Groups of older men and women taking a stroll together just before sun-up have long been a common early morning sight in Phnom Penh, but now the capital is seeing an increase in the number of solo joggers taking to the streets for exercise at that hour as well.

On most mornings, if you were in the neighbourhood of Bele Bridge in Russey Keo commune and you headed to the public park nearby there and watched by the dim light of the street lamps you’d see at least one jogger with hair as white as his t-shirt slowly but steadily proceeding on his way.

Than Tha gets up at dawn each day and jogs to the Chroy Changvar International Convention and Exhibition Center, running for one hour – even though he is now in his 60’s – at a steady but gentle pace.

Tha, who is known to other joggers as Kong, runs for the same reason that most people of any age do – for the perceived and actual health benefits it can bring as well as the more subjective qualities such as relieving stress or improving one’s mood.

“I feel really great when I jog and sweat every day. My belly fat has now been reduced and I feel healthier,” he said.

Tha said he began exercising daily because he’s a regular evening consumer of alcohol and he wanted to find an activity to balance out the harmful effects of it, but initially for the first few years he stuck to leisurely walks in one of the capital’s 121 public parks, though not all are suitable places to exercise.

Aside from the parks, many Cambodians make use of various fitness and gym facilities as well as climbing walls, football pitches or the traditionally favored Olympic Stadium site. It all depends on what the person in question’s goals for exercising are.

Many people would like to lose weight. Some want to be stronger or more agile, while others want more endurance. All of them are seeking some benefit to their health, essentially, in various ways.

Doctors and other health experts have long-acknowledged that exercise provides many health benefits, but the doctors The Post spoke with advised that the form of exercise must be tailored to an individual’s abilities and limitations.

“For those who are overweight due to diets that are high in fat or high in sugar, they should exercise to the point where they’ve worked up a good sweat and then stop. Gradually, they’ll be able to go longer each day before having to rest. For those who are very old, they should try going for a walk for no more than 10 or 15 minutes per day, but 30 minutes to an hour of walking would be more appropriate for adults who are younger and relatively healthy,” said Dr Som Ra, a general medical practitioner at Preah Ket Mealea Hospital.

Cardiologists also point to the benefits of daily exercise for heart health and preventing or mitigating heart disease.

“Exercising is good for the coronary arteries. In general, exercise helps to reduce the amount of fat in the blood vessels and prevents them clogging with fat, especially the coronary arteries,” Chan Panha Sokha, cardiologist at Preah Ang Duong Hospital, told The Post.

He explained that the causes of heart disease are all irreversible risk factors for those who are over 60 years of age. Men are more likely to have heart attacks and there are some variable factors that at-risk people can change in terms of their daily routines or habits.

Panha Sokha said that people concerned about heart disease or at-risk for it must stop smoking. He also noted that those suffering from hypertension, diabetes and obesity may be at heightened risk for heart disease as well and changes to their diet along with certain medications – when taken as prescribed by a doctor – can help a great deal.

Khouth Sophak Chakrya, 47, who suffers from diabetes, said he normally exercises regularly including aerobics, karate and lifting weights. However, he said that for the last three weeks his condition had worsened and his doctors recommended against him lifting weights until it improves.

“The doctor recommends to keep doing aerobic and karate-based exercise and I can walk but no jogging because it can damage the joints over time and lead to arthritis,” he said.

In addition to exercising in a manner appropriate to his health condition, Chakrya also limits his diet according to the advice of a nutritionist with the intention of better managing his blood sugar levels related to diabetes.

According to Dr Som Ra, even chronically ill patients who do not have the energy to exercise like walk, jog or jump can still exercise by moving their limbs or light stretching. This will accomplish some of the same objectives for them as heavier exercise does for healthier people and it will also prevent them from getting as stiff or weak from being seated or in a hospital bed for long stretches.

“For people suffering from severe diabetes and the elderly who are no longer able to walk, they can do some movements such as raising their arms and legs or stretching. They should change their diets, consume more vegetables, fish, chicken or pork, but not red meat like beef.

“They must avoid eating sugary high-carbohydrate diets and when choosing vegetables they should be aware that there some that are higher in sugar and some that are lower,” he said. “If they suffer from heart disease they must remain aware of their health condition while exercising and be careful not to exceed their strength.”

Dr Chan Panha Sokha said that people who are healthy should exercise for at least a half-hour a day, but if they are too tired to do anything strenuous they can just walk for a half-hour as well.

“For those suffering from heart disease, if they try to cycling or running too hard while they have fat clogging their coronary arteries it can lead to a heart attack from exercising and there have been plenty of documented cases where that has occurred and they’ve died,” he said.

Dr Sokha recommends that people who are older or aren’t sure of their health should first visit their doctor and do a fitness test where they run on a treadmill with a heart rate monitor in place.

“This allows the doctor to check if they have a heart problem or not. This procedure is often done on professional athletes – for example, when they change teams or are about to sign a new contract, to ensure that they will be able to perform,” he said.

Tha – the 60-something jogger – said he began running instead of walking at the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic to burn up some of the unused energy he had from staying inside all the time with everything closed-up, but he quickly discovered that he not only felt healthier but his blood pressure improved as did his blood sugar levels, which he now has checked every six months.

Doctors generally applaud the Kingdom’s new healthier habits as they relate to exercise, but they also caution that exercise alone won’t solve many of the health problems that Cambodians are facing today.

“I see more Cambodian people are exercising to lose weight and to stay healthy. That is a good thing. But what really needs to change is their diet. Most people eat too much sugar and too many sweet foods in their diets and this is one of the major contributors to obesity and poor health in general,” concluded Dr Sam Ra.