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The Other F Word: TAF Club, Fat Shaming and Tackling the "Obesity Crisis" in Singapore

I'm a fitness professional and perceived as a paragon of health, but I still struggle with body image

I'm a fitness professional and perceived as a paragon of health, but I still struggle with body image

Over the last 6 months, reports on the "obesity crisis" have been mounting both in Singapore and overseas. "Obesity" has become a dirty word, and most of the articles covering this issue emphasize the negative impacts that excess weight has on our health. As a nutrition coach and personal trainer who is seen as a paragon of health, I'd like to share something with you about what I've experienced personally growing up, as well as what I've learned from it.

If you live in Singapore or have friends or children who've attended local schools within the past 20 years, you may have heard of a weight loss program implemented in schools called the Trim and Fit programme ( TAF Club).

The programme started in 1992; it was an annual school health screening exercise where children aged 9-18 were tested for vision, growth and development based on height and weight, hearing, a basic medical check-up by the doctor, a basic spinal test and immunisation. If you failed to meet "healthy" guidelines, you became a member of TAF whether you liked it or not. Just 4 years after TAF had been implemented,  I was first placed in TAF club based on my BMI ( a value based on weight [in kg] over your height squared [in centimetres] ). Later, when I entered secondary school at age 13, I was once again classified as overweight. I was officially in the "TAF club", with the target aim of reducing BMI.

The school had all of us in TAF skip recess-- the only 30-minute break time for meals-- and replace it with exercise. Now, it makes perfect sense to increase our activity level in the hope that our excess weight would be reduced. But you have no idea HOW it was carried out, in my school at leastFirst off, the area where all of us "TAF girls" had to exercise was right in front of the school canteen-- in front of hundreds of other school mates. What this meant is that we couldn't hide the shame of belonging to TAF. Everyone automatically knew. Even worse, we had to face the embarrassment of exercising in front of an audience of our "normal" peers.

It didn't help that the teacher in charge was somewhat of a tyrant who was overweight herself due to a thyroid disorder. She screamed and yelled at us at the top of her lungs in the hope of motivating us while reprimanding us for being "lazy and fat", which had the opposite impact it was intended to have. Sometimes she would call us names and say that we weren't allowed to eat during recesses because we were "fat." 

At the time, I didn't understand how this experience impacted me, since it felt normal to be categorized with the other TAF girls. Now, I realize, that it affected me in many ways, including:

  • being fearful whenever I stepped on the weighing scale again and worrying that, if my BMI goes above 24, I would be labelled as "fat" again, and exposed to ridicule. It didn't help at all that TAF, if read backwards, spells "FAT". How "apt" for trying to motivate or inspire us to get more fit;
     
  • not enjoying exercising and feeling ashamed of exercising in a group. I didn't enjoy my time in TAF or the activities they made us do one bit.
     
  • living in fear after TAF, feeling condemned, stigmatized and labelled as if my body shape was my fault. It impacted my confidence profoundly, and made me believe that I would never be able to lose weight or excel in sports. Hanging around with the fit and lean girls made me self-conscious of the way I looked, and I would try my best to make my pinafore belt looser. 

    Things did not improve initially in junior college- in fact, they got worse as my body developed and my perceptions changed. I wanted to be active but I was scared of my body and concerned that I'd be too slow to join my friends. In that first year, I still bordered on being overweight, but by the second year, thanks to increased running during PE and an added workload, I dropped 10 lbs. in two months. My school teachers were concerned with my health, because my weight loss was really fast and significant. I didn't think it was a bad thing-- in fact, I enjoyed the "skirt" hanging loose on my hips. My mind was subconsciously fixed on aesthetics. Later on, I found a studio that ran fitness classes to improve
TAF Club Days

TAF Club Days

I was later fortunate to find a studio that ran fun-filled classes working on improving cardiovascular health, core strength, co-ordination and flexibility through dance and fitness routine. It felt great that the emphasis was on enjoying ourselves and the instructors were all very encouraging. For the first time in my life, I felt so free as I was able to connect my limbs and body to move to what my heart felt and mind thought. My fitness and confidence level improved while my weight continued to decrease.

A couple of years later, after my chemotherapy for Hodgkin's Lymphoma ended, I found a new sanctuary with the bar and weightlifting. I fell in love with the bar not for the aesthetics initially but more of a way of connecting with the inner strength I knew existed within me pre-cancer days. 

So, why does our culture put so much stake on "looking good," and why does the media have a tendency to showcase women's bodies in photos without their heads? Isn't it finally time that we pay more attention to the real issues fuelling this "obesity crisis" and focus on improving lifestyle habits rather than emphasizing aesthetics?

A recent Harvard Public Health article, "The Scarlet F" highlighted findings that "weight stigma may be as harmful to the body in itself as poor diet and physical inactivity." It listed the negative impacts of weight stigma to be as rampant and as powerful as racial stigmatisation. Women who experience this type of weight prejudice may also be at a higher risk of bullying, depression, suicide, eating disorders, and other harmful addictions. Weight stigma can also impair their prospects in education, careers, romantic relationships, and physical activity.

These experiences add unnecessary stressors on their already burdened lifestyle and the environment they are in, leading to even more unhealthy weight gain. A 10-year study on the impact of such stigmatisation and the chronic stress it puts on the body shows that it also leads to changes in all the other body defence systems ( particularly the HPA axis dysfunction). 

Among women, weight stigmatisation and fat shaming are now more common than racial discrimination, according to Rebecca Puhl and her colleagues at the Rudd Centre of Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

It's in our human nature to want to belong to a safe and nurturing environment, ESPECIALLY for women. Women and girls are predispositioned and culturally conditioned to combat environmental stressors in a "tend and befriend" way rather than in "fight or flight" mode -- both responses being the body's natural mechanism against any perceived threats. What this means is that for women, instead of constantly putting them in an environment where they feel unsafe, threatened and have perceived themselves as fighting alone, they actually do better in an atmosphere of protection of their kind and befriending in social groups where they feel welcomed.

This also means that, as fitness professionals and coaches, we should not be training women in the same manner that men are trained or force them to do exercises that do not feel comfortable or safe to them. Condescending tones, yelling, or scare tactics are generally not appropriate in group classes or private sessions with women who are focused on weight loss.

By using encouraging, self-esteem boosting modes of training, we help to reduce the hyper-loaded activity on their hypothalamus-pituitary-axis, which can have a positive impact in significantly reducing any inflammation, improving mental and emotional well-being and thereby reducing weight in a healthy and sustainable way.

So what can we do to tackle the "obesity crisis"?

1.    The traditional FOOD PYRAMID we've relied on for so long is outdated. As of 2014, Singapore's Health Promotion Board has ditched this model and replaced it with MyHealthyPlate, which emphasizes consumption of vegetables and fruits. Harvard School of Public Health's "Healthy Eating Pyramid" focuses on both exercise and diet control instead of just the eating plate alone. This sets a right framework and mindset shift towards a healthier living, and should be implemented widely.

2.    Shifting the emphasis from weight loss, numbers on the scale, and body mass index (BMI) to monitoring health biomarkers such as blood lipid levels, insulin levels, cholesterol, liver fat, aerobic fitness and mental wellness will offer a clearer picture on overall health and steer us away from the overemphasis on aesthetics. "Focusing on healthy habits rather than numbers on a scale may be more effective for both weight and health in the long run..Too much emphasis on weight loss, sets people up for failure and increases their risk of shame. " - says,  Erica Kenney,  a researcher with the Harvard Chan School’s Prevention Research Center on Nutrition and Physical Activity. Placing someone, especially at a young age, as overweight or obese based on mainly BMI, just may lead them to eating disorders and depression as they move into adulthood, leading to further weight gain and other health issues.

