In search of healthy habits in Indonesia

In search of healthy habits

Kate Watson
Zahfa gets tennis tips from her sports teacher
14 October 2019

It’s 8am and the sun is already scorching the sports yards in front of a high school in Klaten District, Central Java, Indonesia. There’s basketball practice on one side and tennis on the other, but not everyone is joining in. “I don’t like doing sports outside, there’s so much dust, and it’s hot!” Zahfa giggles. Judging by the number of her classmates chatting in the shade, she’s not alone. For many of the students, this sports class is the only physical activity they do all week. Their school day is long and does not give them time to exercise. Nor does it encourage healthy eating habits – students arrive at 6.45am and classes continue, with a few rest breaks, until late afternoon, which partly explains why missing breakfast is so common.

According to a 2017 UNICEF study, around half of Indonesian teenagers miss or skip daily breakfast at home, so their first meal of the day is made up of whatever they can get at school. There’s typically no regulation on what can be sold in school canteens, so what’s available is largely left to the discretion of the school or vendors. Typically, the school curriculum also includes little about nutrition and healthy activities.

Zahfa at school
During her lunchbreak, Zahfa catches up on her homework at school in Klaten, Indonesia

Factors such as these, as well as wider changes in diets (such as increased consumption of unhealthy foods) and industrialization have helped double rates of overweight in adolescents between 2004 and 2013. Indonesia has traditionally focused on reducing undernutrition, which remains a major problem – around 30 per cent of children under 5 have stunted growth. Nevertheless, amid rising overweight, there’s increasing awareness of the need to improve the knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of adolescents, their families and communities on healthy eating and physical activity.

That also means integrating nutrition and physical education messages into the school curriculum for students like Zahfa. “At home, I just watch TV,” she says, “or I hang out with my friends, eating and chatting in the café.” Although she does try to get to the gym once or twice a week, it’s a challenge to fit it into her day. “School finishes at 4pm, so if I go to the gym, I don’t get home until 6pm. It’s tiring.”

Zahfa plays tennis at school
Zahfa plays tennis at school in Klaten, Indonesia