‘Co-morbidities’ has become part of our everyday speech, thanks to the pandemic. The most common COVID-19 co-morbidities – heart disease, hypertension and diabetes — are familiar to many of us. We know several family members and friends who have them and may ourselves be living with them. This is not surprising given that the country has seen a sharp rise in these diseases, strongly associated with sedentary lifestyles. Diabetes has become so widespread that India has been nicknamed, ‘the diabetes capital of the world’. Such diseases are especially worrisome because they make one susceptible to other diseases, as in the case of COVID-19; thereby, increasing the burden on the healthcare system exponentially.
Industrialization and urbanization are often blamed for society’s shift towards an inactive lifestyle. The modern mass education system, I believe, has an important role in introducing and adapting one to this kind of lifestyle, typical of industrialized and urbanized societies.
An inactive or sedentary lifestyle involves sitting for several hours. If we think about it, it is the education system that introduces one to this way of living and slowly develops one’s tolerance for it. Having worked as a teacher and observed the functioning of several schools, I notice that in the education system, sitting is seen as a requirement for concentrating. From the time the child enters the system, one of the goals of the school is to curb the child’s natural tendency to move and have them sit in one place. A disciplined student is seated at all times in an assigned place unless instructed otherwise by the teacher, having to ask permission even to relieve themselves. Sitting for long periods and studying is even celebrated as a mark of a good student. This outlook is out of sync with the latest in health science and inattentive to the crisis the country is facing concerning lifestyle associated diseases.
The problem is compounded by poor physical education (PE) programmes within our system. PE is commonly seen as ancillary to academic subjects. The time, finances and staff allotted for it reflect its low status in the educational hierarchy. Not surprisingly, in the shift to virtual education in the COVID era, PE has been dropped entirely from the syllabus in several schools. Schools that do have functioning PE programmes, oftentimes focus on identifying and training talent for various competitions. The large majority of students who are not naturally talented in sports are left out.
The pandemic has given us the opportunity to rethink several aspects of education. Can healthy behaviours be incorporated into and taught through the education system? Despite several states permitting schools to operate in offline mode, many schools continue in the online and hybrid modes. While the online mode presents its own set of challenges, it is especially vital that movement and exercise are incorporated into the routine of online schooling. In online schooling, a child is not only expected to sit for several hours in a day but is expected to do so while looking at a screen. This poses certain risks to the health of the neck and spine. In my own class, I see students as young as 15 starting to complain of neck and back pain. To begin with, schools must take it upon themselves to gain knowledge of ergonomics, as well as exercises and stretches one can do to counter the effects of working on a screen for long periods of time. This knowledge must be disseminated among teachers and students during assembly or PE class. Secondly, schools must be firm that non-teaching time or ‘asynchronous’ time is intended as time away from the screen. It is the tendency of many to take a break from work during such times by playing games or watching videos, which again keeps them hooked to the screen! Finally, teachers must be innovative about incorporating movement into lessons. Today, even corporates and government offices are encouraging their employees to stand up from their desks and take short walks from time to time. Many have also begun having meetings while standing and walking. Teachers need not hold on to the mindset that students need to be sitting to be working.
There are also some larger structural changes we need to introduce as we slowly transition back into operating offline. Firstly, the student to teacher ratio must be lowered. In a classroom where one teacher is sometimes teaching 60 students, curbing the students’ movement becomes a useful tool for conducting the lesson. I too have used this tactic. A smaller number of students will enable the teacher to incorporate physical activity into lessons. This shift must be supplemented by strong PE programmes, which can only come to fruition by improving the funding and training of teachers. Our mindset on PE also requires a reset. PE must be seen as an opportunity to introduce all students to the joys and benefits of movement and exercise. Not all students will be innately talented in sports but each and every one of them will be able to observe their body becoming more capable with regular sports and exercise.
Education is said to prepare one for life. The pandemic has taught us that our health is the most valuable thing in life. In the post-pandemic scenario, let us hope that schools promote active lifestyles and health becomes a bigger priority within our education system.
The author is pursuing a PhD in Education at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bengaluru. She has worked as a teacher and in an NGO focused on the education of disadvantaged children. She writes about the inter-relationship between education and society. Her other interests include Bharatanatyam and baking. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org