Why Don’t Indians Exercise?

 (sanjay austa austa)

Aasheekaa Bathija, a South Indian Actress works the treadmill in a gym in Mumbai.

(The article first appeared in the Deccan Herald. Jan 2014.)

I go to a gym in South Delhi, which ever so often, brandishes huge billboard size banners across its front, screaming of special discounts. ‘’Hurry Up. Announcing Heavy Discounts . Registration closing soon.’’.

However the registration never closes. The billboards erupt almost every month with fresh offers and discounts. But there are no takers. The gym is almost empty and when I ask the owner  he is embarrassed and says people come in the morning.  But when I gym in the morning they tell me  the ‘crowd’ comes in the evening. Over the past four  years that I have been going to this gym I have hardly seen any  ‘crowd’.

I also hardly see any old faces. The members are seasonal; most of them are either on a monthly membership or at best a quarterly. A lot of girls join the gym just when they  are hunting  for a groom.  Once he is found and they are married, the gym is forgotten.

 (sanjay austa austa)

Jogging on the Brooklyn Bridge, New York.

The expense could not have been an issue because the gym is in  Greater Kailash II, an affluent South Delhi colony with lots of people with loads of money to spare.  There are not more than three good gyms in the radius of five kilometers and one would imagine  these gyms were too few to feed the exercising  needs for this big colony.  But  one gym is emptier than the other.

I became aware  that we don’t exercise in India, after my  US visit last  year.  No matter where I travelled, I saw the young and the old jogging , walking and cycling energetically.  They were  sweating on the bridges,  the pavements, in the downtowns and on  the beaches.   In India,  you hardly see anyone jogging on the road unless they are catching the bus.

I have a theory why we Indians don’t like to exercise.  I think unlike the West, we were essentially an agrarian society who migrated to the cities from villages. We had no tradition of ‘working out’. We ‘worked out’ in the fields.

Fit or Fat America? Cyclists in San Francisco. According to media reports Americans are fighting a desperate battle against the bulge. 36 percent of Americans are obese according to a 2010 survey. I however saw very few obese people. In fact I saw a lot of people gyming, cycling, jogging or walking wherever I went. (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

Cyclists on a cycling track near the Golden Gate, San Francisco.

For example my father, who lives at our apple orchards in Himachal, walks for at least 7 kilometers any given day. He sometimes covers that distance simply by going from one plantation to the next. Therefore,  if I were to suggest  him a jog in the morning, it would be really absurd.

So when we settled in the cities we adopted the ways of the cities- driving to offices, using elevators, the escalators and the metros etc.  But exercise, which is also an urban phenomenon, was never adopted.

In India you workout  if you are fat  (and in  the case with most girls ‘think’ you are fat.) A slim person thinks he or she is fit simply by virtue of being slim. And the senior citizens don’t  exercise  at all. They think it’s the preserve of the young. They are content to do their ‘breathing exercises’ in the park.

Tai Chi practitioner at the River Isar, Munich. (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

Tai Chi practitioner at the River Isar, Munich, Germany

The problem is that in India exercise is seen as an unusual activity, a fad or an indulgence of the elite.  If you workout people comment,

 ‘’ Wah! so you are a fitness freak?’’.

We began our life on the planet as hunters and gatherers. We trekked for days in search of food. It was an arduous physical labor and it’s all imprinted in our genes. We may have altered the world around us but our bodies haven’t suddenly metamorphosed in the short span we have been on this planet. It needs that primeval physical exertion. Most of the diseases Indian’s suffer from are because of sedentary lifestyles.  Diabetes being one of them. India has the almost 50.8 million  people suffering from diabetics and it is slated to cross the 100million mark by 2030.

And this is Muscle Beach in Los Angeles where Arnold Schwarzenegger pumped iron in full public view. Its still a popular attraction and some of the old timers like these two men, still come to the beach to relive those times (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

Muscle Beach in Los Angeles where Arnold Schwarzenegger pumped iron in full public view.

The other more pernicious lifestyle disease that exists due to our lack of physical movement is depression.  A growing urban Indians now suffer from some depressive disorder or the other. If you go to any psychologist today they will give you the same psycho-jargon but will seldom emphasize on exercise.

Western science unfortunately still treats the mind and the body as two separate compartments to be dealt by a set of two different specialists.  Which is such a big fallacy because the body and mind are not separate but a composite whole with one having a direct bearing on the other. For example if you have a chronic headache your doctor may recommend you an MRI but will hardly ask you if you are under some sort of stress. And the shrink will give you a pill for your  melancholy  but wont tell you to jog it out.

