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Sunday Star, Star Education, June 13, 2004
High time to shape up
With the formation of the National Council for Fitness, Malaysians are encouraged to scrutinise their lifestyle. JOANNE LIM checks out the fitness level of students and what schools are doing to produce healthy individuals.

Story by Joanne Lim

BOGGED down with tuition and other extra classes, 16-year-old Christine Ang May Yoke's hectic daily schedule is reflective of many Malaysian students today.

On top of that, she is expected to help out with her father's pasar malam business every weekend. At school, she is totally caught up in the endless round of assignments and projects. By the time Christine reaches home, she is worn out.

Given her tight schedule, the last thing on her mind is devoting the little that's left of her day to exercise.

“I would rather stay home and rest, or watch television till bedtime,” she says.

Christine's example would be incongruous with the commonly held perception that students are always game for exercise and physical activity.

The fact is that the level of physical activity among students today is quite low, and many of them may not be as enthusiastic about exercise as we imagine them to be.

Gone are the days when students used to cycle or walk to school.

“Now, they come in either buses or cars. Many students are chauffeured everywhere, and the result is, they are becoming just too lazy to move,” she adds.

The risk of breathing in polluted air or getting knocked down by reckless motorists, adds to the list of reasons why some parents are reluctant to allow their children to take the “healthier” alternative of walking.

In fact, Christine readily admits that she dreads climbing the three flights of stairs to her classroom.

“I feel tired just thinking about going up and down that staircase more than five times a day,” she says, adding that it once took her 10 minutes to get to the top.

Why are children avoiding exercise and spending more and more after-school hours passively indoors?

Working parents, unsafe neighbourhoods, increased street violence and the allure of engrossing television programmes and video games are some of the reasons for this unhealthy trend.

Some students are also influenced by the health habits of their parents.

“My family never exercises. We seldom go for walks together and our favourite dinner haunts are fast-food restaurants,” says 15-year-old Shanti Panniseelvam from Ipoh.

Her mother, a public relations executive, is too busy to cook as she works late, sometimes reaching home past dinner time.

“When mom is not around, dad usually has fast-food delivered to our house so we needn't drive out. 'It's too much of a hassle,' he says,” adds Shanti.

Research shows that an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, coupled with poor health habits, often leads to obesity, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Recognising the need to promote healthier eating habits and regular exercise to reduce health-related problems among Malaysians, Health Minister Datuk Dr Chua Soi Lek, and Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Azalina Othman, recently proposed the formation of a National Council for Fitness.

The aim is to develop a nation that gives due attention to individual wellness, both mental and physical, and to lower the risk of disease.

Themed Sports for All, Sports for Unity and Sports for a Healthy Lifestyle, the new council will be launched as soon as a committee, comprising representatives from the two ministries and the National Unity and Integration Division in the Prime Minister's Department, is set up.

As the ministries are advocating exercise and good eating habits as strategies to keeping fit, StarEducation visited several schools in Petaling Jaya to find out how students fare in the health and fitness department.

Daily diet

Shanti's regular menu in school during recess is nasi lemak, a carbonated drink, and sweets to keep her awake in class.

With this kind of a daily diet and only two sessions of Physical Education lessons a week, it's not surprising that she finds it difficult to keep her weight down.

“I always remind myself that I need to go on some kind of a dieting programme but there's just no time for me to really get down to it. So, I resorted to slimming pills instead,” she says.

Form Six SMK Assunta student Angeline Theng says she is so busy that she hardly has time to eat. The situation, compounded with exam stress, has resulted in her being recently diagnosed with gastritis and stomach ulcer.

“I neglected my health because I was too preoccupied with my studies. Now I am on medication and that's
even worse,” she says.

Weighing 65kg and standing at 163cm, Angeline feels she ought to lose weight. “It's mostly peer pressure, but I think being slim actually makes you more confident too,” she adds.

Her regular meals consist of rice, vegetables, meat and water.

