Prime Minister Narendra Modi practising yoga on the occasion of World Yoga Day in Ranchi, Jharkhand
Prime Minister Narendra Modi practising yoga on the occasion of World Yoga Day in Ranchi, Jharkhand Twitter @PIB_India

World Yoga Day: Reminder To Accept, Adopt And Enjoy A Healthy Lifestyle

Good nutrition, physical activity and keeping stress at bay are important foundation pillars for achieving healthy life, not only for one’s own self but for motivating others around us too.

Dr Shweta Khandelwal | Jun 21, 2019

How best can today’s children, our future generation, be described? Increasing waistlines, high stress levels, compromised immunities, mostly stationary, hooked to their screens…you get it – Right? Despite the fact that all possible time saving strategies and mechanisms are being and have been designed, ironically, the most common complaint (can I say ‘excuse’) is lack of time for all good things in life.

Good nutrition, physical activity and keeping stress at bay are important foundation pillars for achieving healthy life, not only for one’s own self but for motivating others around him/her too. Another important factor is to start paying attention to health and nutrition early on. Using a popular adage “Old habits die hard”, we could argue that children from young ages should witness healthy lifestyles around them to emulate, learn, adopt and practice such behaviors for a long time.

Unfortunately our national surveys (National Family Health Survey-4) reveal that merely 1 in 10 Indian children get appropriate nutrition. This includes both forms of malnourishment (undernutrition, wasting stunting on one hand, but also rapidly rising overweight and obesity among our kids on the other) as well as multiple micronutrient deficiencies across the spectrum. Not only is this scary to read as a public health nutritionist but also very disconcerting for our country’s human resource, especially cognitive, potential and its impact on our economy.

The month of June just saw World Environment day (5 June), Food Safety Day (7 June) and now the World Yoga Day (21 June). No wonder this month has been a hit with advocates pushing for appropriate nutrition and balanced healthy lifestyles across all age groups.

Experts suggest that yoga is a non-invasive, economical and relatively easy method to stay fit. Our Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi says “Yoga is a symbol of universal aspiration for health and well-being. It is health assurance in zero budget”. Indians pride themselves for giving yoga to the world. Yoga techniques, developed as early as 5,000 years ago, are scientifically associated with multiple health benefits. About 2,600 pieces of evidence pop up when we search ‘Yoga and health’ in a popular scholarly database. On a quick glance, most describe beneficial aspects on a variety of disorders/diseases, ranging from immunity to lung function to non-communicable diseases.

Yoga is not just meditation or asanas (of course they are extremely critical) but it’s also about several interrelated, often modifiable factors like what and how much you eat, when and how many times do you eat/drink, the surrounding environment, anxiety levels and sleep patterns.

The World Y-O-G-A Day reminds us to invest in our health and well-being, maybe via the following routes.

Y- Youth ambassadors ; life course approach:

As alluded to earlier in this piece, teaching children the importance of good health will stay with them for a long time. In fact it may empower them to motivate us when we are low and also influence the next generations. Thus using the power of youth for demanding and advocating about healthier lifestyles, balanced high quality foods and trying to keep stress levels in check will be a sustainable way to ensure public health and nutrition. People pay attention and make efforts to change when their children are affected and/or involved. It’s never too late, but then again, it’s never too early as well. Children learn from their surroundings faster by seeing than by being told. So practice not only before but also while you preach!

O– Opportunity to undo the wrongs on our health:

All forms of our environment (air, food, water) have become polluted and compromised. Deaths and disabilities due to pollution, malnourishment (both under- and over-nutrition), stress and infections are rising to unprecedented levels. Research confirms that physical activity, eating healthy and having good sleep have incremental benefits on our health. It may seem better to improve just one thing at a time. But studies suggest that it’s best to begin by working on diet and your activity level simultaneously (eg CALM Study https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3755035/). In fact healthy diet patterns like Mediterranean diet etc seem to mitigate the unfavorable effects of depression and anxiety on the heart (ATTICA study- https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1047279712002931). So there are a multitude of reasons why improved diets and enhanced physical activity may be adopted earlier than later for our own good.

G – Gradual but steady progress towards adopting healthy behaviors

Yoga is one component in the health puzzle. We must use this time to organize ourselves to make healthier choices in all other aspects of life too. Taking small steps towards making gradual changes whether it’s eating, positive outlook, sleep patterns, etc will yield incremental benefits in terms of PH. Behavior change is one of the most challenging things to attempt. People resist it for various reasons but if we start early and are consistent with our messaging, we will see change. The key is to keep the message simple, sustainable, show visible/quantifiable progress or improvements periodically, stay motivated, be passionate and not afraid of rejections. There is no gold standard of living healthy except customizing this charter as per your needs.

The WHO recommends 150 minutes of activity per week, but set your own combinations-permutations of what works best for you. Every additional step you take has benefits in a dose response manner (to a degree). Excess of everything is bad but since most Indians now have a sedentary lifestyle and are increasingly becoming even more stationary, it’s good to start moving. Similarly there are proven benefits of spending about 2 hours a week amidst nature. But again, pace yourself as per your convenience and enjoyment levels. It is very important to enjoy what you do whether at work or in your leisure time.

A - Accept and practice yoga as a part of daily routine:

In this stressful racing world, it is important to give yourself some “me-time”. Yoga may just be apt for carving out those 15-20 minutes (to begin with and later can be increased based on your schedule and preferences) to just switch off from everyone, rejuvenate yourself and connect with the world as a much happier, focused and relaxed person.

Yoga should not be seen as something you have to make time for. It should actually be viewed as something which will give you the energy and motivation to do all other things in the day. It can help you unwind and detoxify yourself from all kinds of pressures, deadlines, stresses etc. Rope in your friends, family or colleagues for fun and use these networks to sustain a long term commitment to your own health and to that of your near and dear ones.

As we all know, there is a lot of endorsement and push from the highest authorities in India for yoga in our country. We must use this to leverage other healthful strategies like clean green environment, healthier food options, stress free culture in schools, workplaces, etc to keep our society and nation nourished and nurtured. There is a strong linkage between health, nutrition and fitness.

World Yoga Day can be seen as a platform to voice concerns about the modifiable risk factors related to disease burden of our country, share the evidence in form of heart-breaking statistics and also as an opportunity to accelerate collective action to improve public health and nutrition.

(Dr Shweta Khandelwal, is Head, Nutrition Research and Additional Professor, Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI). Views are personal.)