Fit India: The Expat Guide

Staying fit in India in general and Hyderabad specifically can be challenging, especially for those with special needs, like weightlifters, or people who prefer to exercise outdoors.  There are sights, sounds, smells and physical obstacles to distract, deter and depress the health-conscious expat.  Despite a myriad of hurdles—both figurative and physical—staying healthy is not only achievable, it can be rewarding.

The noblest search is the search for a squat rack.

(Paraphrased from Lyndon B. Johnson.)

We are special needs people, not like those on the short bus, well sometimes, especially after a late poker night, but more like the people who want to lift weights in India.  Despite having enough space in our current Indian home into which our last apartment would fit three times, our preference was to join a gym rather than equip one at home with a power rack—sometimes known as a power cage or squat rack—barbell, bench and weights.  Off we went in search of an acceptable gym.

We started with the hotels and potential residences, visiting no less than 20 different facilities.  Most were designed for cardio, with only modest accommodations for weight lifters.  Treadmills, ellipticals, and recumbent bikes were augmented with a couple weight machines and a few dumbbells.  Two hotels had a Smith Machine, but a quick Google search for ‘problem with smith machine’ results in millions of articles, posts and comments—over seven million at last count—highlighting their limitations.  Lets keep looking…

Now to the area gyms.  We visited a dozen different gyms, fitness centers, and out of desperation, one wellness center at a hospital.  Not one of them had a squat rack.  Some were strictly cardio, with fewer resources than the hotels and communities we visited.  There were more Smith Machines, many bench presses, and lots of free weights, but not a single squat rack.  In mitigation, we did not search farther away than a 45 minute drive from our house.  In aggravation…what the heck?  There isn’t a single squat rack in a city of seven million people?  Now what?

If you build it, he will…not have to go to a gym with a bunch of smelly dudes only interested in big biceps.

(Paraphrased from Field of Dreams, 1989.)

Empty handed after a thorough search of the city, or at least the portion that does not require a one hour commute, it was time to see what we could find on the market.  Our original ‘look-see’ trip handlers took us to a local fitness store, Proline Fitness, prior to our move to the area.  Back we went to see if they could accommodate a home gym.

We provided a list of ‘hopes,’ including the squat rack, a bench, an olympic bar bell—which actually required diameter and weight specifications, because although everyone said they had an olympic barbell, few actually did—a couple hundred kilograms of plates, and some foam pads to set everything upon.  Proline had everything we needed except the 1.25 kg plates, all for about a third of what we would pay in the U.S.  Amazing!  “When can you deliver everything?”

I cannot stress enough this next point.  Within a few hours everything was delivered and set up.  That is service you just can’t get in the U.S!  Sure, I had to supply the tools or they would still be here turning nuts with a single spanner, but where else do four guys show up a few hours later to assemble all that equipment?  Nowhere, that’s where!

Sidewalks? Where we’re going, we don’t need sidewalks.

(Paraphrased from Dr. Emmett Brown, Back to the Future, 1985)

The weight lifting facility handled, it was time to focus on cardio.

There are few uncrowded roads and even fewer sidewalks in India—although we do have a couple kilometers of sidewalk near our house, which presents its own set of problems.  I’m not sure why there are so few places for people to walk, run or bike?  Perhaps a society that spends most the year in temperatures well over 80 degrees Fahrenheit determined long ago that anyone with a choice would not choose to walk anywhere anytime.

Dear readers, what is the average annual high temperature in Hyderabad, India?  (Stop Googling, I’m going to tell you.) The average annual high temperature in Hyderabad is 90 degrees Fahrenheit.  Even taking the average of the averages for each city from the linked site above, the average high annual temperature is still 86 degrees Fahrenheit for all of India.

Whoa, whoa, whoa.  I see you rolling your eyes—you mathematically savvy, statistically-oriented readers who know taking the average of averages is not the correct way to determine the average over a population. Although I’m not going to sooth the savage statistics beast, I acquiesce that I am violating statistical rules that would cause W. Edward Deming to roll over in his grave, twice.  In mitigation, I am working with a limited amount of data on a short deadline.  Your valid point is taken and just as quickly discarded for the sake of expedience and audience engagement.  

