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Naval officers Ram Ratan and Sanjay Kumar hope to set a new Guinness record with their Kanyakumari to Kashmir run


Naval officers Ram Ratan and Sanjay Kumar are bidding to break a record by covering the distance between Kanyakumari and Kashmir on foot in 56 days

The sun was relentless, yet ultra runners Ram Ratan and Sanjay Kumar made it on time to their pit stop on the Neelambur highway, in the outskirts of Coimbatore, to a grand welcome. The two Naval officers are on the second leg of their K2K (Kanyakumari to Kashmir) run; the duo bid to cover the distance in a record time of 56 days.

From Kerala to Tamil Nadu

“We started the run at 4 am in Palakkad in order to reach Coimbatore by 2 pm,” says Sanjay Kumar, adding, “The winds in backward direction blowing through the Palakkad Gap slowed us down a bit, but we just kept running. Our training in high altitude running from Manali to Leh has prepared us to take on challenging weather conditions.” They both look visibly exhausted but are determined to complete their mission. “We want to raise awareness on non-communicable diseases like diabetes and hypertension that are caused because of an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle,” says Ram Ratan, adding, “We decided to run in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic. The best way to create awareness is leading by example.”

An SUV with a three-member team that includes a physiotherapist follows the runners

An SUV with a three-member team that includes a physiotherapist follows the runners  
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Ram and Sanjay started their run on January 12, on the National Youth Day, and plan to end it on March 8, the International Women’s Day. The first leg of their run covered Kanyakumari to Thiruvananthapuram. In the upcoming phases, they will cover Thiruvananthapuram to Bengaluru, then onto Mumbai, Ahmedabad and Delhi. The final leg is from Delhi to Srinagar. An SUV with a three-member team that includes a physiotherapist follows them. “We stick to a highway-to-highway route and try covering 80 kilometres a day, but we also ensure there is sufficient rest,” explains Sanjay.

Warm reception

The runners are thrilled with the reception they get at pit stops. “Our seniors meet us and encourage by running a few kilometres with us. Several running groups like Fort Runners of Palakkad, Soles of Kochi and Soles of Kollam cheered us and ran along with us to keep us going,” says Sanjay. The duo hopes to set a Guinness world record with their run; the existing record for a K2K run is held by Sufiya Khan who did it in 87 days. “It was Sanjay who inspired me to take up this challenge. Though I have done short distance ultra-marathons covering 100 to 200 kilometres, I have done nothing of this scale before,” says Ratan, who has previously done a 111 kilometre run from Leh to Ladakh.

Sanjay has earlier completed a 480 kilometre run from Manali to Leh, crossing all the five Himalayan passes consecutively for five days and setting a new record. “We took part in cross-training like swimming and cycling to build endurance and stamina. We also did a 78 kilometre endurance run to equip ourselves,” Sanjay says.

The duo adds: “We underwent rigorous training for four months before we embarked on this mission of a lifetime.” The run is supported by Together We Can, a Kochi-based public charitable trust that works on issues related to child rights, disability, education and mental health.

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We need resilience and relevance


One cannot say or write with assurance what the pandemic has caused to the psyche of most people, yet there is no doubt that it has shaken the very edifice of human existence. From hope, be it false or real, that the vaccine, which has begun to be administered, will restore optimism, to fear that death is stalking each of us, the spectrum is vast.

Given the fact that all our lives, the way we live and relate, has altered interminably, how do we look to the future?

Every home has been touched in some way by the pandemic. Some of the evident ways include:

1. Needing less than what we thought we could not do without.

2. A lack of separation between ‘me time’ and the time we offer work and others.

3. The dividing line between day and night becoming unclear.

4. Discretionary spending suffering.

The list can go on. What is it we are then contending with?

The unawareness of what the morrow holds, planning for an unknown future being infructuous. Given this thought, I believe it may be sensible to ‘thin slice’ our existence and look at two essential aspects of living, especially if we have to survive this onslaught. They are ‘being resilient’ and ‘staying relevant.’

Resilience can be cultivated at many levels, such as, taking care of ourselves, staying healthy, eating properly, exercising, sleeping adequately, and ensuring that we generate and nurture peace within and around us.

Relevance demands we attempt to re-skill ourselves in whatever way we need to, not allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by hearsay, rumours, flawed information and excessive pre-occupation with what might happen.

Though the formula is not simple, surely if we attempt to keep things in perspective, remain focused, concentrate on the here and now, many of us can safely ride out this storm and perhaps rise out of the quagmire that is enveloping us merely bruised but not incapacitated.

The writer is an organisational and behavioural consultant. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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On the surging market of at-home fitness equipments


With adjustable dumbbells, skipping ropes and yoga blocks flying off shelves, the market for at-home fitness equipment is going strong even in 2021

In the summer of 2020, partners Rhea and Raunaq Singh Anand watched their friends and family dive into a new-found rigour of daily workouts. Behind the frantic endeavour was the belief that being fitter than they were meant the better their body’s chances of contracting COVID.

They decided to make space for and build a home gym in their Delhi house. It was then that a business idea took shape. Close to a year later, the partners have launched Flexnest, one of India’s first personal fitness brands selling 12 essentials solely for home use.

Rhea and Raunaq have identified that though home gyms were all the rage in June 2020 when we believed that the cure was just one magic vaccine away, the big picture is that home workouts are becoming a way of life for many. Gyms may be back in business, but that does not preclude the booming market of at-home fitness gear. Even US President Joe Biden reportedly does not want to give up virtual classes on his Peloton bike as he moves to his new home, and he is 78.

