Gul Panag’s texts to me, as we fix up the interview have a smattering of emoticons. Not the regular smileys, but distinct stuff that make me LOL. When I meet the lithe, lean, dimpled Gul, it’s as if the emoticons have come alive. She is animated, speaks in crisp and powerful sentences and jumps out of the couch-thrice-to show me the right form for push-ups and hamstring stretches.
Gul has spent the last two days attending meetings of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), the political party she represented in the recent general elections. She’s just completed the first draft of book 1 of a trilogy on fitness, and as we speak, she reveals her intention to enroll into a PhD programme soon. The delightful thing is, for all these tasks she’s lined up, she assigns the same level of enthusiasm!
Earlier this year, when Gul announced the decision to contest as a candidate for AAP from her hometown Chandigarh, the actor and adventure junkie added another feather to her cap. She lost the elections, but won quite a few admirers for her fearless and outspoken manner. “We are such a patriarchal society that when a woman takes a stand it ruffles feathers. But I’ve had the unlikeliest of people come up to me and say you’re such an inspiration,” she says, smiling warmly.
Even on days she campaigned and walked the streets of Chandigarh all day, Gul’s commitment to her own fitness was impeccable. Some days, she would wake up at 5 am to run a few kilometers. As the campaigning got hectic and there was a huge time crunch, she kept a vigil on her diet.
To be fit is to be
This commitment to fitness, rather wellness, is not to be a certain size, explains Gul earnestly. It is so that she has enough energy to invest in her work and well-being. “In your early 20s, you live in this fallacy about your body…but as you get older you realise that you have this one body to last you another few decades. I know now that if I have to remain marginally active at 70, I must account for it NOW.” What she’s doing today is “as much to prevent disease today as it is to prevent the loss of muscle and bone mass, diabetes, and heart disease in the future-I’m doing it more for longevity,” she says with clear conviction.
She’s been speaking up actively on social media on the need for women to take charge of their health. Gul recalls how despite the charged political climate during the campaigning, by the end of the day after the “issue part of the work was done” and the party workers slipped into gentle banter, the women had questions for Gul.
“Women have been coming up to me, in changing rooms at gyms or pools, at events, on Twitter, to know how I’m this fit. The questioning gained momentum after I got married, since people just assume that staying fit until one gets married is important,” says Gul who’s now putting it all down in her book. She felt it was “criminal to not give information to women who are genuinely interested in improving their fitness levels,” and gladly shared what had worked for her. Along the way, she also began chronicling the little formulae she’d cracked for herself-from the research and reading she did, and the tips and ideas she gleaned from world-class experts and athletes she’d met.
The whole story
Her books will address readers with different levels of fitness. The common thread running through them is the holistic approach to fitness that she has evolved, and how it helps you invest in your future health. “Fitness is a word I used in my 20s, now it is about wellness. It’s also about the way you approach food and the way you eat. You may not be overweight, but what’s the point of being thin and listless and tired all the time?” The biggest myth out there, she says, “is that if you exercise, you can eat anything. That’s clearly not possible because there is only a finite amount of food your body can consume and burn. If you cross that limit, you will gain weight.
Exercise alone cannot absolve you of the sins of eating wrong. How much are you going to exercise? Even if you’re a performance athlete, you have to be careful.” By careful she means not falling for the marketing gimmicks that are meant to convince you that foods that are unhealthy are actually good for you. “It’s time to start thinking about what you’re putting into your mouth. No matter what you do, you have to eat responsibly. Not because you want to fit into an old pair of jeans, but because you don’t want to end up in a pre-diabetic situation or with plaque in your arteries because of what you eat.”
The future of health
The tips and tricks she posts on social media are lapped up by her ever- growing tribe of followers. Often, Gul gets drawn into discussions and is stumped at the misinformation that abounds. “I often hear women say weight training is not for them. But that’s incorrect. Women tend to ignore upper body strength. For me, my muscles are not meant for vanity, they are meant for long-term use. When I have a higher muscle mass, I burn more calories at rest, I have a higher metabolism. Muscle mass also prevents the depletion of bone density-this is especially important for Indian women since we are genetically pre-disposed to osteoporosis and diabetes,” she says.
Her evolution-from being size sensitive to a well-being warrior-is complete. Along the way, she’s cracked the code for lasting fitness: “Always take the more active solution to everything”. Take the stairs at home, or when shopping; run with your children, walk on vacations-there is no secret ingredient to life-altering change.
I now see activity and not exercise. No longer a slave to the 6-day routine, I’ve brought down my workout routine to 4 days of quality exercise. I try and take up the active solution to most things, taking the stairs, or running with my dogs. I do surya namaskar or push-ups when I can, and use little tricks like running with my hands on my head to engage the core. I tumble out of bed and do 16 mins of Tabata, a high intensity workout. When I’m in Chandigarh, I run.
MY WEIGHING SCALE
A pair of size 26 jeans I wore when I was 54 kg, that are hanging in my bathroom permanently. I weigh more now, but I’m leaner. To be leaner-you must exercise some food choices.