Recognising fitness as a pressing priority, an expert committee set up by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports came up with age-appropriate fitness protocols and guidelines under its ‘Fit India Movement’ campaign in 2019. The aim: to address fitness for all ages, including children, with programmes laid out to “enable the children to demonstrate individually and in groups, the physical skills, practices and values to enjoy an active healthy lifespan”.
“Fit India is about making fitness a part of daily life,” says Sujit Panigrahi, CEO of Sequoia Fitness, a fitness assessment technology company. He was part of the panel that framed the protocols and guidelines for the Fit India movement and also heads Fitness365, a physical education programme that works in partnership with schools across the country.
Panigrahi says there is a crying need for fitness among children. Fitness365’s first-time physical assessment of over 13.8 lakh children was conducted between 2011 and 2018. It showed that, in India, two out of three children are inactive, one out of four is overweight and two out of five are underweight. The pandemic has only added to the predicament, he says.
Dr Sharil Hegde, consultant paediatrician, Manipal Hospitals, Bengaluru, agrees with Panigrahi. “What we have seen in the last two years is a lack of exercise,” he says. “In my observation, 80 per cent of the children lost their daily regime. They sleep late after watching TV. They wake up late and eat before mid-afternoon. In the evenings there is no playtime. Vitamin D deficiency has also become a problem because of the lack of exposure to sunlight.”
Dr Hegde also points out the negative effect the lack of physical activity can have on mental health. “Children become dull and lack energy when they have no exercise,” he says.
But the pandemic also proved to be a time for innovations.
For Amit Gupta, CEO and founder of upUgo, technology seems to be the way forward. It was with the intent to research, develop and deliver age-specific routines that he started upUgo, a sports and fitness programme for children between four and 18 years. When he founded the programme, it was a completely offline curriculum. “We wanted to democratise sports and fitness and make it accessible and affordable,” says Gupta.
The company began by reaching out to apartments in India and started coaching children. But after the onset of the pandemic, upUgo decided to leverage technology to continue its efforts.
“To maintain fitness, you need navigation,” says Gupta. “And hence was birthed Getactyv, a wellness coach app that gives a personal trainer for every person (adults and children). Anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection can use it.” Gupta is quick to point out that it is not an attempt to replace cycles and other outdoor physical activities that children need, but an aid to help them in their journey, by providing them with an opportunity to receive their daily dose of fitness in a technology-driven world.
Panigrahi’s platform provides a hybrid model of teaching physical education, which deploys technology that uses predictive analysis to chart a child’s progress. “Basically, from the day you are born, you need fitness,” says Panigrahi, who was the head of technology at the 2010 Commonwealth Games (Delhi). “But it is important to have a structure. If you look at a subject like maths, you start with counting, then you move to addition, multiplication and so on. Fitness is similar. It is progressive. At every age, there are things that have to be addressed and taught. At every age, the structure changes. Gymnastics can be started when the child is very young. Athletics can be introduced from class four when the lung capacity is right. Yoga can be started from class six.”
Sedentary childhood, unhealthy adulthood?
Fitness for children is a global concern. According to the WHO guidelines, children and adolescents aged five to 17:
- should do at least an average of 60 minutes per day of moderate-to-vigorous-intensity, mostly aerobic, physical activity, across the week
- should incorporate vigorous-intensity aerobic activities, as well as those that strengthen muscle and bone, at least three days a week
- should limit the amount of time spent being sedentary, particularly the amount of recreational screen time
A review published in the journal Archives of Disease in Children in March 2020 says there is growing evidence supporting the positive impact that physical activity has on long-term health conditions.
“In my line of work, I see a lot of people who weren’t active as kids finding it difficult to inculcate fitness into their daily life,” says Jayne Broderick, a Cape Town-based orthopaedic physiotherapist who specialises in orthopaedic and sports injuries. “Then you deal with all the adult issues like cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity. And all those people who have exercised have less depression, less cancer and less constipation. They are happier because they have more dopamine (the feel-good neurotransmitter/chemical). Lack of physical fitness for children physical activity in childhood could have knock-on effects. Lack of muscle strength and coordination could lead to musculoskeletal problems later in life. It could also cause obesity later in life, which could lead to high BP and cholesterol. Overall, physically active kids lead to physically active adults, which lead to happier healthier people.”
Dr Hegde seconds Broderick’s observation. “Lack of physical activity could lead to hypertension and diabetes in adulthood,” he says. “Children must have a proper regimen. I recommend ‘early to bed and early to rise’, eating healthy meals on time and drinking seven to eight glasses of water every day. And in the evening, just send the children out to play.”
Teachers and parents to pitch in
Parents are busier, screens are more accessible and children are so full to the brim with activities that they do not get time to go out and play, says Broderick. “These days, playtime doesn’t necessarily involve playing outside, running around with friends or riding bicycles,” she says.
Gupta believes that parents must be the change themselves. “We don’t want to lead by example, but we need an ideal child,” he says. “Sports and fitness training for children are great ways for children to express themselves. As parents, we are sometimes only looking for academic excellence from our children. Sometimes you must let the children be. When they are left alone, all children want to do is play. As parents, do we ever say, ‘Let’s just drop everything for 20 minutes and just play?’ What we can do is navigate them into play. Play frisbee with them, play catch with them.”
Panigrahi says the role of women is also crucial. During the pandemic, he conducted online training for 43,000 PE (physical education) teachers. Out of them, 13,000 were women. “At home, children want to do what mothers want to do,” Panigrahi says. “It might not be practical for us to reach out to all mothers. But we can bring up a generation of good PE teachers, especially women. The other aspect we need to look at is encouraging girls to continue in sports and fitness. In the primary years, we see that they are interested. But they drop out of sporting activities later. It is important to have fitness gyms for children to keep them motivated.”
Fitness for children, the exciting way!
Broderick suggests children should explore fun activities that work on cardiovascular fitness, strength and balance. “It’s fun to play something like crab soccer,” she says. “In crab soccer, children must be on their hands and their feet, lie on their backs and move from side to side like a crab and kick the ball. Another game they can play is the wheelbarrow. When packing up their room, they can do the wheelbarrow, where they pick up each block with one hand and put it into boxes, while mom and dad hold their feet. There are so many fun things children can do. Make an obstacle course; climb under things; climb over things. If there are trees outside, climb them.”
Panigrahi points out that the skills children learn in their childhood can be applied to sports when they are older. “Try the crab walk and zigzag running,” he says. “Interestingly, these skills can be used in sports if they want to pursue them later. You give a child a basketball and he will learn to dribble. Small-format sports and physical fitness exercise for children are more important in childhood. Gully cricket is more important than large-format cricket. We need to understand this and let the children explore different avenues.”