The art of being active

By Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh WHO Regional Director for South-East Asia

Physical activity is fundamental to health and wellbeing. Yoga can help

The basics of good health are widely known. Eat well. Don’t chew or smoke tobacco. Pay attention to hygiene and the environment. And, however busy or time-poor you may be, stay active.

Though finding time for exercise can be challenging, it is fundamental to life-long health and wellbeing. When we move we enhance blood and oxygen flows, helping avoid noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular disease and stroke. We burn the energy in our food, helping control weight and preventing other NCDs such as diabetes and hypertension. And we also help keep our minds clear: Physical activity is a proven mood-lifter, and an important tool for managing anxiety and depression.

Yoga enthusiasts have long known this. The 5000-year-old practice has been considered an effective way to increase strength and flexibility, enhance cardio-fitness, burn calories and relax the mind. It has also been known to help cultivate routine and integrate physical activity into daily life.

One of the best things about yoga is that it can be practiced at all ages. It can help kids aged 5-17 get the 60 minutes of daily activity needed to set up a lifetime of good health. And it can help adults aged 18-64 reach the 150 minutes of weekly activity needed to stave off NCDs. For older persons aged 65 and above it can help reduce the risk of depression and maintain cognitive functioning. The only requirement is a commitment to better health and a willingness to gently stretch, exercise and invigorate one’s body and mind.

WHO is pleased to limber up in support of the International Day of Yoga, which draws a critical link between healthy lifestyles, physical activity and individual and public health. As the South-East Asia Region strives to reduce NCD-related premature mortality by a quarter by 2025, and a third by 2030 (as per the Sustainable Development Goal target), acting on that link is crucially important.

NCDs already cause an estimated 8.5 million deaths in the Region every year. Many are premature; nearly all are lifestyle related. An alarming 70% of boys and 80% of girls in the Region report insufficient physical activity. Nearly one-third of adults do the same. Though each of us should develop our own health-positive habits (including, of course, yoga), community initiatives that promote physical activity in all forms are key to creating the society-wide change needed.

Schools, for example, can provide a physical and social environment that promotes physical activity. This can be done by keeping sports facilities open before and after school, by ensuring time for structured and free play, and by engaging and including parents. Physical activity – including yoga – can be built into classroom lessons, while extracurricular pursuits can be encouraged and facilitated. This will give pupils the best chance possible of developing the habits needed for a long and healthy life.

Workplaces, too, can integrate physical activity into their operations. Exercise equipment can be provided. Lunchtime sporting competitions or yoga classes can be organized. And staff can be encouraged to use the stairs rather than the elevator and take part in public events such as fun-runs or hiking trips. Though workplace health is an end in itself, it is also a powerful means of fostering teamwork and enhancing productivity – outcomes that will pay dividends many times over.

Government must also play a role. Green public spaces such as parks and sports fields can facilitate recreational and organized sport. Footpaths and bike lanes can encourage travel using one’s own energy. Purpose-built sports facilities can foster the next generation of champions (and healthy lifestyle role models), while effective public messaging can highlight the need to get active. Each country in the Region now has a multisectoral national plan to make this happen.

Beyond the critical importance of physical activity, the International Day of Yoga speaks to another public health imperative: harnessing the full potential of traditional knowledge systems. Across the South-East Asia Region, WHO is promoting the safe and effective use of traditional medicine by regulating, researching and, where appropriate, integrating it into national health systems. By encouraging positive health care experiences, and by embracing the principle of preventive health, we can establish the individual and social habits that catalyze real change.

Amid today’s newly supple limbs, elevated heartrates and refreshed, unburdened minds, this point deserves emphasis. As the International Day of Yoga demonstrates, the art of being active is one each of us can master. As with other aspects of health and wellbeing, it is one for which millennia-old systems of knowledge and practice can show the way.