Major-ly healthy

Staying fit and healthy is no chore for our future man in space, Mejar Dr Faiz Khaleed.

To look at him now, you wouldn't believe that Mejar Dr Faiz Khaleed was ever a plump kid.

The Malaysian astronaut is fit, trim and toned, as befits an army major and self-confessed fitness enthusiast.

But as he testifies from his own mouth, "I was a bit of a health conscious student when I was in secondary school, because I was very chubby when I was in primary school."

Entering his teens obviously proved to be a catalyst of sorts for the young Faiz.

Although he had joined various activities in primary school, like the Boy Scouts and athletics, he did not do particularly well in them.

"So, in secondary school, I thought about what I wanted to achieve during these five years in school," he shares.

His decision? "Firstly, it was academic excellence, and secondly, sports excellence." To achieve his goal, young Faiz decided to focus on just one sport.

"On the first day of school, I went through all the sports boards in the school. And I decided to join the karate club," he says.

Having witnessed his efforts in primary school, his father Khaleed Abdullah joked with him: "I will buy the gi, etc, for you, but it will only last a few weeks, right?" Says Dr Faiz: "It was only a joke, but that made me determined to excel in the sport.

"My goal was to get a Malaysian flag on my gi (ie get into the national karate team), because that was an exclusive accomplishment."

It was then that he learnt all about stretching and warming up, as well as sportsmanship.

"One of the tenets to excel in sport is to be health conscious - watch what you eat, have a balance between exercise and eating, not injuring yourself during practice - that's what I learnt during my eight years in karate," he says.

Fighting fit

Fighting fit

Weight has always been an important factor in Dr Faiz's life, and it wasn't just about losing it.

He shares: "When you talk about weight, karate has weight categories, and these are also things that will determine whether you will win or not."

Giving an example, he says: "If you are 59 kg, then you eat anything you want and gain weight up to 61kg at competition time, you will be fighting with people weighing up to 65kg."

Karate competitions have a 5kg range in each weight category, so a 61kg competitor would have to compete in the 61-65kg category, for example.

And those at the lower end of the range for their category would be at a physical disadvantage.

"You want to be higher up in the weight category, so that you have better momentum, and harder punches and kicks.

"So, to strike the right weight is also a strategy in competition," says Dr Faiz.

He adds: "And this is also a strategy within the club, so that we don't fight with one another.

"We spread out across the weight categories, and also spread out our chances of winning. After all, each category has only one gold medal."

While exercising and training was not a problem for Dr Faiz with his determination to excel, he did run into some problems at home with his diet.

"My mother loves to cook. So when I was young, we had a bit of an issue, because I wouldn't want to eat." The problem, he says, was due to the fact that his mother's cooking was so delicious that once he started eating, he wouldn't want to stop. So, it was just easier not to start.

"We had some difficult times, but as time went on, my mother came to understand my focus on the sport.

"I would train every day after school, and even on Saturdays and Sundays.

"That's when I got the sense of really understanding health choices."

His discipline certainly paid off, as he went on to represent not only his school, but also Kuala Lumpur and Selangor after Form Five.

"The tough decision came when I got invited to train with the national squad. And that was the time I also got into UM (Universiti Malaya) dentistry."

In the end, his future career took precedence over his sporting dream, and he turned down the national karate squad invitation.

However, Dr Faiz continued participating in competitive karate, winning the gold medal for UM during the inter-varsity karate competition in his second year of university.

"That was an awesome fight - I will always remember that one," he says with a smile.

However, he hung up his gi after that, choosing to focus on his studies and "making the grade, as dentistry can be very taxing."

The army life

The army life

After graduating, Dr Faiz joined the Malaysian Armed Forces as a dental surgeon, and was posted to the KD Sultan Ismail naval base in Johor.

"I really loved it," he says of joining the military, even the tough basic training. In fact, he later applied for parachute training in the army's airborne division, which required even further physical and mental drilling.

"It was very tough. It was one of the toughest times of my life physically, and it really tests your patience, as there is a lot of drilling," he says.