3.    Media and advertising are powerful forces in influencing the perspectives and emotions of people. Publishers should shift to adopting a more realistic choice of words and pictures when publishing articles related to weight and fitness, instead of constantly using images of skinny white women or headless bodies. More can be done from the media to promote body positivity, including popular celebrities, leaders and social media stars/influencers. An emphasis on body positivity  may lead to less weight gain or eating disorders since we tend to eat less when our psychological health is intact.

4.      There are other supportive measures which can be made at the government and corporate level. Offering accessible, reasonably priced locally farmed veggies and fruits at the supermarkets and restaurants would be a big win in Singapore. Currently, it's really difficult to access this kind of produce. Incentivising hawker stands and school cafeterias to prepare their menus according to the healthy eating pyramid would also be helpful. We could also tax sweets and sodas just like we do alcohol and cigarettes, and the tax collected could be used mainly to support measures related to obesity prevention at schools, workplaces and households. Some cities in the US and the U.K. have already begun implementing this, and though there is an ongoing debate and yet any conclusive data to prove its effectiveness, "taxing" on such beverages may perhaps change our mindset into thinking how these items are NOT necessities. 

5.   At the individual level, for myself, at least, I have adopted the following practices and incorporate them to the best of my ability, because I have learn to accept my body is beautiful at any age or size, be it 0 to 8, and shift my focus towards health and strength: 

  •  Mindfulness: It can't be said enough but being more mindful in an ever-noisy world helps to keep me grounded and centered, making my health a top priority. 
     
  • Being "selfish" with my environmental exposure: This may sound narcissistic from a girl with an Asian upbringing, and no, I am not out on a mission to take everything in sight, but rather, I am selective of my environment.  It can be a very empowering and uplifting feeling too (and if you want to read more on how to be "selfish",  read " To Move Out of Self-Sabotage, Get Selfish: Here's How" from Aimee).
     
  • Being empathetic to myself and to others: This includes taking time to understand and accept the changes to my body is going through at age 33, what my emotions and thoughts are telling me, and not wallowing in self-pity or negative self-talk or hatred upon myself. And above all, not blaming myself for my weight or dress size!

Although we have a long way to go, Singapore IS making some positive steps in the right direction. For one, the TAF program was removed and replaced with a Holistic Health Framework (HHF) in 2007. The club is now called "ActiveKids" for students who are overweight, but is open to all who want to participate. I am hopeful that more positive lasting changes to combat rising weight-related health challenges are right around the bend.

 

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REFERENCES:

April 2016 http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/obesity-also-rising-in-singapore

June 2017 http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/singapore-risks-hitting-obesity-rates-of-15-in-seven-years

June 2017 http://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/st-editorial/weighty-trend-not-to-be-taken-lightly

 https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/magazine/magazine_article/the-scarlet-f/

http://edition.cnn.com/2017/07/07/health/frenemies-bullying-obesity-study/index.html

Perceived Weight, Not Obesity, Increases Risk for Major Depression Among Adolescents
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3686272/

Health Consequences of Weight Stigma: Implications for Obesity Prevention and Treatment
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13679-015-0153-z

Perceived Weight Discrimination and 10-year Risk of Allostatic Load among US Adults

http://midus.wisc.edu/findings/pdfs/1592.pdf

Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight.

 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10941275

 http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/my-healthy-plate-to-replace-food-pyramid-in-singapore-textbooks

https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/pyramidtest/

Childhood Obesity - Issues of Weight Bias https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181194/#B1

Social media and Obesity

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4167901/

Psychological consequences of obesity: Weight bias and body image in overweight and obese youth
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/09540261.2012.678817

http://bigthink.com/stefani-cox/will-philadelphias-soda-tax-solve-obesity-2

Soda Taxes Can Protect Health in Asia https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2016-02-23/soda-taxes-can-protect-health-in-asia

Can a sugar tax stop obesity? http://edition.cnn.com/2016/08/31/health/sugar-tax-obesity/index.html

A soda tax - will it change anything? http://www.obesityaction.org/educational-resources/resource-articles-2/nutrition/a-soda-tax-will-it-change-anything

Obesity Stigma: Important Considerations for Public Health
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2866597/#bib113

Obesity - can we stop the epidemic https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/magazine/magazine_article/obesity/

The Trim and Fit Program in Singapore
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trim_and_Fit

https://www.moe.gov.sg/education/programmes/holistic-health-framework

https://www.hpb.gov.sg/schools/school-programmes/health-promoting-programmes-for-primary-school

Mar 2017 - http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/a-more-holistic-approach-to-a-childs-health-and-fitness

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The Highly Sensitive Body: Handle With Care

Several years ago, a friend recommended a book that would completely transform my self-awareness and interactions with the world, as well as the way I viewed self-care. Dr. Elaine Aron’s “The Highly Sensitive Person: How To Thrive When the World Overwhelms You” explores the traits of sensory process sensitivity found in 15 to 20 percent of the population. Signs of high sensitivity include:

  • being easily overwhelmed by bright lights, loud noises and harsh smells;
  • feeling rattled by severe time constraints;
  • needing to avoid high-drama individuals, violent TV shows and upsetting situations;
  •  susceptibility to addiction, especially alcohol abuse and overeating;
  • enjoying a complex and colorful inner life;
  • preferring close, deep relationships over a large group of acquaintances;
  • having strong intuitive gifts and future-oriented perceptions;
  • being drawn to spiritual, artistic and helping career paths;
  •  requiring lots of quiet time to process, decompress and reflect, and;
  • being told as a child that they were “too sensitive”, or being a gifted student in school.

Highly Sensitive People (“HSPs” otherwise known as “empaths” in New Age circles or “burden bearers” in Christian discussion- although each of these terms have particular nuances that differentiate them slightly from HSPs) experience the world in high-definition. If they don’t have a keen awareness of their personality type and the skills to manage it, their high-def filter tends to be plugged in all the time.

Highly sensitive people often grow up thinking that something is “wrong” with them because they’re not all that interested in what modern society most values, they tend toward introversion (although one-third of HSPs are considered extroverts), and they attract high conflict people due to their thin boundaries, high empathy, and a tendency to have strong emotional reactions. HSPs are also prone to complex health challenges, including autoimmune illnesses, allergies, chronic anxiety, and burnout. There are a few different theories as to why this is. Findings from research conducted by Tufts University psychiatrist Ernest Harttman and from Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan are compelling. In investigating the connections between boundaries and personality, Dr. Hartmann found that people who score high in creativity have a tougher time separating their everyday reality with their fantasy life, and allow more of their environment to impact them. Jerome Kagan focused on “high reactives”- people who possess a sensitivity to events in the environment that imply a new challenge. Brain imaging studies in this population showed a hyperresponsive amygdala, the region in the brain that decodes fear and acts as the body’s alarm circuit, which makes them far more susceptible to clinical anxiety, PTSD, elevated inflammation, and diseases of aging.

