The Somans are done having a one-size-fits-all approach to fitness 

You may want to take inspiration from the journey of “India’s fittest family”, but they think it ill-advised to let anyone else curate how you “fit”.

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For Milind Soman, a large part of his childhood was filled with mundane mischief mixed with steadfast determination to make something serious of his swimming talent until a quick emotional outburst decided otherwise. “I could have turned bitter and resentful,” Milind writes in Keep Moving, the book he co-authored with his mother and wife (and Roopa Pai), for which we sat down for this interview. He follows up that thought with advice to instead explore and engage with the challenging situation, which, in his case, led him to climb out of the pool with no regrets and detach from the sport to really find himself.

Of course, we’ve traced his years in the fashion and entertainment industry with him (Rules: Pyaar Ka Superhit Formula still lives in our hearts rent-free), until age 37, when he found running, a passion that continues to this day.

Usha Soman, Milind’s mother, though describing her as such would be a real disservice, kept herself busy with the responsibilities of a job, kids, a husband, maintaining a house, shifting countries, and coming back home again, and then some more. “Exercise? My generation had never heard of the concept. Stretches, bends, lifts, squats—they were all part of the daily routine. Exercise had to be invented for the generation that came after, who were newly freed from physical labour,” she writes.

So, while she was constantly on the move with life keeping her fitness in check, when did her fitness focus truly begin? After retirement. When her grandson was going for a trek and needed a guardian, she volunteered to go along. We already know the end, or rather the beginning, of that story. She became a social media sensation at 77 when a picture of her running barefoot alongside her son went viral. For anyone needing visuals, she has since trekked Tapovan, Annapurna, Kilimanjaro, and Mount Everest base camp (and these are only the ones that sound the most daunting). She is 84 today.

Ankita Konwar grew up in North Lakhimpur, a town only a stone’s throw away from Assam’s border with Arunachal Pradesh, where, as a proud Ahom, she followed the lifestyle of her martial and agrarian lineage—well, in her active spirit anyway. She effortlessly juggled her time between boarding school and her maternal grandfather’s paddy and mustard farms. Picture little Ankita frolicking around the village, climbing trees, paddling in the river (she wasn’t taught to swim, so we’re thinking more energetic dog paddle in her case), cycling, playing cricket, foraging on the farm, even learning to kill a chicken! Two particular memories jump out from Ankita’s account of her childhood. One of Ankita and her sister scrounging for their favourite snack, uisiringa (a species of crickets found in Assam), which they carefully watered out of their holes to collect and asked their grandmother to fry. The second is the staple meal of Eri worms, boiled (for silk) and then tossed with onions and spices as a snack. For Ankita, while her partnership with Milind may have brought her to realise her underlying love for running and, in general, an active life, food as a language of fitness was always her lexicon. “For me, I need to eat local and fresh, eat considered food. I need to understand what is available and eat accordingly,” Ankita tells us on a Zoom call, where her enthusiasm is palpable and keeps the conversation going, much to the chagrin of those coordinating these interviews. “Every time I don’t, I can hear the clock in me ticking, telling me I have to stop.”

The importance of food in the Somans’ fitness journey

Such is Ankita’s biological make up. Such is also Milind and Usha’s, all of whom come together in their love for local, homemade food, although Milind and Ankita are more willing to venture out for a meal every now and then. “To date Aai enjoys going to the local mandi and picking her fruits and veggies. Even doorstep delivery won’t do! As for eating out, we have to coerce Aai,” banters Ankita. “Yes, I don’t like going out to eat. It is expensive, and more often than not I can make things better at home,” Usha ma’am responds, adding humbly, “at least the fish preparations”. In the book, she further elucidates, “The healthy food ‘rules’ that everyone proclaims these days as if they are brand-new scientific discoveries—eat fresh! eat local! eat seasonal!—were simply part of our lives…because there was no store-bought ‘junk food’ to be had.” 

