Why we don't exercise


Igo to a gym in South Delhi that ever so often brandishes billboard-size banners across its front screaming special discounts. ‘Hurry Up. Announcing Heavy Discounts. Registration Closing Soon.’

However, the registration never closes. The billboards erupt almost every month with fresh offers and discounts. But there are no takers. My gym is almost empty, and when I ask the owner, he is embarrassed and says people come in the morning. But when I gym in the morning, they tell me the ‘crowd’ comes in the evening. Over the past four years that I have been going to this gym, I have hardly seen any  ‘crowd’.

I also hardly see old faces. The members are seasonal; most of them either on a monthly membership or a quarterly one. A lot of girls join gym just when they are hunting for a prospective groom. Once he is found and they are married, the gym is forgotten.

The expense could not have been an issue because the gym is in Greater Kailash II, a reasonably affluent South Delhi colony. There are not more than three good gyms in the radius of five kilometres, and one would think these gyms were too few to feed the exercising needs for this big colony. But one gym is emptier than the other.

I noticed that we don’t exercise in India after my visit to the US last year. There, I saw the young and the old jogging, walking and cycling away everywhere. They were sweating on bridges, pavements, in downtowns and on beaches. In India, you hardly see anyone jogging on the road unless they are catching a bus.

I have a theory why we Indians don’t like to exercise. I think unlike the West we were essentially an agrarian society who migrated to cities from villages. We had no tradition of ‘working out’. We ‘worked out’ in the fields. For example, my father who lives at our apple orchards in Himachal walks for at least seven kilometres any given day. He sometimes covers that distance simply by going from one plantation to the next.

Therefore, if I were to tell him to go for a morning jog, it would sound really absurd. So, when we settled in cities, we adopted its ways — driving to offices, using elevators, escalators, metro etc. But exercise, which is also an urban phenomenon, was never adopted. In India, you work out if you are fat (in most cases, when girls ‘think’ you are fat).

A slim person thinks he or she is fit simply by virtue of being slim. And senior citizens don’t exercise at all. They think it’s the preserve of the young. They are content with ‘breathing exercises’ in parks.

The problem is that, in India, exercise is seen as an unusual activity or a fad. It is also considered an indulgence of the elite. If you work out, people comment, ‘Wah! So you are a fitness freak?’

We began our life on this planet as hunters and gatherers. We trekked for days in search of food. It was arduous physical labor, all imprinted in our genes. We may have altered the world around us but our bodies haven’t suddenly metamorphosed in the short span we have been on this planet. It needs that primeval physical exertion. Most of the diseases Indians suffer from are because of sedentary lifestyle. Diabetes being one of them. India has almost 50.8 million diabetics, and it is slated to cross the 100 million mark by 2030.

The other pernicious lifestyle disease that exists due to our lack of physical movement is depression. Growing urban Indians now suffer from some depressive disorder or the other. If you go to psychologists today, they will all give you the same psycho-jargon but will seldom emphasise on exercise.

Western science, unfortunately, still treats the mind and the body as two separate compartments to be dealt by two different specialists. This is a fallacy, because they are not separate, but a composite whole with one having a direct bearing on the other. For example, if you have a chronic headache, your doctor may recommend you an MRI but will seldom ask you if you are under some sort of stress. And a shrink will give you a pill for your melancholy but won’t tell you to jog it out.

Exercises, no matter what form you do them in, release ‘the happy hormones’ (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin) in your body, keeping your body in good shape. It’s always a win-win scenario, which makes why we don’t exercise even more surprising.

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