If you suspect that you have traits of high sensitivity, you may be thinking right about now, “this sucks… and it explains a lot!” High sensitivity is a gift to be handled with care, one that can actually contribute positively to your well-being, wholeheartedness, creativity and interconnectedness. However, if you’re not conscious of your exposed wiring and you don’t take the time to build a life that honors who you are, you may soon find yourself sick, depleted, victimized and depressed.

WHAT IS A HIGHLY SENSITIVE BODY?

Simply, a highly sensitive body is one that possesses a hypersensitive nervous system, an amplified stress response and a porous stimulation barrier.  

I have a deep respect for science and tend to steer away from wellness woo-woo. Thus, a little disclaimer: the theories around a “highly sensitive body” and its causes are just that- theories- ones which I strongly ascribe to from personal and professional experience. Commingling physiology and psychology is tricky business, and we’re in an age now where we’re beginning to realize that we still know so little about the delicate relationship between the body and the psyche.
 
My hypothesis is that a lot of the mystery health challenges and body breakdowns we face today are the result of maladaptive coping strategies and modes of living which are incompatible with our internal machinery, as well as the result of a societal denial of our true nature as emotional beings who require connection to each other and our environment in order to thrive. Many of these health challenges are also rooted in early childhood due to adversity and trauma, which rewire the brain and nervous system, impact vagus nerve functioning, and set us up psychologically to neglect important signals from our bodies. A wealth of research on disease supports this, and if you’d like to learn more about the connection between health outcomes and adverse childhood experiences, I recommend starting with Dr. Vincent Felitti’s “ACE Study.” 

Highly sensitive people are hit particularly hard due to their porous boundaries, empathic qualities and tendency to shut down as a coping mechanism. A person exhibiting symptoms of chronic fatigue or a thyroid disorder may in fact be holding in emotional toxicity from years of anguish that they have never properly released, and these feelings translate to psychosomatic illness and disorders- pain felt within the body. However, the vast majority of medical doctors will not refer a patient showing signs of a physical dis-ease to a professional who deals with the mind-  a psychologist, counsellor or coach-  and even if they did, many mental health professionals simply do not have the tools to bridge the treatment of mind and body in a way that brings long-term relief to the patient (although this is beginning to change). That’s the other part of the issue- we live in a time where we expect a pill to fix all of our ills, including our mental health challenges, many of which can be rectified or eased through behavioral, nutritional and environmental adjustments. It’s no wonder that the psychopharmaceutical industry is amassing multi-billions of revenue per year.

Somatization, or the bodily communication of psychological distress through physical illness and pain, depletes the body of vital energy. In his brilliant book, “The Tao of Fully Feeling”, psychotherapist Pete Walker explains that somatization often injures the body through the chronic tightening of musculature to avoid feeling. “Muscular contraction against feeling is a psychological form of self-hatred,” he writes. “It’s a vicious way of saying no to healthy aspects of the self. This clamping down on the self not only depletes our energy, but also restricts the blood supply to various parts of the body, making it more susceptible to disease. Many digestive disorders appear to be caused by the stifling of feelings through visceral connection.”

We humans seem to be losing our ability to understand feelings through bodily perception. Instead, we intellectualize our emotions, packing them into neat little boxes and cognitively storing them. Even our language for feelings has been stifled. We’re no longer thrilled, touched, ashamed or stupefied. We’ve traded in our rainbow of options for happy and depressed- perhaps because we’re not sure how we feel anymore. Our bodies have been separated from our minds.

Highly sensitive people contend with  strong forces which have the tendency to either serve them or sabotage them, depending on how those forces are applied. By nature, they’re environmental sponges, soaking up the energy and noise of all they come in contact with and directly absorbing the external stimuli into their bodies. Processing their daily reality requires time and space, both of which are usually in short supply. Lacking the opportunity to thoroughly understand and release whatever has been thrown their way may lead to a toxic emotional buildup not uncommon from what might be exhibited in complex post-traumatic stress disorder or chronic anxiety. Highly sensitive bodies need to cry, to express anger, to speak up, to nap and to retreat into silence on a regular basis if they’re to function optimally. However, the opposite tends to happen. Highly sensitive people learn to adapt by ignoring the messages of their bodies and switching off their internal radar. Rather than self-partnering and honoring the subtle signals within, they’ll happily step outside of themselves in order to focus on others because they feel empowered by their empathy and healing nature… until that eventually backfires.

WHY DOES IT MATTER?

We’re living in a time where the human life span is ticking upward and new advancements in science could dramatically increase our years on this planet. Yet, so many people are experiencing inexplicable body breakdowns in their thirties, forties and fifties, impacting their joy, productivity, and overall quality of life. Conventional medical doctors often seem at a loss to explain why this is occurring, and routinely dismiss conditions manifesting as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, thyroid disease, reproductive issues, allergies, migraines, and various autoimmune syndromes.

It is beyond evident that so many of our bodies and minds are really struggling to adapt to the world of today, but since we cannot change society or other people, we’ve got to focus on what we can change within ourselves.

This is great news, because it makes our jobs a lot easier (HSPs love to dream about saving the world- a blessing and a curse!). Since the medical community is at a loss for concrete answers regarding many of the illnesses and conditions that impact HSPs, they’re often left to figure out how to save themselves, which is probably why there are now so many forums, coaches, and alternative health practitioners addressing specific conditions that impact millions but that do not receive the proper funding or interest in traditional channels. This is simultaneously helpful and dangerous, so it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, you alone are responsible for your health.

HOW SHOULD I CARE FOR MY HIGHLY SENSITIVE BODY?

There are many things you can do to support a highly sensitive body and encourage optimal health- both physical and mental. While I could write a book on all the specific foods, supplements, activities and behaviors that benefit HSPs, here are six of the biggies.

1. Create Unbreakable Self-Care Routines: One of the many upsides to being highly sensitive is that you’re automatically incentivized to pay close attention to practicing good self-care… because if you don’t, you’ll experience the consequences of neglect quite profoundly. Self-care isn’t just about scheduling time for a massage or an Epsom Salts bath. It’s also about being able to say “NO” to things, asking for help, and taking naps when you’d rather be achieving or producing (I wrestle with the last one myself!) Commit to putting non-negotiable self-care time on your calendar, whether that means 15 minutes of quiet each day, taking an assertiveness class every week, penciling in that daily yoga class, or having an hour before bed each night to read something uplifting. Self-care isn’t selfish- it’s the mark of an adult who respects herself and the people she loves.

2. Emote on the Regular: When I was living in China, I’d be awoken every morning by long and furious shouting echoing from the mountaintops behind my home. Upon investigating, I found out that some of the elders in the town engaged in this practice to support heart health. We have few safe spaces today to cry, yell, pummel pillows with our fists, or dance with glee- it almost seems insane to express our feelings. As FEELING beings (rather than DOING beings), processing and releasing old emotions makes space for new experiences and prevents rigidity in both body and mind. Find a place where you can go to safely express whatever storms may be brewing within you. In cramped, urban settings, this can seem like a tall order, but sometimes a long walk in the evening or a leisurely warm shower can provide you with the privacy you need. 

3. Release Tension Through Movement: Endorphins- brain neurotransmitters that transmit electrical signals to the nervous system- manufacture a positive sense of well-being in the body. These endorphins are compromised by stress, and boosted through exercise. Typically, the modes of exercise recommended most for Highly Sensitive People are yoga, tai chi, and other gentle forms of movement. Others may favor jogging and weightlifting, although the latter can be jarring due to high levels of noise in gyms. If you do decide to engage in regular high intensity exercise, prolong your cool down period- take a good 20 to 30 minutes at the end of your routine to stretch, walk, rehydrate and breathe deeply. If you have a history of trauma or anxiety, trauma release exercises (TRE) and defensive martial arts like Krav Maga might be just the ticket. Don’t be afraid to experiment to find what works for you, and make it a priority to work up a sweat most days of the week.

