‘Four out of five Malaysian children inactive’


Flexing strength: There is mounting evidence that physically fit children and young people do better at school and university. – 123rf.com

THERE is a very real possibility that the current generation of Malaysian young people will be the first in recorded history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

This terrifying finding comes from a unique global research study supported by Nike Inc, and raises serious issues about the lives of today’s children.

The reasons for this situation are complex and numerous. Changes in diet and the environment play significant roles. However, perhaps the most evident change can be seen in increasingly inactive lifestyles.

These changes are affecting all ages and every region of the world. But there is little doubt that children in Malaysia, on the whole, give cause for concern.

A recent “report card” on physical activity, authored by many of the leading researchers in Malaysia, painted a depressing picture.

More than 80% of our children and young people – four out of five – fail to reach international targets of 60 minutes daily for at least five days per week. Many other studies report a similar tale: too much sitting; not enough moving.

Physical inactivity and sedentary behaviours – such as watching TV or playing computer games – have become among the deadliest risk factors for shorter and lower-quality lives, comparable in danger to cigarette smoking.

Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancers and obesity are all influenced by a lack of regular exercise. Its effects translate into life-shortening medical conditions, both during youth and later in life.

What’s more, inactive children are likely to become inactive teenagers, who go on to become inactive adults. The cost of this pattern equates to billions of ringgit from an already stretched health system.

Mounting evidence shows that the risks of a physically inactive lifestyle affect more than just physical health.

The lack of participation in exercise, dance, sports, martial arts, walking and cycling affects the whole child, including their psychological and social well-being. But the reverse is also true. Research conducted by academics at UCSI University demonstrates the remarkable benefits of regular physical activity.

For example, we reviewed the effects of an active lifestyle on young people’s mental health and found that those who exercise regularly are less depressed, anxious and stressed. They are also less likely to have suicidal thoughts.

Our studies reinforce reviews of international scientific literature that found that increasing levels of physical activity is 1.5 times more effective than counselling or the leading medications in managing serious mental health problems.

Exercise is a powerful medicine. It is accessible, sustainable and usually enjoyable!

The Nike-supported study mentioned earlier found that fit and active young people experience benefits in all aspects of their lives.

UCSI researchers have examined the wider benefits of physical activity, too. It might not be surprising to learn that members of sports clubs tend to have more friends and are more socially confident.

We also found that regular exercisers are more attractive to employers, often earning higher salaries at the start of their careers.

They acquire valuable life skills, such as goal-setting, resilience and teamwork, and these significantly increase their employability.One thing we learnt from our studies has surprised even us: there is mounting evidence that physically fit children and young people do better at school and university.

Exercise seems to affect the brain in a powerful way so that even relatively small increases in daily activity can positively impact school grades.

Schools that promote sports and physical education perform better than those that do not.

Teachers who include physically active elements in their lessons – like movements, games and play – see enhanced learning and assessments. Achievement in mathematics, in particular, tends to be higher among fit young people.

This last finding from research is especially important, as one of the main reasons parents give for limiting their children’s engagement with sports and exercise is a concern that it will interfere with their schoolwork. We now know this is not true, and the opposite is true for many children. Fit and active students do better, not worse than inactive peers.

The ancient Romans taught “a sound mind in a healthy body”. Modern science suggests that this simple motto contains a lot of wisdom.

We limit our children’s physical activity at our – and, most importantly their – peril.

Parents, schools and Malaysian society as a whole need to put movement back into the lives of children and young people. The benefits are great; the costs are even greater.

Richard Peter Bailey is deputy dean and head of Research and Postgraduate Studies in the Faculty of Social Sciences and Liberal Arts at UCSI University. The most recent global survey of the world’s leading scientists by Stanford University in the United States named Bailey as Malaysia’s top sport and exercise scientist. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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