A friend of mine, who is several years younger, went for a regular medical check-up recently. He was told that he had blockages in two of his arteries and was immediately operated upon. He is fine now but lives with two stents in his heart. This is becoming a routine these days as one hears of many similar episodes. Diabetes and high blood pressure are on the rise. Strokes, heart attacks and cancer are increasingly common.
According to data from the World Health Organisation (WHO), the proportion of deaths attributed to cardiovascular diseases in Pakistan has increased from 22.5% in 2000 to approximately 30% in 2015. While there are many reasons for these alarming trends, medical practitioners will tell us that we eat too many wrong foods and do not get enough exercise.
Thanks to advances in medical science, we know that exercise has tremendous benefits for our health. Not only does exercise help prevent cardiovascular disease but also protects against a number of forms of cancer as well as diabetes and many other life endangering illnesses. In addition, regular exercise has been shown to improve cognitive abilities. But this is all common knowledge and I do not need to write these words to inform the readers about the benefits of exercise.
However, what I am more interested in is why people do not exercise when they are well-aware of the benefits or the risks of not exercising. Daily life used to be full of activity in hunter gatherer societies and so people then did not have to worry about burning calories. But it is a different life now and the abundance of food needs to be countered by physical activity.
With all this knowledge, the majority of our population still does not engage in physical activity and this is what baffles me! If we accept that most people are intelligent enough to know what is good for them, then how can we explain not doing what is good? Given the huge benefits, how can we get more people to exercise?
It is difficult to find reasons other than the fact that people are lazy and would like to avoid discomfort of any sort. We do not wish to move much and would like someone else to do manual labour for us. If there was a way to pay someone to exercise and acquire the benefits, I am quite sure there will be many takers!
Of course, exercise is difficult to do. It takes hard work and discipline to establish a routine and you need to be consistent. In the age of the automobile, gone are the days when people used to walk enough as they went about their daily chores. My grandfather (nana), in his 70s, used to walk from Jamshed Road in Karachi to Saddar and back, easily a 8-10 km roundtrip without much of an issue. He lived into his 90s despite being a smoker most of his life.
Do not get me wrong, I am not suggesting that everyone should start smoking and walking! But families and parents especially have an important role to play. Research has shown that physically active children are likely to have one or both parents encouraging them to be that way through childhood and teen years.
One of the most common excuses that I hear from people is that they don’t have the time to exercise. In the same breath they also express their wish to be healthier. This does not make sense. If someone really wants to be healthy they will find the time to exercise just like they would do for anything important to them.
Juggling different priorities is part of life and deciding how much time to allocate to which activity is a decision which needs to be taken. For people who work full time in offices, early morning is always the best time to get their exercise. Anywhere between 6 and 8 am can be your own time which you could have totally undisturbed in a park or a gym.
Speaking of parks, governments and town planners need to keep in mind that open spaces are required not just for their physical beauty but to provide the general public a space to exercise, walk, and jog, to stretch, or do yoga. Think of the savings governments can generate for themselves as well as for citizens by encouraging healthier activities.
Knowledge and awareness play a big part in people willing to allocate time for exercise. Perhaps our medical professionals need to be more rigorous in their advice. It is not enough to softly suggest a patient should walk regularly. Instead, they should be able to advise exactly what exercise will be beneficial for which ailment.
It is also the responsibility of companies and employers to create opportunities for their employees to take up exercise. Some companies have started building gyms in their offices and hiring trainers but more needs to be done in this area. For companies it is also a good investment since the benefits of exercise can be savings in medical and insurance related costs in addition to having more motivated and productive employees.
Speaking of knowledge, where does one go to get good advice? Sure, you will benefit from starting a walk or jog routine on your own, but you also need to understand what sort of exercise is good for you. What should your goal be? Should you do more cardio or resistance training? What are the correct postures for a particular exercise? How do you combine various routines? What injuries should you watch out for?
Thanks to the internet, a lot of this information is available on these subjects, but you have to know what and where to look. Instead of getting confused with the plethora of information on the internet, I would recommend finding a good physical trainer or a gym. There is a positive trend of boot camps, gyms and fitness centres opening in cities across Pakistan. These facilities are mostly run by health and fitness enthusiasts who learn on their own and are able to guide people towards establishing an exercise routine.
For people who can afford them, personal trainers are useful since they not only supervise your training but also provide motivation and discipline for you to be consistent. If you cannot afford one, there are options of boot camps and classes where individual costs are less and if that does not suit you there is plenty of learning which happens with just a basic membership of a gym.
In the face of all the obstacles and discouragement around, clearly most people will not be active unless they choose to be. Exercise needs to be a deliberate practice chosen for the many benefits it offers. I am fond of telling my doctor friends that I will try to stay out of their clinics as much as possible. It is a conscious effort to live simply and stay healthy for as long as possible. The best way to think about it is as a long-term investment with payback expected as you grow older.
As you continue to make that investment daily, your body becomes used to it and in fact begins to demand it on a regular basis. It begins to enjoy the experience of stepping into a gym or going for a jog in the park. I have found exercise to be transformational in many aspects not just physical. As someone wise once said “If you don’t take care of your body, where are you going to live?”