4. Stick with a Simple, Anti-Inflammatory Diet: HSPs tend to struggle with digestive issues, including IBS and Crohn’s disease, as well as numerous allergies to dairy, nuts, soy, wheat and other grains. A simple anti-inflammatory diet primarily consisting of fruits and veggies, fatty fish, lean meats, and healthy oils can make a massive difference in physical and emotional well-being. Like exercise, you’ll want to test out what’s most suitable for you.  Some HSPs really flourish on a Paleo or FODMAP elimination diet, while others do best as vegetarians or vegans because they feel the suffering that animals have endured before becoming meat.  Processed grains, dairy, sugar and high glycemic foods tend to work against the constitution of a highly sensitive person, and caffeine can also have detrimental impacts. In fact, the majority of HSPs I know are unable to tolerate more than a cup of coffee a day. Five to six small meals a day to keep blood sugar stable is almost always a good idea. You’ll want to avoid juice fasts and skipping multiple meals, which can send out stress signals to the nervous system and kick off a fight or flight response.

5. Make Sleep a Priority: Highly sensitive people tend to walk around in a state of hypervigilance while soaking up external stimuli and the emotions of everyone they come into contact with. By the time nightfall arrives, they find themselves simultaneously “wired and tired”- exhausted from having to contend with the world and yet buzzing with the excess energy they’ve absorbed.
Getting at least 8 hours of sleep will help HSPs reset and release the tensions of the day, although they often need a little help nodding off. You’ll want to steer clear of alcohol and prescription sleep aids, which can leave HSPs with a nasty morning hangover. Instead, consider trying valerian root, melatonin, a calcium & magnesium supplement, or kava kava tea. Based on observation, HSPs usually require more sleep than the average person, perhaps because they sleep less soundly, waking up easily throughout the night. It’s also hypothesized that going to bed before 10pm works better with the body’s circadian rhythms and leads to more restorative sleep. A bedtime around 9pm and an aim for 9 to 10 hours of sleep a night might leave you feeling like a shiny new person. 

6. Enforce Strong Boundaries: HSPs have a notoriously difficult time establishing and enforcing boundaries because they’d prefer to keep everyone happy. This attitude is the downfall for HSPs, particularly since they’re prone to being bullied and manipulated IF they haven’t yet developed high self-confidence and found their place in the world. When it comes to boundaries, HSPs are generally better off insisting on iron-clad boundaries until they know they’re entirely fluent in protecting their own space, energy and heart. Don’t be afraid to enlist a coach to help you navigate the complex world of boundaries, or enroll in some assertiveness training, particularly if you’ve got a pattern of being steamrolled by pushy or self-centered people. A word of caution: strong boundaries are often met with strong resistance and anger. Flex your confidence muscles and remember that the people who love you want to see you healthy and thriving- they’re the ones who will honor your boundaries.

These initial suggestions for promoting optimal health in highly sensitive bodies don’t come easily to the HSP and must be learned and practiced regularly. For the past seven years, I’ve enlisted a lot of external support to assist me with some of the areas that I’ve personally struggled with. We all have our blind spots, so don’t be afraid to ask for help! When you're feeling frustrated about your own high sensitivity, remember that it's a true gift which contributes to a life of meaning, friendship and purpose. Our world needs highly sensitive people now more than ever! 

High sensitivity is a superpower once you know how to manage it properly. 

If you’d like to take the HSP test and learn more, check out Dr. Aron’s website.

Another helpful resource is coach Caroline Van Kimmenade’s website, “The Happy Sensitive.”

Are you a highly sensitive person? If so, what are your mechanisms for thriving in the world? How are you protecting and nourishing your body? Leave your comments below- I'd love to hear from you. And, if you liked this article, share it! As always, thanks for reading.

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“I Want To Recover From My Eating Disorder and Look Hot While Doing It”

Of the coaching enquiries I’ve received over the past year, some of the most common ones read something like this:

“I’ve recovered from anorexia through an in-patient program, but now I’m overexercising. I’d like to raise my self-esteem, make peace with my body, and look really fit and lean. Can you help?”

or this…

“I’ve been binge eating for years and am finally ready to stop this bad habit, but I also want to reduce my body fat and weight.”

or this…

“I’ve been in and out of treatment for an eating disorder for many years, and nothing seems to work. Every time I start to get better, I gain weight. Can you help me overcome it while being able to maintain my current weight?”

Most months, I’ll receive a few requests along these lines, all from smart and determined women in their teens, twenties, and thirties. Their accounts are often similar, mirroring the traits and experiences of those who deal with eating disorders in other parts of the world, which include numerous failed treatment attempts, low self-esteem, pervasive perfectionism, and few social supports. Some of these women were raised in enmeshed or narcissistic families, where self-worth is gained through external achievement and little autonomy or emotional expression is allowed.  A majority deal with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosomatic illness or other kinds of addictions in addition to an eating disorder. Some are in tumultuous relationships or are otherwise experiencing instability in their lives, and others have a history of trauma.

I know this story all too well because the narrative is also part of my own, one that I’ve gently held onto in order to alchemize it. I know the shame of having a nurse hover over you as you sit on the toilet because she’s got to make sure that you don’t throw up. I know what 800 calories a day does to mood and metabolism, what it’s like to try on a hundred outfits and still hate what you see in the mirror, and how empty if feels to live for the approval of others. 


It’s been many years since I’ve contended with an active eating disorder or addiction and since that time I’ve realized that we’re having the wrong conversation. Eating disorders are not about vomiting or starving or compulsive calorie-burning gym sessions. They’re not about reaching an ideal weight.

Eating disorders are about refusing to actually be IN our bodies. They’re about rejecting our true selves. They’re about seeking worth externally, and then battling with that external illusion in an attempt to regain control. They’re about swallowing big lies- that we don’t matter unless someone else recognizes our significance, and that a woman’s value is hinged on the way she looks. And, they’re about attempting to cope with emotional pain stored in the body- pain that is all too often “unspeakable.”

In Asia, we’re in the midst of a process addiction and eating disorders crisis, exhibited by the rapid rise in the number of people seeking treatment for gambling, sex and video game addiction, binge eating disorder, and anorexia. Due to the shame-based cultural underpinnings and the pervasive sociological concept of having “face” (mianzi) and protecting a family’s reputation at all costs, eating disorders and addictions are woefully underreported in this neck of the woods. To complicate things, careers serving this population aren’t generally desired due to the nature of the work, the low pay in comparison to glitzy financial service jobs, and a high rate of burnout. This ensures that many, many people who need treatment aren’t getting any because they’re too afraid to ask for it and even if they did, options are severely lacking. It’s estimated that 80 percent of people receiving treatment for eating disorders will relapse, and 20 percent of people with serious eating disorders will die from their condition. That’s what I’d call a serious public health crisis. ED recovery is hard work, and women on the path are true warriors. A quote I recently came across summarizes things quite accurately:

“Alcohol and other drug recovery is like dealing with a tiger in a cage. Recovery from eating disorders is like taking that tiger out of the cage three times a day and then taking it for a walk.”

