Confessions of a Health-Seeker

The Health OS Challenge Series


The gallant battles I do to reclaim my health

It’s really hard. Over many decades, we have engineered movement out of our daily lives…

My Personal Health 2.0

My own health journey, what I refer to as my personal 2.0, coincided with the birth of my first son. I’ve heard this often from other friends. How, becoming a parent, prompts differing degrees of self-reflection. As may be common, I started thinking about the world I wanted my son to live in.

Suddenly, I suffered from the notion that I could rearrange the world like blocks of Lego to give the best to my son. I felt powerful. I could tame the world to fit into the best narrative for my son… It was nice while it lasted.

That blissful delusion, however, did compel me to take greater control of my life. I reassessed my professional goals and in my personal life, started thinking much more proactively about my fitness aspirations. I started running, lost some weight and generally got fitter than I had even been, hoping some of my habits would rub off on my kids as they grew up (by now, there were two boys). I was sure I wanted my kids to grow up with the physicality worthy of the athletes I admired in my youth.

I’ve been thinking about my personal 2.0 ever since I read Steve Downs’ outstanding series on health in our OS a few months back. Steve laments how we have engineered movement out of our lives so the default is to sit, eat (unhealthy food) and stare at screens all day long. Any deviation from these unhealthy defaults must be an active choice, hence not set up for success. He passionately argues that health and wellness must be baked into our way of life, not as tasks that we must strive to complete every day. The series get me reflecting with my own health seeking journey over the last few years.

Health means different things to different people. For most, it is still an absence of known disease. For others, it may be an active goal (running 30 miles/ week, a few marathons a year).

For me, being healthy has always meant being in a state of self-control, placing yourself in a position that allows you to make active choices. That necessitates combining elements of mental and physical (some would add spiritual) health. Being happy and relaxed is more important, sometimes, a prerequisite, often an enabler, to achieving physical health.

Health to me has never been about slapping on a FitBit (great device), uploading your runs (or those marathon pictures) onto Facebook. It has meant being in a state of internal wellbeing, a high that doesn’t need external elements, a feeling that only you can attest to.

My 85-year-old rock-climbing, mountaineering, finger push-up uncle has always been an inspiration to many in the family. He ran marathons (still does) with basic shoes and to the rhythm of his own breathing. He’d be amused at the contraptions people need to go for a 5k run today!

But achieving that state of health is an increasingly uphill task as we are constantly nudged away from healthy choices and into making the ones that dumb us down. This reflects in stressed schedules and increase in lifestyle diseases.

It’s too easy for us to pull out our phones on the dinner table, feed our kids to YouTube videos, have food ordered to our seats at the local cinema, drive our cars through traffic to the local grocery and to drag a 5-minute meeting over an hour. My son’s pre-primary school teacher used to play YouTube videos in class (and this was a good school), because confronted with 15 screaming toddlers, hey, that’s so easy to do.

We’ve just been primed to accept these choices but they are beginning to wear down what health and life must mean for us. These choices won’t go away. We must start walking away from them. It’s time to reclaim the right choices (if we even remember what they are) but there’s so much that needs to be done to even get to the starting line of that journey.

We need better choices

Change in our environment would help a lot.

Large cities (at least in the emerging world) are increasingly ill-planned, exploding aggregations of crumbling infrastructure. Terrible traffic, incessant jams, lack of public transport or public spaces drives people to create their own islands of perceived well-being. These could be the air-conditioned environs of their homes, malls or offices. At least in India (where I live), there lacks a culture in big cities of parks and outdoor activities. In many other emerging world cities that I travel to, it is only the more conscious that actively seek out outdoor activities.

Our cities need to be redesigned to support healthier choices. I spoke to a few urban planning experts and it was clear reining back the decay in large cities was a nightmarish enterprise! Hence, perhaps the excitement about building new smart cities, in India as well as with some recently announced experiments in North America. Governments spend 5–8% on infrastructure, very little or none of it informed by the impact on or relevance to health, which sits in a different ministry.

So, you get roads and buildings with no planning on commute times or the impact on health of commuting citizens. New high-rises, cities or suburbs crop up with no parking or parks, designed for people to drive into with air-conditioned cars, eat in air conditioned restaurants, and drive back into air conditioned homes. For your kids, there are now air conditioned schools, buses and classes. All remote islands we are creating for ourselves to compensate for the lack of a healthy external environment. Even when parks are available, playing in them is the harder, more active choice. Staying at home with the Wii (or whatever else kids play with now days) or Netflix is so much easier.

A professor of design recently told me his students queued up 5–10 minutes to take the elevator to the first floor for classes. Really! I came out of a meeting in a Singapore high-rise recently and wanting to shake off the jetlag, suggested taking the stairs. I asked our host if we could walk down and he said he wasn’t sure where the stairs were. Probably, somewhere in the back of the building!