“Our aim is to make everything you will ever need for a complete home workout,” says Rhea. “We are working with a design team from Germany to create signature products ranging from smart dumbbells, kettlebells, yoga mats to inter-lockable gym tiles that can fit anywhere inside your house.” The speciality is space-saving adjustable equipment, like dumbbells that you just turn a dial on, taking the weight from 2.5 to 24 kilograms.

While the brand is pan-Indian, it is also in touch with fitness influencers in New York and Paris to keep tabs on the diaspora market there. After all, the lockdown saw the rise of fitness influencers like Chloe Ting and MadFit in India too.

Dumbbells from Flexnest

Dumbbells from Flexnest
 

Home high ground

Noting the demand for fitness gear, during the last week of December 2020, Amazon announced an on-going Fitness Fest, with heavy discounts on equipment, trackers, apparel, and more. “The sellers on Amazon.in have seen a significant surge in demand for products in the health and fitness category,” says an Amazon representative.

The e-commerce platform points to its search trends: ‘treadmills’ has gone up 1.5 times, ‘home gyms’ is up by 1.3 times and ‘weights’ by 1.2 times. Other sub-categories such as sports equipment, fitness bikes, yoga, and activity trackers also saw a considerable uptake, according to the company.

Sohrab’s must-haves for beginners

  • Coach to celebrities such as Alia Bhat, Sohrab Khushrushahi’s academy SOHFIT offers virtual personalised and buddy training programmes, bootcamps and challenges. Speaking from his experience of coaching online, he says, “Beginners need gear that gives them enough variety to mix and match. Your gear should be durable and not take up too much space. You don’t need to build a full home gym, start with the basics and progress to more challenging equipment.”
  • Skipping rope:
  • It is the best form of cardio if you cannot go out for a run.
  • Dumbbells or kettlebells:
  • Either is fine, you can buy a few different weights: heavier for the lower body and lighter for upper body. If you do not have access to them, resistance bands also work.
  • A plyo box or a sturdy bench:
  • You can do box jumps, step ups, chest presses and more with this.

“It’s not like every other year, where we observe a horde of fitness enthusiasts hitting the gym for membership in January. People are conscious about risking themselves and their families by going to public classes. Plus, at the gym, there are restrictions of social distancing and wearing a mask while exercising,” says Prachi Bhargava, spokesperson for Decathlon.

The sports retail brand says that fitness gear contributed to almost one third of its total turnover share for 2020, and almost 80% of those sales came from enthusiasts wishing to workout indoors — “mostly from rowing machines (recorded a 315% growth) and self-powered elliptical machines (recorded a 195% growth)”.

Fitness centre Cure.Fit has pivoted to online classes, clocking 5,00,000 sessions on a daily basis (they have begun reopening their physical spaces now), with over 1,00,000 subscribers. “Our trainers as well as the app specifically call out what kind of equipment will be required for a certain class,” says Tshering Wangdi Yolmo, Business Lead at CultSport, the workout gear arm. “Our TPE yoga mat with stance marking sold out within a week of its launch. We are bringing it back in February,” he says. “Free weights (dumbbells, kettlebells), yoga accessories (mats, blocks, straps) and resistance bands are doing very well.”

The year in fitness

With the investment people have made in equipment, COVID still on everyone’s minds, and trainers and trainees now used to an online format, it is likely that workout from home is here to stay in 2021 too. Personal training online is lower priced for those looking for a coach, the commute time is cut out, and people have carved out a space to exercise at home.

Stat

  • Gender bender
  • Yoga Straps and blocks are more popular with women customers compared to men, while free weights (5 kilograms and above) are more popular with men, at CultSport.
  • Growth spurt
  • Skipping ropes registered a 300% growth from newbies, while there was an over 250% growth on 50 kilogram weight kits, at Decathlon.
  • Age weight
  • Users from 35 to 50 are mostly the ones buying indoor cardio equipment, at Decathlon.

Then there is social media. With everyone online, fitness influencers began putting out challenges, ranging from Kitty Kalra’s squats for a minute for 14 days to Sohrab Khushrushahi’s 21-day (and his current 40-day one).

Sports equipment retailer Grand Slam Fitness registered maximum leads through July 2020 with the top keyword search being for ‘motorised treadmill’. It has however seen a significant decrease in month on month leads through e-commerce website IndiaMart. Prateek Sood, Director of Grand Slam, said in a press statement that this could be that gyms have resumed.

It could also mean that the future of fitness at home is in smaller pieces of equipment that can be stowed away easily, that with parks and roads being open, cardio can be taken outdoors, while strength and flexibility training is done at home. “All we can say is it is still too early to predict consumer behaviour and upcoming trends,” says Sood, in a world that has now accepted uncertainty as a part of life.



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Helmets to predict Alzheimer’s, a stress-canceller, an app to track seizures : Health tech at CES 2021


Wellbeing was disrupted for the better at the virtual Consumer Electronics Show 2021, which ultimately saw a brave new world of health tech. Plus, a few wise words from expert speakers.

While a part of the world is going back to work, the topic of ‘health at home’ has remained prevalent — and Consumer Electronics Show 2021 was no different. Taking place virtually instead of the usual Las Vegas setting, the globally popular tech expo saw more than 2,000 exhibitors, of which more than a quarter were in the health-tech space.

We look at some of the technologies which are bound to have a profound impact on the way we look at our bodies, inside out.

A hydration device

Not drinking enough water? Last year saw people waking up to how truly hydrated they were, often downloading apps or setting alarms to remind themselves to drink water.

Helmets to predict Alzheimer’s, a stress-canceller, an app to track seizures : Health tech at CES 2021

HidrateSpark’s new STEEL rechargeable smart bottle is a gadget that blinks when it’s time to top up and syncs with its own app to keep your daily goal updated. The glow can be customised as per the user’s liking, too. HidrateSpark has formulated a ‘Hydration Equation’ which calculates your daily goal based on age, height, weight, sex, altitude, activity (whether you are swimming, hiking).

