Prevention is better than cure

Healthy citizens are vital to a country’s competitiveness, productivity and happiness. Charlotte Kan looks at bold new initiatives aiming to raise the wellness of entire communities

In Baoding, China, as early as 5am, groups commune in urban parks to practise hobbies that range from opera singing, to tai chi and jianzi (a type of keepy-uppy with a weighted shuttlecock).

These groups have naturally sprung up out of the collision of individuals’ interests, but they are a vital touchstone for the future of wellness. According to the World Health Organisation, wellness is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

Individuals, companies and policymakers the world over are embracing this holistic approach to healthcare, emphasising ‘wellness’ to ensure citizens and workers are not only physically healthy but also emotionally fulfilled.

In New South Wales in Australia, the department of sport pioneered ‘lifeball’, a walking version of basketball that can be played by schoolchildren and people of varying fitness levels, as well as people who use wheelchairs. A survey of players found that gains reported included physical benefits such as increased mobility and improved blood pressure, and emotional advantages such as an increase in self-esteem and happiness.

On a micro-level, community fitness is a historical practice that has experienced a new wave of energy, with help from bigger sources. In Dubai a flurry of grassroots initiatives, including Ping Pong Dubai and Shuttle Time Dubai, have been launched to encourage people from all walks of life, right across the community, to take up sport (in the latter cases table tennis and badminton) as a fun, social and easy way to stay active. 

Meters will send daily reports to decision-makers to identify the geographical and government zones that users are the happiest about

Ahmad bin Humaidan, Director General, Dubai Smart Government

The inclusion of happiness into national indices is a fairly new addendum, but one that has quickly become important to governments. Currently, the UAE sits 14th on the second United Nations World Happiness Report, with authorities working hard to ensure the city breaks into the top 10 by 2017.

“Dubai Municipality is committed to the concept of sustainable happiness of citizens, residents and visitors,”
says Hussain Nasser Lootah, Director General of Dubai Municipality, adding that as well as traditional services such as the provision of public parks, facilities and beaches, there have also been more innovative approaches to improving wellness.

#HAPPYDUBAI is a social media initiative that interactively measures the happiness of the emirate’s inhabitants, visitors and tourists on a daily basis. Since April, 14 different government entities have allowed customers to rate their ‘happiness experience’ while using them, with the ultimate aim of creating a happier public who feel more connected to their civic body.

Ahmad bin Humaidan, Director General of Dubai Smart Government, said: “Electronic devices installed in the headquarters of government entities and connected to a central network that monitors the meter will send daily reports to decision-makers to identify the geographical and government zones that users are the happiest about."

New policies such as China’s Healthy China 2020, too, take into consider-ation more than just the physical side of health. The health policy, which aims to offer universal healthcare access and treatment for all Chinese people within five years, includes psychological, social and community aspects, and focuses on chronic disease prevention and the promotion of better lifestyle and dietary habits.

 'Lifeball’ is a walking version of basketball that can be played by schoolchildren and people of varying fitness levels

Infrastructure is another important deciding factor of a nation’s wellness. Alpharetta is a suburban city near Atlanta that used to consist of sprawling shopping centres and enclosed malls, forcing residents to drive everywhere. A project called Avalon redesigned the car-orientated city to create a walkable environment that allowed residents to run errands, socialise and exercise in one pedestrian-friendly place.

It is a point picked up by Scott Cain, Chief Business Officer at London’s Future Cities Catapult, an organisation whose focus is on optimising urban settings. Cain stresses the importance of environments where communities can walk, exercise or just “be” in an open-air setting. “Being in spaces that are open to nature gives greater levels of calm, productivity, health and well-being among city-dwellers,” he says. He adds that a city’s liveability, and thus the happiness of its inhabitants, are inextricably linked with such 'quiet spots', where people can walk, contemplate and play.

In Dubai, the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) is undertaking the construction of an 850km cycle network to offer healthier transit alternatives to buses or cars. The network will connect central business district areas with newly developed localities to support the increased growth of cyclists in the emirate.

This programme shows what can happen when a nation or body listens to the needs of its residents and acts accordingly. And whether these wellness initiatives are created to improve country rankings or company profits, or simply for individual gain, the results lead to the same outcome: a happier, healthier nation.