"And of course, you have to be fit, because you have to jump with your M16, your backpack; you really need physical and mental strength.

"Your cardiovascular system also has to be very strong, because after landing, you still have to run with all your equipment back to base."

But he adds, the feeling of floating in the air with the parachute is "amazing and undescribable", even though it only lasts 45 seconds each time.

The training he received in the armed forces certainly served him well when he applied to be Malaysia's first astronaut or angkasawan in 2003.

The first step in the process of narrowing down the field of aspiring candidates who met the selection criteria, was a 3.5km run, which had to be completed under 20 minutes.

"That was the run that changed my life," says Dr Faiz.

"It was fast; you run until your stomach is twitching continuously.

"You really have to exert and be fast from the very start. If you are slow in the beginning, you will not finish on time."

Of course, that was just the start of a whole series of medical, psychological, physical and mental endurance tests that slowly weeded out the applicants until there were only two left.

Eating right

In September 2006, Dr Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor Sheikh Mustapha and Dr Faiz - the two angkasawan hopefuls left standing - left home for Russia to start their one-year training for the space mission.

Says Dr Faiz: "In astronaut training in Russia, they treat you as an adult. They don't forbid (you to do anything), but they educate you on your food choices - how much protein, carbohydrates, glucose, etc, you need.

"They test you every three months, and you have to pass their medical tests. So, you can eat what you want, but you have to pass the tests."

This consisted of a full physical work-up, including blood and urine tests, and fat and weight measurements.

"You can say you are taking care of your health, but your blood and urine won't lie.

"They educate you, and you take care of yourself. They won't monitor you," he says.

Those who don't meet the requirements during these tests are given two to three weeks to "correct" their readings. And failure to do so can result in being kicked out of the astronaut programme.

Dr Faiz adds: "People think all calories are bad, but you need calories for energy. The trainers teach you to see things properly.

"You shouldn't be concerned about calories; you need to be concerned about food content. You must understand fat content, protein content - that is more important."

In addition, he shares that the Russian astronaut trainers also taught them about the psychology of food.

"People sometimes just eat because it is delicious, but we learn to eat just to satisfy our hunger pangs.

"For example, when you eat, you eat until your hunger is satisfied, but people usually keep eating after that, because for example, it is delicious, or out of habit.

Flight fitness

Flight fitness

As for fitness, Dr Faiz shares that each astronaut candidate is assigned a personal instructor, who helps them in their diet and exercise regimes.

However, being the exercise enthusiast that he is, he confesses that he was once banned from the gym during the programme because he was exercising too much!

"I like to do a lot of weights, and I like to run, so when I was there, apparently I overdid it.

"I like to go to the gym, so even during my free time, I went to the gym.

"Then, when they checked my blood, it showed over-exertion. So, I was banned from the gym for a week," he says, with a laugh.

And this was only three months into the programme!

The lesson he took away from it however, was that every physical activity has its own fitness requirements.

Because he enjoyed running in particular, the Russian trainers told him, "No, no, no, we don't want you to be an Olympic runner; we want you to be an astronaut!"

"That was when it hit me, just because you are good in one sport, doesn't mean that you are fit for other sports.

"So, for example, if you are a swimmer, you can't jump straight into rock-climbing, because it requires a different set of muscles to break in," he says.

Six months before the launch, all the astronauts are weighed, and they are expected to maintain the same weight up to the launching.

"This is the critical time. Your weight and BMI (body mass index) have to be the same.

"If that changes within the six months, they give you two weeks to shed it.

"And if you're not the same weight at launch time, then you're off the mission."

The reason, he explains, is because any change in weight can cause a shift in the centre of gravity of the capsule, and this could increase the danger factor in the case of an emergency landing.

He adds: "Even though I was just a backup crew member, the requirements were exactly the same, as anything could happen right up to the last minute of the launch."

"It's like a university, you come in as a student, and at the end of the course, you must be able to fly.

"They are moulding you for space flight," he says.