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Commentary: Parents, your habits can determine whether your kids will age well

SINGAPORE: Active ageing has been high on Singapore’s agenda. The latest Forward SG report lists enabling seniors to age well as a national goal, outlining plans such as expanding the network of active ageing centres.

Medical literature indicates that our health tends to decline after crossing the 40-year mark. But the stark reality is that chronic diseases, traditionally associated with older age groups, are increasingly affecting young people.

Specifically, the prevalence of chronic conditions like hypertension, high cholesterol, and obesity has been rising across many age groups, including the young. The National Population Health Survey 2022 paints a worrying picture, showing an increase in obesity rates for those aged 18 to 29 and 40 to 59.

Obesity can lead to long-term chronic conditions not limited to diabetes, high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart diseases. It is also on the rise among children and adolescents. The proportion of primary, secondary and pre-university students under the age of 18 who are classified as overweight has climbed from 13 per cent in 2017 to 16 per cent in 2021.

In light of these alarming developments, it becomes evident that active ageing cannot be restricted to the later stages of life. It must commence at a young age, a belief also concurred by Professor Teo Yik Ying, Dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

DELVING DEEPER INTO CHILDHOOD OBESITY

Paediatrician Dr Lim Yang Chern observed that obese children tend to come from families where both siblings and parents grapple with excess weight.

Often, these families fall within the middle- to lower-income bracket. The contributing factors to this complex issue include a dependence on quick dietary solutions and the challenge of carving out sufficient time and energy for engaging in physical activities.

One cannot overlook the influence of genetics as well. Those struggling with weight issues do not necessarily have unhealthy habits.

As someone whose parents did not complete their primary school education, I’m curious about how children from lower-income families can maintain a healthy weight and an active lifestyle.

My childhood meals were not the most nutritious, as they typically consisted of plain rice and a fried egg, with a drizzle of dark soy sauce. But the fact that my family ate together at home might have some connection to my mental and physical health.

Studies have consistently shown that children who eat with their families not only do better in school, but also have lower rates of depression, anxiety and eating disorders, as well as healthier diets and better cardiovascular health. The presence of children at mealtimes motivates parents to prepare healthier dishes and set a positive behavioural example.

Adults play a pivotal role in modelling active ageing for their children. Growing up, my siblings and I did not have easy access to organised sports or fitness facilities outside of school. But I was deeply influenced by my grandfather’s healthy habits – I recall him lifting dumbbells by his bedside right after he woke up every morning.

I have been following in his footsteps, and at the age of 45, was recognised by the Singapore Book of Records for completing the most overhead leg raises in a minute. Now my three young children are taking after me in leading an active lifestyle.

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PARENTS HAVE POWERFUL INFLUENCE ON THEIR KIDS’ HEALTH

When children see their family members engaging in regular physical activity, prioritising balanced nutrition and embracing a positive outlook on ageing, they are likely to adopt these practices and continue with them throughout their lives. This can help to reduce the risk of chronic health issues and lead to a more vibrant ageing experience.

Here are some tips for developing a culture of health and well-being in your household.

First, walk the talk. Amid our countless responsibilities, our active lifestyles may have faded into the background. However, we can rekindle the sports we once cherished during our youth. By embodying an active lifestyle, we set an example for our children to emulate.

Second, experiment with novel sports. Whether through Singapore Sports Hub’s kids programmes or a trip to a Decathlon store, expose your child to diverse sport activities and equipment. Be prepared for initial reluctance from your children, and exercise patience while gently guiding them along this exploration.

Third, incorporate fun into physical activities. During my jogging sessions, my children frequently accompany me, riding their bicycles alongside. We infuse elements of play, engaging in games like catch and exploring new playgrounds. After an active week, we reward ourselves with a treat, perhaps a waffle or bubble tea with reduced sugar.

Fourth, educate your children on healthy habits. Teach them the importance of a balanced diet, staying hydrated, and getting adequate sleep. My wife and I taught our children how to read nutrition labels, and when dining out, request dishes with less oil and salt, explaining our rationale. Now, our children follow suit willingly.

Fifth, impart the joy of giving. Being a committed blood donor, I tell my children about the importance of maintaining good health, emphasising how it enables us to contribute to our community. Now, they can appreciate that taking good care of oneself is essential to giving back to society.

Our roles as parents extend beyond fulfilling our children’s immediate needs. By instilling active ageing principles from a young age, we grant our children longer, more fulfilling lives. We also nurture engaged citizens more equipped to embrace life fully, creating a healthier and more active society as a whole. So why wait?

Tan Chin Hock is the founder of Holdinghands Studio, and is encouraging youths to lead a healthier lifestyle on TikTok.

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