With the coronavirus pandemic limiting our mobility, people around the world have turned to exercise indoors as a stress-buster and a way to stay healthy. Initiatives like these have led to the inculcation of new lifestyle changes. Having said that, the pandemic has affected the physical and mental health of people now more than ever, making it imperative to understand what fitness implies.

In Conversation With… Mishti Khatri

Mishti Khatri is a fitness enthusiast who enjoys running, hiking, kickboxing, and being out and about in nature. Out of the many hats that she dons, she is an ACMS (American College of Sports Medicine) and an IFAA certified trainer. She is also a pacer with Nike+ Run Club.

  1. How do you think mental health can adversely affect physical health and vice versa? And, in such a scenario, should one take precedence over the other?

I think it’s not one without the other especially during the lockdown. We saw that a lot of people were turning to physical exercise to improve and boost their mental health. There’s a very clear link between exercise and the release of dopamine and “happy” hormones. That being said, if you already have mental health concerns, sometimes it may be physically impossible to get yourself to workout. That’s when you need to put your mental health first and seek the right treatment from a counsellor. You might need medication if your hormones are not in balance. I remember going through periods of anxiety where tracking my workouts. Hence, better physical health does not necessarily mean better mental health. You should improve them in tandem.

I know a lot of people who are obese and think, “Okay, if I lose ‘x’ kilograms, I will be happy” but I don’t think you ever reach that endpoint. Finding the right goals to work towards is more important. Being healthy means making sure you don’t have any metabolic diseases, your energy levels are up, you can cognitively and physically perform. Defining health using a number on a scale will not help you achieve nirvana.

  1. In certain cases, an obsessive investment in one's physical health has segued to an eating disorder – how do you strike a balance between the two?

As a nutritionist and exercise professional, it becomes very important to make sure that your client does not already have a bad relationship with food and exercise. If you do notice these things then it’s advisable that you get trained in coping with this behavior or ask your client to talk to another professional because you need to understand your boundaries as a personal trainer. You can't tell someone with a binge-eating disorder that it was okay for them to have binged now as long as they can work it out later. People very casually throw these kinds of remarks around which can further encourage the client’s behaviour.

Also, often your client ends up buying a one-off plan online which makes it very difficult to understand their current or past relationship with food. That’s when you need to make sure you are taking cues from what they are saying. Not everyone is comfortable going to therapy and then having to talk to their nutritionist where we may not be able to handle what they are saying. It gets a bit tricky to navigate these situations then.

  1. Why is it so important (and that much tougher) for women to maintain their physical health? How can they incorporate a healthy lifestyle given their domestic and professional duties?

I love the fact that you used the word ‘lifestyle’ because now we're talking long-term. One change you can make is that rather than taking the car for a grocery run, walk the distance. When I was at university, I would use a trolley because carrying a shopping bag was difficult. Adding 30-60 minutes of any kind of physical activity is possible as long as you prioritize it. Find that time for yourself. We easily spend that much time scrolling through Netflix so I'm sure you can find that time.

As for women with PCOD (Polycystic Ovarian Disease) or hypothyroidism, having a nutritionist who is well-versed with the condition can be of great help. They need to prescribe an exercise and diet plan that helps you manage the symptoms. It's a long-term investment that you have to work towards regularly. Everyone wants a magic pill that will fix it all but we must put in the work. Just try making small changes to your everyday life: Don't take the elevator, take the stairs. Start by finding movement in your day-to-day life.

  1. What do you think of the skewed image that we have of being “healthy” due to social media where access to diet culture has been easier than ever?

If you're following pages where you're seeing ‘fitspiration’ or fitness models on Instagram, a lot of them don't even know what they are doing. I see their form on Instagram and it's so bad. It's just that they're genetically blessed, eating right and exercising so they look that way. One must limit consumption of that kind of media as well.

If you enjoy socialising with friends, rather than going out for a meal or drinks, find an activity to do together like trekking. But if you're struggling mentally to get there then seeking help should be the first step. Social media algorithms are wired to ensure you are shown content that you have previously chosen to consume online. The minute you start following an influencer, you will find them promoting some detox tea filled with laxatives and can ruin your metabolism in the long run. These fat burners and pills have not been tested for their safety or efficacy. That’s when it gets even more harmful because people will buy them and it'll have a long-term effect on their health. There are a lot of great influencers out there so make sure you're following the right kind of people, not the kind of people that guarantee you will “lose 10 kgs in 10 days” because that's when you know it's bullshit.

  1. There is an obvious dearth in the understanding of physical health when it comes to women. Overweight women are perceived to be unhealthy whereas that may not always be the case. How can we bridge this gap between perception and reality?

It is important to take steps in the right direction, like working on strength training, cardio, and eating right by making sure you're eating unprocessed food. For example, lots of vegetables, 2-3 servings of fruit a day, and lean protein. If you include food like these in 70-80% of your diet and indulging occasionally in treats and cheat meals, then you’re eating right. If someone is taking all those steps and is still overweight but is exercising then we need to stop obsessively focusing on their weight. We have so many plus-size models who are as fit and healthy as Victoria’s Secret’s extremely lean ones. It's just the way society perceives them but we are taking a few positive steps towards body positivity. Even with skinny people, there exists the phenomenon of “skinny fat” where they look skinny but have really high-fat percentages in their bodies. High visceral fat, which is the fat around your organs, is not healthy. When someone is extremely obese and has a few lifestyle disorders like hyperstress, it is understandable but this can happen to anybody. You must find exercises that make you happy and keep you interested like Zumba, traditional weight-lifting, CrossFit training, running, the list goes on. There is something for everybody.