KHDA employees sweating it out in the office gym. KHDA’s open plan office has ping-pong tables and even hammocks. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Dubai: Imagine if doing yoga in the office were to be part of your job.

At the Knowledge of Human Development Authority (KHDA), this is the norm and the 300-member staff have the option to do it at midday while at work.

The midday yoga is just one of the many health and wellness programmes of KHDA to encourage staff to lead a healthy and active lifestyle. It’s the brainchild of the entity’s director general Dr Abdullah Al Karam, who himself walks and talks fitness.

As the month-long Dubai Fitness Challenge begins on Friday to transform Dubai to become the most active city in the world, Gulf News sat down with Dr Al Karam to explore how he transformed the KHDA workforce into the happy and healthy bunch they are now.

The journey started with a survey on the team’s happiness and well-being. This led Dr Al Karam to introduce more physical activities in the workplace since there is a strong connection between physical activity and happiness.

“So it started five years ago with a daily programme with midday yoga because some people liked yoga. It was challenging in the beginning because some of the staff felt ‘why would I do yoga?’. We said doing yoga will make you do your job better,” Dr Al Karam said.

“We made sure this programme happened during office hours so they didn’t have to come early or leave late. The key was we let them know that it’s part of their job.”

Making exercise and fitness activities an integral part of work boosts people’s mood and productivity.

Equipped with its own gym and a fitness coach, the KHDA office is a departure from the conventional office space. The open plan office has ping-pong tables, colourful seats, hammocks, and many others that promote positive energy and creativity.

“We believe that if you’re working eight hours a day, you are not going to be productive for eigth straight hours. You are not a machine. In the best economies around the world, the average productivity is three to four hours for humans.”

“It’s very important to us that you do things that are impacting your well-being and your happiness because then your productivity will increase.”

The transformation did not happen overnight, however. It took time to change the culture in the office but it is now paying off as around 50 per cent of the team is now regularly into fitness and sports competitions across the emirate as their team building activity.

Having a fit workforce also addresses the problem of absenteeism, although KHDA has done away with monitoring timesheets.

“I do feel the staff is healthier. But when we did it for them, our motive was not because we wanted to lessen absenteeism. We did it because they are humans and their wellness and happiness is very important to us.”

Understandably, even Dr Al Karam cannot recollect the last time he had fallen sick, thanks to his disciplined health regime.

“He leads by example,” Leandro Avila, fitness coach at KHDA, said of Dr Al Karam. “He has influenced us to live a healthy lifestyle. Fitness activities at KHDA have changed my life tremendously.”

Ann Kimani, director of First impressions at KHDA, agreed.

“It has really helped me stay on top of my health. And yes, the team workouts are a great way to know your colleagues. It doesn’t take a lot of effort once you get used to it because working out becomes part of your daily life and you enjoy it since you’re doing it with your friends,” Kimani said.

But it is not just his team that Dr Al Karam wants to inspire to get fit. Similar fitness programmes are being implemented in Dubai schools to encourage the youth and parents to be active. In fact on the eve of the DFC, he sent emails to thousands of parents to take the challenge.


Leading by example: A role model for all

With an intention to inspire others, Dr Abdullah Al Karam shares his views about fitness and how he keeps himself fit despite his busy schedule.

Q: Why are you passionate about fitness?

Your body is the most precious resource that you have. Your job will go away, eventually and you will retire. Your friends will go away. Everything that comes to you goes away. But if your health is gone, you’re gone.

I finally found a medicine that keeps you young, makes you live for long, makes you happy, adds more days to your life, adds more life to your days and this medicine is free. It’s available everywhere - exercise.

Q: How do you incorporate exercise into your day?

I wake up at 4.30am, or 5am, after having a minimum of seven hours of sleep. I would do my stretching and go to the gym but I do different ones. I focus on two things —building my stamina and strength training. And then after that, sometimes I would just go for a swim, or play golf at home using a simulator. I’ll finish with resting and some meditation and have breakfast. I set aside about 2 to 3 hours in the morning every day on weekdays before going on with my commitments for the day.

Q: How do you make time for fitness in your packed schedule?

The most important thing is to manage time because if you don’t manage time, time will manage you. I set my alarm one hour earlier if I want to add something to my morning activity before work.

Q; What’s your message to those who don’t have the discipline to stay fit?

My tip is for you to understand that if you want to live a better, longer, and healthier life, it is your choice. If you do nothing about it, it’s your choice. But know that eventually it will catch up with you. I hope it’s not too late.