Several years ago, when I was in working in the healthcare sector, I was struck by a set of statistics that were attributed to the Malay community. According to findings from the National Health Survey that was conducted in 2010, obesity is most prominent among the Malays here. The data showed an increase from 11 per cent in 1992 to 24 per cent in 2010.
Malays also account for a whopping 24.4 per cent of Singapore’s overall dialysis patients – this despite making up only about 14 per cent of the total population.
In 2014, BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care Centre published a paper with a forecast that the obesity prevalence in Singapore will quadruple from 4.3 per cent in 1990 to 15.9 per cent in 2050.
It also suggested that the prevalence of type-2 diabetes (diagnosed and undiagnosed) among Singapore adults aged 18 to 69 will double from 7.3 per cent in 1990 to 15 per cent in 2050. According to the study, ethnic Malays and Indians will make up a large part of those patients, and that the number of diabetics in the workforce will grow noticeably.
There is an ongoing study – the National Population Health Survey – jointly conducted by the Ministry of Health and Health Promotion Board. The survey, which started in July 2019 and expected to end in the middle of 2020, aims to obtain key health statistics from a sample size of at least 16,000 random households in Singapore.
My hope is that results from this survey will prove that after all these years of providing better access to healthier food and encouraging a healthier lifestyle, the Malay community is finally bucking the trend.
Nevertheless, existing data raises the question of why do health statistics on the Malay community often look so bleak. Personally, I grew up holding on to the principle that our body is an amanah (trust) that Allah has bestowed upon us, and that our ‘spare parts’ cannot be replaced or overhauled like cars. As such, I have to take care of my body and not harm it.
Perhaps, this mindset was influenced by my background. As a child growing up, I was surrounded by dumbbells, barbells and iron rods. Our small flat was littered with exercise equipment and my dad woud be doing his lifts, push-ups and triceps dips in one corner. I came from a humble background, with my dad working two jobs to make ends meet. But he never used that as an excuse not to exercise. Sometimes, he’d spend half an hour lifting weights before rushing off to his second job. This made me wonder – if he could do it, what is my excuse?
However, I grew up in the 80s, when technology such as Google wasn’t readily available, so information on the benefits of exercise was not easily accessible unlike today. However, I knew then that when I’m in my 50s, I wanted to look as good as my dad did when he was that age.
So, vanity became a reason why I started running and hitting the gym. I told myself that I want to look years younger than my age, and still be able to fit into clothes bought decades before. Years later, exercising has become second nature to me. My mind would often convince me to exercise over doing something sedentary like binge-watching TV.
I also take inspiration from others around me, like my friend, W, who’s in her 50s. Although she suffers from a long-term slipped disc problem, she is an avid marathoner. W is petite and spunky. While her problematic back constantly gives her pains and aches, she has completed all the big six marathon legs – Tokyo, Berlin, Chicago, London, New York and Boston. She is a great source of motivation for me whenever I lack the drive to exercise.
Budget is also a reason why I choose to exercise. Instead of spending money on new clothes because I can no longer fit into my old ones, I’d rather exercise and save the money for travelling instead. Some retailers also make you pay more for bigger-sized outfits. “For the extra material used,” they say.
Most importantly, I want to enjoy good quality of life. My boys are 18 and 15 years old, and I want to be able to do a lot of outdoor and physical activities with them. We often cycle and hike together. We find these cathartic and it brings us closer as a family. In fact, we often pack in physical or outdoor activities even during our travels: scuba diving in Sabah, caving and abseiling in Vietnam and snow sledging in Switzerland. I want to be able to do these (and more) with them for as long as I can.
As I inch towards my 50s, I realise that my knees have begun to hurt, my lower back has started aching, and my muscles take a longer time to recover from my runs. But I can’t stop exercising. My body would let me know that I need an adrenaline rush. They come in many forms, one of which is my lack of focus. I find it difficult to focus when I lay off exercise for too long.
As I reflect on these signs, I realise that my body is able to send me those messages because of the habit of exercising that I have cultivated for decades now. I cannot go without exercising, because for one, it gives me reasons to feel grateful for being healthy, mobile and alive. The human body can in fact do many wonderful things.
I started small – from 2.4km runs to 10km races to 18.5km crawls and a 35km struggle through tarmac and forested areas. My yoga and high intensity interval classes also give me reasons to smile these days. But I started small and slow.
So, start small. Start slow. You are not competing with anybody. Pick a sport or an exercise that you are curious about. Learn it. Master it. Enjoy it. And then, do it better, stronger, faster today than yesterday. Listen to your favourite beats on Spotify.
Foresight beats hindsight anytime and with mounting evidence, let’s have the foresight to take charge of our health before anything untoward happens. I may still contract an illness after all this exercising but I will tell myself that, at least, I have tried everything I can to prevent it.
So, let’s not add on to a bleak statistic. Be the difference. ⬛
1 THE STRAITS TIMES. PROMOTING BETTER HEALTH AMONG MALAYS. PUBLISHED DECEMBER 30, 2014. AVAILABLE AT: HTTPS://WWW.STRAITSTIMES.COM/OPINION/PROMOTING-BETTER-HEALTH-AMONG-MALAYS
2 PHAN, T, ALKEMA, L, TAI, ES, TAN, K, YANG, Q, LIM, WY & TEO, Y, CHENG, CY, WANG, X, WONG, TY, CHIA, K, AND COOK, A. (2014). FORECASTING THE BURDEN OF TYPE 2 DIABETES IN SINGAPORE USING A DEMOGRAPHIC EPIDEMIOLOGICAL MODEL OF SINGAPORE. BMJ OPEN DIABETES RESEARCH & CARE. 2. E000012.10.1136/BMJDRC-2013-000012
Zarina Yusof is the Acting Executive Director of AMP Singapore. She has over two decades of experience in the public, broadcast, education and healthcare sectors.