When Aarti Pandey enters a room, she manages to light it up in an instant with her aura and persona. A quirky young woman who is intensely passionate about Indian folk dances decided to take it to the next level by incorporating it as a way to improve fitness for all age groups of people. Her passion for dance and fitness gave birth to Folk Fitness, a strong platform for young girls, working women, homemakers, fitness enthusiasts and aspiring fitness trainers irrespective of gender, age and region to join the fitness regime.
Folk Fitness now has over 700+ fitness trainers across 18 tier I and tier-II cities in India with a presence in Australia. Aarti embraces all forms of Indian folk dances and has taken our Indian culture places. Her idea is unique, her passion inimitable and her love for fitness unmatchable. Aarti manages to get everyone - the young and the old, tapping their feet and jumping out of their chairs to follow her dance moves. In an exclusive with ScooNews, she explains how she does it with so much ease and style.
How did you come up with the idea of integrating Folk Dance with Fitness?
All three of us partners of Folk Fitness are sports and fitness enthusiasts. We left our corporate careers to spread and inspire fitness lifestyle across age groups. We were in the fitness industry for three years before we even thought of Folk Fitness. We had three key observations as fitness entrepreneurs and enthusiasts - every fitness concept/ programme was from the western world, there were a need and demand for group workout programmes and there were no structured programmes for school children. This prompted the thought of creating a group workout programme which is holistic and effective and will connect and motivate people across age groups to take up a fitter lifestyle. I had a strong folk dance background and experience and a good understanding of functional movements in folk dance steps and the natural connect to folk music across age groups. Thus, Folk Fitness started to take shape. We pursued extensive research and development to create India’s First Holistic Dance Fitness programme on authentic Folk Music/Songs: Folk Fitness – YUVA, NANHE and PRANAM programmes for different age groups.
What forms of Folk Dance do you incorporate into your regimen and do you have any personal favourites?
There are 122 registered Indian folk and tribal dances, and many, many more which are not registered. The folk and tribal dances are our cultural heritage and they are influenced and inspired by the primary occupation of people, the topography of that region and the occasion/ celebration/ festival when these dances are performed. In essence, despite some commonalities, each folk dance has its own form. I love all folk dances but the most popular with enthusiasts are Bhangra, Garba, Bihu and Koli.
What were some of the challenges you faced while setting up a novel idea like Folk Fitness and how did you overcome them?
We did face some conditioned biases/ opinions like folk music is slow or that people prefer Bollywood/ Western music and this is just dance class. We overcame these by conducting and publishing a third-party case study for impact, delivered hundreds of education and experience workshops at events/ fitness centres/ schools and got the programmes accreditation from the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, National Academy of Sports Medicine and Fitness and Early Childhood Association. We also have a special mention in the LIMCA book of world records.
How has the response been to Folk Fitness, especially from Schools?
Overall, we have had very positive responses from schools. We have more than a thousand instructors certified across India for conducting Folk Fitness YUVA sessions. The response is very encouraging for NANHE school curriculum. We service more than 100 schools in Pune and Mumbai. We have also expanded outside Maharashtra, with 14 schools in Goa starting NANHE curriculum and recently we onboarded a prestigious boarding school at Dehradun. We are humbled and inspired that we are reaching out to more than 10,000 children currently.
What is the importance of Fitness for student’s Physical and Emotional Well-being?
In India, only 17 per cent of school-going children are engaged in at least 60 minutes of physical activity on a daily basis.
Regular physical activity helps develop a child’s movement skills. It also, of course, helps bones become stronger and builds a healthy heart and stronger muscles. Physical activity also helps a child maintain a healthy weight. Moderate-intensity exercise can even help to relieve some chronic (long-term) pain conditions by maintaining physical function and decreasing fatigue. Aside from providing general physical benefits, regular activity can also help ease symptoms of premenstrual syndrome in girls. This is because moderate exercise helps the body produce hormones called endorphins. These are natural painkillers that can ease abdominal and back pain as well as improve mood.
