What difference can a comma make? My personal story of influencing SEM and population-based physical activity in India

By Dr Rajat Chauhan,

Sports-Exercise Medicine & Musculoskeletal Medicine Physician; BJSM Associate Editor (India) @drrajatchauhan

For the first time in humankind, this current generation will die at a younger age than their parents. Two-thirds of all deaths today happen because of Non-Communicable Diseases e.g lifestyle diseases like Diabetes, Cholesterol, and Cancer. Surprisingly, 50 percent of these premature deaths may be prevented simply by being physically active. Even 50 percent of breast cancer is preventable if women are physically active.


Bangalore sunrise
Bangalore sunrise

The flight back to India

It was exactly eight years ago, when I was on a British Airways flight from London to Delhi. The air-hostess asked me if I was going on a vacation. I smiled and said, “I’m going back to practice Sports and Exercise Medicine.” She laughed aloud and said, “Are you serious? There are no sports in India besides maybe cricket, which is barely a sport in the first place. Who will you practice Sports Medicine on?

When I was doing a Masters Degree in Sports (and Exercise) Medicine from Queen’s Medical Centre at Nottingham University, all I wanted to do was help athletes win Olympic medals. I wanted to be involved with elite sportspeople by being a team doctor. I wanted to live a life of elite sport, even if it was not I who was competing and winning gold (a dream I had always held). I also saw it as a privledge to just support a team.

During the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games, Christine Ijeoma Ohuruogu beat the then 400 m Olympic champion, Tonique Williams-Darling, to win the gold medal. Just a few months prior, I had played a role in Christine getting rid of her back pain, which could have stopped her from performing at her peak level. It seemed to me that I was happier than Christine herself on her achievement.

The awakening

But it then suddenly hit me. Now what? Was my calling in life only to help athletes excel at their chosen sport? I felt very lost. Was there a bigger cause I was meant to contribute to?

The British Air-hostess’s comment was very naive and innocent but one that unintentionally also stated the obvious – we humans have stopped doing what comes naturally to us, movement. As a matter of fact, we all moved before even being conceived, when sperms decided to ‘move’ the ultra distance. It’s our basic instinct, which we are in rush to forget about.

I realized that what really excited me was getting people moving again, and if they moved already, making them move more efficiently. I wanted to change lives of masses by helping to make everyone physically active, as ‘physical inactivity’ is the largest killer in today’s modern, but sedentary world. I called my own personal move-mint Get India FiT, or GIFT.

Sports & Exercise Medicine in Bangalore

I had moved back to India to take on the role of founder head of Sports & Exercise Medicine Department in one of the top corporate hospitals in Bangalore, IT capital of India. It’s not very often in the healthcare industry that a 30 year old is asked to head a department and I loved the challenge.

Even though it would make sense to anyone that physical activity is good for you, it’s not something that appeals to hospitals, definitely ones that need to sustain their five star existence. They need patients. But to take on the healthcare industry, I needed my army, of which I started building.

Acceptance of failure

A couple of months back, while having lunch with a friend Jonathan Gil Harris, I expressed how miserably I had failed at my mission in India. I had not yet been able to train the foot soldiers of the healthcare industry and the physiotherapists, to international levels. Since this friend was involved with a new university, I suggested he set up a physiotherapy course with a new approach. I figured you can’t train the youth in a certain field if they have got into it for all the wrong reasons. They often wanted to do medicine or had no clue what else to apply for. To make matters worse, till before I got into Sports-Exercise & Rehabilitation business in India, their pay packages were usually worse than the guards. Poor salaries neither motivated them to learn any more nor work with passion. Most would quit soon enough to pursue completely unrelated careers.

Gil and I agreed that we needed to something about this state of affairs urgently. He told me that this was a Liberal Arts university so we couldn’t start the suggested course. Gil also happens to be Dean of Academic Affairs and a Professor of English. I had no clue that a stroke of his pen, rather tongue, would put a comma in a place, that would help me achieve what I had originally moved to India for.

Sports, Exercise & Medicine

He thought for a while and then said, “you were the missing piece in this whole jigsaw.” He suggested that I take over as Director of Sports, Exercise & Medicine at Ashoka University. Ashoka University envisions to be India’s first ranked in higher education institution among the celebrated Ivy League international universities.

Sadly, the education system is such in India that some young people are active until 10th or 12th grade at most, but suddenly become very sedentary once they hit college. In today’s tech-savvy world, it’s happening even sooner. On a regular basis, I am now seeing 10-20 year olds coming with severe back, neck and knee problems that, only a decade ago, was seen commonly only amongst the senior citizens.

The bigger scope of SEM

Sports, exercise and increased physical activity have far more benefits than just getting healthier or winning medals. For me, the other benefits of sports – the career and, indeed the life skills they instill and enhance, outweigh the gains of fitness and prizes. These ‘soft skills’ can’t be taught in a classroom and they are for life: punctuality, discipline, sportsperson spirit, team spirit, respect for team members and opponents, camaraderie, leadership, honesty, confidence and self belief.

Role models needed for Move-mint

Doctors need to play a bigger role in making society more physically active. But we doctors can’t do it alone. We don’t have enough interactions to make a global difference without the work of others.

The students being accepted to Ashoka University already have all the characteristics to be value leaders of society. I want to use this opportunity to spread knowledge and practice of the benefits of physical activity like social wildfire. The focus shouldn’t only be about making these students active, but making them aware of their day to day role and their contribution to the larger strategy. The whole Sports – Exercise – Medicine needs to be integrated well into their curriculum, no matter what their chosen subjects.

In 4 years, Ashoka will have 4,000 students. Over a decade, these students would have touched more than a million lives. These students will work from within as seeds of this GIFT movement and over years they will make change happen. I have been at it for over a decade now. This is the tipping point that I have been waiting for.

Suddenly a ‘comma’ has justified my move to India and given me a clear direction. At Ashoka, we’ll be able to create not only leaders in physical activity treatment and promotion, but Young Indian Athletes.


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