Can STEM Help Tackle Obesity?

Just a few days into the New Year, I was heading home to Kota Kinabalu from Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Traveling back and forth has long been a routine. If I have time to kill at the airport, I would habitually visit the book store and pick up interesting titles.


This time an extraordinary book cover caught my eye. It featured a determined-looking chap; half of him was barrel-chested, another half was dressed smartly in a business suit. The alluring title spells, “Fit in Five: Better Health in Just 5 Minutes A Day”.

fit in 5.jpg
The book that caught my eyes at a KLIA bookstore.

Can one look like him by just working out five minutes a day? It was a season of setting “New Year resolutions”; I could safely attribute my keenness in the book to my goal of being in the pink of health this year.


On a more serious note, the issue of overweight and obesity has been a top concern for the Cabinet and government. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), overweight is a body mass index (BMI) greater than or equal to 25, whereas obesity is when a BMI is greater or equal to 30.


The National Health and Morbidity Survey 2015 conducted by the Institute of Public Health, Ministry of Health, reported that 30 per cent of the Malaysian population are overweight and another 17.7 per cent are obese. This in total accounts for close to half of us showing unhealthy readings on the weighing scale!


Therefore it is no surprise when Malaysia was announced as the title-holder for “Asia’s Most Obese Country” by British medical journal The Lancet in 2014 and among ASEAN’s fattest, as report by the Economist’s Intelligence Unit in “Tackling Obesity in ASEAN”, a 2017 study conducted in six ASEAN countries including ours.


Even we were to present the causes of obesity, the interventions that have been carried out and their success rates as articulately as we can through diagrams, I can imagine one could get entangled in a web of complex links between them with non-conclusive outcomes, which also by no means is the point of my writing.


But there are some useful pointers from this report that would raise the alarm that Malaysians need to immediately tackle obesity. Besides notoriously being at the helm for among the fattest nations in the region, it is costing precious lives and also negatively impacts our economy. Obesity has a strong correlation with a range of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as a 24 per cent chance of hypertension compared to 10 per cent among the non-obese, a seven per cent chance of diabetes compared to only three per cent among their healthier peers.


Economically, the report furthermore stated that in 2016, Malaysia was estimated to have lost between RM 4.26 billion to RM 8.53 billion to the condition, equivalent to a whopping 10 to 19 per cent of our country’s healthcare spending. Between seven and 12 productive years were lost in females due to obesity, while among males it was between six and 11 years.


Many forms of intervention strategies to tackle obesity have been implemented, driven by the Ministry of Health, including a consideration for a sugar-sweetened beverage tax. As the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation, like in all other cases of problem-solving, I have been exploring if technology can help tackle this condition.


With that I chaired a roundtable, a series named Innovators Dynamic, which I initiated to solve national problems through innovation. Besides experts from the Ministry of Health and technologists from MIMOS, our national ICT research centre, we also invited Mr Wong Yu Jin, the chap featured on the book I picked up at the airport earlier, author of “Fit in Five”.

Innovators Dynamic Roundtable on “Tackling Obesity”.

At the roundtable, we approached the topic in two ways. Firstly, to what extend can technology tackle obesity effectively? With the ubiquitous usage of smartphones, most of us would turn to fitness apps as the most widely available, convenient and cost-effective mode of technology to help us to lose those extra kilograms.


These apps could keep a record of our diet. Wearables like smart watch and Fitbit help users to keep track of users’ health – for example, how many steps taken every day, sleep quantity and quality and heart rate.


However “a tool is only as good as the person using it.” A 2017 research by Flurry Analytics showed that the usage of health and fitness apps have shot up by 330 per cent in the past three years, yet obesity has always been on the rise globally. Technology is a double-edged sword. Addiction to it at the same time could distract us from real-life, physical activities. Is it not ironic to be on our phones throughout our workout?


Next at the roundtable, we agreed that it is about mindset change and taking baby steps. Yu Jin shared his story of how he became health conscious and now a highly sought after fitness coach. He was rising the corporate ranks until a heart attack struck one of his bosses. It was a wake-up call for him.


He told the roundtable audience that by just doing at least five minutes of a workout routine to kickstart, in a week one would accumulate 35 minutes of exercise and of course we are encouraged to step this up. The idea was to just get moving without giving the excuse of having “no time”.


Exchanging books with Mr Wong Yu Jin, author of “Fit in Five: Better Health in Just 5 Minutes A Day” during Innovators Dynamic on 13th February.


You can watch the speakers’ presentations at the roundtable including Yu Jin’s on MOSTI’s official Facebook page.


As an advocate of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), I see the great opportunity and potential of educating the young and the public about health and fitness through STEM. STEM should not be seen as merely an academic stream for students at schools. Instead it is an effective mean to learn the science about ourselves and the world, and eventually apply our scientific knowledge to enhance the quality of life for public good.


In this case, through STEM education, we learn about the science behind obesity – nutrition, exercising, the biology of our body – to keep ourselves healthy. STEM really does not just stay in school. It is useful for a lifetime.


Finally, I concur with Dr Lim Hin Fui, a Fellow at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM), who was one of the speakers at Innovators Dynamic, that being clear of why we want a healthy weight will go a long way. He said that we need to stay away from obesity “for ourselves, our family, our society and our country”.

With Mr Lim Hin Fui.

Have you identified your motivation for losing those extra pounds? Make it your New Year resolution and commit to it, for yourself, your family and Malaysia!



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