Read an exclusive conversation between Tuhin Sen, co-founder of The Optimist Citizen and Priya Prakash, founder of Health Set Go, who is laying the foundation of health for thousands of school students in India
Q) Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how was your childhood like?
I grew up in Delhi and studied there till 8th grade. After that, I went to Rishi Valley School, a boarding school, in Andhra Pradesh. Although I belong from Delhi, I essentially grew up and developed my views of the world at my boarding school. I think my school was a key area which helped me develop an understanding that there is a responsibility we have towards the world.
Q) I read somewhere that the idea of Health Set Go germinated because you faced obesity yourselves when you were a kid.
So, my family is half-Punjabi and culturally we have always been attracted towards consuming a lot of food (giggles). Also, I lived with my grandparents and I clearly remember that there used to be 5-6 aloo parathas in the morning for breakfast. So by the time I was a teenager, I was extremely overweight.
Q) What happened after that notion had nested in your mind?
So, during my high school, my weight was a big concern for me and that also gnawed me when I went for my Bachelors’ at Lady Shri Ram college in Delhi. Being in a girls’ college there was a constant focus on the way you look and that essentially defines your identity. I was frustrated and I thought to involve myself in physical activities and stumbled upon a cross fit centre.
The first day I went there, I saw all these women doing push-ups and pull-ups, climbing up the rope, and lifting 75 kgs of weight. And they were not young but were athletic like nothing I had ever seen. That’s what pushed me and I started going there every day. That’s when fitness came into my life. I brought discipline in the way I slept, on the time I slept.
Parallelly, I graduated from college in 2012 and started working at a hedge fund as a financial analyst. But, that never really worked for me. Eventually, I started working in an education company as a Business analyst and that is where I got my first exposure to the way of education and schools from an administrative perspective.
Q) Was it here that you found a synchronicity between your understanding of health and its importance in the life of a child?
I thought if someone would have taught me the benefits and applications of fitness during my time at school, my life would probably have been very different. Probably, I would not have faced that bullying or those horrible self-esteem issues. So, eventually I started connecting the dots and after 3 years of working, I realised that schools are the place where that seed of fitness and associated learning can be germinated.
Q) What happened to your thought process post that realisation?
So, that’s when I started to refine my idea. I figured out that the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) had a mandate for every school under its ambit that every child had to undergo one medical check-up every year, every school must have a trained nurse inside the school campus, a doctor should be on call and there has to be a specific allotment of school hours to physical activity. So, at Health Set Go I started offering these services to a school and I incorporated the organisation in 2014. The first school that we started our work in was with The Millennium School, Noida.
Q) I read about the 360-degree model that you follow in terms of your fitness and health modules. Can you tell us about that?
Today we have equipped ourselves to provide every healthcare and fitness service to a school. We essentially focus on 3 different things –
a) Health Education
b) Monitoring the health of the child, with our team of doctors
c) Providing health safety to the school
So, when we started doing this I, like many out there, believed that a child who looks normal from the outside didn’t have a medical issue. But, the first time we took a team of doctors to do medical check-ups in some schools we found out that 85% of students had a medical issue. In some schools, the rate of obesity was more than 55%. Also, there are nearly 2000 children in any big school these days but we found that 95% of these schools didn’t have a trained practitioner inside the school. It was a very scary statistic to face.
Medical check-ups were never our primary goal, but when we started with check-ups we also started providing online medical reports to parents and a service wherein we used to call up the parents and tell them about their child’s health. We also started a service where we provided a nurse, trained in First-aid and Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), to the school who can work in case of an emergency like an asthma attack, an epilepsy attack or any emergency of a similar nature. We also equipped the nurses with technical expertise such that whenever an incident happens in a school, the nurse can use an app and send a message to the concerned parents and a call to the nearest hospital.
Q) Initially, you saw that the element of Physical activity was missing largely. Do your programs explicitly focus on them now?
In our vertical of health education, we speak about physical activity as an important element of a child’s development. Now, Health Set Go is coming out with its first chain of fitness centres inside schools. We have built a fitness curriculum called Health Set Go Play and it is for children from the age group of 2 to 17 years. We plan to launch it this month initially in about 500 schools spread across the country.
Q) What are the incentives that you give children to understand the importance of any physical or health-based activities and follow them religiously?
Many children might not understand the long-term benefits of healthy habits. So, we have made it attractive for children by gamifying it and creating a health council in every school – comprising of students. So, a principal chooses a health prefect and every class has a health monitor who comes under the health prefect. Thus, it is literally a designation. My role as a health prefect or monitor would be that whenever a health-based activity happens, I ensure that the activity is completed by every child in my class.
Q) Can you tell us about the impact that Health set go creates? Maybe you can share an incident with us that helps highlights the point.
Health Set Go is the only award winning 360 degrees benchmarked program for schools, nurturing 150,000 students and 200,000 parents across 77 cities in India. We currently have 25 people who are working with us. But, beyond the numbers, one specific example comes to mind.
This happened when we were working in a government school in Tirupati. The issues we found there were completely unexpected. The kids were malnourished, had eyesight issues, had dermatitis, diarrhoea and the parents had no inkling about it. And these kids hardly absorbed anything in class because of the medical problems that they were suffering from. That’s when I realized that even if you send your kid to school, it is of no use if the kid is sick or cannot see the blackboard properly.
We tried to not only detect the issue, but we made sure that everyone in the school got free treatment for their problems. A parent told us that her child’s eye kept watering profusely and she couldn’t see properly back then. Now that she has a spectacle and regular treatment, she can see properly.
We are now starting the Health set go Play and are trying to associate with the government. and also trying to come up with mindfulness in school. We are also starting a parents knowledge centre and it is going to be live for the next few months.
Q) What message do you have for our readers?
I think I would have a message for all the stakeholders, playing an important role in a child’s health. If you are an educator or a principal, it is very important that they start a health program in their school and focus on the health of the children that they are working with. If you are a parent, please do not ignore health for your kids and ensure that you have regular health check-ups for them and you also get educated yourself in the matter of health. And of course, if a child is reading this, take out time to go play and understand why being healthy is important for you.