Fitness mantras of our politicians

In an election year, a few leaders share how they maintain their health


Five days and about seven text messages. That’s what it took to finally get an appointment with Nationalist Congress Party leader Supriya Sule in Mumbai. All this while she had been posting regular updates and selfies on her WhatsApp status and Instagram feed, capturing moments spent with villagers during her campaign across Baramati, her constituency. The most striking photo was the one with a bunch of women from Bavdhan, listening to her in rapt attention at 10.30pm. That night, after the rally, she left for Mumbai and reached home at 2.30am only to wake up at 7am. “Politicians live by exhausting and punishing schedules. During elections, I campaign anywhere between 14 to 16 hours, covering as many as 18 villages in a day,” says Sule. “Of course, I would have liked to sleep for seven to eight hours every day, but that is quite far-fetched at least at the present.”

Ahead of the Lok Sabha elections, politicians are going out of their way to woo the voter, covering as much area as possible before calling it a day. But erratic schedules that demand long hours out on the field amid a scorching Indian summer involve a certain toughness of the mind and the body. While some steel themselves for it well in advance, others learn it the hard way. For Dr Shweta Shetty, founder of the National Women's Party, aggressive campaigning in south India took a toll on her body and she had food poisoning. “I had been travelling extensively for launching the party, but the heat got to me,” she says. “This is what campaigning does to you. I don't fall ill otherwise. This is the first time this happened. I have already lost three kilos in the past month or so of campaigning.”

The most common complaint among political leaders across party lines pertains to the lack of access to home-cooked food while campaigning. Some like Shiv Sena’s Dr Shrikant Shinde make it a point to carry food from home at times, while others like Congress leader Sachin Pilot have to make do with whatever is offered by well-wishers and party workers. “Politicians need to work on themselves extra hard, given that their bodies are more prone to problems of dehydration, glucose imbalance, fatigue and stress, especially during campaign days,” says Karishma Chawla, a Mumbai-based nutritionist. And, the leaders know this only too well. Most of them are conscious of their fitness goals and try and make time for workout. While both Shinde and Congress’s Milind Deora swear by their home gyms for the daily dose of exercise, others such as Pilot and Sule prefer cycling, running and yoga. The MPs Club is where all of them get together and sweat it out over generous doses of music and gossip. While Union minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju was Sule's “ex-gym partner”, Shinde has played cricket with the “Parliament team at the cricket ground in Dharamshala, along with Hisar MP Dushyant Chautala of the Indian National Lok Dal, Srikakulam MP K. Ram Mohan Naidu of the Telugu Desam Party, BJP’s Anurag Thakur and others”.

But, when they are on the road campaigning, they improvise. Here’s how politicians are taking care of their health in the time of polls:

Walking the talk

Supriya Sule | Amey Mansabdar Supriya Sule | Amey Mansabdar

Baramati MP Supriya Sule is blessed with a body that never gets tired. On a bright Tuesday afternoon, Sule, dressed in a pastel green cotton sari with neon red sneakers, meets us at Mumbai's Marine Drive promenade. She has barely slept for four hours the previous night after returning from a rigorous campaign in her constituency. Yet, she doesn't seem jaded at all. “I seriously never feel worn out. My body plays along quite well,” she states. Sule passionately follows the fitness-on-the-go mantra for good health. “I compulsorily carry my sneakers and crocs at all times and depending on when I get the time I work out.” She tries following a pattern—alternating between cycling, yoga and brisk walking every two days—but mostly ends up exercising impromptu, it could be any time of the day. When in Pune or Baramati, Sule simply dons her helmet and goes cycling in a sari and when in Mumbai, she makes it a point to walk back from Marine Drive to her home on Peddar Road after work. The 50-year-old used to be a hardcore gym person about five years ago, but now swears by the outdoors. Sule's current fitness goal is to lose six kilos but she is not anywhere close it, especially not with the erratic schedules that are a constant feature in the run-up to the elections. “Right now, it is all a mess. There is no discipline as there is no regular set pattern for my days,” she says. “Unlike many others who lose weight in the heat and dust of elections, I gain by the kilos because I am a stress eater. I also have a weakness for Diet Coke. It is my energiser and I must have one can a day without fail.” And yet, she doesn't remember the last time she fell ill or had to cancel a campaign because of a bad stomach. She never takes food from home and mostly ends up eating in “karyakartas’ (party workers) homes” or at local dhabas. Normally, the food is veggies, mutton or chicken and rice or jowar bhakris. The hygiene at the roadside eateries does not bother her much, but she makes sure that she carries bolied water in the two flasks with her. “That is my only precaution,” she says. Breakfast is a fruit and six almonds, and evening snacks mostly consist of any two varieties of biscuits. “I have outgrown the taste of fried food and I am not addicted to tea or coffee,” she says. But, she is a foodie, and food is always on her mind even while campaigning. “I know the most amazing places to eat, district wise, in Maharashtra, and I plan accordingly and inform them beforehand to keep some food for me,” she says.

