Dr Rajat Chauhan (Dr RC) in conversation with  Sandy Hooda, Co-Founder, Vega Schools (S). Here are some excerpts.

S: Dr Chauhan you have an MBBS, MSc (Nottingham, UK in Sports Exercise Medicine, Musculo-Skeletal Medicine, London, UK). You are a prolific author and newspaper columnist with the Hindustan Times and many other major news papers. You’ve been an Advisor to Adidas, a long distance runner who organised marathons for many companies, Airtel, Wipro amongst them. And you were the Founder Director of Sports at Ashoka University…the list goes on and on. We are also honored to have you as a member of the Vega Schools Leadership Board.  

We wish you a very warm welcome to our series “Educating for a New World”. And today we want to talk about Sports and fitness for a New World. You are a visionary and someone who has questioned and reimagined some of the major assumptions underlying sports and fitness. 

Inculcating habits of lifelong fitness in children

S: Moving a little beyond resilience, we have a programme at Vega Schools called SPEED where we lay a lot of emphasis on biomechanics, and on lifelong sports and fitness. The reason we started this programme was that we observed that a lot of children just play sports in school and once they graduate and they start working they don’t develop habits of lifelong fitness. You wrote in your column in the HT that promotion of sports should not only be for medals but also to encourage a healthy lifestyle. And you also wrote that over 50% of today’s deaths are premature. Many children who play sports are generally physically fit and the problem of course is why perhaps there are so many premature deaths is because people are not focusing on lifelong fitness. So my question to you is- What can schools and parents do to inculcate habits of lifelong fitness in children?

Dr RC: I think the culture of physical activity and playing sports for participation rather than for medals. Because, what medals also does is that they have a negative effect on children. If I am not getting there, then why do it? If I am not in the top three, if I am not the winner,  then why do it? And that is a very negative outlook and approach. So participation should be appreciated as much as winning. So for example, there are ‘Houses’ in the school. Like in my own school, there is a point that is being allocated to my House if I am participating in the sport. So the House Captain would get you on the field, just for participation sake, because there is a point to it, leading to the decision which house would win the Trophy at the end of the year. I think that’s a very simple one.

But, the one that I have a major problem with, which is in almost all schools and institutions for that matter; we take the kids to a particular level and then we leave them in the middle of nowhere. I mean, if you are going to school, what does the child or parent want after that? It is to get into a good college and after that what is needed, or what they are aspiring to is to have a good career, get into a good corporate or own their own business etc. I think that connection needs to be made. I think that companies already value people who are sporty. You know, if I am sitting across a table and talking to someone, and if that boy or girl plays a particular sport then there is a higher chance that I would hire that person. And that is true for most top corporates today. Because, they are looking for a holistic individual. But the problem is that colleges are not valuing that enough and then schools are not valuing that enough. I am working on this book called “Movement Medicine” and we have been interviewing doctors who are active now. But, when we look at their history, they stopped playing sports in 9th or 11th standard, for obvious reasons, for the Board exams. And I think that’s the most important part of  that age, if you think about it. Because, if you are missing out then, then you are gone for the next two or three decades and then you pick it up again in the mid-40s or something. So, I think it needs to be integrated with further education, about valuing that you played sports- participation being as important as medals. Because, even if people are talking about sports, they are only talking about winning and medals- I represented the school, or I represented the district, etc. If not, there is no point…they don’t value it at all. So I think that connection, between the school-college- career, is something that we need to do, from our side.

From a school angle, if we are to talk about Vega, or my own school, making that connection and guiding our students that ‘Hey, these are the colleges that value it by the way’, is important. For instance, my son is in the US and I made sure of it. The school did not help me, well they helped me to a point but not all the way. But I made sure to find out where it would be valued, that he is a half marathon runner as a 17 year old guy. And he loves writing and is good at debating… where is that going to be valued along with what he did academically? But most of us don’t do that. Parents don’t do that and teachers don’t do that. Kids are left in between.