Where was I?  Oh, right…at 86 degrees Fahrenheit, which is an average, meaning it is just as likely to be warmer than that on any given day, but especially in summer, who in their right mind needs a sidewalk to walk anywhere, much less exercise, when there is a perfectly good motorbike, or perhaps even an automobile with air conditioning a few short meters away?  (The malware I installed on your computer when you navigated to this website allows me to see you still rolling your eyes about my math-a-magicianism.)

They—they being the Indians—have a point, albeit supported by my use of statistically invalid math.  Yet, there are people, Indian people included, who should be getting a little exercise, and cardio is not a bad way to shed a little weight.  Plus, as an expat, you’re going to want to at least pretend you are in better shape when you return home than when you left.

Run Forest, run…just don’t trip over that man!

(Paraphrased from Forest Gump, 1994.)

Its been said that cardio is the devil.  I am not in a position to disagree with that idea, especially in the middle of a five mile run when it is above the average Hyderabad temperature—way above.  In fact, some of our weightlifting-only readers—many of whom I respect and love, some not so much—will be asking, “Why do cardio at all?  They will ask this question aloud, despite their being nobody to listen or even care.  To them I present these simple retorts:

Not everyone likes or wants to lift weights.

Not everyone has access to the proper equipment; however, most people have access to the footwear necessary to do a bit of cardio.

When it comes to losing or maintaining a certain weight, there are more important issues than lifting hundreds of pounds or walking briskly, like caloric intake versus expense.

It is not a question of cardio versus resistance training; they compliment each other.

Don’t be a hater…or rather, go ahead and be a hater, because a lot of people hate cardio, but don’t avoid cardio—its good for your fitness, I’m your witness (thanks to Fergie for that one).

I digress.

To say that there are a lot of obstacles to running and biking in Hyderabad just doesn’t do it justice.  India is an assault on one’s senses.  Lets say for a minute we discount nature, like snakes (especially the poisonous ones, like cobras), scorpions, the heat, torrential rains during the rainy season, and people peeing on the side of the road.  We’ll also disregard the noise: road noise, tractors, motorbikes, and that incessant honking, which is like—well, I don’t know what it’s like, but it never seems to stop.  Finally, we’ll skip over most of the smells, such as the hogs, sewers, and cow and people feces.  That still leaves a lot to get past, like the guy sleeping on the sidewalk I jumped over while running—true story, he was laying across the sidewalk and I could either run left into the thickets, bear right into the road traffic, or continue ahead…he didn’t even budge when I hopped over him, twice…I used the same route on my way home.

Here is my list of the top five things seen while running and biking in Hyderabad (I could have made this list much longer, but what’s the point):

1. Holes.  Big holes.  Lots of holes. 
Sidewalks are a luxury in India...large holes are not.
Sidewalks are a luxury in India…large holes are not.

There are few sidewalks, but where there are sidewalks, there are sure to be holes.  One can run to either side where if the thorn bushes don’t empale you, the traffic is sure to take you out.

2. People staring. 
Staring is almost as Indian as the head bob.
Staring is almost as Indian as the head bob.

Staring is almost as Indian as the head bob. They’re probably wondering, “What the heck is that moron doing?  I wonder if he’s famous?”

3. Buffalo—sometimes cows. 
Buffalo and cows are as common on the roads as the Indian auto rickshaw.
Buffalo and cows are as common on the roads as the Indian auto rickshaw.

These buggers are everywhere—there isn’t even any sport in photographing them anymore.  Since they eat, there is another obstacle to running and biking, namely buffalo dung.  Some days its like running a slalom.

4.  Trucks.  Large, smelly, noisy, dust-aggravating trucks.
One of many, many, many large trucks moving water and kicking up dust along the roadway.
One of many, many, many large trucks moving water and kicking up dust along the roadway.