When you couple this global health emergency with the fact that the societal perception of a person’s value has become increasingly commodified, it’s no wonder more women are saying, “I want to recover from my eating disorder and look hot while doing it!” Since today’s version of “hot” apparently equates to being impossibly lean and thin, the goal of solid recovery is in direct opposition with the wish to chisel a Fitspo body.

I should know- while competing as a bodybuilder in 2014, I noticed that as soon as I hit a low body fat percentage during my third competition prep, several eating disorder-related thoughts and obsessions began to resurface. Because I’d been on the recovery path for many years and had a great coach, I was able to view these thoughts objectively and avoid a relapse, but I now recognize the fine line I was walking in pushing body, mind and soul to complete exhaustion. In some ways, sports are an incredible option to overcome an eating disorder or other addiction; I’ve met a lot of other bodybuilders, powerlifters, and distance runners who became athletes on their journey of recovery.

One of the best ways to beat a bad habit, compulsion or addiction is to replace it with a healthier behavior. However, if the addiction or disorder is still active and the person’s secondary goal is focused on the external (to look a certain way) rather than the internal (to self-partner and generate positive inner energy), I can nearly guarantee that the person will not reach a higher level of self-esteem, make peace with her body, or find reprieve from her disorder- quite the opposite.

So, what can you do if you want to develop a better relationship with yourself, with food… and still look a certain way?

First, a focus on the true roots of the eating disorder and a method for releasing some of the internal pain is paramount and best done with a licensed counsellor or psychologist, as this is beyond the realm of coaching. Somatic psychotherapy and EMDR can both be helpful on this journey.

Second, reprogramming your inner messaging system to raise self-esteem, transforming your emotional hooks or vulnerabilities into strengths, and replacing negative behaviors with positive ones are all vital and require long-term commitment. A qualified coach can be highly beneficial here.

Third, relearning all you can about nutrition, food and exercise will provide knowledge, newfound self-respect and a sense of control. I personally find that intuitive eating approaches don’t work all that well for a lot of women with eating disorders due to an impaired interoception response (missed cues for hunger and satiation) and difficulty accessing their emotional barometer, particularly around something triggering like a food buffet. Add to that, ripping away control can actually backfire. Acquiring knowledge about how to eat in a healthy manner reinstills some of that control.

Fourth, cultivating an environment that supports your journey is important, which usually means severely limiting or deleting social media applications like Instagram and refusing to flip through fashion magazines, at least until you feel a comfortable level of confidence within yourself.

Fifth, returning to your body is essential- practices like yoga, mindfulness or prayer, journaling, and an exercise program can be incorporated as a part of your week to turn your focus away from the impossible ideal and toward learning how to love and appreciate yourself as you are.

By coaxing your body toward alignment and honoring your emotions, you’ll begin to feel deeply that you’d rather be friends with yourself than fight against the true you in your quest for the “perfect” body.

Over time, you might just find that you already have the body you’ve always dreamed of, because it supports and houses the authentic spirit of you.

Recovery is a lifelong journey and an unparalleled gift.

If you’re on the path to overcome an eating disorder or an addiction, that means you’re also on a path of self-realization and heightened awareness, which will give you the tools and vitality to build a life you can appreciate in the body you’ve been given while maintaining your integrity and cultivating peace of mind. Recovery lights up the BEING inside the BODY. Now, that’s hot.

I'd love to hear from you- is holding onto the ideal of the "perfect body" keeping you sad and sick? If you're in recovery from an eating disorder, what's helped you stay on track? Leave your comments below. And, if this helps you or may help someone you know, share it! 

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To Build a Better Life, Relocate. Or Not.

We’ve all heard the saying, “your problems will follow you wherever you go.” While the issues we wrestle with may have a profound impact on the external circumstances of our lives like an illness, the dissolution of a relationship, or financial problems, the seeds of those painful experiences are usually rooted within our thought patterns and behaviors. It’s no wonder that many people find themselves in the same types of situations even if they've moved across the country, or the world.

As an expat for a quarter of my life now, I’ve observed that people who relocate thousands of miles from their place of origin are usually attempting to leave hard things behind- not always, but often. It’s no surprise then that expats are at high risk for addictions and self-sabotage. Culture shock, demanding work schedules and a freewheeling lifestyle, coupled with first-class personal baggage, all tend to lead to undesirable habits and behaviors, particularly when an addiction or bad habit had already taken root before stepping foot into a new host country.

Relocating to another state, or even to the other side of the world, can be an excellent option if you’re seeking to transform as long as the circumstances are right and a foundation for better living has already been laid.

By creating a new life for yourself in new territory, you have an opportunity to wipe out many types of triggers, build a new social circle, and design a healthier lifestyle in a location that might be better suited for you.

 If cold weather brings on seasonal affective disorder and increases your alcohol consumption, for instance, it might not be a terrible idea to reconsider moving to a warmer climate. Or, if your entire social life revolves around your neighborhood bar which just happens to be right next to your home, starting over in another town could be the jumpstart you need.

Relocation also provides an amazing opportunity to flex your “can do” muscles by proving to yourself that you aren’t stuck and that you have the power to act in your own best interest. One of the most difficult truths to digest on any transformation journey is that, while you may change quite radically, your loved ones and acquaintances often only recognize you as who you once were when they formed a bond with you, and will treat you accordingly. This constant tug back into your past can make it nearly impossible to continue on your thoughtfully chosen path, particularly when self-sabotaging dynamics are at play, simply because many of those compromising and damaging behaviors were learned. Moving releases some of the rusty hooks, outdated expectations and external definitions of yourself.

Relocating to a new environment can be the catalyst to permanently shift a habit or beat an addiction. Conversely, it can hinder your growth and drag you down even further. So, before you pack your bags, here are five questions to ask yourself:

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1. Are the triggers, temptations and relationships in my current location compromising my ability to move forward as a healthier person and if so, is there anything I can do on my end to change that?

2. Concerning my mindset, am I primarily running away from something or am I moving toward building something new, exciting and grounded?

3. Can I visualize my life for the next five years in the desired new location AND then turn that visualization into a tangible written plan of action?

4. Do I have a reliable support system in my new desired location and if not, what can I do to begin to create one before I plan on moving?

5. Practically speaking, how can I figure out a way to financially and logistically make this relocation work- a way that will support a healthier lifestyle?

Growing into our true selves sometimes requires replanting. The soil we were originally rooted in no longer nourishes us. The sun’s too harsh, the wind knocks down our ability to grow. Weeds have obstructed our view. We can plant a new seed in another place and water that seed with the lessons we’ve collected from our past. Sometimes, this new environment provides us with the conditions we require to blossom into our best version.

Have you considered relocating in order to overcome self-sabotage, an addictive behavior, or to improve your health and well-being? Or, have you already taken the plunge? Leave your thoughts in the comment section- I'd love to hear from you! 

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To Move Out of Self-Sabotage, Get SELFish. Here’s How

Whether it’s an addiction, a bad habit, a harmful relationship, a self-sabotaging behavior or an inauthentic life- we’re often surprised to discover that letting go of the thing which has been dragging us down for so long doesn’t automatically coax out the rainbows and trumpets. In other words, a shiny new life won’t magically appear just because we’ve made space for it.  