It is one of the most important tenets of what all three of them believe is living their fittest lives—eating what you want, what your body is telling you to eat (obviously we’re talking everything in moderation of course), and eating local and fresh. 

How to find a fitness routine that makes your body happy

Of course, along with making sure to find a fitness style and routine that works for you. “There is no one- size-fits-all when it comes to fitness, even for yourself, it has to keep evolving,” Ankita tells us as we agonise over our own tryst with fitness that wreaked havoc with our back. “You are a work-in-progress, as is how you approach fitness. You have to be self aware, find what works for your body, and what makes it truly happy.” For Milind, the process of ageing keeps his outlook to fitness evolving, but the crux of it stays the same, “You should be able to do everything you were able to do as a child. Perhaps not at the same pace is all.” In a recently shared reel, Milind shares his mother riding a cycle after 25 years. So, for him, while the world lauds his mother for the fitness goals she sets, he thinks it’s only normal. “(Fitness to me is) to be able to do what I want to do,” she describes in her book. 

And as far as the Somans go, there is no time to start like today. You could have neglected yourself for 30 years and still start and get to where you hope to be (cue videos of Ankita and Usha ma’am single-leg hopping from one end of the roof to the other at the same pace). 

If you read about the daily routine of all three, they are as unfussed and ordinary as it can be. For starters, unlike what you would expect, none of them ‘hit the gym’ or even carve out tedious hours in the day to workout. In fact, a rigorous fitness routine seems as far removed from their lives as any of us cribbing about starting our journeys every week. The common factor between their and our Monday routine of promising to get to working out is consistency. “There is just no substitute for it.” And all three of them, despite their varied wake up timings, do include a walk or run to their morning routine. 

What not to do in your fitness journey

So, are there really any don’ts for the Somans? “Don’t overdo it,” all three of them chime together, profusely warning of the ill effects of popularised diets, exercises, and bodies. “It is never too late to begin cultivating a good relationship with your body. But do it respectfully, honouring your own body’s needs… Many fitness goals are so short-sighted and so visual. The real goal of exercise is to make you happy, confident, content,” Ankita writes about staying on track in your fitness journey. “And what about never saying ‘you can’t’ Aai?” Milind adds. “Of course, don’t ever say you can’t do anything!” she laughs. And for someone who can do push-ups better than many half her age (and we can give many more examples to this effect), you have to take her word. For Milind, of course, there is also the somber advice of understanding your addictions and leaving them as soon as possible. “I have had more than enough to drink and smoke in my 20s and early 30s, but I got lucky that I was able to get out of it quickly enough. I suppose a part of me inherently knew I had to, so, for example, I never bought my own cigarettes and that may have helped me. But yes, get out of them as soon as possible and find healthy addictions instead.” Like fruit for Milind! Fruit, fruit, and some more fruit! Of course, other than running. 

In first place, the focus on mental health 

But, above all of this fitness advice is something simpler. “Making sure you do things that make you happy, that has to be where you start and end. That is my meditation,” Milind says when asked about what he does for his mental health. “Be it projects or the personal choices I make, they are all led by what inherently feels right to me, and it has always been the case. For example, even when I was smoking myself, I never felt right about promoting a tobacco or alcohol brand.” Ankita, on the other hand, has found her solace in journaling, vedic chants, and some form of pranayama every day; not to forget yoga, a practice she shares with Usha ma’am. 

You know how in Finding Nemo Dory sings 'Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming swimming…' speaking to the Somans was something like this, as was reading their book, a mix of motivation and an easy-to-follow guide to finding your fitness language and becoming fluent in it. And you are only 197 pages away from speaking it for yourself, too.

So, start now? Or will this slightly snide comment from Milind help?—“The intelligence of any living being is constantly engaged in protecting and sustaining itself. If you don’t care for your health, you are not intelligent. If you work against your own survival, you are not intelligent.” 

Feature image credit: Juggernaut Books

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