There’s a morbid smog joke going around WhatsApp these days. Three men go to heaven. The Syrian says he got there because the Islamic State killed him. The American says he was killed by a hurricane. The Delhi-walla says, “I was just trying to do pranayam."

Our fitness aspirations are sadly at odds with our Air Quality Index (AQI) realities. Siddharth Singh, author of The Great Smog Of India, told me in an interview that last year, when the World Health Organization hosted a conference on pollution in Geneva, the Indians could not attend.

The reason, he says, was that everyone was busy with the inauguration of the giant Sardar Patel statue in Gujarat. They were organizing a Run for Unity in Delhi. “On that day AQI figures were about 900, I think. We should have been staying in and pondering ways to fight air pollution. Instead, the government organized a run where thousands of people showed up!"

Marathoner Devesh Khatu just moved back to Mumbai from San Francisco. “In the winter, if I blow my nose or spit after a long run, it’s all black. That too in Mumbai, which is not as bad as Delhi," he says.

The pea soup smog (which by the way is not just a Delhi problem in winter) is a good excuse to stay away from exercise but sometimes I think exercising just does not come naturally to us, especially to the upper middle class, the Fitbit class.

“Let’s face it, the Fitbit class is a class where your privilege is expressed by not having to do physical activity because of course labour is class-inflected," says Ameya Nagarajan, a media professional. “So I can afford not to use public transport or walk to the market and this means I won’t."

Khatu agrees. “Most of my friends or relatives don’t even walk much at all; people will take their cars or two-wheelers even for going distances of 1km, which most could easily walk in 10 minutes."

Most would think Khatu and Nagarajan are at opposite ends of the fitness spectrum. Khatu has run 111 marathons already. Nagarajan is one of the hosts of a brand new podcast called Fat. So?,about the joys and pains of being plus-sized women.

In the very first episode, Nagarajan says: “I know I am fat. When I say I am fat, people say ‘Nooooo’. People act like I am calling myself a murderer." We behave as if fat and fit are antonyms when, in fact, you can be fat and fit. Nagarajan says she knows she’s quite strong. She has to be, she says, “lugging all the kilos I do on a daily basis". But exercise, that’s another ball game altogether. She doesn’t mind walking to work but “running on a treadmill for 45 minutes is (her) personal idea of hell". And she finds gyms “upsetting". “I sometimes feel like gyms are designed for people who don’t need gyms," she says. “You don’t see regular bodies even in ‘motivational’ posters."

My friend Chandreyee Chatterjee has been going to a gym for nine months. It’s her third shot at it. She says what was hardest was to be “less conscious about how unfit I was compared to most people around me in the gym". When she joined the gym, she says everyone assumed she was doing it to just lose weight. Even now, nine months later, she says all she’s asked is how much weight she has lost, and how many sizes she has dropped. “No one asks if I feel fitter or healthier."

An upper middle class that once shunned too much pehlwan-type exercise has now embraced gymming with a vengeance—but only to look good on social media. An old-time bodybuilder once told me he didn’t understand modern gyms where you cranked up the air conditioning and then tried to work up a sweat. Bodybuilders like him scoffed at locker-room talk of supplements. Your generation just wants instant results, he scolded me. But that’s because our gym-toned, supplement-fuelled muscles are for display only. Fitness is a goal not for health but as a sort of party accoutrement. Our inherent distaste for exercise remains. I know it well. I remember once driving to my gym in the San Francisco Bay Area and circling round and round the parking lot. It’s not that there were no parking spots available. I was just looking for one closer to the entrance. The irony that I was trying to save myself from burning a few extra calories at a gym didn’t hit me till much later.

I was one of those spindly kids who shirked physical education class. My sports day activities never went beyond the sack race and the three-legged race. I discovered gyms and fitness in America. It was admittedly a vanity exercise. On one trip home, my mother said with a smile, “Oh, you are getting a little pudgy." When a Bengali mother tells her son who has not had her home cooking in almost a year that he’s getting pudgy, it’s clearly time for drastic measures. I joined a gym.

When I returned to India, I joined a gym here and realized it was a whole different planet. Trainers fretted when I tried to get on the cardio machine. They were afraid I would have “heavy calorie loss". Personal trainers are more like therapists as clients share their woes about children’s examinations, backaches and spouses who are not home enough. Once I eavesdropped on two women swapping biryani restaurant recommendations in between stomach crunches. Of course, there are the serious gym-goers, hell-bent on form and posture, but Chatterjee says she also sees men for whom everyday is “chest and biceps day" and women who only come one month before a big wedding. And it’s all about weight loss and weight gain. My gym even hosts a Loser’s Challenge.

Khatu says most of the regulars he sees at his gym in Mumbai’s Lokhandwala are in professions like acting and modelling, where physique is important. He says, “Even in the gay community, unlike in the West, a gym physique doesn’t seem as important a factor in India." It’s desirable, of course, in the way scoring six sixes in one over is desirable, but I see people happily strutting around nightclubs in tight T-shirts with a hint of Spandex, potbellies straining against the fabric. At my gym, even some of the trainers sport a big muscular chest, beefy biceps and a healthy biryani paunch. Once I would roll my eyes, now I am amused at their cheerful obliviousness to six-pack anxieties. Perhaps, just as Bhutan has its Happiness Index, we will need our own culturally-specific Fitness index, one that exists beyond Fitbits.

However, it is more important for us to focus first on being nicer human beings. In her podcast, Nagarajan shares the story of her first crush, who would only kiss her at parties and then act weird the next day. When she finally confronted him about it, he said, “You’re only attractive when I am drunk." She said it took her years “to get over that one sentence from a pimply 19-year-old boy". Chatterjee says she has never felt fitter but now people tell her not to lose any more weight or that she’s looking haggard. “The best is someone who told me, ‘You have lost a lot of weight and your personality with it.’"

As for me, after a few years back in the motherland, and a lot of rice and sandesh later, the trainers now add a cardio day to my exercise chart of their own volition.

But a new exercise deterrent is on the horizon. There’s a rumour that my gym itself might shut down thanks to the economic slowdown.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.

Twitter - @sandipr

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