S: So what you are saying is that, generally the umbilical cord with sports gets snapped around Board exam time and many children don’t go back to sports and fitness. So parents and educators should make sure that, that doesn’t happen. More so because now many colleges are actually valuing sports and so are recruiters and job providers, they value sports and fitness. And the cherry on the cake of course, the most important piece, is that if you are healthy and fit and if you are playing a sport or delving in fitness, you yourself will live longer and healthier. I get it, I think that is a very important point you’ve made, doc!

Integrating academics and sports

S: Now for the most important question, the education system is designed to segregate studies and sports…you have a studies period, and you have a sports period. This is in some ways becoming even more pronounced during the pandemic because there is only so much physical activity that you can do online. We do a lot of integration at Vega Schools, in fact ‘We are Gurgaon’ rated us as the Best school in Gurugram for these reasons. For example, for very young children, we launched the ‘Bookworm Yoga’ programme where they read and they do yoga. They do it in a very creative way where for each chapter, a pose is symbolic of what they are learning and they love it. They love learning, and they love yoga. So my question is- What are your thoughts on the need to integrate academics and sports?

Dr. RC: I think it is important…SUPER important. And I think that was exactly what my role was at Ashoka University. Creating infrastructure is not a problem, any vendor would tell you how to create infrastructure for sports, it is not a big deal. But in my head, my role was to integrate the word education with sporting/physical activity, medals, participation all of that…medals to the highest level, but participation for everyone (100%). That was my target there. It was a big challenge, because I had these students from all across and the faculty from all backgrounds like PhDs etc. And it was exactly what you were saying, to them a college was meant to be about academics and nothing else. So it was a very big challenge but I am a firm believer that it needed to be integrated.  

So when it comes to integrating, I think it should be done and it can be done. It should be a definite one. It’s not even a choice, why should it be? And with sports, we can combine any subject and integrate it well, whether it is Geography or History etc. There was a study that was done, I think it was about a decade ago, where students were asked, ‘Who are your role models?’ and I was fascinated by the response by children, who people usually say are immature or silly. The children were saying ‘Our role models are our parents, rather than a Salman Khan, Tendulkar or Virat Kholi. So most children said parents. Now if parents wear their shoes in the morning and go for a sport- tennis, squash, running, swimming or whatever it may be- without having to say anything to the child, we could instill the correct habits. Usually, they want to do whatever parents do. So I think that if we, as parents, teachers, principals lead by example, even without saying anything, that is half the battle won right there. The problem is we are not doing enough of that. Even if we are, we are not speaking enough about it. So I think that is a very crucial part that we need to be doing. The second step to it is, when you go out on vacations or when you are going out on a Sunday for example, Why are we not going as a family to parks?, Why are we not playing frisbee with each other?…I mean that is what we guys did. All that has been forgotten.

S: Instead of going to malls.

Dr RC: Yes. So we complain about technology, we complain about the gadgets in children’s hands, but really who is the culprit? Who gave it to them and why are ‘we’ always on them anyways? You know, one, we are not having dinner together, which should be the rule. You know dinner and lunch should happen together as a family. But, can all the smart gadgets be kept aside? Because parents are as responsible because they have a screen in front of them, always. So I think it is a very simple rule we should be working with and we need to come up with these simple ones because that is when the magic happens. You know we can have a very complicated solution but it will never work. Something that can be repeated on a regular basis and becomes a habit, I think we should be going after those.

S: Yes. So it is great to know that you are a big votary of not segregating academics or studies and sports and find a way to blend them. Also, the fact that ultimately if we want to develop lifelong fitness and sports habits  in our children, then WE have to lead by example as educators, as parents, as employers. And we know that there is the ‘mirror neuron’ which means that the children will do what they see the elder doing and I completely agree with your point on role models, because when I interview people for jobs at Vega Schools, one of my favourite questions is ‘Who are your role models’? And you are absolutely right, nine out of ten people have said that their parents are their role models. So it is really important for parents to get up and and start embracing habits of lifelong fitness because guess what, lo behold, our children will be fitter if we are fitter. That is a very powerful point. That is a very important connection that you have just made, doc. Thank you for that! 

Safeguards to be free of this neck and back pain, and other body pains, as a result of devices

S: My last question, and perhaps it is a very practical question, because we have moved to virtual work and virtual learning and every other day I talk to a colleague who says ‘Oh, I have a little bit of a cervical issue or a little bit of a back ache’. So any very basic, quick tips for parents and for children, as to what safeguards they could apply so that they are free of this neck and back pain and other body pains, as a result of devices?  

Dr RC: So the book we are writing is called “Movemint Medicine” (visit the link for a clear and detailed explanation behind the name. Mint standing for ‘minty and fun’.) and the word ‘move’ is followed by the word ‘mint’ not ‘ment’. What we are saying is that when you talk about ethical medicine, I think we doctors have lost the plot, somewhere. We are asking for too many investigations and procedures when they are not needed when we can simply get our patient to be moving around a lot more…simply moving. And what we have realised is that, a lot of research is also showing that today, if you just do that bit…just move around, not even play sports, just be physically active and move around you are addressing a lot of these medical issues and concerns that are happening. The problem is that our faculty or fraternity is called Healthcare Industry…but there is barely any health or care that we talk about, it is all about excessive capitalism. That is what it has become, sadly. Because, ’Industry’ is what it is now and ‘health’ and ‘care’ are not there. 

S: Basically you want people to fall sick so that you can charge them to fix them. 

Dr RC: Precisely that. If you just look at the names, the nomenclature, it gives it away.

So the main thing you asked me, about the back pain, the neck pain and the knee pain. I did a book on this called “The Pain Handbook” that deals with the back pain, the knee, the shoulder pain. Based on my experience over the last 20-21 years that I have been in this space, effectively if you are moving even when you are sitting long hours, which people are doing nowadays, it would help. I would say a basic rule is every 30 mins, get up and move your hands up. It just gets things moving. There are things like alphabets…. tell people to interlace their hands behind their neck with their elbows in front and with their elbows write in big fonts the alphabets- lowercase. What they are doing is moving their upper back, so the shoulders are moving, the neck is moving and the lower back is moving very well. It is about movement. It is not about technical exercises. And the beauty of it is, that I have again learnt over 21 years of dealing with back, knee and neck pain, it isn’t about complicated exercises, it is about picking those simple exercises, making sure it becomes a habit and then doing them. Now, this applies, whether in the UK or India, because I was in the UK for a while and now in India for a very long time. Can’t talk much about the UK. But the beauty lies within simplicity with a habit…making a habit out of it. So picking those 5-7 simple exercises and it is game on.

The next point there is, start pushing yourself a little bit more every time. Every month, just raise the bar a little bit more…it could be duration, it could be the intensity of the exercise. Because if you keep doing the same thing over and over again, you become good at doing exactly the same thing and that is about it. One plus one will always remain two, so if I don’t start teaching you multiplication, you will never know multiplication and the same applies to the muscles as well. So I think that is a very important point. Just keep pushing a little bit more, a tiny bit more each time, 5% more each time..every month and so on. 

Walking is good enough but do a brisk walk and start playing with the duration and speed. Running, as much as people talk about running and I am crazy about this whole running space, when it comes to health, there is no need to do it for more than 30 to 45 minutes for 5-6 days a week, with strength training. When it comes to health, this is all that matters. Now, strength training people think is too difficult but when you sit down and get up, you have done half a squat when you sat and half a squat when you got up. Why can’t everyone just start doing that, just before you are at work or an online meeting?  Sit down on a chair, get up again, repeat that five times or ten times. This is probably the best exercise because it engages big muscles. And people who tell me they can’t squat, I mean sitting is squatting. So it is a simple movement. ‘Heel raises’…people talk about knee pain, if they do ‘heel raises’, if they do squats 50% of people will not have the pain that they get, then or later. 