But if there is one thing that the mother of two teens misses the most, it is sleep. “It actually feels like it has been ages since I enjoyed a good, long sleep,” she says. “I need to work on that.”

Committed to fitness

Kiren Rijiju | Arvind Jain Kiren Rijiju | Arvind Jain

In politics, time is a crucial resource. And keeping to a fitness regime can be a real challenge. “Daily workout? Oh, where's the time really,” says Kiren Rijiju, Union minister of state for home affairs, who is fighting on a BJP ticket from Arunachal (West). Given the constraints of time, and managing meetings that last, at times, until the wee hours, the lawyer-politician says he had to find some way to keep fit.

So he had a small, but well-equipped gym, built at his official residence in Lutyens Delhi, and resolved to set aside half an hour for exercise, whenever possible. “It could either be early in the morning, or late evening, whenever my schedule allows,” he says. Rijiju says he manages to squeeze in time for a quick workout every now and then. “I start with some warm-up, then move on to functional exercises such as burpees, some light weights, and then end with some stretching,” he says.

For the 48-year-old fitness enthusiast—Rijiju posted a video of him doing pull-ups that went viral during the #FitnessChallenge last year—being physically active is extremely important. Fitness, says Rijiju, is a way of life, and in his case, the routine began early. A national-level athlete in school, Rijiju played tennis and volleyball, and was a javelin thrower. The lull in physical activity came in 2004, when he moved to Delhi in his first stint as an MP. “From 2004 to 2009, I gained a lot of weight,” he says. “After that, I realised I had to do something.”

Rijiju believes that fitness is important in any profession. “If you are fit, you will be good at your work,” he says. “A successful professional is one who is committed, and that is also an essential part of any fitness regimen. If I don't do any exercise, I get lethargic, and it shows in my work. I have to keep moving, doing something.” At 5'9'', Rijiju says he weighs 82kg. “This is okay, but ideally, I should be about 75kg,” he says.

It is not tough if one realises the importance of fitness, he says. “These days, people are aware that they need to keep fit,” says Rijiju. “And that kind of awareness has to be created among our politicians, too. The idea is not to bulk up, but to remain fit and active so that we are able to deliver on our promises and serve our people.”

Exercise routines apart, the minister, also the BJP’s star campaigner in the northeast, says he keeps a check on his diet, too. “I am not into any diet fad. I just like to keep it simple. I try to avoid carbohydrates, especially rice at night. During my travels, I carry home-cooked food such as vegetables, chapati and rice,” he says.

But all his resolve weakens when it comes to a certain sinful treat. “Jalebis! I love jalebis. Rajnath Singhji and I are really very fond of them. It's tough to stay away from them,” he says with a smile.


Gym junkie

Dr Shrikant Eknath Shinde | Amey Mansabdar Dr Shrikant Eknath Shinde | Amey Mansabdar

Dr Shrikant Eknath Shinde is a fitness freak. The state-of-the-art gym set up at his home stands testimony to the fact. “I don't have a fixed time to exercise, but I make sure I work out for 60 minutes every day, be it early in the morning or late at night,” says the Kalyan MP from Maharashtra. He, too, agrees that the life of a politician is “extremely challenging, given the rigorous amount of travel involved”. From morning to night, he is on his toes, looking over his constituency affairs, he says.

Shinde's personal trainer and fitness consultant Ravish Dobani makes sure he adheres to his workout plan on a daily basis. “We start with a few minutes on the treadmill, followed by body weight training,” says Dobani. He is not into hardcore weights but he does total resistance exercises for training his core. I also help him focus on lower back strengthening exercises, since his work demands that he be seated for much of the day.” Dobani also trains Shinde in aerial yoga and pilates. “If he is in the city, he is very punctual. He never skips workout,” he says. Shinde's constituency is barely a hour and a half away from his home in Thane and so it is convenient for him to carry home-cooked food along with him to Kalyan every day. He plays cricket, too, once every two months and cycles every alternate morning in the neighbouring Yeoor hills on a bike he has purchased recently. Shinde considers himself to be “decently fit”. “During elections, I always end up losing a lot of flab, given the physical and mental stress that goes with it,” he says. In terms of diet, he says only one thing is of utmost importance during election campaigns—“to keep oneself well hydrated”. “I don't make a fuss about food, but I make it a point to drink plenty of fluids at all times,” he says. “I think I have successfully maintained the same body profile in the past five years, right from 2014 elections to the present one. In fact, I am the youngest and the fittest in the Shiv Sena.”

