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HTLS 2015: Why modern India is not fit enough

It’s our duty to first get ourselves back to be a fitter, healthier and happier nation, so we can show the rest of the world how it’s done. Governments should be very interested in long-term gains for society but even the best of them are too keen to impress their vote banks.

HTLS2015 Updated: Dec 01, 2015 13:51 IST
Modern India,West,Health
Representative image(Illustration: Jayanto)

Since it’s the Diwali season, let’s delve deeper into the Ramayana and the Mahabharata era. Whether mythology or not, during those days gurukuls focused on giving equal importance to the body, mind and soul. Pupils were considered unworthy if they didn’t excel in all three, and that too in an integrated manner.

Our age-old yoga in its modern avataar refers to a set of stretching exercises, and occasionally, breathing exercises as well. It might surprise you, but that only comprises 5-10% of what yoga is supposed to be. Yoga is more than just Asanas and Pranayama — it also includes Yama, Niyama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi. Yoga, in its true sense, is about being human, which the industrialised world has forgotten about.

In today’s modern society, completely aped from the West, entry requirements to get into top institutions are so rigorous that at times even perfect scores aren’t enough to guarantee admission. Parents get their children into this rat race so early that there is no time for childhood. Schools start to cater to this need from early on. Doctors add to the confusion by not giving very sound advice, whether for medicines, physical activity or food. They prescribe antibiotics like candy and sugary foods like biscuits early on in life for short-term gains, ignoring long ones completely.

We all forget that we are dealing with human beings. We are busy just creating more of the same, soul-less robots. In this whole process, we don’t realise that the current system at best only manages to make children reach one-third the level that was expected a few millennia ago.

Somehow, down the ages, super-specialities have overtaken, forgetting the very basics. It’s all about return-on-investment and instant gratification. If the foundation isn’t strong, how do we expect to build all those mega dreams on them? Sooner rather than later, it’ll all come tumbling down. Which, as a matter of fact, is what is happening all around us.

Today’s youth are very fragile, emotionally and physically, the other two pillars of education that even top institutions aren’t able to address, whether it is intentionally or unintentionally. Children in middle and high school are already having mental breakdowns in this fast-paced world, leave alone college-going youth. It comes naturally to them from a very early age to figure out a smart phone or tablet, but they struggle to walk a flight of stairs or a kilometre or even sit by themselves for a moment without having suicidal thoughts. This generation’s reaction time could be as good as top fighter pilots but they physically and emotionally are weaker than people four-five decades older than them. For the first time in mankind’s history, this generation will die at a younger age than its parents and will be unfit far sooner than them. Even if they do live long enough courtesy all the advancements in medical technology, their quality of life will be far worse. What good is all that knowledge if it’s going to fail this current generation when they should be in their prime of professional productivity?

It’s our duty to first get ourselves back to be a fitter, healthier and happier nation, so we can show the rest of the world how it’s done. Governments should be very interested in long-term gains for society but even the best of them are too keen to impress their vote banks in the shortest time span so they can get re-elected.

The solution: I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.

As much as I believe in a multi-modality approach to address a problem as complex and serious as this, we need to start somewhere. Children are the seeds of society, the future. We need to start from them. Children under the age of 12 years form a substantial part (25%) of the Indian population and are very mouldable until that age. As Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world,’ parents, teachers and doctors, the people children interact most with, need to lead by example. It’s a fundamental three-pronged approach for all of us based on an age-old adage: I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.

a. Obstetricians, Gyanecologists and Paediatricians need to lead by example. It makes a lot more sense to preach a healthy lifestyle if they practice that good lifestyle themselves. Doctors themselves should do and also encourage couples to become a lot more physically active, improve eating habits, which primarily means cutting down on sugar and sweet beverages, taking out time to unwind 15-30 minutes every day and also one day a week. Medical associations and councils need to encourage this practice by giving benefits to fitter doctors by recognising them. Over time, it becomes a prerequisite for doctors when they are qualifying from medical colleges to lead a healthy lifestyle.

b. Parents’ forums activated by doctors and teachers: Several studies have shown that community living and having a group of friends leads you to become like them. There is a need to create a forum where like-minded parents interact with each other and encourage each other to follow good practices.

c. Teachers should be given an incentive to lead a better lifestyle and in the coming years it should be a prerequisite to get the job or continue as a teacher.

d. Grades for sports or fitness: Sports participation should carry equal weightage as do other subjects. The moment grades get impacted by not following a healthy lifestyle, children will make the right choices.

The thing to remember is that incentives drive behaviour. We might complain that the current education system only works on the mind or that a large majority of teachers in India are not physically active, but the problem is there is no incentive to be any different. Teachers see no benefit to follow healthy lifestyles or to make children fitter.

The benefits may be not as tangible in the shorter term. This is where leadership plays a big role — can we make those one or two changes, design incentives to drive the right behaviour.

Rajat Chauhan is a sports-exercise and musculoskeletal medicine physician. All views expressed are personal.

First Published: Dec 01, 2015 10:11 IST