The native app is calculated daily to give you the most accurate hydration level whether you’re travelling, hiking in the mountains, or swimming at the pool. One can opt for text notifications that offer additional reminders. Of course, there is a social aspect that connects the user with friends through the app in the name of friendly competition.

Available in the U.S. ($65) via hidratespark.com

A digital epilepsy journal

An award-winner at this year’s CES, Epsy took home ‘Best of Innovation Award’ for Health and Wellness, and an ‘Innovation Award’ for Software and Mobile Apps. Yes, it is just an app available for iOS and Android; no wearable here! Epsy helps those with epilepsy track seizures and medication, as well as help identify triggers.

Helmets to predict Alzheimer’s, a stress-canceller, an app to track seizures : Health tech at CES 2021

This data collection — a HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996)-compliant platform that uses secure data encryption — is helpful to share with a doctor for future steps forward for living with the neurological disorder.

A stress-canceller

If you were not paying attention to your mental health before 2020, chances are you became aware of it while house-bound. This in mind, Feelmore Labs unveiled their digital therapeutics non-invasive headset, Cove, which claims to be a ‘stress-cancelling’ device. Through 20-minute sessions, Cove applies specific vibrations behind your ears to gently activate the part of your brain that regulates anxiety, so you can stress less and sleep better.

Helmets to predict Alzheimer’s, a stress-canceller, an app to track seizures : Health tech at CES 2021

In trial studies, 90% of subjects reported reduced stress and improved sleep after using Cove. Extensive EEG and MRI studies performed by Feelmore Labs and validated by world-class neuroscientists have demonstrated that Cove has the ability to can modulate a deep part of the brain controlling emotional response, the insula.

As expected, there is a free companion app (available for iPhones and Androids) that can be used to get set up and stay on track

Available in the U.S. ($490) from feelcove.com

A helmet to predict Alzheimer’s

Helmets to predict Alzheimer’s, a stress-canceller, an app to track seizures : Health tech at CES 2021

Artificial Intelligence has long been a tool for neurologists, and the Alzheimer’s space is part of the solution drive. Korea-based iMediSync unveiled an electroencephalogram (EEG) digital biomarker for early detection of Alzheimer’s and dementia on their AI cloud platform, iSyncBrain.

How does this work? The platform’s mild cognitive impairment (MCI) classifier screens and discriminates Alzheimer or non-Alzheimer type of amnestic MCI to prevent dementia at the preclinical stage. This endured multicentre clinical trials with results of over 90% accuracy, states the company. However, the product is awaiting clearance from the USFDA and has not hit the market yet.

A sleep sticker kit

Helmets to predict Alzheimer’s, a stress-canceller, an app to track seizures : Health tech at CES 2021

Curious and curiouser about sleep tech? This is only natural given the pandemic of ‘COVID-somnia’. These unprecedented shifts in our sleep patterns are finally being addressed on a data level. Meet TatchSleep, a sticker wearable kit that comprises Bluetooth-connected patches and a native app for data collection of sleeping positions, breathing quality, and other key parameters.

This data is shared securely with a sleep specialist at Tatch who provides actionable, personalised insights delivered to users the next day.

Join the waiting list for Tatch ($60) at tatchsleep.com

What do the experts say?

“Oftentimes, policy is a bit of a laggard with the technology which advances much more rapidly than policy. We should not lose hope though.” — Dr Hassan A Tetteh, Warfighter Health Mission Chief, Joint Artificial Intelligence Centre, U.S. Department of Defense at the CES 2021 talk ‘The Trade-Off Between Staying Secure and Staying Healthy’

“With smart health principles guiding design, the care location of the future is everywhere… Human-centred design techniques really drive a degree of empathy and trust in the way in which care is delivered across different venues.” — Aloha McBride, Global Health Leader, Ernst & Young, at CES 2021 talk ‘Next-gen Technologies to Transform Health Care’

“There’s this funny thing in the technology industry where folks are so afraid about scaling human-to-human connection, and it’s not for lack of humans, there are billions of us. Connecting human with humans is inherently possible and scalable. We have to bring in a lot of technology to make those intimate connections, the immediacy of that connection.” — Rishi Mandal, CEO co-founder and Future, at CES 2021 talk ‘Starting with Sports: The Health & Wellness Future’



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Four native martial arts are now part of Khelo India Youth Games


Four indigenous martial art forms walk a tightrope to maintain their core culture and the need to modernise, after their inclusion in 2021 into the Khelo India Youth Games

Every morning before sunrise, Narayanan Embranthri steps into the kalari, a rectangular training space, with his right foot first.

He reverently touches the mud floor, a gesture to God and the gurus of the ancient martial discipline of Kalaripayattu. Before his students arrive, he lights the lamp, oils his body and dons the arakacha or tight loincloth. He then goes to the southwest corner of the kalari (which means battlefield) where seven steps, representing the seven power points in the body, are built, and offers a prayer. “That’s the poothara. Every student who learns this art follows these rituals: the prayer, the dress, the techniques,” says Narayanan, who teaches Kalaripayattu at the ENS Kalari built by his father in 1954 in Nettoor, Kochi.

Culture vs Sports

In a recent move, the Sports Ministry inducted four indigenous martial art forms — Kalaripayattu of Kerala, Mallakhamb of Central India, Gatka of Punjab and Thang-ta of Manipur — into the Khelo India Youth Games (KIYG). As practitioners, coaches, students and federations who have kept these ancient martial arts alive rejoice, they also voice concern over a possible dilution of the culture and ritual that is at the core of these regional forms, when modified to a sport version.

