Looking to minimize the impact of lifestyle diseases and conditions in the Asia Pacific countries where it operates, AIA Group Limited held a competition for schools that implement programs that promote healthy habits and behavior.
Across Asia Pacific, some 70% of all diseases and health conditions are lifestyle related, including diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, even increasing levels of obesity. As the region becomes more affluent, lifestyle diseases become more prevalent.
In 2022, AIA launched the Healthiest Schools competition to promote healthy lifestyles among children by providing educators with resources to integrate into their classroom.
Some 744 primary and secondary schools from Australia, Vietnam, Thailand and Hong Kong set out to show the positive impact of their health and wellness programs. AIA held the awards ceremony for the first AIA Healthiest Schools Competition in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on July 4th.
For Hong Kong-headquartered AIA, the largest publicly listed life insurance group in Asia-Pacific, lowering the burden of lifestyle diseases wherever it operates is a positive goal, one that could alleviate stress for health care systems and help AIA develop “the healthiest book” in the industry, said Stuart A. Spencer, AIA’s Group Chief Marketing Officer during a round table held in Kuala Lumpur on July 4th after a press conference held to announce the winners of its regional competition.
Daroonwittaya School, in Thailand, won the regional primary school competition because it “stood out for the breadth of health and wellness activities that the school conducted,” according to the jury.
Vietnam’s Alpha School won the regional secondary school winner competition in recognition of the creativity of its approach to the mental wellbeing of the students through engaging workshops.
A challenge for the entire region
There are more than 560 million school-aged children across Asia-Pacific. Many of them are dealing with converging health challenges such as mental health, rising obesity, physical inactivity and poor nutrition,” said Lee Yuan Sion, Group Chief Executive and President at AIA.
“We firmly believe that schools are the bedrock of our society, where our children spend a significant portion of their formative years, and where we can help instill healthy habits that will shape their futures.”
Most countries in Asia Pacific have implemented school health and nutrition program, and many of them show promise, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
COVID-19 school closures highlighted the importance of physical and socio-emotional learning environments in preserving the health and well-being of both students and teachers. Immediate and long-term responses and recovery measures require increased attention to transforming both education and health care systems, UNESCO says.
Emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic and witnessing the challenges that young populations had to overcome, was a trigger for AIA to take a more proactive approach towards lifestyle diseases, said Spencer.
“Now more than ever is the time to lean in and trigger and find ways and solutions to address problems that haven’t been addressed in these groups at a systematic and institutional level,” Spencer said.
“Looking at future generations and the role we can play, we said, ‘what if we take the message out to young people? If we do not act, they are going to grow up adopting the same behaviors and habits that we are trying to reverse’,” he explained while underscoring that many diseases and conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, heart attacks and mental anxiety are highly related to unhealthy lifestyles.
“We believe this is an important high-risk cocktail,” said Spencer. “Serving society and our communities and lowering the disease burden is a good thing for the nations where we operate.”
AIA partnered with education specialist EVERFI, from Washington D.C., to design the AIA Healthiest Schools program.
Research by EVERFI among 800 teachers in Australia, Hong Kong, Thailand and Vietnam found that 87% pointed to the negative impact of the pandemic on mental health.
“89% of teachers agree that there is a need for more resources and education that take a holistic health approach encompassing physical, mental and environmental wellness,” said AIA.
Promoting healthy living habits
Four key criteria were used to evaluate school initiatives to promote healthy living habits, explained Spencer, including the range and variety of activities and programs offered, how schools engaged with staff and students, the impact on young people and on their communities.
“The students… learned about the value of teamwork, leadership and resilience in achieving their health goals, and deepened their understanding of how health issues affect people differently,” said Spencer. “The program inspired them to make positive changes in their lives and motivated them to become advocates for healthy living in their schools, homes and communities.”
Regional winners were awarded a health week in Phuket, Thailand, football coaching sessions and nutrition classes.
The Hong Kong insurance company also awarded kitchen equipment to help schools to prepare nutritious meals along with IT and sporting goods.
An ambitious program
AIA expects schools in other countries where they operate or where they have business partnerships, to join the program soon, including in China, India, Malaysia and others.
“We will add Malaysia and we will add Indonesia (to the program)… our China and India teams are eager to participate,” said Spencer, who noted that the company’s target is to grow the program tenfold every year.
“Having the ambition to do so is critical. We´ve learned a few lessons on how best to attract schools, communicate with schools, and enroll schools. We are encouraged by the progress we´ve made,” Spencer said.
Last year AIA set the goal of engaging a billion people to live healthier, longer and better lives by 2030 through their AIA One Billion initiative.
According to UNESCO, there are 300,000 preventable fatalities per year among children and teenagers between the ages of 5 and 14 in the Asia-Pacific region, with a confirmed higher risk of mortality for boys rising throughout childhood and adolescence.