“I believe in eating a balanced diet, not just because of my condition but because I know I'll get hungry if I take only junk food,” she says.

“However, since I'm a prefect, my recess is only 10 minutes instead of 15. By the time I buy my food and settle down, I only have five minutes in which to eat.”

She avoids carbonated drinks as much as possible because “it's just sugar and gas.”

For her, exercising to stay fit isnot a viable option.

“There's usually no time but I do try to squeeze in some form of exercise during the weekends,” she says.

A typical day involves waking up at 5am, going to school by bus, staying back for tuition and returning home in the evening, tired and exhausted. However, she agrees that students should engage in games and physical activities such as bowling, swimming, jogging, biking and racquet sports, among others.

“I learnt my lesson the hard way. I know now that it is important to eat healthily, to eat on time, to exercise often and most important, to stay away from stress,” she adds.

SMK(L) Bukit Bintang student Deepak John Dominic is all for fitness and healthy lifestyle habits. The 173cm tall fifth former is 68kg and makes it a point to exercise every Thursday, when he walks 5km home from school after a game of badminton or football.

“It's a matter of making time to exercise, so I decided to devote one day a week to sports and fitness,” he says.

The rest of the week is taken up with tuition and studying at home.

The health-conscious student says he stopped consuming junk food in February this year.

“I realised how unhealthy it was. Besides, it's unnecessary food too,” he explains.

Canteen food

So, are school canteens contributing to the unhealthy lifestyle by selling unhealthy food?

Junk food, carbonated drinks and ice cream are not supposed to be sold in schools, says SMK Puchong Batu 14 canteen operator Zainap Yahya.

“We only sell 100 Plus as that's an energy drink for students to take after sports,” she says. “The most well-stocked drink in my canteen is mineral water.”

On the issue of canteen operators still selling junk food in school canteens despite admonitions and warnings about the negative effects on students' health, she says that it is the responsibility of canteen operators to provide students with nutritious food, especially since canteen food is cheap and thus, still the preferred option among students.

“However, many students seem to be more health-conscious these days. Instead of going for something with fat or lemak, they usually opt for chicken rice; that's our best seller,” she adds.

Her menu changes everyday; she sells a whole range of food, from curry noodles, fried kuey teow and laksa to burgers, hotdogs and fries.

“We try to make the food appetising and less monotonous by cooking a variety of dishes,” says Zainap, adding that popular choices were nasi lemak and mixed rice or nasi campur.

Canteen operator of SMK and SK Assunta, Sunny Hee, says food should be consumed in moderation, whether it is a packet of crisps or oranges.

“It gets bad when students spend all their money on crisps instead of on a wholesome meal. Students should also avoid snacking between meals,” he adds.

Hee says that according to the guidelines set out in the school canteen guide book issued by the Education Ministry, canteens are not allowed to sell chocolates, doughnuts, drinks with added colouring, tidbits, sweets, and preserved fruit.

He emphasises the importance of ensuring that students have a proper breakfast before starting classes instead of going hungry until recess.

“It's the most important meal of the day as students need the energy to concentrate on their studies,” he says, adding that his canteen starts operations at 6.40am daily.

He believes in serving healthy drinks like fresh fruit juices, sugar cane and soy bean to accompany nutritious yong tau foo, mixed rice, soup noodles or hokkien mee.

“Parents, teachers and students appreciate the fact that we serve reasonably-priced, good food. As a parent with children of my own, I believe it is not fair to sell food or drinks that will harm them in the long run.

“We must treat the students like our own children. Feed them only what you would feed your own,” adds Hee.

Pix: ANGELINE: Important to eat healthily, eat on time, exercise and stay away from stress.

Pix: REAL BREEZE?: Sports should be a central part of school life, but many students these days probably cannot do a 100m dash without gasping for breath. – Filepic

Pix: TO SCHOOL WE GO: Cycling is an excellent exercise
and keeps students fit. - Filepic

Pix: HEY!: Students should not wait till recess to have their first meal. - Filepic