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Sunday May 27, 2007

Addicted to exercise

He has upgraded his finger skills with computer games to triathlons. Captain Zabil Ihram Zainol was inspired to get off the couch and get physical after the birth of his daughter. He hasn’t looked back since. 

EIGHT years ago, Zabil led a sedentary lifestyle. The pilot from Malaysia Airlines led an active life when he was stationed in Sarawak, but once he was based in Kuala Lumpur, he turned complacent. He was perpetually in front of the computer playing games, he smoked and he couldn’t walk up a 200-metre hill without collapsing in exhaustion. He weighed in at 107kg. 

»I try to fit in some form of exercise whenever I have the time, whether it is during lunch, before or after dinner. When people say they don’t have time to exercise, it is an excuse. Even a half hour run is better than sitting around doing nothing« CAPTAIN ZABIL IHRAM ZAINOL
In 1999, with the birth of his daughter, Zabil made a conscious decision to turn over a new leaf.  

“I wanted to be a good role model for her,” says the 35-year-old.  

He started slow, going on walks before he started jogging and running. He bought himself a mountain bicycle, which he first took for a spin around the neighbourhood before branching out into jungle trails. Within a year, his weight was down to 80kg, and he was tackling trails and runs with athletic ease. 

Eventually exercise alone wasn’t enough. Zabil had to have a goal to work towards, so he started signing up for races. First he hit the adventure races circuit, and when that wasn't enough, he began registering for biathlons and triathlons. Today, his race calendar for the year is full: from Ironman, Langkawi, in February right through to the Phuket Triathlon in December. In between would be marathons, biathlons, triathlons and adventure races in Kuala Lumpur, Sabah, Bintan, Lumut and Miri. 

“If you like what you do, it’s not difficult. I race against myself, among my peers, I don’t race to win,” he says. 

In January this year, he scaled Mt Aconcagua in Argentina with Climb with Pride, an expedition of hope and support to breast cancer survivors and suffers, as well as to create awareness of the illness.  

“It was a challenge climbing such a huge mountain. My highest climb before that was Mt Kinabalu,” he recounts. 

“We were prepared mentally, physically and equipment-wise, but what we lacked was experience of the elements. For some of us, it was the first time walking on snow, being away for three weeks, sometimes staying in the tent for 23 hours without doing anything when the weather was bad,” he recollects. 

The team had to turn back when they were 400m from the summit because of bad weather. But Zabil takes such disappointments in his stride.  

“Reaching the summit would have been a bonus, but the main aim of this climb is in support of Climb with Pride,” he says.  

“My best experience was seeing the human spirit. It is very inspiring to see everyone give their best.” 

When preparing for a race, Zabil runs 40 to 50km, cycles 200km and swims four to five times a week. He also puts in time at the gym every day.  

“I don’t watch television,” he says when asked how he juggles his work, family and physical regime.  

“I’ll try to fit in some form of exercise whenever I have the time, whether it is during lunch, before or after dinner. When people say they don’t have time to exercise, it is an excuse. Even a half hour run is better than sitting around doing nothing.” 

His flying duties do not stop him from performing his physical activities either. “In all the stations that I go to, I can find something to do. It is as simple as putting on my shoes and running,” he says. 

“It is quite addictive. After awhile, if I don’t go for my morning or evening runs, I will feel as if something is missing. When I run, I am happy. I am alone with the elements, and I feel I can think better and my stress disappears.” 

His physical fitness has also contributed to his mental health, and Zabil says it has made him better at working around obstacles.  

“In Ironman, for example, the bicycle section is 180km, which is very long. Your bicycle breaks down, but it’s not the end of race because you can do something about it, as long as you are prepared. It has made me realise that problems don’t mean the end of the world.” 

Zabil’s enthusiasm for the outdoors and physical activities has rubbed off on his family. He is now the father of two, and his eldest is also into sports. 

“She won first place in the last triathlon she was in,” he says, beaming proudly. 

His family follows him on all his excursions, giving him incredible support. 

“The whole idea is to get the family involved,” he says.  

His wife shares his interests, and they go rock climbing and diving together. 

“I encourage them to go outdoors and do stuff,” says Zabil of his family.  

“It’s like insurance. You don’t know what’s going to happen when you are 60 but as long as you have your health, you can be happy. We try to be healthy and stay healthy.” 

His advice for couch potatoes is to start slowly and to do something that they like. 

“If you don’t like running, try another sport. If you feel that a sport is too hard, stop and reduce it to an intensity which you are comfortable with. Once you appreciate the sport, you will discover more about it. 

“If you don’t go out there, you are missing out on a lot. What we have at our own backyard is simply wonderful. If you are stuck in front of the television, you will be missing out on all of this beauty, and you can’t do much about it later in life when your health deteriorates. Since you have your health, keep healthy and you may enjoy living well until way past 60.” 


  • Blackmores is currently running a campaign to promote healthy living, which encompasses physical, emotional, mental and social health. Look out for results of the Blackmores Real Health Poll soon. 

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