast deserts on the other, Dubai is a city of extremes – with heat, humidity and dust common causes of health issues for residents.
The city’s infamous dust devils – swirling updrafts of dust13 – are frequent, and release micro-particles that can pose a particular problem for those with allergies or pulmonary issues
Though rare, the city’s high humidity levels can sometimes cause monsoon-like rain – 100.4mm of rainfall14 was recorded in southern parts of the UAE in August 2013
During the intense summer months, when temperatures can exceed 50OC, heatstroke15 is a real danger – with children and the elderly16 particularly at risk. However, official legislation, introducing a mandatory break for outdoor workers17 during peak hours from July to September, is helping to raise awareness
MERS18 (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) is a form of coronavirus native to the Arabian Peninsula. It typically causes fever, cough and shortness of breath and can be fatal, and treatment should be sought. MERS is spread through contact with sick animals or people.
Heat exhaustion19 is characterised by thirst, fatigue, headache and twitching. If left unchecked, it can lead to heatstroke, a potentially fatal condition.
Not all tap water in Dubai is drinkable, and residents may worry about bacteria in the water. Water tanks should be cleaned regularly, and installing a water filter on your household tap may remove impurities and enhance the flavour.
Top tips for health and wellbeing in Dubai:
- Take advantage of the parks and other bespoke areas that are now springing up across the city. Many public beaches in Dubai now boast soft, sponge-like surface tracks that are great for running. Residents are also able to make use of the desert setting at the famous 86km-long Al Qudra20 cycle track
- Avoid peak heat. Due to the heat and working culture, exercise classes are often held at sunrise and sunset, including pool-based21 activities, such as Aqua Zumba
- Offset any lack of direct sunlight by eating oily fish or other fortified foods containing vitamin D22
- Maintain a healthy diet and monitor your fluid intake (including salt levels) during the hottest months of July and August.
In public spaces, UAE dress codes apply. To respect Dubai’s culture, men and women should keep their shoulders covered and ensure clothing extends below the knee.
With a culture that can mean longer working hours, eating out and a naturally more sedentary lifestyle, expats moving to Dubai can easily fall into a cycle of poor nutrition and lack of exercise. However, increasing moves by governments across the UAE to reduce associated illnesses – such as obesity, diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease and various cancers – are raising awareness of the problem.
Better nutritional information about local dishes and restaurants, and an increasing emphasis on the importance of exercise – with dedicated, and free spaces springing up across the city – should see a major change in the Dubai lifestyle over the coming years. As the culture changes, residents will be able to combine this unique sand-and-sea setting with their personal wellness plans.
The information provided in this article is designed as a guide and reference point to what you might expect in Dubai. Please be sure to check any information with local Dubai authorities to ensure information is valid and timely. You can see more information about living in Dubai in our city guide.
William Russell is a trading name of William Russell Ltd, which is authorised and regulated in the UK by the Financial Conduct Authority, and William Russell Europe SRL, which is registered in Belgium with the Financial Services & Markets Authority. We provide insurance plans on behalf of AWP Health & Life SA, an Allianz group company registered in France, and AWP P&C SA UK, an Allianz group company registered in the UK. We’re here to help our customers, but we don’t offer insurance advice.