Asia’s waistlines grow with its wealth
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Asia’s waistlines grow with its wealth

Sedentary lifestyles and the rise of mobile technology have been blamed for a rising epidemic of obesity in the Asia Pacific region that’s causing concern for governments and health practitioners.

The Asian Pacific Society of Cardiology warned recently that the epidemic was getting worse, not just because of the internet and mobile technology but also due to cultures that revolve around food.

In Singapore, about 11 per cent of adults in the island nation of 5.3m are considered obese, compared with an OECD average of 17 per cent and a US figure of more than 35 per cent.

Although Singaporeans are trim compared to the average in many Western countries, the  obesity problem has become a national concern with the health ministry announcing plans to restrict advertising around unhealthy food and drinks in the city state, which is renowned for its love of eating out.

About 60% of adults eat out four times a week, in the hawker centres and malls that are dotted around its busy streets.

But it isn’t alone in dealing with the obesity problem. Hong Kong has one of the highest obesity rates in the region at almost one in five of the population. According to OECD data 3% of mainland Chinese people were obese in 2009. The figure in Japan was 3.9 per cent and in India it was 2.1 per cent. In Taiwan, the government estimates that more than 44% of adults are overweight.

Lifestyles in Asia are dominated by long working days – Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea are all top of the developed world on the number of hours worked per day.

“I would probably call it ‘life balance’. People work and party pretty hard here,” says James Forrester, a former England rugby international and co-founder of the Singapore-based Urban fitness (UFIT) company. “But people who are sedentary and then start regular exercise always report much better energy levels.”

Forrester’s business encourages regular exercise via the military-style boot camps it hosts around the city.


UFIT holds military-style boot camps at various venues around Singapore. Pic: UFIT.

There are already an estimated 13 million members of 18,000 fitness clubs in the region, with revenues estimated to be in the region of $10 billion.

“Health and wellbeing is becoming more and more important in the region – as economies develop and move beyond the provision of basics and consumers start to worry more about “modern” risks to health, often related to personal life style choices,” says Guy Hearn, director of consumer communication insights for Omnicom Media Group in Asia.

“The aspiration to be ‘fit and healthy’ is almost universal. More than 80% of Chinese and Indian consumers, and only slightly fewer in Japan and Korea say they are concerned about being ‘fit and healthy’. But currently not that many actually back this up by actually doing exercise or sport.”

Governments will need to act fast though as Asia’s active consumers continue to rise. The global consultancy McKinsey estimates that Asia’s emerging markets will account for 64% of the global middle class and more than 40% of global middle-class consumption by 2030.

That means more spending on fatty foods and drinks, which is why governments are now taking the issue of obesity as seriously as they are.