“It is a moment of great joy and pride for all of us who are continuing this 3,000-year-old tradition,” says Narayanan, who is also the secretary, sports of Kalaripayattu Association of Kerala. “Despite the British banning it, we have nurtured this native form of battle and defence. There are roughly 1,000 to 1,500 kalaris in Kerala. This recognition is as gratifying as much as it is a challenge, for teachers and practitioners.”

He is wary that this new-found scope as a sport may overshadow the essence of Kalaripayattu, if not formatted with care. While he accepts that it will make the art form more popular and recognised, he adds, “We have to take care that it does not lose its traditional element. It has rituals and philosophy.”

Kalari and yoga guru Sharath S Achari states, “This is the mother of all martial arts. Judo, Kung Fu, karate are its children. These are world famous but Kalaripayattu has remained inside Kerala. Why?” He explains that there are several grades of Kalarippayattu like meythari, which is practice of body flexibility and leg movements, followed by kolthari or fight using short and long sticks and an advanced state of sword play with shield. “As of now, we are not clear what will be included in the Khelo India competitions, and how will it be marked and graded.”

For the 50-year-old Narayanan, who began learning the art from his father at the age of 14, “A sporting career is only between the age of 7 to 21. What will happen to the sports practitioners after that?” He adds that the kalaris, registered and unregistered, have so far received little support from the Government.

However, advocate Poonthura Soman, Secretary General Indian Kalaripayattu Federation, Thiruvananthapuram, differs: “Technically Kalaripayattu is a sport. It consists of 18 different warfare techniques. In 1958 the Government of Kerala recognised the Kerala Kalaripayttu Association and affiliated to the Kerala State Sports Council. It was considered a sport then itself.” In 2015,Indian Kalaripayattu Federation was recognised by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports, Government of India, as a National Sports Federation. Since then we have been conducting National Championships. This decision is a boost for the Kalaripayattu fraternity,” he says. According to him eight events ranging from basic steps to sword and shield play have been included in the Khelo India sports format.

Ramesh Indoliya, president, M

Four native martial arts are now part of Khelo India Youth Games

allakhmabh Federation of India, is elated. Mallakhamb is a traditional form of gymnastics performed with a wooden pole (made of wood from sheesham or Indian rosewood and polished with castor oil), a cane, or a rope.

“This is a huge step for Bharatiya [Indian] games. Till now only Olympic games were given importance. Now indigenous sports will get respect. Earlier it was a demo game but now it is part of the mainstream; it’s a big honour,” he says, adding that they have contemporising an ancient art is required for it to remain relevant. Ramesh points out that girls are now allowed to perform with the pole, which was not the case earlier. “We have introduced that,” he says.

Though Madhya Pradesh declared Mallakhamb the State sport only in 2013, it had been developed as a competitive sport since 1981, with rules and regulations introduced at the first National Championship that year.

Future forward

Harjeet Singh Grewal, president of the Chandigarh-based National Gatka Federation of India, is thrilled at the new platform accorded to Gatka. He does not fear the dilution of the cultural aspect. “It is in our hands how much we keep and how much we forfeit. We have to change with the times.”

Gatka is a style of fighting with wooden sticks that originated in Punjab in the 15th Century. Originally called Shastar Vidya, it began as a means to defend righteousness and is considered both a spiritual and physical practice. The bana and chola are worn for the ritualistic performances but, when performed as a sport, the practitioner wears track pants and T-shirt. “The techniques remain the same,” he says emphatically. Besides, the stick is no longer the size of a man, he points out.

Four native martial arts are now part of Khelo India Youth Games

Gatka originally began with a display of over two dozen equipment used in battle and self-defence. “Of these, only the gatka has been taken into the sport. Our aim is to take it till the Olympics,” he says, adding that this may necessitate redesigning the format.

“Look at how far the T20 version took cricket. Similarly, the sports version of Thang-ta will rejuvenate it,” says Vinod Sharma, secretary-general, Thang Ta Federation of India. This Manipuri art form combines ritual, demonstration and combat and involves a variety of dance forms and warrior drills. Training begins with stepping patterns and basic sword strikes. Spear techniques are taught later.

“It is a moment of great pride that Thang Ta has been made a part of the Youth Games. It would have passed into oblivion in the recent decades had the national recognition not come,” he says, adding that it can be compared to the Chinese Wushu, the Japanese Ninjutsu and the martial arts of the Filipinos. Thang Ta, which has eight to 10 types of punching and 12 types of kick techniques, is “the best form of self-defence,” says Vinod.It was converted into sports version 25 years ago, and 25 National Championships and five International championships have been conducted so far. “If a newer format is required for Khelo India Youth Games, so be it,” he adds.

HYDERABAD, TELANGANA, 27/03/2015: Artistes from Manipur display ‘Thang- Ta’ dance during the inauguration function of “Parv Purvottar” festival at Shilparamam in Hyderabad on Friday, March 27, 2015. Thang means sword and Ta means spear. Thang-Ta is the martial art of Manipur practiced with sword and spear such as sword fight, spear fight and wrestling style of fight (Mukna). These were not originally a performing art but a serious form for self-defense event, acts of aggression against the enemy in martial tactics. Thang-Ta provided basic training of warfare, and kings of Manipur maintained Than-Ta experts in their courts. Photo: Nagara Gopal

HYDERABAD, TELANGANA, 27/03/2015: Artistes from Manipur display ‘Thang- Ta’ dance during the inauguration function of “Parv Purvottar” festival at Shilparamam in Hyderabad on Friday, March 27, 2015. Thang means sword and Ta means spear. Thang-Ta is the martial art of Manipur practiced with sword and spear such as sword fight, spear fight and wrestling style of fight (Mukna). These were not originally a performing art but a serious form for self-defense event, acts of aggression against the enemy in martial tactics. Thang-Ta provided basic training of warfare, and kings of Manipur maintained Than-Ta experts in their courts. Photo: Nagara Gopal
 
| Photo Credit: NAGARA GOPAL

A conservative Narayanan sums up the challenge: “Keep the tradition and develop the sport.”



