A tubby Maria Goretti is an exception in a world peopled by sinuous Malaika Aroras. Salman Khan popularises 'abs' and 'biceps' in a world where Arnold Schwarzenegger posters dominate the landscape. Since fitness today means fabulous-looking (remember Flo Jo?), the adage "no gain without pain" may be becoming more outdated than lycra-shorts. But a few fettle souls, who've fretted over just such aches, advocate circumspection vis-a-vis this "fitness misinformation boom". Those who have been there and done it all narrate their lessons, learnt the hard way.
Living legend Ramma Bans, between fine-tuning her trick of "freezing time" and pruning Miss World aspirants, frets over false weight-loss promises held out by potent pills, sometimes even purgatives. Dr Kinjal Suratwalla, sports doctor with the Piramal Health Centre, Mumbai, grouses: "Having money and a good body qualifies anybody for starting a gym or becoming a personal trainer." Columns by glamourous idols are also fertile fields of fallacies, fears Dessai.
Sardar says that while honchos like Reebok and ace (American Council of Exercise) have entered the country with their training capsules, there is no institution here to ensure any kind of standardisation. "Their modules are meant for western bodies, with their protein-rich diet, and not India, with its multi-cuisine menu."
The upshot, if you haven't already guessed - all's not well with the health scene.
Geeta Israni loved aerobics and dancing. But, at times, she did jazz for four hours at a stretch, leaving her wobbling with pain. The "just-an-ache that'll go away" stiffened her knees severely - while walking, both stubbornly refused to bend. Medical intervention and stretch-training with Sardar helped. Aerobics she overdid, while with dance her mistake was mingy warm-up. "The classes are of one-hour duration. Everybody is keen to learn new dance movements, so warm-ups - for at least 15 minutes - were seen as a waste of time."
Brijendra Nath baulked at his first batch of exercise. "I used to run five miles. I wasn't into body-building, but just wanted to be fit. But my trainer wouldn't listen. After just 10-15 minutes (of weights) I felt a severe chest pain, as if my heart would collapse. I walked out." He is satisfied finally - after embracing Tai Chi and Hatha Yoga, streams that treat health with scientific finesse.
"You need to be wise to be healthy. And going along with trends don't make you wise, unless it's too late. Health freaks cut out magazine articles religiously, unaware that exercise modules needs evaluation after every one-and-a-half-months," says Desai.
He lists many other inherent flaws in misguided regimens: doing splits doesn't mean joints won't squeak, the body may not be as rubber-flexible as it seems (he recalls a Bollywood hunk from the bicep-brigade struggling with a simple Tai Chi movement); callisthenics, weights leave you fatigued with the sheer pressure to perk up counts or weights, while a Yoga, Tai Chi session refreshes; warm-ups in a cool air-conditioned room mock their very intent; music, for him, is tomfoolery - instead of focusing the mind, it titillates it witless. While the west looks towards the east, we gawk in the wrong direction. Madonna goes beyond mehndi to add to her beauty. "She can do 108 asanas and has a personal Hatha yoga trainer. And look at us," disparages Desai.
Ironically, sporting the right tracksuit seems more important than cladding oneself with the right information. Most trainers suggest that cramps occur when you over-exercise unprepared muscles through stretches. Compound this by not drinking water. Dehydrated muscles protest with a violent spasm (often at the calf). Says Mittal: "Listen to your body. Your muscles should feel a positive strain. Increase the counts and weights only gradually." Leena Mogre, who coaches aspiring fitness instructors, cautions: "Never allow an injury to progress from grade one to grade two stage. Do rice (rest, ice-application, compression, elevation of injured part)."
There's more. Runners ignoring worn-out soles, preferring concrete or asphalt surfaces run-up against shin splints (lower leg pain). Turf toe (big toe sprain) trips those who are lazy about warm-ups. "Most people ignore the three basics - warm-up, stretch, cool
down," warns Mogre. Dr Suratwalla says most gyms dispense with even the simple par-q - a questionnaire to check whether both the body and spirit are willing. Add to this inadequate instructor training facilities (no internship with reputed centres) unlike abroad where certificates are renewed through refresher courses which include not just bio-kinetics and exercise physiology, but also motivational psychology.
Bans warns against the damage by "half-baked instructors churned out in a few weeks." She says that even skin specialists prescribe antibiotics, cortisones, potent drugs like el-throxin, diuretics, purgatives (some with dubious, unlikely fda-endorsements) to flush out flab. Weighing machines may respond favourably initially, but the body flails at such abuse very soon, she warns. Ill-informed instructors attack adipose in the abdomen, neglecting back exercises, says Archana Rochwani, Juhi Chawla's personal trainer. "It is like building on a weak foundation and then rocking it with chronic lower back pain," she says. She lists another gym mistake - making an obese person jump. "It is disastrous when the knees are already over-stressed. They don't know the basics - like a person with slipped disc should not do forward bending," she says.
Even the music is often mismatched. Mogre says that the beat should be 122/125 per minute for aerobics and only a few Indian DJs compile these. But not all gyms find Rs 1,200 a tape worth the while, leaving fat-busters fumbling through unsuitable tunak-tunak sessions (that has yet to slim the singer!). Or, says Mittal, checking a person's physical history - those with blood pressure, heart problems, diabetics can exercise only under medical supervision. Without supervision an exercise-freak could commit some basic mistakes, like improper breathing (holding the breath while stretching) or believing that the scales speak louder than a measuring tape - concentrating on losing pounds, and not inches.
Sometimes, many freaks self-prescribe dieting. And begin to starve. As the lard resettles, often in different spots in unattractive puddles called cellulite, everything else goes for a toss, particularly motivation.
Fitness, as those who walk the land that spawned Yoga, are re-learning rather late, rides the delicate balance between mind and matter. Misinformed zeal could prove an awkward, even painful, lesson in how though the spirit is willing, the flesh may well be weak.