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Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Health Perspectives: A Reality Check

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Healthy Malaysia? Malaysians Disagree


You know, with the trending #instafit posts on Instagram and the rise of fitness models and bodybuilders within the last few years... you think that Malaysians are moving towards a healthier way of life, right?

Well, I thought so too but apparently I was wrong.

Here in today's blogpost, I wish to highlight and address some health matters that have been in the back burner for some time now. It's alarming to me that our country is not really doing so well in the health and fitness department, despite much talk about the importance of it.

A survey called Healthy Living Index (HLI) 2016 conducted by AIA on over 10,000 adults across 15 countries in Asia Pacific pointed out that Malaysia scored a mediocre 63 points (regional average 64) out of 100 in its recent 2016 study. The results also concluded that close to 70% of Malaysian adults felt their health was not good as it was 5 years ago. What's even more worrying is that 61% of adults under the age of 30 agreed with this sentiment, although this younger age group should be in the prime of their health!

A little background…the AIA Health Living Index is a survey conducted to understand how people feel about their health, and the extent of their health habits, as well as their concerns and hopes for a healthier way of life. The inaugural survey was done in 2011, the second wave in 2013 and most recently the third this year. The 2016 survey interviewed adults 18 years and older (including 751 in Malaysia) across 15 countries: China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Korea, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand and Sri Lanka.

I attended the "Health Perspectives: A Reality Check" forum last week, hosted by AIA together with with panelists from the health and fitness industries in Malaysia to talk about the AIA Healthy Living Index on Malaysia findings. We had 5 key speakers:
  1. Thomas Isaac (Director, Intuit Research)
  2. Indra Balaratnam (Consultant Dietitian, Indra Balaratnam Nutrition)
  3. Jacqueline Wong (Head of Learning and Development, Fitness First Asia)
  4. Dr Myralini S. Thesan (Medical Director & Head of Care Management, AIA Health Services Sdn. Bhd.)
  5. Thomas Wong (Chief Marketing Officer, AIA Bhd)

There were a few key points from the survey results that I personally found interesting, namely:

1. Fitness & Exercise

The percentage of adults who exercise regularly is stable at 69%, but even so, they still do not get enough exercise. The average time spent on exercise is only 2.6 hours a week which is lower than the regional average of 3.0 hours and well below the recommended time by most experts which is 3.5 hours a week.

As for me, I personally believe that it is important to take small steps and set achievable goals when it comes to leading a life of fitness. When we have managed to push our limits and achieve our goals, it is then that we can move on to doing bigger, crazier and more challenging goals. Remember to always start small to build the momentum and to achieve great results!

2. Diet & Nutrition

Many Malaysians are guilty of unhealthy eating habits; the attempts at eating healthily are still limited to the basic practices like eating more fruits and vegetables and drinking more water. There are also the common misconceptions on healthy food and I completely agree with this because I was also one of those who had misconceptions about "health foods". Do you recall those energy bars you see at the supermarket? I thought they were great for health but when my boyfriend (who is also the one who educated me a lot on the area of fitness) pointed out that the content of sugar is high for these products, I was seriously shocked! We really have to dig deeper into knowing the food we consume especially when it claims to be a ‘health product’.

Another misconception about "healthy food" is that they are expensive. It is true to a certain extent in my opinion, but not necessarily all is pricey. For example, Indra Balaratnam has pointed out to us that a plate of economy rice can also be considered on healthy food. As long as we opt for lean poultry meat or fish for fuel, with more vegetables and less grease.

3. Obesity is a growing concern

I am not sure if we are aware of the obesity stats in Malaysia, but 55% Malaysian adults are either pre-obese or obese, based on their BMI. There are more Malaysian adults who want to lose weight as compared to the regional average (61% vs 48%), with an average weight loss target of a very substantial 8.5 kgs (!!!), the third highest in the region. This is certainly something new to me. I must admit, Malaysians may not be the fittest people on planet earth (because we have amazing food) but to know that Malaysians are heading towards the path of obesity, we seriously need to keep a close check on our lifestyles.

4. Screen time is steadily becoming a big threat to healthy living

Adults in Malaysia are among those who spend the highest amount of hours on the Internet for non-work related use. 71% find it hard to break the habit of spending too much time in front of screens and 68% find social networking and other activities online addictive.

I can understand why though. The internet has become such an integrated part of our lives that we can’t help but to rely heavily on it to help us get on with our daily lives as it is definitely a faster and more convenient way to getting out tasks done (booking tickets, navigating traffic, paying bills, etc). However the question is, is the convenience at the expense of our health worth it?

During the forum discussion, Ms Indra, the Consultant Dietitian did highlight a major point…Malaysians have a bad habit of scrolling through our smartphones or watching TV as we eat. It is because of this, we are not able to monitor our portions while munching on food. In the AIA Healthy Living Index Survey 2016, 86% of those surveyed said they tend to eat when distracted with their screens. When I heard this, it reminded me of myself and almost everyone around me who loves eating a meal while watching TV. I somewhat agree with her that the portions may go unmonitored because of the distractions. So in order to monitor, we need to set aside our "meal times" to really taste and enjoy our food and see what really goes into our bodies. Parents can play an active role and should help address the issue of excessive screen time for their children, in order to encourage a healthy lifestyle for them.

5. Sleep

Malaysian adults get the least hours of sleep - on average it is only 6.3 hours a night. While they wish to get 7.5 hours of sleep a night, in reality, they only enjoy 6.3 hours – the lowest among the 15 countries surveyed. I strongly believe that we all need enough hours of shut eye to lose those extra pounds. I have realised that I do bloat up badly on days when I am sleep deprived. My whole body seemed to retain more water than usual, and my face becomes puffy as well. So if you're not getting enough rest, it may take a toll on your health.

6. Despite high levels of concerns about various health conditions, getting a medical check up does not seem to be a high priority.

Malaysians are aware of their health issues. However, the problem is that many do not take the initiative to do anything about it. Based on the findings from the AIA Healthy Living Index 2016 survey, only 46% adults had a medical check-up in the past year, dropping below the regional average of 52%. Yes, it goes without saying that medical check-ups can be terrifying and even time consuming, but it is an essential step for us to take to know exactly where we stand with our health.




Despite the challenges, there is still hope for Malaysians to lead a healthy lifestyle! In fact, the survey found there is a desire for Malaysians to do more, and they welcome guidance and motivation to sustain healthy behaviours. In fact, it is encouraging that 75% said they have some small steps in that direction. Malaysians can be motivated to live healthier by doing the following simple steps (I'm going to share it with you here so that you can use it for yourself too!) -

1. Goal setting - change one step at a time
2. Set smaller, achievable goals
3. Track your progress
4. Encourage activities with families and friends so that everyone can support and encourage one another to meet their health goals




I shall reiterate that Health is the most precious thing you own, so own it well! As Joel Fuhrman said, "You cannot buy your health; you must earn it through healthy living".  

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