It prompted me to look for the staircase every time I walked into a building next and I realized the elevators are usually placed more prominently, while staircases were hidden away, as if an embarrassment! Can we not change this? Can we stop hiding the stairs and instead make people walk a little extra for the elevators?

There is a major role for urban planners to nudge us towards healthier choices. Some town planners (not in the exploding emerging world megacities) are great at ensuring that new infrastructure is balanced with adequate parks, parking, pavements, public transportation, education and mobility choices.

For many others, there is an urgent need for cross-disciplinary conversation that includes human centered design, health, infrastructure, education, transportation and telecom (amongst others) to rethink the configuration of our living environs.

Can we start by sensitizing ourselves to the simpler choices — even roads and pavements, clean air, garbage clearance, even spacing of stairs and shut manholes shouldn’t be a luxury or a matter of aesthetics, but often are. Can schools spend more than a token couple of hours on games and sports? Can we explore real incentives for kids to play sports (grades/ cash?)?

Health professionals, and especially behavioral health experts must play a key role in leading a conversation on demanding infrastructure changes and urban plans. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, lobbying for healthier choices to prevent diseases must become a key focus of primary health professionals. If we don’t act urgently, we’ll run out of the band-aids, pins and needles that are holding us together today.

Can we choose better for ourselves?

We can blame the external environment for nudging us towards unhealthy choices. However, that will provide little consolation for the poor health habits of our children in 20 years. While we lobby for urban planners to wield their magic wand and right every wrong, there are simpler choices we can all make every day. Do stand-up meetings have to be the exception rather than the rule? Can we walk down stairs, even if we don’t want to climb them? Can we board the Uber a 5 min walk from our homes? Can we get down and walk 5 minutes from our destination? Can we indeed, engineer movement, back into our lives, where it must belong?

A newly diagnosed diabetic I spoke with recently (someone from a non-affluent background) said he takes a taxi to the train station every day. I probed for his daily schedule and was convinced his inability to walk was linked to the lazy, easy, numb choice of climbing into the taxi every day.

A big part of making right choices is to actively say no to the unhealthy, easy ones in front of us. Can we say no to meetings set up at god-forsaken hours, just because someone somewhere wants to work late in the evening? Can we walk out of a meeting when all topics are discussed; not hang around just because the calendar invite was for an hour. Can we keep the damn phones away over dinner; can we not get our kids used to eating with the iPad?

A few years back, we took the TV out of our home and realized we started looking each other in the eyes while talking. Before that, everyone talked with their body angled to face the TV, even if it was off!

Can we plan our annual holidays first and then plan work travel around that? Can we go for a vacation and not feel compelled to immediately post pictures on Facebook? Can we read a story to our kids at night, build a race track with them, cook with them, pick them up from school? Can we not turn our phones on the minute we land from a flight (business was good even before we all did that!)? Can we smile at the people riding in the elevator, instead of scrolling our devices?

Let’s try and remember that when William Henry Davies yearned for time to stare, he wasn’t referring to staring at the phone!

I was transiting through a busy airport a few years back and while waiting for a flight, noticed two young, teenage boys doing a drill of isometric, freehand exercises. They were wiry thin and did an impressive full body work out using nothing but their body weight and a railing. Everyone else was lounging around, with their coffees, bemused by the antics of these kids.

It got me wondering who the odd one out was — the rest of us, who spent hours sitting in uncomfortable flight seats and followed that up with more sitting in a lounge or in a café? Or these guys, who naturally wanted to stretch their limbs as a response to being caged for hours on a flight? Yet, the guys with the natural physical response struck us as odd! These kids could say no to the easy choice of lounging around at the airport!

Ever since, I spend my transit time walking circuits at airports and would love to bump into more people doing the same. Imagine what that would do for commerce at the airports!

To each his own, as long as it is a real choice

Don’t get me wrong. It’s ok whatever you chose to do if you are making active choices. Without realizing, most of us aren’t doing that. We are on someone else’s treadmill, running at a pace and incline set by someone else, running a race that we aren’t even sure is ours to run anymore.

Baking health in our operating system is about making active choices, and about putting ourselves in the position of making those choices. We must engineer healthier choices back into our lives just as much as we must engineer movement back into our lives.

I am not a marathoner, triathlete or a competitive, overachieving, protein drinking, iron pumping sportsman; have never been. I don’t run a yoga studio or “how to turn around your life” workshops. The healthier choices don’t come naturally to me and building health into my OS is indeed an upstream swim. I recognize how easy it is for most people, busy with their jobs, their families, their daily routines and struggles, to succumb to the passive choices laid out for them. How difficult it is to do things differently, make different choices, that can lead them down the path of true health and wellness.

But it should be done.

These musings are more a reminder to me to keep seeking true health. Every day is a battle to remind myself of who I am, what I want to be and what I want my children to see me as. I lose most days, win a few, but hey, at least I stay in the game. As Rocky Balboa said — One step at a time, one punch at a time, one round at a time… Let’s bring true health back into our lives.

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