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Climb stairs, cut calories: Southeast Asia fights flab

By Himani Sarkar

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's Sean Chin had a body fat percentage of 24 percent seven years ago. He is now lean with just 9 percent fat and as a personal trainer he works daily with clients at their homes to help them fight the flab.

"Building up confidence levels is the crucial first step towards tackling obesity and I help my clients build theirs by showing them a photograph of a fat me," he said with a smile.

"My mantra? If I could, you can."

To complement such efforts and nudge others to take the first step, many Southeast Asian countries are rolling out measures so people can make healthy choices before obesity turns into the full-blown epidemic seen in many Western countries.

Obesity is a priority for the government, said Zee Yoong Kang, chief executive of Singapore's Health Promotion Board.

"There's some intuition that once obesity gets above a certain share of a population, it becomes more of a norm and then businesses and infrastructure accommodate the greater appetite, sucking in more people into that lifestyle," Zee said.

While Southeast Asia still enjoys one of the world's lowest obesity rates, it is seeing a rapid growth in the condition.

Rising incomes, sedentary lifestyles and fattier, Western fast food are exacerbating the situation for a region that has for decades focused on under- rather than over-nutrition.

The obesity rate in Singapore climbed to about 13-14 percent in 2010 from 8.6 percent in 2004. In Malaysia, one of two adults is either overweight or obese, while the prevalence of obesity in Thailand has almost doubled between 1991 and 2009.

The World Health Organisation has urged governments to do more to prevent obesity, instead of risking the high costs when it sets in. [ID:nL5N0L70PZ]

BATTLING THE BULGE

Malaysia is working on increasing awareness about obesity being a public health threat as part of its national strategic plan for non-communicable disease (NCD). Obesity is a key cause of NCDs like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

"A population with a high burden of NCDs ... will affect productivity and ultimately negatively impact our economic development," said Dr Chong Chee Kheong, director of disease control at the Ministry of Health in Malaysia.

The "Nutrition Month Malaysia" initiative had "Eat right, move more: Fight Obesity" as its theme this year. The country also hosted the International Congress on Obesity in March.

Thailand is looking at various measures to beat the bulge, including a ban on the sale of carbonated soft drinks at state schools, said Krisada Ruangareerat, manager at the health ministry's Thai Health Promotion Foundation (THPF).

"The latest number in 2012 showed about 17 million Thais suffered from obesity ... the number continues to rise by four million people a year," Krisada told Reuters.

The THPF is also thinking of proposing a tax on sweet foods or those with high calories. "Thais consume 23.4 teaspoons of sugar per person per day, which is very high compared with an appropriate level of six teaspoons a day," Krisada added.

"I think every government is at various stages of realisation that prevention is better than cure," said Simon Flint, the Asia CEO of gym chain operator Fitness First, which is fast expanding in the region.

SINGAPORE ON A FITNESS DRIVE

In Singapore, many childcare centres are serving less-fattening brown instead of white rice and public housing blocks have signs urging people to skip the lift and take the stairs.

The government has rolled out an incentive-based weight management programme for its residents to collectively shed one million kgs (2.2 million lb) in the next three years.

The city-state, home to 5.4 million people, is also working with several organisations to promote healthy living, including Fitness First and with fast-food chain McDonald's.

"It's safer as a health authority to tell the kids no McDonald's, but it's more real and will potentially have a better impact if I work with McDonald's to improve their product mix," the health board's Zee said in an interview.

McDonald's has come forward to commit to provide more wholesome options in its menu, he added.

Singapore, which is hoping to at least stabilise the rising obesity rate by 2020, recently launched a healthy living master plan and a food strategy that will see some 700 food outlets island-wide serving 500-calorie meals. It plans to roll out another initiative for physical activity later this year.

"Nutrition has to go hand-in-hand with exercise. Drastic changes will backfire," said Chin, the trainer. "Appreciate healthy food and your body will thank you in its own way."

(Additional reporting by Rachel Armstrong in SINGAPORE, Manunphattr Dhanananphorn in BANGKOK and Trinna Leong in KUALA LUMPUR; Editing by Michael Roddy and Neil Fullick)

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