The Art and Science of Fitness | Fitness is a journey best started young - Hindustan Times
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The Art and Science of Fitness | Fitness is a journey best started young

Jan 02, 2024 09:00 AM IST

Children pick up habits by observing. That’s the case with physical activity too. As exams approach, nothing could beat stress better than some daily exercise

As much as New Year’s Eve has a festive feel to it, right around the corner looms the stress and anxiety of fast-approaching school examinations — an equally stressful time for both children and their parents. Tempers fly high as everyone is on a short fuse. Attempts are on to master in a couple of months, a syllabus that was meant to be covered in the whole year. I can vouch for it because that is what I am doing too with my younger son who sits for his board examinations in less than two months. The time-honoured assumption during these months is to stop wasting time being physically active and focus on one’s studies instead (sitting in one place for long hours). The more dedicated ones even miss out on eating and burn the midnight oil, putting N. R. Narayan Murthy’s advice of 70-hour workweek to shame.

There is an immense amount of research now to show that physical activity in the form of exercise and sports plays an important role in boosting attention span, memory, problem-solving, reasoning, thinking and planning skills.(Pixabay) PREMIUM
There is an immense amount of research now to show that physical activity in the form of exercise and sports plays an important role in boosting attention span, memory, problem-solving, reasoning, thinking and planning skills.(Pixabay)

Even thousands of years ago, we knew better — go back to the gurukuls that you would have read or heard about in the Ramayana and Mahabharata — but the modern education system is doing it all wrong.

The classic example for me is my experience as a visiting faculty for Outdoor Training at Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy (SVPNPA) in Hyderabad, which trains officers of the Indian Police Service, who have been selected through the Civil Services Examination. The probationers have spent years studying extremely hard to clear the most difficult examination in the country. In the process, they forget to pay attention to their own health. Most of them are extremely unfit by the time they get to the academy, and are a perfect reflection of what the studious population looks like. Somehow they are expected to be officers leading and managing the massive country of ours. What can such an institution teach us?

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, the country’s first home minister, made a profound statement speaking of this institution that was his brainchild. “The college is the first institution of its kind in India. It has no precedents to look back upon but has an inspiring example to set for future generations. It has to build itself and build others.”

The founding faculty had the foresight to address the problem that students face in this rat race of a world. The probationers have 16 subjects, 8 are outdoor which gets them ready to face the physical challenges of their real-life roles and 8 are indoor which prepares them for all things academic. Effectively, very studious sedentary people are transformed into high-performing inspirational leaders. Even though this has been part of the academy’s DNA since its establishment over seven decades ago, little is known of the excellent 360-degree training being offered here.

Science catches up

There is an immense amount of research now to show that physical activity in the form of exercise and sports plays an important role in boosting attention span, memory, problem-solving, reasoning, thinking and planning skills. A great by-product is that it also helps in addressing the pandemic of overweight and obesity in today’s children and youth. And then there is the even bigger problem of mental health, whether it be depression, stress or anxiety.

Even though breathlessness and panting are the most common problems that people who get started with physical activities complain about, they soon settle down. Easy slow long breathing helps in getting more oxygen into the lungs and further into the bloodstream. When that oxygen in the blood is taken to the brain, you end up becoming a lot more attentive and focused, improving your retaining power besides your thinking capacity. Also, exercise leads to increased release of chemicals like growth factor, which further leads to increased growth of new blood vessels in the brain and new brain cells. Exercise and sports also help to improve mood and quality of sleep, this indirectly improves memory and thinking ability.

It could be argued that if we have known all this, why hasn’t it been adopted by everyone around the world? Knowing has never been a problem. We know chocolates, fast food and carbonated soft drinks are awful for us, yet most of us consume them unrestrained. We know that green leafy vegetables and dry fruits are good for us but somehow most hate them.

We need to appreciate that exercise and sports help in getting better grades. That is a big shift for us adults. Then the trick is about making exercise and sports more fun and hip for the children. It is fine if it is connected with social media and selfies. If it gets them moving, so be it.

Try these fitness starter tips

  • Download an app called ‘metronome’ on your phone. It gives you beats per second. It’s primarily used by musicians. Put the beats at 60 per minute, effectively it’ll sound every second.
  • Now sit down comfortably, or even lie down with your neck supported well with a pillow. Take a long deep breath in, hold and breathe out slowly. Now repeat again.
  • This time around, while paying attention to the beats on the metronome, you take a long breath in over 4 seconds. Hold your breath for 2 seconds. Now exhale slowly over 4 seconds. Seconds will seem to be longer than you thought they were. Do this simple exercise for a minute.
  • To begin with, do this before and after every meal. Then you can start doing it every hour as a simple one-minute break. This simple act will help with your concentration power.

We’ve been lied to when we’ve been told that sleep is for the weak. As a matter of fact, if you don’t sleep well, you will soon become weak no matter how much exercise you do. You need to rest and recover well to do justice to whatever amount of studying you do. It needs to be absorbed. It's sleep that helps do that. As much as late-night sleeping has been practised by most heading into their examinations, I highly recommend sleeping before midnight. It’ll help you recover better and be ready for the next day. It’ll help to take a mid-day nap of about 15-20 minutes too.

Moderate-intensity exercises are found to be very beneficial for memory and thinking. This could mean 60-69% of maximum heart rate, numbers that are happily given by heart rate monitors that most have today. I personally prefer to pay more attention to your breathing. You should be able to talk in 7-10 word long sentences while walking or running. There is no need to go crazy fast. Going for short walks and runs of even 10-15 minutes works wonderfully.

In the kind of pathetic air quality that we have in the winter months, most might not want to step out for a walk and run, skipping rope becomes a great alternative. It’s alright to even spot hop or spot jog without a rope. Just start doing it for 30 seconds in one go. Take a break for a minute or two, and repeat the same. Once you get comfortable with this, increase it to a minute. Do it 3-4 times a day.

When I was in medical college, my favourite ones were doing 5-15 push-ups every hour or so. There is no need to do too many repetitions. Pick up 3-5 exercises. Keep the movement slow. Go to a comfortable range, just to warm up your body and increase the blood. I like squats, push-ups, heel raises, planks, pull-ups, cat-camel stretches, side-bending stretches, to name a few.

It helps to break the monotony and go out to play some sport you like. 15-30 minutes are going to be wonderful for your studies and mental health.

One size doesn’t fit all. Make some room for trial and error. Give it a shot. Get moving, pick what works for you. There is no need to do too much right and get competitive. Remember, it is all about you.

Keep miling and smiling.

Dr Rajat Chauhan is the author of The Pain Handbook: A non-surgical way to managing back, neck and knee pain; MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days. He writes a column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise. The views expressed are personal

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