Exercise is medicine – nobody lives this mantra better than Dr Elly Sabrina. A Families for Life Council Member, Dr Elly is a fervent advocate for physical and mental wellness in the community.

Dr Elly’s journey towards health and fitness started after the birth of her two children. Both were difficult pregnancies where she suffered from high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia, leaving her overweight and in poor physical shape.

“It was life experience that converted me. When you experience it for yourself, it becomes a passion. It also gels very well with the work I’m doing as a physician.”

Advocating Exercise and Healthy Living in the Community

Crossing over from pursuing personal fitness goals to becoming a community champion for health and wellness was a natural step for the 50-year old general practitioner.

“As a family physician in the HDB heartlands, I would often be roped in by Residents’ Committees to give lectures encouraging people to go for health screenings. As part of the Muslim Health Professionals Association (MHPA), we would be the go-to organisation whenever community leaders wanted to run health activities at the mosques.

One thing led to another. We were approached by National Kidney Foundation (NKF) to set up Geng Sihat SG – a healthy living movement aimed at preventing chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension, both which are closely associated with kidney failure.”

For Dr Elly, her greatest achievement is found in the lives of individual patients she has helped. She cites an older Indian male patient of hers who suffered from several chronic illnesses as well as other issues like anxiety disorder. After witnessing how she managed to turn around her health, he was inspired to change his own diet and lifestyle. Today, not only has he lost weight, he has also gone off most of his medication and pushes his own family and friends to live healthier.

Living an Active Lifestyle as a Family

Dr Elly points out that exercise has multiple benefits. For instance, studies have shown that exercise is more effective than antidepressants in regulating mental health. As a physician, she finds it empowering that she can prescribe exercise as a means to help her patients cope with chronic conditions or to treat certain ailments like a frozen shoulder.

She says: “Exercise is medicine is not just a concept. It gives you concrete steps on how to achieve your health goals. Precise prescriptions like 150 minutes of exercise a week at a certain level of intensity or frequency give you practical, measurable and targeted goals to work towards”.

When it comes to exercising as a family, Dr Elly stresses on the importance of role modelling. Pre-Covid-19, she would consciously plan weekend activities outdoors with her husband and two teenagers. “Whether it is rock climbing, cycling or tennis, we treat it like a family project. It has to be fun and there has to be some sort of bonding element. Everyone does it; no one gets left behind”, she laughs.

When the Covid-19 crisis hit, the whole family pivoted to Zoom bootcamps led by a professional fitness trainer. They were joined by a group of enthusiastic Muslim community leaders who had participated in an earlier health initiative Dr Elly was involved in.

On how to get families to lead a healthy and active lifestyle, Dr Elly shared: “The most important thing is to just start. Start small and then slowly work upwards from there. Consistency is more important than intensity. It’s not about motivation, it’s about simply showing up.”