Meditation and metabolism

Tejasvi Surya Tejasvi Surya

Tejasvi Surya, 28, says he is, by and large, a people person, and is ebullient and perky most of the time. What makes him lose his temper is “nonsensical conversation”. “Boring people who talk stupid things and with whom it becomes impossible to have an intelligent and meaningful conversation drive me up the wall,” says Surya, one of the youngest BJP candidates in the Lok Sabha elections. After a pause, he adds that his impatience with some may also be affecting his blood pressure. And so, to counter the negativity, he meditates twice every day for ten minutes—before sunrise and after sunset. “I do it religiously,” says the candidate from Bangalore South. “Because that is the only way to keep myself sane. It helps me calm down and clear my head.” It also helps him forgive and forget—an attribute he considers essential for survival in politics.

He admits that his life was hectic even prior to his candidature, given his law practice and the charge of the party's national digital communication team. But, suddenly, there has been a complete shift. “I feel all grown up overnight,” he says. “The worst part is that there is no time to watch Netflix any more. I'm literally running against time and, at the end of the day, it's all a haze.”

To keep up with the deafening politics and relentless campaigning, Surya runs 5km thrice a week, plays badminton on weekends and tries to do yoga every morning. Having been a state-level swimmer at school, he also makes sure to dive in at least four to five times a month at a popular pool in Bengaluru. “This latest fad of hardcore gym workouts with weights and machines does not work for me. I'm too lazy and lack the discipline to get up and go to the gym every day. I've wasted so much money on gym memberships,” he says, laughing. At 72 kilos, Surya feels he is quite fit, but the challenge is sustaining his fitness while campaigning. “I hardly get to sleep now,” he says. “My day begins at 6am with a glass of warm water with lime and honey, and I'm out by 7am to meet party workers and volunteers at the nearby park. I'm back only at midnight and actually sleep at about 2am. Until then, it's all work. Answering calls, mail, etc.”

A vegetarian, Surya makes do with whatever he can lay his hands on while on the campaign trail. He stocks food—like an apple, a bottle of cold milk or dry fruits—in his car. “But meals largely happen on the ground, depending on where I am,” he says. “So, a few days back, we were campaigning at Jayanagar and I gorged on sandwiches at the famous Hari Super Sandwich there. I have my favourites and stop by to eat there whenever I can.”

Being “genetically blessed with a robust constitution”, he binges on chocolates and ice cream. But, no energy drinks or liquor. “I think I must have had my last drink in the pre-historic era. It really has been that long!” he says. Tumblers full of nariyal paani save his day when “the aggression on social media gets too much to digest”.

Coffee, dogs and fake laughs

Milind Deora |  Janak Bhat Milind Deora | Janak Bhat

Pointing to the jalebis, potato vadas and other fried snacks jostling for space on the small paper plate he holds, Milind Deora quips, “This is how I keep myself fit. This is my breakfast today.” It is 7.30am, and Deora, Mumbai Congress president and Lok Sabha candidate from Mumbai South, is at the famous Priyadarshini Park for a morning walk. He is dressed in a crisp white linen shirt and grey trousers, and is accompanied by some residents of Malabar Hill, his home turf.

He looks radiant and smiles while greeting other walkers, but is exhausted inside. “I slept for barely 45 minutes last night,” he says. “I am actually completely zoned out and have been sipping coffee since 4am. Had a lot of email and messages to answer and just couldn't sleep because of this weird acidic feeling in my gut.”

Ever since his candidature was announced, Deora has had a “dreadfully unhealthy routine”. He has been skipping his usual breakfast of oats and almond milk, and the gym workouts at his plush Peddar Road residence. “All I need is seven and a half hours of sleep every day to feel super relaxed. But that is a dream for now,” he sighs. “It's not that I don't want to work out, but there is just no time. I would even like to swim every day, but I cannot. I'm not aspiring to look like a model, but I just want to feel healthy, boost my immunity, keep fit and prevent lifestyle diseases. Nobody is as fit as Rahul Gandhi. And I know I'm not doing anything to reach my goal of fitness.”

