Habitual exercise part of core health, ageing solution

Last month's reports ("Rising obesity among young set to worsen diabetes rate"; Feb 22, and "Govt to review financing system for long-term care"; Feb 25) aptly addressed the challenges posed by the combination of a sedentary younger population and a fast-ageing population.

The elderly population in Singapore is projected to double from 440,000 last year to 900,000 in 2030, which translates to a growth rate of 0.73 per cent a year.

This growth rate is exponential when compared with 0.2 per cent a year between 1990 and 2000, and 0.33 per cent a year between 2000 and last year, and puts significant pressure on the healthcare, economic and social landscapes of Singapore.

The core problem with ageing is not age itself, but the deterioration in health and physical functions and the increased susceptibility to chronic disease.

The first-order response to these problems is to increase the national capacity to provide medical care and social support for the elderly.

However, these solutions do not address the root problem of a largely sedentary younger population, who are the "future old".

The "medicinal" properties of habitual exercise in countering the effects of ageing are supported by a vast amount of scientific evidence.

The healthcare burden of a fast-ageing population can be mitigated significantly by promoting habitual exercise among the young and middle-age groups today.

Singapore is already promoting active lifestyles through multiple channels, such as education and the provision of public recreational facilities.

However, a systemic paradigm shift in exercise promotion is needed for a sustainable culture of habitual exercise to evolve.

Some areas to consider include redesigning physical and sport education in schools, capitalising on our military conscription system to inculcate lifelong exercise habits, and designing our living space and environment to promote active lifestyles.

More research funding should also be channelled into studying the interaction among habitual exercise, health and chronic disease in the local context.

These efforts need the respective government agencies in defence, education, health, and community and sport development to be well integrated under a national strategy to promote habitual exercise.

The solution to the ageing population need not be expensive or complex if we are willing to accept the paradigm shift of an evidence-based solution to inculcate a culture of habitual exercise as "medicine" over one's lifespan.

Fabian Lim Chin Leong (Associate Professor)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2016, with the headline 'Habitual exercise part of core health, ageing solution'. Print Edition | Subscribe