Steps to helping people stay healthy

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 13, 2013

THE Ministry of Health (MOH) is seeking views on how to get people to live healthier lives.

Its parliamentary secretary, Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim, has been tasked with coming up with a healthy living master plan to "ensure that all Singaporeans have access to a healthy lifestyle so that healthy living becomes natural and effortless for all".

Following a webchat on the subject on May 8, he said that Singapore is, in fact, a world leader when it comes to healthy living.

But it can still learn a thing or two from other places, such as New York City, which has succeeded in reducing its number of obese people.

Good ideas can come from anywhere and anyone, not just from rich, developed nations.

Some tripwires to healthy living which emerged from the Internet-based feedback session were the lack of facilities and inconvenience in getting healthier foods.

Those who work and eat out say what they consume depends on what is available at their workplace. Those who do not exercise regularly cite the lack of facilities or the hot and humid weather.

The building of parks and shady park connectors has helped. What they want is to have more "convenient" and easy ways to stay healthy.

On a recent visit to the city of Hangzhou in China, I was struck by two things I saw there that I felt Singapore could well adopt.

Overall, health care may not be as good there as in Singapore. Chinese life expectancy is 75 years against 83.7 years in Singapore.

But Hangzhou, famous for its scenic West Lake and with a population close to that of Singapore, is certainly moving in the right direction when it comes to getting people to exercise more and to eat healthier.

The first is the 50,000 bicycles provided free by the city for people to use. Bicycle stations are found throughout the city at various strategic locations.

Residents need to register for a transport card. With this, they can tap on a machine to take out a bike for an hour. There is a one yuan (20 Singapore cents) charge for the second hour, and this doubles with every additional hour it is used. The higher charge is meant to discourage bike-hogging.

So it was a common sight to see people - dressed casually in shorts, or in office attire with coat and tie or even in heels - on these red bicycles everywhere.

This scheme has two advantages. It supplements the city's transport system. So if the train station is a fair distance from your destination, just grab a bicycle at the station and return it to the bicycle station nearest your destination.

And by using bicycles, people are also exercising.

For such a scheme to work, there must be enough bicycles to meet demand, sufficient bicycle stations to make it useful and bicycle lanes to make it safe to use.

In Hangzhou, these bicycles are also available around the West Lake for recreation.

The other thing that impressed me was the large section of supermarkets devoted to sugar-free products. While such items are available in Singapore, they are often found at speciality stores or dispersed throughout the supermarket.

About one in 10 adults here is diabetic. That is a significant group with high purchasing power. Having a section of foods that they can safely eat would certainly help them with their weekly shopping.

The Health Promotion Board might like to consider working with supermarkets to create special sections offering diabetic- friendly food. These sections should not consist of sugar-free items alone, but also other diabetic-friendly products like glass noodles (tang hoon). The latter has a glycaemic index (GI) about one-sixth that of rice or wheat noodles.

Food with low GI is absorbed more slowly, so it does not cause the sugar spike that rapidly absorbed carbohydrates do.

Such a section in the supermarket could also provide additional educational information to help diabetics in their food purchases.

It would also be interesting to non-diabetics. For example, foods with low GI have been found to help prevent or reduce diabetes, promote "good" cholesterol and reduce the risk of getting heart disease.

If this proves successful, supermarkets might be interested in going one step further.

One of the best ways to get people to live healthy lives is to provide them with information, rather than mere exhortation.

It is better to explain how taking too much salt can damage a person's health - and how much is too much - rather than simply telling people to "eat less salt". It is easier to get people to change their behaviour when they understand the reason.

A supermarket section featuring low-sodium items might also see a fall in the number of people suffering from stroke.

All it takes is a little reorganising of shelves, and the provision of relevant information.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on May 13, 2013

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to