Coffee is his energiser. “It can keep me going from place to place, hour after hour, without feeling drowsy or famished,” he says. And then there is some dog therapy to keep him enthused. “Sometimes these four-legged residents of my constituency perk me up like nothing else can,” he says, as he bends down to cuddle a dog, offering it some biscuits from his pocket.

A vegetarian, Deora loves bingeing on junk food. “I cannot always be conscious of what I eat, right?” he asks. “When you speak a lot, you do tend to get hungry and cannot always hope for the healthiest and most nutritious food to come your way. You make do with whatever is available.”

The members of a laughter club, who have gathered at the park, invite him to join them. While he does so sportingly, he seems to be trying hard to join the voluntary laugh, which goes on for about 30 seconds. “This is my fourth election and the hardest part has been keeping up with the laughter,” he says with a smile.

Ready for the race

Rahul Gandhi | Robert Vinod Rahul Gandhi | Robert Vinod

Two years ago at at an award function, Rahul Gandhi made a revelation about his interest in sports and fitness. It was in response to a question by boxer Vijender Singh as to why politicians were not interested in sports. Rahul said he is very actively into sports and takes his fitness seriously. He said he ran, swam and was a black belt in Japanese martial art Aikido. Rahul added that though he does not talk about it publicly, sports had an important place in his life and that he devoted one hour to fitness every day.

Rahul trained in Aikido under master Sensei Paritos Kar. A group picture of him with Paritos Kar and other Aikido students was shared by his fans and supporters on social media, alongside an image of him cycling and a photo of the certificate he received from the National Rifle Association in 1989 for his participation in the National Shooting Championship. The pictures were shared with #FittestRahulGandhi on Twitter. According to his close aides and party workers, Rahul maintains a rigorous and regular workout schedule, which includes a 12km run every alternate day. As per Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala, Rahul runs irrespective of the time he finishes work.

He is also seems to be a consistent practitioner of yoga and meditation, going by his frequent visits to meditation centres in South Asia, especially the vacation he took between February and April 2015, across four southeast Asian countries—Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam. In 2013, too, he had attended vipassana meditation camps, including one at a Jain ashram in Mohankheda, 87km from Indore, where a satvic routine was followed.

Stretch to fit

Jignesh Mevani | Sanjoy Ghosh Jignesh Mevani | Sanjoy Ghosh

Severe lower back pain and neck pain made Jignesh Mevani take his health seriously. “I had been extremely careless about my body. With extensive travelling and constant eating out during campaigning in these last assembly elections and now, my stomach has become a mess,” says the 38-year-old MLA from Vadgam constituency in Gujarat. To correct it, he now requests people whom he meets while on the road to offer him home-cooked food only and some fruits. “I need no choppers, no money, no valuables. All I need is food that goes easy on the body and helps it,” he says.

But that is not the only thing that has him worried. “In our desperation to cover more area, we travel like a dog and sleep far less,” he says. “In the last one and a half years, I have taken antibiotics almost 13-14 times for my throat infection, which aggravates by drinking cold water while campaigning.” Moreover, his right shoulder hurts because of constantly being on the phone.

Mevani, however, has been successful in implementing changes to his diet and fitness routine in the last couple of months. For one, he has taken to yoga and swimming. Two, he has stopped having refined flour-based food and taken to drinking plenty of water. “I stick to home-cooked food, however simple it may be, and try and do yoga or swimming every day.” He dreads the toll the Lok Sabha elections will have on his body. “I am super scared of travelling now,” he confesses. “As a politician, one has to keep moving to know the impact of the welfare policies among people and to campaign, but somehow it scares me. Nothing is more scary than those erratic schedules that we have.” For independent politicians, he explains, it is all the more difficult to survive as there is no organisational support and one must prove one's mettle at all times. “At times, it becomes so hectic that the meetings begin at 10pm and go on till 2am,” he rues. “With the constant talking and standing, you even end up getting a sore throat and jamming your hamstrings.”

Holistic healthfulness

Anil Antony Anil Antony

He calls himself a foodie, but he also vows by small portions. Anil Antony, the eldest son of former Kerala chief minister, and former defence minister A.K. Antony, says he loves everything about Kerala cuisine. “I am a hardcore non-vegetarian. But everything in small portions,” he says. Anil is currently in charge of the Congress's digital media campaign in Kerala and is busy organising workshops for party workers.