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The people behind the COVID 19 vaccine reaching you


From a ASHA worker to the keeper of the cold chain, here, the unseen people responsible for the COVID-19 vaccine reaching you

9 am; January 16, 2021. Dr TR John has reason to remember this date and time. The Chief of Medical Service, Aster Medcity, Kochi, was readying to oversee the first jab of the COVID-19 vaccine at the hospital and sensed the beginning of the end of a battle. An Indian Army veteran who served in Jammu and Kashmir for eight years before taking premature retirement, he says, “It felt like just before the launch of an assault on the enemy. This has been a battle after all.”

What to expect

  • Vaccination centres have been identified considering the availability of three separate rooms — a waiting area, a room for vaccination, and another to monitor the recipient for half an hour after receiving the vaccine. Ambulances will be available at the centres in case of an adverse reaction. The recipient’s identification card is verified with the registration on the CoWIN platform before the vaccine is given. Dr TR John explains that a team of four vaccinating officers and one vaccinator will take the person through the process of identification, vaccination, observation and follow-up advisory.

For most of humanity, the fight against the Coronavirus has also been a question of marking time. After scientists doubled up their efforts to find a solution, the world has waited with bated breath. Finally, as the weapon to tackle the virus began to roll out globally, and in India on January 16, hope and relief, despite the scepticism, binds us all.

On the frontline

“A specialised duty; a service to the nation,” is how Kunal Agarwal, co-founder of Koolex Cold Chain describes his role. On January 12, Agarwal stood at his depot in Pune at 4am to supervise the despatch of cold chain trucks carrying Covishield, (one of the COVID-19 vaccine, developed by AstraZeneca with Oxford University, UK, and manufactured by the Serum Institute of India) to the airport.

“It was a proud moment for our organisation. Our fleet of 400 GPS-enabled trucks ferry highly sensitive medicines and vaccines across the country routinely but this time was different.”

Since the pandemic began India has confirmed more than 10.3 million cases and over 1,50,000 deaths. The first phase of inoculation will immunise 30 crore individuals that comprise one crore health workers, 2 crore frontline workers and 27 crore people above the age of 50 with medical co-morbidities.

1,400

  • The number of health workers Dr Abdul Ghafur, an Infectious Disease Consultant at Apollo Hospital, conducted a survey with, three weeks ago. The results showed that 45% wished to take the jab as soon as it was ready, while 55% were undecided and wished to defer it.

Latha Raju, an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) worker has been doing field work with palliative care for the last 10 years and was deputed to track 500 households in two divisions of Cochin Corporation during the ongoing pandemic. She reported 78 positive COVID cases and four deaths from her area. “Our prayers have been answered. We have fought with courage. The vaccine brings hope,” says Latha.

This is a line that is echoed by ambulance driver Yadhu Krishna. Admitting to being afraid in the initial stages, Yadhu, who worked with 11 COVID-19 First Line Treatment Centres in Kochi, says he will now work to dispel panic and fear among the people.

Heart and mind

On the other side of the world, in the US, Dr Suzana Alex John, Assistant Professor of Internal Medicine and a Rheumatology Specialist at Emory University School of Medicine, felt a sense of awe and was “humbled and blessed at receiving the vaccine”.

An installation depicting the Coronavirus, by Kochi artist Bindhi Rajagopal

An installation depicting the Coronavirus, by Kochi artist Bindhi Rajagopal  

The doctor who hails from Kochi and studied Medicine at Puducherry was among the first batch to be inoculated with the mRNA Pfizer vaccine. She describes the entire operation as “history in the making. I have been following the development of the vaccine. It is because of the dedicated hard work of researchers and scientists that we have it ready in record time. People worry about it being under tested, fast forwarded but actually it has been in the making for nearly three decades. It is a robust vaccine,” says Dr Suzana sharing a picture of a smiling nurse giving her the jab.

With the conclusion of hectic preparations and dry runs for the vaccination programme, Dr MG Shivadas, Ernakulam District Nodal Office for COVID, is finally breathing easy. “We have done everything as per the Government guidelines. There’s no anxiety, but there is lot of enthusiasm. This is for the sake of humanity,” says the doctor who wants grassroot-level frontline workers to be immunised first.

As mass vaccination gets underway, “hope springs eternal in the human heart,” says Dr Vasudevan recollecting the small pox vaccine, which he used to take as a child. “That was medieval torture. This is just a jab on the upper arm. We have come a long way indeed,” he says.

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How to Squat?



The exercise targets the quadriceps, hamstrings and the glute muscles and helps to strengthen the lower body



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Fitness

Are 2021’s New Year gym memberships going online?


To some extent, say experts in the tech-led fitness and diet space, as they talk about how the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown gave digital products a boost that’s likely to stay

In a departure from raucous partying on New Year’s Eve, 10,000 people celebrated across HealthifyMe’s social media channels, in a ‘Digital Dance Party’ with DJ GoApu. It was symbolic of 2020, a year during which most of us had been indoors and glued to screens. People attended free of cost, as cities in India went under a night curfew in view of COVID-19. The event was meant to kick off the diet-fitness platform’s FitFest 21, an app-only festival to promote the ecosystem of healthy living.