S: So that is a very important point you’ve made. I think these are very simple things that you’ve shared, like every 30 minutes if we can stretch or do the alphabets, and push ourselves a bit more every month and get out there on Sundays and instead of going to the mall go to the park. Also start getting our children also to start doing physical activities with us, lead by example, get out two, three, four, five days and go for a little run- 30/40 minutes is enough, do a bit of muscle training (and muscle training doesn’t mean going and lifting weights, just doing squats without weights is muscle training.) I know that there are lots of very interesting videos on YouTube- high intensity training videos, very simple just seven minutes or ten minutes and you can do fantastic exercises without any weights, without anything. 

Another important thing, try not to put things in boxes, to segregate- studies separate, sports separate. Equally muscle-training, cardio-vascular training, breathing…it all has to be integrated. That is the secret to living a healthy, happy and successful life.  That is very powerful, doc. And I think that it is going to be very valuable for our educators, for our parents as we work together to help build and develop children of a new world so that they are really successful in the world of tomorrow. 

Dr. RC: Sandy, if I may just add something here, one very simple tip could be-  if classes are happening online, just do alternate things, just  at the beginning of the class. In one class, for example, it could be, ‘Listen before you sit down in front of the computer can you sit down and stand up five times or ten times’, teachers included. Now what it does is that while it seems like a little game that is going on- who does it better etc, they are getting some movement and exercise. So it’s a very simple one and if they are doing this three to four times a day, they get into the habit of liking it. Another alternative could be ‘Listen, lets sit up tall like a puppet. You imagine you are like a puppet and being pulled up.’ So there is a ribcage, it is called ‘the cage’ and in the cage is the heart and the two lungs. So when you sit crouched up, the rib cage has become smaller, it doesn’t have room to expand and then your breathing just isn’t optimal then. When you are sitting tall like a puppet, and then when you are taking those long breaths you need to be thinking of your ribcage going up and down, they are like bucket handles, they are going up and down, so they are increasing the lung volume each time. Now again, if you do just five long breaths that’s enough, or you can do it Diaphragmatic, whichever it be. Now that is a very simple tip for the children to kind of get involved with all of this. 

Why am I actually talking about this? There is a very interesting study that was done on mice. So mice get very excited about life when there is a little wheel in that cage of theirs, they start running on it. If the mice have the wheel in their cage, there is a very good chance that they will end up running for about four hours. This particular study took on the mice that would run for over four hours and did a very targeted reproduction only with those four hour plus mice. And over 15 generations they realised that actually the majority of them ended up doing  15 + hours of running on the wheel. And what they were noticing or observing during this whole time was ‘What was the difference between those mice who were doing more than this? It was nothing to do with muscle, it was nothing to do with the bone density. It was more a difference in the brain. So that goes back to the whole thing, it is more in the mind than the body. That is what we are trying to change here. We are trying to create a habit. We can if we start putting in these smaller things. Because it has nothing or very little to do with who is bigger, whose muscles are bigger etc, whether humans or mice.We can do that. We can change it from a very early age.

To sum it all up

S: Ultimately everything is interconnected. If we have good posture it will help us breathe better, if  we are conscious of our breathing, it will allow us to get more oxygen in our heart, if we do cardio-vascular exercises we process that oxygen better, if we move around and do a little bit of strength training we help build the muscles so that we are pain-free and we feel great. If we are on devices we must make sure that there is movement every 30 minutes or so, so that also keeps us injury-free, if we exercise regularly we build these great habits for ourselves and make ourselves healthy, but equally importantly these great habits will make our children healthier because they will observe us because we are their role models and they will get out there and build lifelong fitness habits. And once Board exams hit, educators and parents must be conscious that the umbilical cord between children and fitness does not get snapped and that they continue to remain healthy and fit. Because ultimately, as per the (mice) example you gave, if you have a healthy body you will have a great mind as well and you will thrive in your exams, your college admissions, your life after college, your corporate career. You will thrive and you will live a healthy life and you will set the same amazing examples for your children so that it becomes self-perpetuating. 

The dialogue is printed on behalf of Vega Schools, ranked by Educationworld (2020-21) as among the Top 5 schools in Gurugram.