The self-destructive mentality that we’ve been operating from for so long dramatically compromises our coping mechanisms and life skills. After we finally stop ingesting poison, we may realize that we don’t know how to engage in nourishing activities like cultivating healthy relationships, setting boundaries, practicing self-care, or supporting ourselves. Our sense of self is shaky, at best, and the shame that has underpinned our negative circumstances and poor decisions may still be running the show. When shame’s the director of our lives, it’s hard to know who we are and nearly impossible to assert ourselves or speak our truth.

No matter what our age, we’re bound to fall back into our intricately designed traps until we make a conscious decision to completely change how we think and relate with the world, and then seek support from mentors who can assist us in uncovering our life-affirming and creative gems from the dung pile of shame. Quitting a harmful behavior, substance or relationship provides us with clarity, but it doesn’t give us the tools we need to move forward in a healthy and wholehearted way.

Recovery teaches us to be of service and to release the habit of indulgent, destructive self-pity. Self-involved thinking is part of what got us into a mess in the first place! However, recovery also requires that we embrace SELFishness and reclaim our power by learning how to respect our own needs and health.

This can be an incredibly foreign concept to many women, who were taught from a young age to be selfless, accommodating and long-suffering- a character lesson passed down unconsciously through generations. Here are five SELFish practices that I recommend cultivating:

1. SELF-PROTECTION

Author Julia Cameron writes, “it is enlightened self-interest to be selfish enough to be self-protective. Being self-protective may not seem nice. We may say no to invitations that do not serve us.” A majority of women who engage in self-sabotage can easily be categorized as “too nice.” They are people pleasers to the extreme, and have little experience in standing up for themselves. No wonder- statistics show that women battling addictions, eating disorders, and abusive relationships overwhelmingly contend with early childhood trauma, which programs them for victimhood and low self-worth down the road. It’s these very same women who become easy targets for violence in their adult lives if they haven’t learned to protect themselves, as they consistently allow politeness and the need to be liked to override intuition and self-preservation. When we learn how to adequately protect ourselves, we gain the confidence necessary to show our true selves to the world while asserting our values and beliefs through our actions.

2. SELF-SUSTENANCE

Making a successful major life change usually requires the support of a trusted circle of people, as well as the humility to accept our shortcomings and ask for help. Being able to financially and emotionally support ourselves in some way acts as a counterweight in this process while preventing learned helplessness in what should be an empowering, freeing journey. Excuses and “I can’t” mantras are detrimental to recovery and, if uttered often enough, will undermine our efforts to improve our well-being. One of the most effective ways to legitimize our power is to make our own money through a pursuit that nourishes us, even if the paychecks are initially barely enough to cover a morning tea at Starbucks. It is the act of reaching toward self-sustenance that matters in those beginning stages. Through working, you are proclaiming, “I am committed to taking care of myself.” Similarly, by learning how to emotionally nourish ourselves rather than relying on external validation, we find our voice, our courage, and our self-respect.

3. SELF-CARE

In any major transformation, regular self-care is the contract we must make with ourselves in order to redirect attention to the parts of us that were once neglected and step into a more awakened way of living.

Initially, something as simple as taking time to meet with a coach or therapist, or read an uplifting book with a cup of soothing tea in hand will open up the space you need to trust yourself again. Self-care faciliates a romance between the body and the mind, integrating our practical needs with our higher desires and providing us with the energy we need to venture out into the world with our heads held high. Often, self-care is a sacred secret, a ritual that unleashes our childlike spirit. By doing something each day that is loving to ourselves, we generate a grounded and joyful energy which attracts supportive people and opportunities into our lives. Through self-care, we radiate the message, “I’m worth respect and love.”

4. SELF-CONTROL

Self-control is central to human evolution as a developmental perk of our prefrontal cortex. It’s also what allows us to move forward as individuals through conscious decision-making and behavioral regulation. No surprise- those of us who have struggled with an addiction or bad habit tend to be low on self-control, and once we’re able to admit this shortcoming, we’re likelier to develop more of it. Just like our physical muscles, self-control must be exercised each day in order to grow and flourish. This can feel painful and tedious at first! Because excessive self-control is tied to perfectionism, this SELFish skill may be the trickiest to master, particularly if you’re overcoming an eating disorder, exercise addiction or any other type of compulsive pattern. Often, controlling ourselves actually means riding the wave and letting go of insisting on a particular outcome. Instead, we focus on the moment in front of us and take actions aligned to our integrity and purpose. Self-control is considered one of the greatest signs of spiritual maturity, and mindfulness and prayer are two great ways to cultivate it.

5. SELF-DISCOVERY

At the heart of addiction is the belief that we should not be “feeling” creatures, that the emotions we label as negative are to be snuffed out and rejected. In our pursuit of non-feeling, we lose the essence of what it means to be human, to connect, and to love. Without a full range of emotions, we’re unable to understand who we are and what our purpose is. Self-discovery is a process of allowing once-forbidden emotions to resurface, and of tuning in to the wisdom of the body rather than processing everything through logic.

Being willing to rediscover the self means rejecting the dictates of our current society, which demands that we plaster on a happy face at all times and become masters at emotional perfectionism.

When we commit to self-discovery, our emotions flow without censorship, and we learn how to befriend them in order to uncover what we’re really about.

Although the world may tell us otherwise, every single one of us is worth self-respect. That self-respect must be generated from the inside first; once we treat ourselves well, we’ll begin to notice that other people show more kindness and consideration to us. When we put these five SELFish skills to work, we begin to refill the once empty well that drove us to self-destructive behaviors in the first place, and we eventually come to a place where we appreciate our lives enough to stop the cycle of self-sabotage for good.

How are you integrating a life of service, purpose and SELF-ishness? What's the most important thing you're doing to take care of yourself? Leave your thoughts in the comments section- I'd love to hear from you! 

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Busting Myths for a Healthy Pregnancy

Staying active and enjoying the second trimester! 

Staying active and enjoying the second trimester! 

Over the course of pregnancy, it seems like we have so much to worry about. Between vastly differing opinions, old wives’ tales and pregnancy books dishing out contradictory information, it really can send your head into a spin! 

Many of these anxieties are centered around what we should be eating and how we should be exercising. The thought that your behavior could potentially be harming your baby is a mother’s nightmare. So, when it comes to fitness and nutrition, just what is considered safe? How do we know if we’re pushing too much and will that slice of cake really make it all better?

As a Pre and Postnatal Specialist, ACSM-certified trainer and expectant mom, I’m here to put your mind at ease regarding a few of these pregnancy myths: 
 

Myth 1: Pregnancy is a time to put your feet up.

It’s important to give your body adequate rest, especially since pregnancy fatigue can be so debilitating. However, resist keeping your feet up throughout your pregnancy unless it’s doctor’s orders- it’s so important to get up off that couch and get moving!

According to American College of Sports Medicine guidelines, we should aim for 20-30 minutes of exercise most days of the week during pregnancy.

Exercise not only prepares you for labour and delivery, but helps keep you in shape, increases mood and energy levels, relieves constipation, swelling, and muscle aches and can reduce the risk of gestational diabetes. Remember, each woman and each pregnancy is different and there are contraindications to exercising for some people, so please consult your doctor if you’re embarking on a new exercise program, especially if you are having complications.
 

Myth 2: Exercising too hard will harm your baby.

It's a common belief that too much exercise will pull nutrients away from your baby. Don’t worry, your baby will be fine! Our bodies are great regulators and it’s you who will experience a dip in energy if nutrient stores are low. To avoid this, keep blood sugar levels balanced, eat small frequent meals and ensure you’re not exercising on an empty stomach.