Trucks belch out fumes, kick up dust, and present a wonderfully exciting game of chicken when there is no sidewalk.

5. Garbage 
Unfortunately, India has a garbage problem.
This is a common and incredibly disappointing sight.

Unfortunately, India has a garbage problem—it’s everywhere, it’s unsightly, and it smells.  An extra special treat is running past a location where they are burning the garbage.

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.

(Wayne Gretzky)

Some people are thinking, “Then why do it?  Why run or ride outside at all?  Just buy a treadmill.”

That is great advice—and by great advice I mean, don’t be an idiot.  First of all, there is little more boring than moving while the scenery doesn’t change.  Second, treadmills are expensive, even in India.  Oh, and finally, treadmills require power, the same power that goes out five, or ten, or sometimes even fifteen times a day.  Ever been on a treadmill when the power goes out?  Either you stop or the treadmill stops, and you don’t stop.

Yes there are ways to keep a treadmill moving, like very large battery bank backups, or generators that are always providing the power, or auxiliary power units (APUs), very large APUs.  But they all cost a bunch of money and take up space.  Besides, it doesn’t eliminate the first issue, which is that running, walking, or doing anything on a treadmill that doesn’t involve a Whiskey Old Fashioned is boring.

But there are plenty of reasons to risk the garbage, buffalo and traffic.  So here are my top five reasons to run and bike outside (not counting the desire for exercise and the aforementioned boring and dangerous treadmill):

1.  People Staring 
Most people have a great attitude about those crazy Westerners and their odd exercise habits.
Most people have a great attitude about those crazy Westerners and their odd exercise habits.

Sometimes people staring is just a pain.  Despite my smiling waves and loud, “Good Morning!” some people just scowl.  But occasionally I run into people who smile back, or give me a thumbs up, or in one case, put his hand out from his motorbike for a high five.

2. Amazing Sights 
An otherworldly picture of the constant construction that is India.
An otherworldly picture of the constant construction that is India.

My wife described Hyderabad as Planet of the Apes (the Charlton Heston version) meets Sim City. They are so far behind the west in many ways, but always adding to the physical and technological landscape. Although one might argue the value of India’s progress, one cannot mistake the amazing sights.

3. Cool People 
Most will stop and pose for a photo without asking for anything in return.
Most will stop and pose for a photo without asking for anything in return.

Most will stop and pose for a photo without asking for anything in return. This couple walked by as I was shooting other pictures. I asked, he said no. Then the home-boss stepped in and must have told him to lighten up because I was allowed to take as many pictures as I liked.

4. Hidden Places 
This Urban Forestry locale is one of the cleaner places seen.
This Urban Forestry locale is one of the cleaner places seen.

Down several dirt roads and hidden behind a lot of construction, this two kilometer unpaved road along the Hyderabad Metropolitan Development Authority Urban Forestry area laid virtually undiscoverable by car. It is clean, quite and has a ton of interesting sites along its route.

 
5. Did I mention the people? 
One of several children playing at a cow sanctuary.
One of several children playing at a cow sanctuary.

A group of kids were playing at a cow sanctuary, a Goseva Mandal, their parents working nearby. I stumbled upon it on my bike and wandered through the farm. None of them spoke english, but everyone was friendly. I knew nothing about these cow sanctuaries before I found this one.

The great thing about life is it started years ago, and whether we like it or not, the rest of it starts tomorrow.

There are challenges to staying fit in India.  Sometimes things, as well as people, smell, and usually they smell bad; dust, garbage and noise engulf us; and people stare, a lot—a lot more than is normal, really.  Women have a whole other set of issues to contend with in addition to those mentioned, which is material for another article.  But staying fit has rewards that transcend health—besides, I’m probably just breaking even most days given the environment—including a chance to see some pretty cool stuff.


If you enjoyed one of my articles, or you’re just feeling left out, please subscribe to be notified as new material becomes available.

Also posted on Medium.

Don't let the noisy interweb stifle your voice. Leave a comment.