When I was growing up – both in India or in north Africa – I noticed that the South Asian gatherings revolved around mostly food. I saw my father’s colleagues or parents’ non-desi friends on the tennis court or shooting hoops on the basketball court or making time for an evening swim after work. They were fit and food was something they enjoyed but wasn’t the core focus of their social hour.
In our home, food was the epicenter of all discussions. Our desi group brought the best kebabs and parathas everywhere we went. Even renting out a beach house included detailed planning of who was going to marinate what kind of meat, make stuffed parathas, and bring homemade mithais. Long road trips turned into unofficial face-offs in the kitchen.
Our bellies full, I remember floating in the Mediterranean Sea with my friends while aunties and uncles sometimes swam, but mostly played “taash” (cards) under the garden umbrella with no sand touching their bodies. The only time they were OK with contact with sand them was when they pulled out watermelon they had buried (a simple, yet effective way of keeping the fruit cool).
As a little girl, I also observed that most South Asian uncles had big bellies and the aunties broad hips. Women were taught that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. I rarely heard any talk about wellness or staying fit. People of South Asian descent have a higher tendency to gain visceral fat in the abdomen, which is associated with insulin resistance. My dad’s young colleagues had heart attacks. So many I knew had diabetes. But less than 2% of them were physically active on a consistent basis.
A study revealed that South Asians were less physically active than other ethnic groups in the U.S. When a dear friend and I would used to go on long walks in Central Park every Saturday morning, we could almost never spot fellow South Asians getting a workout. We saw Caucasians, African-Americans, Hispanics, and other Asian Americans play baseball, ride bikes or running. But nary any desi. We found them on Facebook, our weekend feeds flooded with desi brunches and culinary experiments.
FACT: Heart disease is the leading killer of adults nationwide. People of South Asian descent have four times the risk of heart disease as the general population, and they develop the disease up to a decade earlier. People with diabetes are two to four times more likely to have heart disease and stroke than those without it. In South Asians, diabetes and insulin resistance affects up to 20% of the population.
Between unhealthy eating habits, sedentary lifestyle, jobs that require sitting in front of a computer for extended periods of time, and genetics, the South Asian population is vulnerable.
June is Men’s Health Month! Can we change the narrative starting this month? It is not just about physical health; inactive men are 60% more likely to suffer from depression than active ones. Men who sleep seven to eight hours a night have about 60% less risk of fatal heart attack than those who sleep five hours or less.
I interviewed three South Asian men across the United States and the U.K. and asked them how and why they got started on their wellness journey and what inspired them to take ownership of their mental, physical, and emotional health.
Rishi Saurabh is a product manager for Philips Healthcare and lives in Andover, Massachusetts. He has been meditating for almost 3.5 years.
“I had spent much of my adulthood running away from my emotions,” he said. “I tried many ways to deal with it and ultimately got introduced to meditation by my acupuncturist. Simple breathing techniques became my avenue to accept the current situation and focus on solving it without overbearing emotions.”
The ability to take a pause and breathe kept Saurabh going.
“My work is usually hectic, and my personal life is not always smooth,” he admitted. “I use simple meditation techniques to calm myself down and deal with the situation. On the work front, meditation helps me maintain calm without losing it with my colleagues. I have begun to appreciate that everyone goes through ups and downs and I need to treat them with kindness. This simple realization helps put things into perspective at work and in personal life.”
Saurabh started exercising regularly when the pandemic hit.
“Even if I had a rough night or have a tough day ahead of me, rigorous cardio exercise in the morning sets me up for the day,” he said. “The initial days were painful, but over time I started to see the value of just 30 minutes on an elliptical. I realized I was fresh and more energetic during the day. Also, it helped me improve my productivity. On days when things are crazy on the professional and personal front, I take 15 mins in the middle of the day to do some core workouts. Midday short breaks like this just work like energy refuel.” Saurabh’s stamina is up and so is his patience with his two active children.
“This has helped me build a stronger bond with my kids,” he said.
Rakesh Kumar works at Oracle Corp. and lives in San Jose, California. He is a manager in a department involving research and development about data integration. This means both the stress levels and the demands on his time are high. So Kumar started practicing Hot Yoga, Hot Pilates, and Vinyasa Yoga in 2012.
“My motivation behind starting was to provide peace to mind while increasing body flexibility and strengthening weak areas,” he said, adding that dedicated yoga practice has helped him immensely.
“My mind-body connection is ‘agile,’” he said. “Also, visible results such as reduced waistline, ability to walk (effortlessly) many more miles and increased flexibility has kept me motivated to go-back to the yoga-mat again and again. I sleep well and feel at peace.”
When I asked Kumar if his dedication to daily movement has impacted his productivity, he agreed that it had.
“A ‘relaxed’ mind has helped me better cope with stress,” he said. “I find myself calm but alert in challenging situations. I can compartmentalize and better balance work-home life. A relaxed mind has improved my strategic thinking. I can prioritize my challenges and solve them one bite at a time iteratively while keeping the stress-meter low. I can spread calmness to others, which has drawn others (to me) to share their challenges and seek advice.”
Abhishek Ranjan is a senior delivery manager at NHS Digital in the U.K and who lives in Leeds. When I asked Ranjan what got him working out, he said, “I seriously started to look after my health a couple of years ago after I went to the doctors for a regular checkup and was told that I am on the verge of being a diabetic and would have to start on lifelong medication if I didn’t make changes to my lifestyle. I’m not a big fan of taking medicines. Something had to give. That’s when I started working out and looking after my diet.”
A combination of exercising regularly and eating right has helped Ranjan bring his blood sugar under control without any medication.
I was curious if exercising regularly has impacted Ranjan’s productivity at work.
He said, “I know it seems odd, but on the days when I don’t work out, there is definitely a lack of energy – and lethargy kicks in.”
He used to think that a big workout would drain him out.
“It actually helps with my energy levels when I go out for a long(ish) run or in the gym for a decent workout,” he said.
It’s never too late to get started. Do it for yourself and those you love! Let us get the conversation going in our South Asian communities and support the men in our lives – friends, families, colleagues, and groups – to get them active and take better care of themselves through diet and lifestyle.
“A man’s health can be judged by which he takes two at a time – pills or stairs” ~ Joan Welsh