While it may not seem obvious, physical activity plays an important role in developing the brain and supporting essential mental functions. Research shows that regular moderate-intensity exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved with learning and memory. Exercise also helps release growth factors, chemicals in the brain that affect the growth and survival of new brain cells as well as blood vessels in the area. Exercise leads to improved motor skills (such as hand-eye coordination), better thinking and problem-solving, stronger attention skills and improved learning. These combine to benefit school performance.
Physical activity can help greatly with maintaining mental wellbeing. The endorphins that the brain releases during exercise help to improve mood, energy levels and even sleep. Together, these positive effects help improve self-confidence and resilience. Through exercise, an anxious child can break the cycle by focusing on the demands of the physical activity, developing new skills and achieving a sense of accomplishment. If a child or teen is feeling lonely and unable to make friends, shared physical activities can give them a sense of belonging and companionship. When the child sees how fun it is to be able to dance, jump, walk, run, stretch and play they are more likely to want to continue enjoying being active throughout their life. Seeing and appreciating what their body can do, rather than how it looks, is a great way for a child to build a positive body image. It is important to help children develop this awareness as early as possible. The desire to look lean or muscular often becomes stronger during the pre-teen and teen years. The child is less likely to take any harmful paths towards a so-called physical ideal if they have a healthy perception of what ‘looking good’ means, and understand that it comes from healthy, balanced habits that start in their early years.
How is it achieved in a planned yet fun manner?
The NANHE curriculum design and execution has the central mantra of structure with maximum fun.
Movement on music is very appealing to children - they experience many positive emotions like enthusiasm, joy, euphoria etc. This is the reason why we choose the dance fitness approach for the curriculum. Queuing for steps in each class is done in an engaging and fun way using hand and sound signals which the kids follow and repeat. To add more fun and engagement for the pre-primary and primary age groups, we have puppet fitness characters stories and sing along NANHE anthem in every class. Another fun quotient is variety. Although repetition is very important for younger kids, we do keep a balance with variety, each routine is done for 8 weeks which has 7-8 folk dance-inspired steps. Also, for major festivals/occasions special theme-based classes are conducted e.g. Dandiya week.
Could you take us through the Fitness Programme briefly?
Design of the NANHE curriculum and each 35-minute class is focussed on holistic development of the child. The programme is based on "HIIT" (High intensity interval training) elements which enables children to utilise and channelise their energy in a positive way. The use of smaller muscle groups like fingers and wrists enhances fine motor skills and movements for bigger muscle groups like arms and legs which in turn help in the development of gross motor skills. A repetitive approach increases memory and the variation in steps helps in agility and strength. Cardio movements are used as energy busters to challenge the heart to reach the THR - (Target Heart Rate) and this helps highly energetic children to release their energy in a positive way. Each class has meditation, warm up, cool down and the NANHE anthem which help children to be more relaxed, focused and responsible for their own well-being. The soothing music during cool down and stretching segments have therapeutic value.
Younger children also become more aware of the Indian cultural through interesting stories of Folk Fitness animated characters – Sher Singh, Champion Champak and Chotta Chetak. Parents are engaged through weekly online fun assignments to practice and celebrate with their children. Children also demonstrate the Folk Fitness routines to parents/ teachers to celebrate the holistic development.
Do you plan to expand your horizons and take Folk Fitness to other countries too?
We are India-focussed for the next couple of years and as we strengthen our foundation, we will explore opportunities to serve as many lives across different countries.
What are your plans going forward?
All our plans are single-mindedly focussed on holistic development and wellness of children.
● We are enhancing the NANHE curriculum based on experience and feedback e.g. puppet stories for better engagement of pre-primary children.
● We are engaging the ecosystem of children – physical and emotional fitness programmes for teachers and parents.
● We are developing an integrated curriculum for children e.g. Integrated STEAM BEATS curriculum.
● We are developing healthy habit creation and emotional fitness programmes for children.
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