Exercises no matter what form you do it in, releases the happy hormones (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin)  in your body while keeping your body in good shape. Its always a win win scenario.  Which makes it even more surprising why we don’t exercise.

 (sanjay austa austa)

The Elderly exercise in Melaka, Malaysia.


This man was doing pranayam at Hauz Khas when these three ducks began feeding . It almost looked they were bowing to the Yogi. (sanjay austa austa)

But in India the elderly are content just doing the breathing exercises.



22 Responses to “Why Don’t Indians Exercise?”

  1. minniie says:

    You pose a lot of good questions in your write-up on why indian culture isn’t so pro excercise. I think its primarily lack of awareness, infrastructure & culture.

    Here’s my take on who & what can bring positive change in our culture:

    – Medical & health institutions (through patient & provider & family wellness programs)

    – Educational institutions (by making it part of the curriculum & make it fun)

    – Corporations (onsite fitness centers/yoga studios for employees can be great perk!)

    – Travel Industry (selling health & fitness promoting travel packages)

    – Senior citizen centers (old people love getting together and exercising)

    – Religious places (temples, gurudwara, mosques can promote healthy body, healthy mind, healthy soul programs)

    – Entrepreneurs (taking advantage of uprising wellness industry in India)

  2. Poorvaja says:


    My incoherent thoughts:
    It’s interesting you dwelled on exercise. My mom-in-law cannot comprehend why we are so fitness conscious. She can’t understand why we wake up on freezing wintry mornings to workout, why we complain about being sore from working-out but still keep going back to the gym, why we eat such little rice and stay away from papads, why we don’t drink store-bought juices because they have too much sugar, why we insist on taking vitamins regularly… the list goes on.

    I think it is the attitude. “Indians have a lot of resistance,” she says. “You guys get sick every time you visit India. We have stronger immune systems. We eat without thinking about calories. We don’t get fat. You guys just are just obsessed and afraid. You lead a life full of fear, so you don’t enjoy life to the fullest.”
    So Indians do not need to work-out because they have strong immune systems and because they do not get fat easily.

    The lifestyle in the US is very comfortable. There is a lot more processed food in the US, so the work needed to get to food is very little. The temperature is always regulated, unlike in India where your body sweats and burns calories just to keep you cool. We drive to work unlike in India where you walk to the bus/ train station and stand while commuting. Ironically, we drive to the gym! It is a sad story in developed countries. But it is also true that Indian lifestyle and food habits aren’t the best. Our favorite Gulab Jamun is fat, fried in fat, soaked in sugar! It goes straight from the mouth to the heart! Quite literally the recipe for a heart attack. Its time we left our pride aside and brought a paradigm shift to our thought process.


    • sanjay austa says:

      Thanks Poorvaja for sharing. You mom-in-law has a point of us Indians being immune to a lot of things. But I think its not because the guys in US are delicate but its because our Indian bodies had no choice but to adapt itself to the dirty water and the bacteria etc.

  3. Roopa says:

    Dear Sanjay,

    You make good argument. However, there are lot of things missing in your observation. You mention about Indians not running on road or using Gyms. In Delhi the uneven roads and mix traffic do not permit this. Neither gyms are affordable to most Indians. But If you peak into any of the neighbourhood parks( in morning and evenings), you will get to see people of all ages walking, running and strolling in the parks.

    In my hometown, Mysore, you will see lot of people walking on the roads early in the morning. This is because the traffic is not major issue.

    But the truth is that it is fraction of people who exercise whether it is in India or US. I do not think Indians do more or less exercise compared to US or other countries.


    • sanjay austa says:

      Thanks Roopa for sharing your view. I take your point about uneven roads. Someone also mentioned the hassle girls can face with eve-teasers on the road. But the gyms I am writing about are in the affluent part of Delhi i – their fees is chicken feed for the rich who live here.

  4. Manjunath Shenoy says:

    I stand guilty as charged. Can I just have one last jam tart before you drag me off to the dungeons?

  5. Sheetal Wadhare says:

    Some think the work they do in the city’s hard life is an exercise enough for them! I see a lot people getting into it now than earlier! But ya the dedication that you see here in the US is commendable! There are people jogging even when it snows!

