National car versus the public’s health

WHILE the newly elected government focuses on rebuilding the country’s economy, it is important that it also considers how policies outside of the health sector impact Malaysians’ health.

Physical inactivity is one of the major risk factors for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and cancers.

Across its many different forms, physical activity has multiple health, social and economic benefits. Walking and cycling are key means of transportation that enable people to engage in regular physical activity on a daily basis, but they are declining in popularity in many countries. The greatest changes are occurring in low- and middle-income countries such as Malaysia, where large numbers of people are now dependent on personal motorised transport.

Policies that improve road safety, promote compact urban design, and prioritise access by pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users to destinations and services can reduce the use of personal motorised transportation, which in turn reduces carbon emissions and traffic congestion. At the same time, this would also reduce healthcare costs whilst also boosting micro economies in local neighbourhoods and improving community wellbeing and quality of life.

Malaysia is becoming more urbanised, with over 70% of the population living in urban centres. Therefore our cities have a particular responsibility and opportunity to contribute to a healthier country by improving urban design and using sustainable transport systems.

Physical activity should be integrated into multiple daily settings. For many adults, the workplace can be a key setting where they could be physically active and reduce sedentary behaviour. The trip to and from work, activity breaks, and workplace programmes all offer opportunities for increased physical activity throughout the working day, and can contribute to increased productivity and reduction in injuries and absenteeism.

Echoing the beneficial effects of physical activity in a recent Facebook posting, Human Resources Minister M. Kulase­garan used the stairs to get to his office on the ninth floor and urged his staff to do the same.

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has also talked about healthy ageing. Whether working or not, older adults in particular can benefit from regular physical activity to maintain physical, social and mental health (including prevention or delay of dementia), prevent falls and realise healthy ageing.

One of the key features of a developed nation is the availability and accessibility of a comprehensive public transport network. The use of public transportation has been shown to increase the overall level of physical activity of a country’s population, in addition to many other co-benefits to health.

Given our increasing burden of NCDs, we must strengthen the integration of urban and transport planning policies to prioritise the principles of highly connected neighbourhoods that will promote walking, cycling, and other forms of mobility involving the use of wheels and the use of public transport in urban, suburban and rural communities.

The health of the population is the most valuable resource for the country’s development. The government has the responsibility to protect the health of the population by adopting and implementing policies that promote healthy behaviours.


Consultant Public Health Physician