Last year, HealthifyMe helped people collectively lose two million kilograms in nine months, against the previous year’s one million kilograms, according to co-founder and CEO Tushar Vashisht. They are not the only ones operating in the tech-driven diet-fitness space that claim to have benefited from 2020’s home-bound, immunity-chasing, fear-ridden India.

Akshay Verma, co-founder, Fitpass that offers access through a single membership to over 4,000 gyms and fitness studios across 17 cities, and also has fitness and diet solutions, says that during October to December 2020, business grew by 25-30% compared to the same time in 2019. This, considering the last quarter is usually the leanest in the year for the fitness industry.

Sarvesh Shashi, founder of SARVA that focusses on yoga-based wellness, says the platform recorded 1,440 hours of yoga and meditation videos over the last year. Their 60+ on-ground studios were shut, and the app took precedence, requiring them to do a pivot to a digital-only model.

The tech-driven fitness and diet space has grown and continues to do so, in the wake of people like you and me becoming proactive about preventive health and needing tools to measure progress. At a time of paycuts, reduced mobility, and anxiety about the future, we wanted something affordable, accessible, and fun. Technology gave us that, beaming live workouts into our homes, some of which just had space for a yoga mat on a balcony.

Pandemic push

Internationally, technology became a diet and fitness enabler about 15 years ago, going from calorie recorders to GPS-led fitness trackers, aggregators of studio classes, wearables, and now, AR screens that monitor training (See ‘At strong start’ below).

Unicorns for real

  • These international tech fitness companies took valuations to beyond a billion dollars in 2020
  • Classpass, a US-based fitness aggregator founded in 2013 by Payal Kadakia, raised (dollars) 285 million, in January.
  • Keep, a five-year-old China-based company operating in the online and offline fitness space announced an (dollar) 80 million investment, in May.

In India though, we are still tracking steps and food intake at the most basic level. Startups want to capitalise on this, moving across geographies, lapping up and retaining as many ‘users’ as possible. This is different from the West, where brands are going deeper into a handful of homes with more involved tech. During the pandemic — still not over — online ads were cheaper, because there was little marketing by the entertainment sector (cinema halls, for instance, opened two months after fitness centres). People were online a lot, so targeted advertising was easier. This resulted in a drop in the cost of acquisition per person, says Verma.

Despite the fact that we are playing catch-up with the West in terms of fitness, what makes it exciting is that the focus is on technology amping up efficiency: HealthifyMe’s ‘AI dietician’ Ria has brought in 30% of their business during the past year, while Fitpass’ ‘AI trainer’ ARIA did well too with gyms being shut for about seven months.

In addition, there’s a certain Indian-mindset tech tweaking. As consumers, we are easily bored, lack discipline, and simply must have dessert at the end of the meal (hello rewards and recognition). StepSetGo, a winner in the Aatmanirbhar Bharat App Innovation Challenge, for instance, found a drop in steps taken and an increase in screentime, in the initial days of lockdown. The platform uses a simple pedometer coupled with gamification (a leaderboard, coins earned, and levels achieved) and gratification (through rewards) to get people to move more. Tech here is still motivating people towards an overall healthier lifestyle.

StepSetGo introduced the FitGames challenge, where online games on their app locked you out until you had taken a few steps. Being gamers themselves, the founders draw from the gaming industry. “The problem is not how to count your steps. The problem is how to keep up your motivation,” says Shivjeet Ghatge, co-founder and CEO. Today, with pandemic fatigue it’s all the more important.

One of StepSetGo’s key features is social engagement, important in a year we were all physically distant, and suddenly realised the importance of community. Fittr that offers motivation and coaching services, split its larger WhatsApp group into smaller ones, each headed by a coach, to make things more intimate, so people would share more.

Flexing it

It wasn’t all fun and games though. Diet and fitness professionals lost jobs and many aggregators have been forced to offer huge discounts on their monthly plans, and even the big players like cult.fit were it, though it has reopened more than half its gyms now.

The companies that could evolve their tech quickly though (and those that had large funding, like cure.fit’s $400 dollar investment), did catch the tailwind, as Ashish Sharma, CEO, InnoVen Capital India, describes it. “Indians typically haven’t focused on fitness, but over the last 8-10 years, there has been an increased consciousness around what one eats and fitness goals, in no small part driven by social media and positive role models like Virat and Hrithik, so people want to look good,” he says. Purchasing power has increased too. The point he’s making is that we were already on our bicycles pedalling (albeit slowly), so companies could indeed catch the tailwind.

Sharma’s company, a venture debt firm, has cure.fit and HealthifyMe as a part of its portfolio. It also a few in the health space (1MG, DocsApp), amongst others. As an aside, he says that “players in the diet-fitness space had to disrupt faster, because their success required new products.” They were also “driving long-term behaviour changes and cultivating new habits.” On the other hand, “health space startups caught tailwinds during the pandemic on account of existing platform with efficient system for delivery.”

Muscle and sinew

Founders breathed tech, and as they came up with newer offerings, their appreciation for it went up. “It’s the reason we were able to do what we did,” says Verma, who says they quickly got trainers online, linking them with people who could not go to the gym. Cult.fit in fact, “will continue to run offline businesses, but only in fitness, and will look for digital products in all other health verticals (mental health, medical care),” says Ankit Gupta, Head of Engineering and Org Operations. What has not changed is that most of these companies, with tech-trained leaders at the helm, continue to say that tech is the foundation of the business.

Sanil Sachar, Founding Partner, Huddle, a startup accelerator based in Gurugram, says he keeps reminding founders that technology is just an enabler. “You’ve got to mask it, make a product simple, though the problem may be complex. At The Healthy Company (a nutrition solutions venture), for instance, the AI that tells you what to eat, when to eat, is not the reason the consumer comes in. People should be able to forget that it’s a bot they’re talking to,” he says.

