If marathon sitting was an Olympic event, India would finally be earning its share of gold medals. Studies done in the UK on multiple ethnicities have shown South Asian adults and children to be the most sedentary of all groups. In Silicon Valley, where I see South Asian patients and run corporate wellness programmes, I often measure walking steps in patients by having them purchase a pedometer—a portable activity monitor that measures how many steps you walk. Human beings should walk between 8,000 – 10,000 steps daily for optimal health and for reducing the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and virtually every major chronic illness. The absolute bare minimum we need to walk is 5,000 steps each day. Unfortunately I find that the typical South Asian software engineer or high-tech entrepreneur walks on average an abysmal 2,000 steps a day. Often, my patients feel falsely protected by their genes, bragging to me that their father or grandfather lived to be 80 years of age with no health issues.  They conveniently neglect the fact that older generations routinely walked a minimum of 10,000 steps, simply as a function of their daily lifestyles. This is why I so frequently see diabetes and heart disease in patients who have had absolutely no family history of these conditions. My patients today are at least five times less active than their ancestors, yet they are consuming considerably more food. The so-called ’protective gene’ in nearly all cases is a myth that dissipates in the face of our exceedingly unhealthy lifestyles.

In my book, The South Asian Health Solution, I highlight three major reasons South Asians refuse to move which I outline below.

1. Culture and upbringing

Most of us do not come from families that place an emphasis on physical activity. An Indian family’s prestige often relies on the academic and financial success of its members. I still recall my trips to India when my relatives and neighbours would introduce their children with a name, followed by an immediate tagline describing his or her school ranking. Something along the lines of, “This is my son Ramesh—he graduated 3rd out of 5,000 students in his engineering college.”

Without a doubt, these are remarkable achievements that families should be proud of, but the Indian cultural obsession with these types of success metrics undermines the importance of physical and emotional health and happiness. In fact, this cultural mindset creates excessive pressure that can compromise physical and emotional health. There are volumes of proven scientific research that confirm exercise and activity improve all major brain functions and are linked to higher academic achievement in children, however the pressure to keep our youth sedentary and studious far outweighs efforts to keep them active and healthy.

2. High-carb diet

A complete lack of energy is often cited as a common reason for avoiding exercise.  What most of my patients don’t realise is that it’s often their diet that’s a primary culprit. An excessive amount of carbohydrates, a hallmark of the South Asian diet, leads to a tremendous surge in the hormone insulin, which actually pushes energy from your foods into your fat cells, making it unavailable to fuel your brain and your muscles. Pay attention to how you feel in the hour or two following one of your typical high-carb meals, and you’ll understand the relationship between what you eat and why you’re not moving. When I get my patients to consume more nutrient-dense foods and remove excess carbohydrates, in just a few short weeks not only does body fat start to decrease but energy levels invariably increase as well.  All of a sudden, the thought of walking and exercising no longer seems to be an insurmountable feat.

3. Exercise aversion

We’ve built a tremendous metabolic and cultural barrier to activity, worsened by Western society’s overaggressive exercise recommendations. How can someone who sits for a living immediately transition to the recommended 150 minutes of exercise a week [which breaks down to 30 minutes, five days a week]? This is like asking a toddler to start running before he can barely walk. Pushing unrealistic exercise goals turns physical activity into a burden and a chore. A nagging spouse or family member that accuses you of being lazy and insists you get exercise only reinforces activity as an act of torture rather than a source of pleasure.

So what do you need to do?

You need to completely redesign and reprioritise the way you and your family are currently living. Physical activity needs to become a way of life and using tools like pedometers can motivate you to reach your daily goals. Kids are more sedentary than ever and are developing obesity, diabetes and signs of heart disease plaque at an early age. Be sure your children get time to play and are physically active every single day. Plan more active family recreational activities rather than sedentary restaurant and movie outings. We spend enough time sitting during the work week so be sure to spend more time upright and moving during weekends and holidays. Focus on eating nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats rather than the typical Indian high-carb flat breads [chapatis, etc.], rice and junk snacks that promote inactivity and obesity.  By following some of these simple principles, my hope is that South Asians can make a gradual return to a lifestyle that at least somewhat resembles the activity levels of our ancestors.

 This was first published in the June 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Ronesh Sinha
Ronesh Sinha is the author of The South Asian Health Solution. He is a former TEDx speaker and winner of the 2013 Silicon Valley Healthcare Hero award for his groundbreaking work with South Asians at large corporations. He blogs at southasianhealthsolution.org