Another similar concern is that exercising too strenuously will deprive your baby of oxygen. Again, it’s you who will feel the effects of this first. The blood containing oxygen will be shunted to baby before mom. If you’re pushing it too hard and feeling exhausted, then it’s time to stop and your body will tell you so. 

So how do you know if you’re overstepping the limits? This usually equates to gasping for breath or unable to talk.

 Health professionals recommend using RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) to measure intensity during pregnancy. This is a scale that corresponds with how hard you’re working based on how you are feeling. For example, are you able to hold a conversation? If not, it’s time to stop!

Try to avoid being fixated on target heart rate zones; there is no true fixed target heart rate for pregnant women as our exercising and resting heart rates are effected so much by the demands of a growing baby. 
 

Myth 3: Running during pregnancy is bad.

So many moms, myself included, love to run. The health benefits from running are immense and the release of endorphins can be addictive. The thought of giving this up for 9 months is depressing!

But, is all that jarring movement really ok for baby?

Yes! You can carry on running throughout pregnancy if you were a runner before, and some marathon runners maintain their sport all the way through pregnancy. However, if you did not run prior to pregnancy, now is not the time to take it up.

As always, listen to your body and take into account the many changes that you’re physically going through. Some women find it uncomfortable to run as they gain weight and the pressure of the growing uterus on the pelvic floor muscles can create some undesirable situations, including incontinence! Also, be aware of the added pressure on joints- knee and ankle injuries are not uncommon during this time. Keep hydrated and monitor exhaustion levels carefully. Now is not the time to press for that PB!
 

Myth 4: You should avoid all abdominal exercises during pregnancy.

Core training is SO important during pregnancy and will help with a speedier labour, delivery and recovery postpartum. You just need to be mindful of the type of abdominal work you partake in.

The muscles we need to strengthen during pregnancy are the deep inner core muscles, which comprise of your pelvic floor, transverse abdominals, diaphragm and multifidus. These muscles form a unit which work together to stabilize the spine and pelvis ahead of movement.

The main abdominal exercises we need to avoid are the abdominal crunch and front loaded plank. Both exercises can cause intra-abdominal pressure leading to a splitting of the recti muscles (Diastasis Recti). 

For more information on how to safely train your core muscles through each trimester, please see my blog:

http://tangramwellness.com/blog/2016/11/15/strong-mama-solid-core-a-trimester-by-trimester-core-training-guide
 

Myth 5: Pregnancy is a time to eat for two.

You’ve probably heard this expression a zillion times! While you do need extra nutrients during pregnancy- particularly additional protein and calcium- piling on the calories is not the way to go.

During the first trimester, your baby does not require additional fuel. Trimester two is a period of growth but nothing to get excited about- an extra 300 calories daily will suffice. Your intake should increase to an added 500 calories during trimester three to accommodate for your baby’s growth. 

The real issue here is how worthwhile those additional 300-500 calories are towards feeding your baby, so aim to choose your food sources wisely. As I mentioned, protein and calcium are essential for the growth of your baby. Try incorporating the following in your diet: Greek yogurt, lentils, beans, nuts, sweet potato, lean meat, eggs and salmon.

Pregnancy should be a time to think about eating smarter rather than just eating more.
 

Myth 6: It’s fine to indulge in sugary, fatty foods throughout pregnancy.

Unfortunately, like any time in your life, a diet high in fat and sugar can have disastrous health consequences, as well as contributing to unwanted weight gain. 

Remember, you don’t have to put on a ton of weight in order to have a healthy baby. If you’re starting out at an average weight and body fat percentage for your height and frame, a weight gain of between 25-35 pounds over the course of nine months is what’s generally recommended.

Putting on too much weight during pregnancy can make you more susceptible to gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, and varicose veins while making natural labour much more difficult.

And, before you reach for a bag of chips, some researchers have found that what happens in the womb doesn’t just stay in the womb. Women on high fat, high sugar diets throughout pregnancy are more likely to give birth to larger babies who are at increased risk of diabetes and childhood obesity.

 My bottom line advice: Be sensible during pregnancy and listen to your body. Try to maintain a healthy, nutritious diet and continue to enjoy any exercise which your body is already used to. Avoid sports by which you have an increased risk of falling or abdominal injury- for example, horseback riding, skiing, gymnastics or rollerblading. And, please consult a health professional if you’re concerned about any aspect of exercise in pregnancy.

Thanks for reading! If you're ready to embark on a pre- or postnatal exercise program or have any questions, email me at Anna@tangramwellness.com . I offer weekly small group classes and private sessions for both expectant and new moms.

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Five Things No One Tells You About Strength Training in Pregnancy

Seven months ago, in the midst of training for physique and powerlifting competitions, I discovered that I was pregnant with my first child. As an athlete and wellness business owner who credits exercise in transforming my life, I wasn’t about to let morning sickness keep me away from my sanctuary- the weight room. Strength training in pregnancy has many potential benefits for both baby and mom, including a shorter and easier labor, a lower risk of pre-term birth, and less physical discomfort throughout pregnancy. However, what I’d anticipated on my journey as a flexing mama-to-be has turned out to be quite different from the reality of lifting weights with a growing baby bump! Here are five things you should know about strength training while pregnant: 

1. No matter how closely you stick to your training plan, your body is going to do what it wants to do. 
So, you think you’re going to remain a shredded mama-to-be, maintaining your fitness level and lean physique throughout your pregnancy, save for a cute little belly? You may want to rethink that! Expanding hips, bigger breasts, growing glutes and thicker thighs tend to be the norm in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy no matter what your fitness level is. Athletes especially tend to see pretty dramatic changes, due to the fact that many are starting out with lower body fat percentages and can no longer follow the near daily strenuous training routines that they're used to. Instead of focusing on your changing body composition and inevitable weight gain, celebrate completing workouts, practicing self-care and being able to pull your pants up all by yourself. Strength train for your overall health and to prepare for the birth of your baby, not because you want to look a certain way when you’re pregnant. 

2. Weight training regularly in pregnancy will really rev up your appetite.

If you strength train regularly throughout your pregnancy, your appetite is bound to skyrocket beyond the hunger pangs of your less fit counterparts. Women with higher muscle mass tend to have better blood sugar level control and increased metabolic rates, making it easier for them to manage body fat. Add in pregnancy, which naturally boosts the metabolism while increasing daily caloric requirements in order to support baby's growth, and you may suddenly find yourself justifying those pre-workout donuts as “carb loading.” Proceed with caution, and plan accordingly! Excessive sugar intake during pregnancy can increase your chance of developing gestational diabetes, pre-eclampsia, or unnecessary weight gain. Eat several well-balanced meals throughout the day and pack a few healthy goodies in your gym bag like mixed nuts, peanut butter and natural energy bars to avoid gorging on empty calories.

3. Drop it like it’s squat, but be sure to train your pelvic floor as well.

Final weighted squat session at 33 weeks. My alignment was off, my pelvis ached and I no longer felt stable and secure, so I knew that was a wrap! If you continue with the big lifts in pregnancy, be sure to listen to your body closely. 

Final weighted squat session at 33 weeks. My alignment was off, my pelvis ached and I no longer felt stable and secure, so I knew that was a wrap! If you continue with the big lifts in pregnancy, be sure to listen to your body closely. 