He also makes a difference between true tech and a placebo. A device that prompts you to wash hands and speaks to you about washing for less than 20 seconds is placebo, he says, of the many services that came up in response to handwashing guidelines and some of the pandemic paranoia. “If it is tracking progress — that’s tech.”

In a surprise from pandemic times, outdoor games have gained people’s confidence. It’s one of the reasons Arjun Singh Verma, COO, Hudle, a discovery-and-booking app for sports facilities, remains optimistic (he expects a 4x growth this year). Another reason is that the company has just raised an undisclosed amount in a pre-series A round of investment.

“In the initial days of unlock, people were booking individual sports like badminton and tennis,” he says. Today, cricket and football have picked up too. It’s eye-opening that Delhi has about 100 football turfs, where Kochi has double, opening up the prospect of taking the service to tier 2 cities where many aggregating apps don’t go, but infrastructure exists.

Hudle is also offering training to people who may never have played a sport before: like football training for women across ages. Perhaps next year, we’ll celebrate New Year’s Eve on a football pitch. Naturally, we’ll book it through an app and link with people digitally to form a team. Hopefully though, we will meet in person, to celebrate health and togetherness.

Are 2021’s New Year gym memberships going online?

A STRONG START

A brief history of international tech-forward forerunners

International tech-driven startups operating in the fitness and diet space captured our imagination, but never went mass in India. “They were too expensive, we weren’t used to paying for apps, internet connectivity was sketchy, and the fitness community itself was very small so people just never got to know about them,” says Gagan Dhillon Khullar, who worked with Women’s Health magazine in India heading the fitness vertical. People with minimal body fat that seemed too hard to achieve and foods that were alien, were other reasons. What these companies did was to make tech associated with fitness and diet sexy.

Diet tracking

2005: MyFitnessPal began as a calorie-tracking app in 2005, when founder Mike Lee wanted to lose weight before his beach wedding. Launching first as a website and then as an app in 2009, after the iPhone App Store came into being in 2008, it was the original digital diet-and-weight-loss companion. You could simply feed in ‘burger’ for instance, and a predetermined calorific value would appear, making it easy to calculate your calories intake. This wasn’t available for Indian food though, which meant you had to feed in ingredients. The company was bought by Under Armour in 2015 for USD 475 million and announced its sale recently for a considerably lower price.

Fitness tracking

2006: The Nike+iPod Sport Kit came into being, bringing together cool shoes, a device that played music and spoke to you with updates on speed and distance, tech tracking that recorded a training log, and a lifestyle that only a few could afford but everyone wanted. It had a shoe-mountable sensor and a small transmitter that plugged into the iPod Nano’s dock connector. Nike Training Club was launched in 2008.

Fitness networking

2007: Endomondo, named after the endorphins released after a bout of activity, came out as the original fitness social network for runners and cyclists. It breathed its last on December 31 last year 2020, retired by Under Armour who had acquired it the same year as MyFitnessPal. MapMyRun also came into being the same year, and also got taken over by Under Armour in 2013. The now popular running-cycling tracker and fitness community builder Strava came out only in 2009.

Wearables

2009: Fitbit was the first wearable device we all coveted, though Garmin had released the first wrist-based GPS trainer in 2003. Suddenly, taking 10k steps became a movement, and the company went on to be listed in 2015. Alphabet, Google’s holding company, is acquiring it for dollars 2.1 billion, though it has had to commit to Europe not to use Fitbit’s huge data for ad targeting for 10 years. The Apple Watch came into being only in 2015.

Connected home fitness equipment

2013: Peloton, the at-home stationary bike fitted with a touchscreen to stream live sessions (through subscriptions) was built on the popularity of New York’s cult in-studio SoulCycle and Flywheel. Forbes reports that it was recently added to the NASDAQ 100 stock index. Mirror, a full length reflective glass that turns into an at-home interactive fitness device with a studio-like experience, was started in 2018, and was acquired by fitness apparel brand Lululemon for 500 million dollars last year. Hydrow, launched in 2019, markets itself as a “live outdoor reality” connected equipment (you’re pictured rowing on the water).



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Fitness

The three technologies helping us train for 2021


As break into a new decade, we look at the AI-driven technologies that will forge new paths from our pandemic fitness routines

(Subscribe to our Today’s Cache newsletter for a quick snapshot of top 5 tech stories. Click here to subscribe for free.)

If 2020 was the year of the smartwatch, then 2021 is the year of fitness autonomy. Helping this along are these core technologies and their facilitators catering to users who want to be ‘less gadget-oriented but still fairly digital’.

We look back on the AI-driven technologies that helped locked down people look at fitness differently, and how these innovations are a precursor to 2021.

Virtual Reality

The personal fitness industry was revolutionised when VR was brought into the mix more than eight years ago. Since then we’ve seen gamified fitness but what about fittified gaming? Oculus welcomed Supernatural in April 2020, a cardio-heavy, on-demand workout adventure. The game serves up daily personalised full-body workouts and expert coaching from real-world trainers. Sweat to music from popular artists and visit beautiful photorealistic landscapes. It lets you track your progress with the companion app, pair your heart rate monitor, schedule workouts, and follow friends for some healthy competition.

What do we see happening in 2021? Experiences like Supernatural will be channelling more social experiences into their repertoire, whether you want to have your trainer hold you accountable or compete with friends.

Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality as a tech class is not as overwhelming as its big brother, Virtual Reality. AR has made its way into many home workouts because it feeds back real-time information about what’s going on in the user’s body while working out, as well as helping track how far they’ve come. Admittedly an AR fitness regimen, while fun, can take an extra level of engagement upfront to help people power through the tough first stages before exercising feels rewarding on its own.