  6. Priyanka says:

    Especially for women I think this counts . If you spend more time working out than in the kitchen , than you are accused of being careless and a selfish woman. Even if you slave in the office the whole day you are expected to slave in the kitchen when you come home. Imagine the horror , if a woman uses that time to work on her fitness. That is why many middle class women suffer from back pain , sore necks , knee problems,obesity ……
    Even the most educated men expect that from their wives. You often here phrases like ” Even my mother went to work , but she was so amazing, she would get up at 5 and make food for all of us” .. When I hear phrases like this , I want to tell the chump .. ” So you idiot, It dint occur to you , to help your mother out”.
    I also partly blame the women , they enjoy this status of martyr. Sacrifising your health and happiness for your family is what you do , this is the meaning of a woman in this country … !

    • Spot on says:

      spot on this is the same for us eritrean women believe it or not. My dad and brother who live at home sulk when my mom leaves the house even if it is to see friends once a month (!!). You have to be really strong mentally to resist the emotional manipulation by the men in the house.

  7. Ambika says:

    Absolutely correct, it is the problem in our gene, we can’t blame others for that. In India when one child takes birth, parents decided their future. Most of the people concerned about their status and most to grip the status by their child that’s why they emphasized over books. That the reason what they read in theory they forget to do in practical. We all are running behind quantity not for quality, having no efforts to strong our root, only concerning about the loss and profit. People demand for being wealthy by ignoring healthy. There are social dogmas, biasness found in every part of our India. It stands like boarder, you can’t over-cross. The culture of every family can treat us what to do or what to not. There is a blind faith with my friends & colleagues that if you do exercise in gym then you will get Hrithick Roshan or Kareena like body. So they used to do for some days again they forget. From my child hood to till now I preferred to do exercise in open air (by running on street), despite all hurdles, which give me self-actualization….

  8. Shubhajit says:

    Indians don’t exercise not because they are from agrarian society but they are lazy. We are lazy, we want short-cuts and we don’t think lateral. A principle population of India living a burgeons lifestyle, even rich are not exceptions. Exercise is a fad, not necessity, passion is far cry.

    I know the gym you are talked about. I once visited a gym in GK 2 and saw a guy in his early 20s doing shoulder raise with 2 kgs and made a face like a Arnold doing 300 pound bench press! I do exercise and i know what is actually ‘love for exercise’. young people in India do exercise to philandering girls, and elders do for some doctor advise, both won’t give much effect. there is no liking for exercise.

  9. Venu says:

    I really dont think its to do anything with genes for winning gold at Olympics. I thought I would not be able to get pumped like Americans 2-3 years ago. But with regular pumping and good food I am here.
    Its to do with epigenome than genome. The Brits when they ruled us, there was a huge scarcity of food for Indians, because of which the epigenomes adjusted in a way that we don’t grow tall, big and strong as smaller people require lesser food. But with adequate food for the past 1-2 generations most Indians these days are almost at the world average height.

    I agree with your over all idea of why we Indians don’t exercise. Indian’s are 4 times more susceptible to heart-attacks because of obesity as per a PNAS article which came out a few months ago.

  10. Anand says:

    Hi Sanjay
    Good write up. Few of your questions are bothering me from a long time when I first came to France in 2009.
    As many pointed out in the comments, I have seen people jogging every time, morning, noon, afternoon evening and even late in the night. There is no time frame to run. My colleagues go running just before lunch from the office and come back directly to office, take a shower in the office and back to the work desk. You cannot imagine this in Indian office or work place (you are as time killer as you are wasting office time).

    The fitness club I go every alternate day here has so many people including young mid and old people.

    I think there is one more aspect of it which you did not looked up in your article. Its the healthy diet. As with the Poorvaj’s story of Gulab Jamoon, People in India say you should eat well but nobody says what to eat healthy. I always have problem when I visit India with my diet.

    More over I did not find a good protein shake as after workout drink.

    Best regards

    from Galway, Ireland.

  11. Sudha says:

    I was searching on google with little frustration on Why Indians are so adamant in not wanting to exercise or following a healthy diet. I run a heath blog (www.sudhashealthsculptures.com) predominantly focusing on Indian healthy food and exercising and I even run challenges to help my friends get a little motivation. But I barely get any response. Indians just don’t want to move. If I would have come up with a Indian Food Recipe website probably I would have done better, I guess. Hopefully all these westernization will lit some light on the fitness part as well. Till then I will just keep trying. Your write up made me feel better but still there is a lot to do to get Indians focus on health and fitness.

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