Apart from Kerala cuisine, his favourites are Mediterranean and Japanese. “I particularly love Sushi,” he says, and repeats, “But everything in small portions.” Anil played tennis and basketball in college. “Now I don't get time to play,” he says wistfully. However, he hits the gym every day. Of course, the campaigning has upset his routine. “Going to the gym has become impossible ever since the campaign started,” he says. “I am more into yoga these days. I do it regularly wherever I am.”

Anil also makes it a point never to skip breakfast. “A proper breakfast is very important for me,” he says. “I have never skipped it in my life.” The rest of the day can be managed with fruits or dry fruits or whatever is at hand, Anil says. Is he a morning person or an evening person? “I would love to say I am a morning person, but, actually, I am an evening person,” he says. “While in Kerala, I try to be a morning person as everything starts earlier here, but in Delhi I rarely sleep before 2am.”

Anil says he gives equal importance to physical fitness and mental equilibrium. “Reading is a very important aspect in my life,” he says. A “non-fiction person”, he devours everything related to history and technology. Yuval Noah Harari is his favourite author at present. “I read even during the height of campaigning,” he says. “It calms you.”

Does he give special care to his choice of clothes while campaigning? “I always prefer casuals. Khadi kurta and jeans are my favourites,” he says. Is he comfortable with mundu, the dhoti worn down south? “Yes,” he says proudly. "It is most suitable for our climate, and for me, comfort comes before anything else."


Pilot run

Sachin Pilot | PTI Sachin Pilot | PTI

Every morning, Sachin Pilot forces himself to eat sprouts—the one thing he admittedly hates. And that's pretty much the only thing he does consciously to keep himself fit in terms of diet. “For erratic schedules like mine, where I am literally out in the field for like 14 to 15 hours every day, it is impossible to manage healthy eating the way I would like to,” says the 41-year-old deputy chief minister of Rajasthan. There is always a huge gap between the food that he should eat and that which he has to eat, mostly served by well-wishers whom he meets while in the field. “They do it with such goodness of heart that I definitely cannot say no to those jalebis, pakoras, dahi bhallas and rasgullas. Also, sometimes I am so hungry that I just cannot stop myself from eating deep-fried stuff or sweets,” he explains. “So for a politician like me who is constantly on the move, life doesn't really allow that kind of set-up where I can choose to eat the most healthy food.” But he does exercise. “I run a couple of times a week at the Central Park in Jaipur and play football with my son.” But that, too, is subject to his hectic travel schedule, which is so erratic that he doesn't remember the last time he spent more than two nights at one place. “In the last few days alone, I travelled to nine parliamentary constituencies in Rajasthan,” says Pilot, who is also the state party president. Sometimes he does feel exhausted, he says, but he is no fan of instant energy bars, protein shakes or probiotics. “I am a big proponent of naturally available traditional food—dal, roti, sabzi,” he asserts. And, he is no fussy eater. “Porridge and eggs make for a delicious breakfast and doodh wali (milky) masala chai can keep me going for hours,” he says, excitedly. “I think it is running that has taken care of my body for years now more than anything else. It has kept me away from all sorts of lifestyle diseases.” But he doesn't consider himself to be fit yet. “I think because of my love for French fries and namkeen (savoury) I have gained weight in the last three to four years and have to reduce that. But I haven't actually got down to working on it.”

Combined force

Shweta Shetty | Arvind Jain Shweta Shetty | Arvind Jain

A mix of aerobics, yoga and Zumba is what keeps Shweta Shetty going. Founder of the National Women's Party, a first-of-its-kind in the county, she has been busy campaigning, selecting candidates and filing nomination papers for the general elections. “I am very conscious of my health at all times and pay a lot of attention to what I eat. Every morning, after I wake up, I exercise or I would be irritable and lethargic all through the day.” Every three months, Shetty alternates between the three forms of workout and pairs each one with a few minutes of meditation. Until a few months ago, she would attend regular classes for Zumba and aerobics, but now she works out by watching sessions on YouTube and TV.

As of now, she is practising Zumba and will continue with it until the end of next month. “But if I am extensively campaigning, I limit my daily exercise quota to yoga and meditation only. Because it is easier, faster and gets me relaxing in a short span of time.” Shetty, 37, prefers everything home-made. “I don't even buy the flour from the market,” she says. “We get the grains and powder them at home and then use it to make the dough. Same with condiments, too. I am obsessed about it.” So, how does she manage her food while campaigning? “There, my choices are extremely limited—egg whites, sprout salad, buttermilk, coconut water and juices,” she explains. “If I am really hungry and there is no option, I would opt for the local food. But surely not the processed junk,” says the mother of two.

Her present fitness goal, she says, is to maintain her energy levels through the day.