A screenshot from Google Glass AR app Race Yourself

A screenshot from Google Glass AR app Race Yourself
 
| Photo Credit:
Race Yourself

AR glasses such as Google Glass have been a virtual friend to users through third-party apps like Race Yourself, which lets users keep track of time, distance, and calories with a quick glance at the Glass screen — it’s all very Ready Player One — helpful for even the most novice runner. The app has some in-built scenarios, too, such as racing against giant boulders, zombies, fire, virtual friends, and even an oncoming train.

Love working out in front of the mirror but without the hassles of a wearable? Mirror, an AR-fuelled ‘nearly invisible home gym’ that Lululemon acquired in 2020, offers more than 50 genres of 5-60 minute classes ranging from absolute beginner to expert levels. Advanced camera technology and proprietary algorithms help deliver in-workout adjustments based on the user’s goals, preferences, and personal profile.

Chatbots

You may have encountered fitness chatbots in apps such as Nike Training, Cure.Fit and Sense Bio. These AI bots guide users through different workouts, based on intensity level, and also provide a suitable diet chart to be followed as per the selected fitness goal. Intelligent chatbots can also help optimise personal performance by sending tips and suggestions as per the tracked performance analytics.

A sample of Artbot.AI’s chatbot

A sample of Artbot.AI’s chatbot
 
| Photo Credit:
Artbot.AI

One such app Fit N Simple has been doing well in the messenger marketing / fitness crossover. The company started out trying to cut through the noise in this sub-industry. Through its Instagram account, founder Austin Witte observed that personalised and real-time interaction would better engage his audience. Favoured by a number of international startups, ManyChat became Fit N Simple’s go-to. “Flow Builder [by ManyChat] was a game-changer for me. When you have hundreds of thousands of subscribers, it’s hard to deliver a customised message. ManyChat’s features made sure my subscribers had a real, personalised experience,” says Austin in a past interview.

Artibot.AI, a chatbot server created with gym owners, fitness facilities and fitness trainers in mind. This lets you make a chatbot that can schedule a workout session with a client, allow them to pay you in advance, and also provide any personal information you require.

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The virtual fitness pass


It is that time of the year when hitting the gym tops the New Year’s resolution chart. However, last year’s lockdown saw health and fitness app downloads growing by 46% worldwide, with India recording a whopping 157% surge (Moengage report). So 2021 might keep up with the trend, with many of us continuing to opt for workouts on TV, apps or WhatsApp groups. From group sessions to personalised meditation classes, we bring you a list of lockdown launches.

Group challenges @ BoxFit At Home

After their hit Instagram Live sessions, the New Delhi-based multi-model fitness centre went online last October. Trainers turn DJs and entertainers as they curate challenges for 45 to 50-minute virtual workouts that include everything from cardio to kickboxing. “We’re planning to launch connected fitness products, where you can track your progress in real time and compare your results with friends. Additional workout programmes and enhanced nutrition programmes are also in the offing,” says founder Rahul Kaul. On GooglePlay and iOS. ₹2,499 for a one-month starter pack. Details: boxfit.in

Community challenge @ Sohfit

The fitness start-up’s 40 and 21-day challenges, which have been around since 2019, gained popularity during lockdown, with endorsements from the likes of actor Alia Bhatt. Sohrab Khushrushahi, founder of the three-year-old enterprise, says, “The idea is to make fitness accessible and fun, and help people remain consistent,” adding that he’s working on women-centric fitness models for 2021. The 40-day session features curated video tutorials. All you need is a sturdy bench/stool/chair to step or jump on to, and a skipping rope. The next 40-day challenge starts on January 18. ₹12,500 + tax. Details: sohfit.com

Sohfit

Sohfit  

Family programmes @ sense.bio

If you’ve been struggling to keep track of your water intake or remotely oversee your parents’ pill timings, this IoT-based fitness and health app is for you. Founded by IIT Bombay alumnus Atul Kapoor, it aims at making virtual health management easier. Get assessments done, meal recommendations, create a personalised nutrition and daily diet plan, or a list of physical activities that can be done at home with their step-by-step video tutorials. On GooglePlay. Details: sense.bio

Sleep better @ Mindhouse

Last November, the app-based mental wellness service introduced a tool to help people sleep better, given the crazy year that 2020 was. Narrated by the likes of actors Rahul Bose, Konkana Sen Sharma and Amol Parashar, Sleep Stories brings to listeners well-crafted tales with peaceful ambient music. From folk tales with an updated twist, to nature visualisations and original fiction, the stories include A Swiss Mountain Adventure, A Night in the Forest and a re-imagined version of Hansel & Gretel. With a 14-day free trial, the app is available on iOS and Google Play. Details: mindhouse.com

Ultrahuman

Ultrahuman  

Sleep better @ Ultrahuman

This Bengaluru-based platform was founded in August 2020 to help people transform not just their physiques, but their minds too. “It helps people meditate, workout efficiently, and optimise their sleep with the help of athletes, neuroscientists, artists, and psychologists. We’ve partnered with leading names such as Kara Saunders, Amanda Cerny and Johannes Bartl,” says founder Mohit Kumar, adding that while they started with Australia, New Zealand and the US as focus markets, they will expand to other countries soon. In 2021, look forward to additional coaches and the platform’s integration with fitness trackers like Fitbit and Garmin. ₹4,317 a year. On iOS and Google Play. Details: ultrahuman.com

Only on Apple

Launched earlier this month, Apple Fitness+ (₹5,882 a year) gives you access to a library of pre-recorded workouts — HIIT, strength, yoga, dance, rowing, cycling, treadmill walking, treadmill running, core, and mindful cool down. New sessions drop every week and there are workouts for beginners, too. Details: apple.com

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