Prior to moving to Mumbai, I was staying at a hotel that had a linked gym next door. The hotel and gym shared an alleyway that served as a café to serve the guests of the hotel as well gymmers.
As I sat there waiting for my order to come, my people-watching went into overdrive. While taking care of one's health, exercising regularly and even going to a gym are positive things, there was something amiss. For all the gymmanization (yes, I'm officially making it a word!) that has taken off globally, there is something missing in the gym culture here in India.
And then I realized it. Gymming, affluence and image go hand in hand. But unlike most parts of the world where these are societal norms, in India it is a lifestyle many are striving for. So muddled in the image of bodybuilding and six-pack abs are Indian habits of countless cups of chai and cigarette after cigarette.
When I asked the trainers why they smoked their response took me by surprise... "Everyone else is doing it. Shah Rukh got his six-pack and he didn't quit smoking."
As I read the selections on the "health menu" offered to customers, I overheard the table next to me -- occupied by two trainers and a potential gym client -- discussing how many grams of chicken to order. They sat there sipping their muscle juice (protein powder shakes) even as a trainer lit up a cigarette. I sat there in complete befuddlement trying to figure out how someone that healthy could be lighting up like that... and that too right outside the establishment that they work at?
As a non-smoker, I have always been bothered by second-hand smoke. As a cancer survivor, I'm particularly offended by smokers benefitting from research and medicine that ultimately would be unnecessary if they simply stopped their bad habit. But as someone who values health and fitness, I was simply horrified. Why would someone whose job it was to portray his body as his asset, endanger himself in such a manner?
Over my stay, I began to befriend the regulars. While I would sit there and have my meals, I'd ask them about their exercise routines, their diet and then about their lives. Most of the men were from middle-class backgrounds. Many were poor students who found in gymming a release -- an escape. Many were trying to break into the modelling and acting worlds and needed to tone their bodies to fit the images that the media have now made the norm.
They mocked the anti-smoking ads that air before every film. They actually rationalized that their good health habits balanced out their bad ones.
The interesting aspect about many of their stories was the idea that health and fitness are a luxury in India; by joining the "gym culture", their perceived affluence and lifestyle had been upgraded. Clients pay good money to get in shape, hoping to replicate the physical benefits their trainers have attained. Yet the bad habits continue.
When I asked the trainers why they smoked their response took me by surprise. They knew it was bad for them but it was a good way to release tension and it fit the image they had of themselves. "Everyone else is doing it. Why can't we? Shah Rukh got his six-pack and he didn't quit smoking." I mentioned the great lengths to which the government and Mumbai city itself have gone to raise awareness of the dangers of smoking. They mocked the anti-smoking ads that air before every film. They actually rationalized that their good health habits balanced out their bad ones.
In essence, the muscle milk and egg whites compensated for their lack of judgment when it came to a pack of cigarettes. With that I realized that the education that exists here in the "gym culture" is more about the outside and not the inside. While worldwide there are muscleheads that inject themselves with steroids and countless illegal drugs to enhance their appearance, smoking has no outward physical health benefit.
Branding a pack of cigarettes as the antithesis to their image may be the only way for the gymmanization culture here to see reform.
As I tried to argue this very point to the trainers, they laughed it off, citing their invincibility. While I only wish them the best, having witnessed firsthand the repercussions of smoking in countless homes and at countless hospitals I am urging every gym in India to educate its customers about the negative side effects. Forget tumours and cancer or any of those scary images the over-the-top ads portray -- let's do this with some slick marketing.
Smoking causes discoloration of the skin tone, premature wrinkles and rotten teeth. Smoking causes breathing issues which make cardio exercises more challenging and an accelerated heart rate which can lead to heart attacks. Smoking can diminish sexual pleasure, reduce sperm count and even lead to impotence. Branding a pack of cigarettes as the antithesis to their image may be the only way for the gymmanization culture here to see reform.
For the time being, I fear the young boys entering the culture may be getting the wrong message -- that achieving the body they want can enable them to engage in whatever they desire. Gymming isn't just about looking good or feeling just right in a T-shirt. That's a dangerous message and a lot more expensive than any gym membership to fix.
Contact HuffPost India
Also see on HuffPost: