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Steep fall in physical activity during circuit breaker period: Health Promotion Board

While hard-core exercise enthusiasts did not let the pandemic slow them down, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) found a steep decline in physical activity from March 2020 through the circuit breaker that ended on June 1 that year, with median daily step count falling from 8,050 to 4,320.

Median daily moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity (MVPA) duration also decreased from 129 minutes to 59 minutes during that period, data released by the HPB on Friday (Jan 21) revealed.

HPB is behind the successful National Steps Challenge, which is currently in its sixth season and has drawn more than 1.7 million participants across five seasons since 2015.

To motivate Singaporeans to keep active amid Covid-19, a bonus round of the challenge was organised from March to August 2021, which led to the median daily step count rebounding to as high as 8,000 and the median daily MVPA duration rising to 122 minutes at its peak.

About 80 per cent of those who completed both "Steps" and "MVPA" reward tiers in the bonus round also remained active, continuing to clock steps and MVPA until the end of the challenge.

For Ms Rachel Low, she chanced upon the challenge in 2015 when it started. The then 38-year-old executive in the semiconductor industry, feeling upset that she had to buy larger dresses to fit her growing frame, was determined to change her lifestyle.

"When I first started the challenge in 2015, I was not very confident. I did brisk walking of about 5,000 steps a day then and slowly increased the number," she told The Straits Times (ST) on Thursday (Jan 20).

Ms Low's discipline and consistency allowed her to lose about 25kg in less than a year to achieve a healthy body mass index. She eats healthier, cutting back on sugars, and is consistent in her exercise plan, which is to walk at least 40 minutes a day, and attend gym classes on weekends.

The National Steps Challenge aims to encourage participants to be physically active by logging their daily fitness activities, and hopes to get Singaporeans to embark on an active lifestyle by leveraging technology such as smart wearables.

For a sedentary adult, walking the recommended 7,500 to 10,000 steps daily can help lower high blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels, and improve glucose control, HPB said.

Engaging in higher levels of MVPA has also been associated with lower risks of cardiovascular diseases and depression.

Another finding which HPB made is that technology is not a barrier for senior participants, with the use of wearables and reward mechanics motivating them to adopt healthier behaviours.

Sign-ups among seniors aged 60 and above grew by 15 times, from 16,000 in Season 1 to more than 240,000 in Season 5. The number of seniors who clocked more than 10,000 steps daily increased by almost 35 times from Season 1 to Season 5.

An example is Mr Louis Loh, who heard of the challenge back in 2018 through a friend. The 84-year-old, who has high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol, hardly exercised prior to the challenge.

"The wearable is very useful as it helps me keep track and manage my health," he told ST. Currently, the part-time sports assistant walks one to two hours daily, clocking at least 10,000 steps.

The first half of the sixth season of the challenge has seen more than 620,000 sign-ups, with registration still ongoing as at December 2021.

It was reported in December last year that this "unanticipated" surge in interest in the challenge led to a shortage of fitness trackers needed for participation.

In an update on Thursday (Jan 20), HPB said stocks have been replenished and it is working with partners to ensure supply at distribution points.

"Participants can get updates on the availability of appointment slots for tracker collection on HPB's Facebook page and National Steps Challenge website," HPB said.

Amid an ongoing pandemic, this season's challenge includes monthly thematic events, with the first in December nudging participants to wrap up 2021 on a healthy note by achieving their fitness goals and sharing their personal stories on how they kept active. More than 140,000 sign-ups were recorded.

The nudges also include recommendations to participate in physical activity programmes organised by HPB.

Season 6 will conclude on March 31 this year and HPB will be modifying the challenge from April. Instead of seasonal runs spanning six months, the challenge will be an ongoing programme and details will be released later.

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