INTERACTIVE: Do Malaysians get enough exercise? Find out here

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 10 Sep 2023

Some residents spending quality time together by cycling at the Taman Tasik Titiwangsa, Kuala Lumpur. Cycling is the fourth most popular sport among people in Malaysia, based on a survey by the Department of Statistics Malaysia. - FAIHAN GHANI/The Star.

PETALING JAYA: More than half of people in Malaysia, or 53.9%, are keeping themselves fit with at least one physical activity.

It’s a good sign, but experts say this rate is still considerably low and many more need to get moving for better health, especially to prevent diseases.

The number one type of physical activity that people in Malaysia enjoy is recreational hobbies like camping and hiking, based on a survey by the Department of Statistics Malaysia.

This is followed by brisk walking, running and cycling.

Interestingly, e-sports, which includes competitive video gaming and some fitness games, is also a top favourite, being the fifth most popular activity among respondents.

Such findings are based on data in 2020 from an inaugural report by the department on insights into fitness among Malaysians, released in June this year.

Called the MyCensus 2020: Population Well-being (Fitness), the report collected the responses of 16.13 million people in Malaysia aged 10 and above in 2020.

Not quite there yet

While it’s more than half, Malaysian Medical Association immediate past president Dr Muruga Raj Rajathurai believes it’s not enough that 53.9% of people nationwide are involved in at least one activity.

“It shows that a large number of Malaysians aren't giving enough importance to exercise.

“It is indeed a worry as exercise is vital to reducing the risk of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like diabetes and heart disease,” he says in an interview.

Malaysian Association of Sports Medicine vice-president Dr Alston Choong says it’s a positive thing that more than half of the population is engaged in some physical activity but there should be more.

“The World Health Organization has set a global target to reduce physical inactivity by 10% by 2025.

“To achieve this, a higher percentage of the population in each country should be involved in regular physical activity.

“When compared to this target and recommendations for physical activity to combat NCDs, the 53% rate might still be considered low,” he adds.

Where are the most active people?

Among the states and federal territories in Malaysia, Putrajaya has the highest percentage of active people, with 83.77% of residents being involved in at least one sport.

This is followed by Kuala Lumpur (77.81%) and Selangor (71.67%).

Kelantan, meanwhile, recorded the lowest rate of active people at 36.84%, with most respondents in the state or 63.16% admitting they didn’t take part in any activities.

Zooming into the district level, the place with the most active residents is Pakan in Sarawak, a small town in the Sarikei division.

This is based on an analysis of the data, which showed that 85.03% of folks in the district play at least one sport or activity.

Ironically, the district with the most inactive population is also in Sarawak: namely, the Sebauh district in the Bintulu division, with 95.74% of respondents saying they didn’t do any sports.

With Malaysia having various outdoor camping and hiking sites, most respondents said they enjoyed recreational activities, making it the top physical activity named in the report.

A total of 4.21 million people answered that this was how they stayed active, while 2.84 million responses were also given for brisk walking, followed by running with 2.12 million responses.

On recreational activities, Dr Muruga Raj says such outdoor pursuits like hiking and camping can be incredibly healthy.

“However, it's essential to consider how frequently people actually take part in these activities.

“To experience substantial health benefits, individuals should aim for daily or at least three times a week of physical activity or exercise, making it a part of their lifestyle,” he advises.

Concurring, Dr Choong says such recreational activities can be considered effective exercises.

“They offer various benefits, including improving heart health, muscle strength, promoting mental well-being, and fostering social interactions.

“The varied terrains in hiking, for instance, challenge different muscle groups.

"They can be as effective as structured workouts that can improve balance, bone density, and muscle group strength that can prevent falls among the elderly,” he explains.

See the tables below on how people in your district are choosing to stay active:

Different strokes for different folks

The survey also showed that the top favourite activities differed according to age group.

For children aged between 10 and 14, their top three are recreational activities, followed by cycling and running.

Meanwhile, the age group of between 15 and 64 said recreational activities, brisk walking and running were their top choices.

Among senior citizens aged 65 and above though, it is concerning that most (66.99%) of respondents said they were inactive, compared to the 33.01% who did at least one activity.

For the 33.01% , their picks for staying active are brisk walking, recreational activities and taichi or yoga.

It’s impressive that 2,053 respondents aged 65 and above said they participated in extreme sports, making up 0.65% of the total 315,310 respondents who are into such adventurous activities.

Most of these seniors are from the Kinta district in Perak, with 112 respondents, followed by the Timur Laut district in Penang with 111 responses.

E-sports as exercise?

With the emergence of e-sports as a top activity, Dr Choong agrees that such hobbies have gained immense popularity in Malaysia.

But those engaged in sedentary e-sports must balance it with physical activity to protect their health, he urges.

Dr Choong says the International Olympic Committee (IOC) introduced the Olympic Virtual Series in 2018, which includes competitive traditional sports and also “exergaming”, which are video games that also require physical activity.

“This new definition by the IOC is a significant step in promoting physical activity, especially among youths.

“While traditional e-sports challenge the mind and require strategy and coordination, the IOC’s initiative bridges the gap between virtual and physical sports.

“E-sports players, especially those involved in the Olympic Virtual Series, can experience both the mental challenges of gaming and the physical benefits of traditional sports,” he says.

Nonetheless, Dr Choong urges e-sports enthusiasts to balance screen time with physical activities to ensure overall health.

“Prolonged sitting and screen exposure can lead to health issues, so incorporating breaks with physical activity is crucial.

“Physical activity can also improve the brain’s function and physical endurance level, which can help improve their e-sport performance,” he advises.

Sports scientist Jad Adrian Washif says mixing e-sports with physical activity, or "exergaming," offers a balanced approach to fun and health.

“However, we may consider exergaming a supplement, not a replacement, for regular exercise,” he says.

Between men and women in Malaysia, the data showed that males outnumbered females when it comes to most sports covered in the survey.

However, the fairer sex surpassed the number of men in two types of sports - brisk walking and zumba or aerobics.

Women also outnumbered men when it comes to respondents who don't participate in any activities.

Playgrounds are number one

Across the nation, the most accessible public sports and recreation facilities are playgrounds, followed by football fields and recreational parks.

Playgrounds are the easiest for people in Malaysia to access, with 89.9% of areas nationwide being able to reach such facilities within a five kilometre radius.

Football fields come in second, being accessible within a similar distance in 86.2% of areas in Malaysia, while recreational parks are reachable in 77.4% of places nationwide.

In Pahang, most facilities are playing fields, which make up 31.5% of public facilities.

For Kuala Lumpur, gymnasiums outnumber playgrounds with 157 of such centres compared to only 18 playgrounds in the nation's capital.

With the availability of sports amenities throughout the country, more should be encouraged to get moving.

"Physical activity helps lower health risks and can make daily life better for those who are already diagnosed, sometimes reducing the need for medication," says Jad Adrian.

To start a fitness routine, he advises the public to set modest, achievable goals first and explore a diverse range of exercise options.

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