Making a healthy choice the go-to choice can be difficult initially, but over time these choices become easier through the creation of new habits. On Wednesday, Feb. 6, Yusof Al-Wadei, health promotion specialist for UFHR Communications and WorkLife, will offer a presentation on “Life’s Simple 7” as part of UF-UF Health’s Wellness Wednesday series. The event will be held from noon to 1 p.m. in Room 120 of the HR Building and streamed via Mediasite.
Al-Wadei came to UF from the University of Tennessee, where he led faculty and staff wellness programs after having earned both his MPH and BS in biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology there. UF at Work recently sat down with Al-Wadei to learn more about his work to help foster faculty and staff wellness at UF.
How did you decide to pursue a career in wellness?
It really started senior year of college. I went on an alternative break trip, a university-sponsored trip that takes students to communities in need to learn through servant leadership. The trip that I was assigned focused on poverty and homelessness in Washington, D.C. It was striking to see how such a large population within the D.C. area didn’t have access to proper health care even though they were surrounded by some of the best hospitals in the nation. And they suffered because of it.
Before the trip, my plan had always been to go to medical school. I took the MCAT, applied to schools and was accepted, but after I returned from the trip, I wasn’t so sure anymore and wanted to explore alternatives. It was a big choice and after talking with some of my mentors, I ended up seeking opportunities for a master’s in public health program. I realized that I didn’t want to be in a hospital helping people who were already sick, though it is a very noble job. I wanted to be there before people got sick, to help them never get sick in the first place. That’s how I ended up falling in love with public health.
How do you define wellness?
This is a really good question. I align my definition with how the World Health Organization defines wellness: “A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” It is an active process of not only being aware of healthy choices but also actively implementing them in our lives. Being healthy is being free of illness, but being well is living up to your highest capacity. Are you able to live your best life? Wellness isn’t a certain standard, but it’s more about how you reach your full personal potential in your current circumstances.
What’s your favorite piece of wellness advice?
Small steps really add up to big change. We can easily be overwhelmed by big ambitions like running a marathon. Our ambition can sometimes even get in the way and make us fail. We shouldn’t underestimate what small changes we can do in our daily lives that can largely impact our health. For example, if you are able to, you might do something as seemingly small as parking in the farthest parking spot from your building so you have to walk a bit longer. These small steps by themselves are insignificant, but if you add them together for weeks, months and years, they can make a huge difference.
Can you talk about the work you did at the University of Tennessee?
I was recruited from the county’s health department to lead the efforts of building a wellness program for university employees at the University of Tennessee. The only thing we had was the idea and a supportive framework. The university launched a three-year pilot initiative and I was tasked with figuring out how to build a comprehensive program. It took a little bit of adjusting, but luckily, I was familiar with the campus environment and the resources that were and weren’t available.
I began by working with stakeholders to collect data and complete assessments of the campus environment. The three categories that really stood out at the time were promoting physical activity, nutrition and tobacco cessation. We built the program around these focus areas. A key component was making the program easily digestible and accessible. I’m really happy with the results. We built a program that employees themselves have taken ownership of and strongly identify with. That shift in culture is the biggest success story that came out of my experience at Tennessee.
Why did you decide to come to UF?
UF presented a similar challenge to what I experienced in Tennessee. The University of Florida needed a wellness program that could provide resources and programming to its faculty and staff community. I’m coming in at a transition point at which the university had just begun to build a wellness program, and now we want to build off of that foundation of wellness that currently exists. What really attracted me was this tangible spirit of excellence, the drive to be a top-five university and the UFHR ideology of preeminence through people. The motivation and the drive are infectious. I was especially encouraged to see that here at UF the focus is always the people. That in itself provided an enticing challenge for me, so I thought I would come down and see what it was all about. Plus, the warm weather is a nice bonus as well.
What goals do you have for faculty and staff wellness at UF?
I would like to see a wellness program that is evidence-based and accessible to all faculty and staff. I would like it to become an essential part of campus, completely intertwined with the fabric of campus experience across the entire campus community. Making our campus a healthier place should be the default and not the exception. Whether someone is taking an environmental perspective or a policy perspective, initiating different programs on campus or seeking to change the culture within our UF offices, the wellness team should always be considered a resource to assist with these efforts.
Can you give an overview of what you’ll be presenting at this week’s Wellness Wednesday?
Since February is American Heart Health Month, the presentation will focus on seven healthy habits that we can adopt to improve our heart health. We make many choices every day from what color socks to wear to how to fix our hair. When it comes to making decisions that keep you healthy, it may seem difficult at first. But choosing better options, when so many things seem easier or just more fun, can make all the difference in the world. Knowing the healthy choices to make helps us take small steps in a healthy direction. Before you know it, it will be easier to make these choices every day.
To register for future Wellness Wednesday sessions, visit the myTraining Wellness Wednesday course homepage. Click the blue registration button to select the session(s) you want to attend and then click submit at the bottom of the page. You can also join us via Mediasite to livestream this event. Registration isn’t required for online viewing.
Story by Larissa Jaurigue and Morgan Miner, UFHR Communications and WorkLife