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Dhaka Tribune

We need to move our bodies

A life that contributes to work-life balance is key to our functioning and key to realizing our optimal health

Update : 04 Nov 2023, 11:58 AM

Germany, which was home for four years, is also among the most physically active countries in the world, where people’s palate usually consists of vegetables, lean meat, nuts, and fruits. Rarely do people eat rice. People dedicate an average of 11.1 hours per week to exercising, and on the contrary stands my home country, Bangladesh, where a sedentary lifestyle is the norm.

According to a study, one in five adults is obese, and two in five adults are abdominally obese. And this is because of our reluctance to engage in physical activity and eat healthy. A recent study shows that obesity has increased substantially in the last 14 years, nearly threefold among women and 1.5 times among men, and so has hypertension and diabetes, which are more prevalent among affluent households, posing an economic burden of nearly $150 million.

A sedentary lifestyle is deeply ingrained in our culture: We have a general reluctance to move our bodies, and even for short distances, we are too lazy to walk and prefer cars or rickshaws. This laziness leads to diabetes and heart conditions. 

While South Asians overall have a higher concentration of subcutaneous fat than people of other ethnicities, nonetheless, it is not a life sentence for heart diseases and other non-communicable diseases. A balanced diet and an active lifestyle can reduce the risk of our overall disease burden and improve our quality of life. 

Nonetheless, unhealthy food dominates our culinary tradition: Lunch or dinner remains incomplete without loads of white rice, followed by the ritualistic mishti. And tradition has its informal obligation on guests to bring mishti (sweets), an item high in carbs that contributes to inflammation in various body parts, causing chronic diseases. 

It is not that we are not unaware that sweets are unhealthy. Nonetheless, it is taboo to question our culinary habits, which are responsible for increasing our non-communicable disease burden. Culinary nationalism sets in if one dares to reject this entire unhealthy diet consisting of high sugar and carbs. People have puzzled expressions on how a person can live eating too little rice. And unsweetened/low-sweet dessert items are difficult to come across. Some people recently have eliminated sugar from their diet and eat more fibre, but they remain a minority. 

Further, our taste buds have become accustomed to oily foods with high salt content and very little vegetables. Even people with diabetes, uterine fibroids, and high blood pressure eat biryani for lunch! Consequently, this leads to negative implications on our overall health, resulting in more sick hours, posing a burden on our economy due to lost productivity hours. 

Moreover, even among the educated, there is a lack of awareness about the importance of physical activity. Most are of the view that exercise is essential for reducing obesity, and few are aware of its importance for our overall fitness, which helps us work efficiently, enhances our creativity, and helps us focus better on tasks. Further, it has tremendous benefits in improving our mental health, a fact that is largely unknown among the majority. 

However, with a lack of urban space for sports, adolescents in recent times are less physically active than they were a few generations ago; moreover, gym classes and yoga are expensive, making it unaffordable for people to invest in their fitness. Dhaka Flow, with sponsorship from Olio Orolio Olive Oil, has started free weekend yoga classes at Shahabuddin Park, in Gulshan. Such initiatives mark the beginning of a new fitness awareness regime, and private actors need to come forward to support such fitness initiatives that aim towards creating a better Bangladesh. 

As Bangladesh aims to graduate from the LDC status, the overall fitness level of the population should be given paramount importance, as a healthy workforce is a productive workforce that bustles with creative ideas; this is essential for a highly competitive global marketplace. 

Bigger challenge for women

Men can be somewhat physically active by cycling or walking in the neighbourhood, but it is quite challenging for women as they are mostly confined indoors. Yes, we have women’s sports teams, but sports continues to be male-dominated, and do not represent most of the population. 

Besides, with increasing conservatism gaining a stronghold in the country, there is a perception that women should stay indoors and not engage in physical activities. It puzzles me somewhat that in urban Dhaka, people are more conservative in their approach towards the engagement of women in sports than in other areas of Bangladesh, for instance, Dinajpur, where the sight of women riding bikes/bicycles is fairly common to observe. But in Dhaka, it raises eyebrows. 

It is not uncommon to see men in large groups practicing martial arts in the park early in the morning, but women are conspicuously absent from this fitness routine. The city space remains male-dominated, where women’s invisibility speaks conspicuously of their lack of the right to the city. Add to that the fact that the streets are often unsafe for women and girls.

Employers have a role to play in it as well by encouraging their staff to incorporate mandatory fitness routines. Not many offices have gyms or emphasize physical and mental well-being. Rarely do local organizations realize that physical fitness and productivity are interlinked. 

Unhealthy eating practices and poor fitness levels negatively impact creativity and output levels at work. When it comes to white-collar professions, people are sitting at their desks all day working on the computer, contributing to back pain, but a little bit of yoga or stretching exercises can help them. 

In addition to having poor dietary practices, we as a nation have less consciousness about work-life balance, and there is this understanding that we must work at most hours. However, remember the proverb: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” The same is applicable here. A life that contributes to work-life balance is key to our functioning and key to realizing our optimal health. 

As a rule of thumb, I never carry my laptop at home, and the evening hours are my own. These are my time to reflect, to think, to absorb and help me energize the next day. Eliminating stress is equally essential for maintaining overall fitness.

Namia Akhtar is a commentator on social affairs.

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