Weighted squats are possibly the best exercise to prepare for a natural delivery, strengthening the muscles required to open up the pelvic outlet and help baby descend during labor while getting you used to holding that position in a relaxed manner when the time comes to give birth. Squatting (or using a birthing stool) is also a preferred position to assume when delivering a baby naturally, lessening the chance for a C-section and easing contractions. 
However, when you’re under the squat rack at the gym, your chance of accidentally peeing in your training pants increases thanks to added pressure on the bladder from both baby and body mechanics. You'll also want to maintain a narrower stance during squat sessions as your pregnancy progresses to avoid pelvic girdle pain and instability (more on that in a bit). Be sure to practice those kegels regularly, wear a panty liner and bring along an extra pair of cotton briefs (not thongs, unless you’re gunning for a urinary tract infection)! I highly recommend investing in an Epi-No for pelvic floor and childbirth training.

4. Relax- no really. It’s the relaxin!

Image via: Pregmed.org

Image via: Pregmed.org

As pregnancy progresses, a hormone called relaxin increases its production in preparation for childbirth, softening and widening the cervix while relaxing the ligaments. If you’re weightlifting regularly, this can spell big trouble for your pelvic girdle, causing a painful and potentially debilitating condition, symphysis pubis dysfunction. If you continue to push through the pain in order to maintain your fitness level, you may soon find yourself in the physiotherapist’s office, or even in a wheelchair for a while. If you’re feeling increased pain and pressure in the pubic region or shooting pains throughout your hips and legs, you’ll need to bag the lower body weight exercises, including squats, deadlifts and even leg extensions. This is particularly true when it comes to single leg exercises, like lunges. Unfortunately, this condition is quite common, and has benched many a weightlifter in the third trimester, including myself. Listen to your body, relax, and know that if you take care of yourself now, you’ll likely be back in the gym in no time flat once baby arrives.

5. Just by showing up, you’re inspiring someone.
When your bump really begins to show, you may find yourself engaged more frequently in locker room conversations with random women who just happen to be mesmerized by the fact that you’re pumping iron while pregnant. The truth is, despite all we know about the many benefits of strength training throughout pregnancy, it’s still rare to see a woman working out with a protruding baby bump. In fact, fewer than 1 in 4 pregnant women meet recommended physical activity guidelines, and far less even consider lifting weights due to myths around bulking up, largely unwarranted safety concerns, and ignorant naysayers. So, indulge in some gym gab, keep it real (none of this, “I feel so glowing and gorgeous!” crap) and know that- even if you’re not feeling like your fittest and strongest self- you’re inspiring someone just by being there!

Thanks for reading! Do you have any tips for strength training in pregnancy, or any questions on exercise during this special time? If so, we'd love to hear from you- leave your thoughts in the comments section.

If you'd like some assistance in maintaining your fitness throughout your pre- and postnatal period, give us a shout at hello@tangramwellness.com !
Our pre- and postnatal exercise specialist, Anna, is taking on clients for private sessions and small group classes.



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What a Job Interview with a Pimp Taught Me About Setting Goals

Photo credit: Caitlyn Wilson

Photo credit: Caitlyn Wilson

In the late ‘90s and barely a year out of high school, I moved from a haunted Connecticut town to glitzy New York City with a few hundred bucks in my pocket and the wide-eyed dream of SUCCESS… whatever that meant. Like any young adult facing down an ever present threat of eviction and dwindling supply of ramen, I needed a J-O-B. So, when I saw an advertisement on Craigslist which read, “MODELS WANTED” and promised up to a thousand dollars a day, I immediately applied.

Desperation is the executioner of common sense.

In less than 72 hours, I waltzed into the lobby of a Times Square hotel sporting a freshly bleached pixie hairdo a la Annie Lennox with a résumé and a few amateur headshots in hand to meet my prospective employer. “Sam” loomed large at a glass table in the middle of the lobby bar, holding a flute of champagne with a well-manicured hand adorned by gold rings. Rhinestone cufflinks peeked out of a bright blue suit as he motioned for me to take a seat, offering me a bite from a plate of cheese while pouring me a glass of bubbly. Underage drinking at a job interview? Sign me up! I’d already realized that, once again, I’d sniffed out trouble without meaning to.

In case you haven’t guessed yet, the job Sam had on offer wasn’t exactly as advertised. Is anything? Still, I listened to his proposal, mulled over whether or not he’d kidnap me if I tried to run out, and finally, after decimating the brie, told him that I’d like to give it a think. Don’t call me, I’ll call you. Here are four lessons on goal-setting from my interview with Sam the Pimp:  

1. You’ve Got to See It to Be It.
Always have a clear picture of what it is you want… and don’t want. The main thing that saved my butt that day was my imagination- being able to see and feel the scenarios available to me. I pictured, in crisp detail, what would become of my life had I accepted the job with Sam as opposed to if I declined the offer and went back to where I started from, and since neither scenario was palatable, I was able to conjure up other options in my mind. I ended up taking a waitressing position a few days later at a swanky restaurant in downtown Manhattan and enrolled in a course at my dream university not long after that. That may not seem like much to you, but back then,  I would have been blasting Drake’s “Started from the Bottom” if I’d had the option.

2. Ain’t No Such Thing As Easy Street.
The easy way is usually the hard way. In hindsight, this is almost always the case. We live in an age of instant gratification, where most people insist on results in no time flat. This lazy attitude is one reason why things like fad diets, get rich quick schemes and diploma mills continue to flourish. Their simple promises are all too tempting in a society that focuses on the shiny prize rather than the process. If you want true, lasting success at a goal, you’re going to have to put in all the work by developing grit and resilience. If you choose the illusion that promises you the world for minimal effort, I can almost guarantee you that you’ll pay for it dearly to someone else’s advantage- like a pimp’s.

3.  Run Your Own Game.
Sam owned his time, his money, and his reputation. He’d also insisted that, if I accepted the opportunity he was offering, he’d assume the role of banker and boss, booking my appointments and pocketing my earnings.
“Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you,” he’d said.
How often do we fall for that trap in life, expecting someone or something else to manage our future and assume responsibility over our outcomes in some way? We look to our higher ups at work to raise our salaries, inflate our titles, and tell us what needs to be done. We turn to our personal trainers and doctors to oversee our physical bodies, no questions asked.  We even rely on our gadgets to spit out the secrets to a meaningful life.
“Siri, how can I attain true happiness?”

Only when you assume full accountability for your life and your decisions while respecting your intuition and inner wisdom can you create the existence that you desire. Otherwise, you’ll be handing your power over to one kind of pimp or another.

4. Know Your Cheese.
We all have different motivations. When we set goals that aren’t truly in alignment with our values and motivations, we deny ourselves the energy to get much accomplished in our lives. Similarly, if we don’t know how we’re measuring our success at a particular goal, we’ll end up feeling shortchanged and deflated, as if we’ve been on the wrong path to begin with. As we move into the New Year, millions of people will set the resolution to get in shape and hit the gym. Some will go after this goal because they’re lonely and want to get a date, some will do it because they get depressed when they look in the mirror, and still others will do it because they have four kids, an awesome wife and sky high cholesterol. Name your cheese. Know your deeper “why.”

Since that day almost twenty years ago, I’ve often thought about my interview with Sam and the various trajectories life could have taken. Human beings in hot water are like sponges. We soak up our environment until it becomes a part of us and only later, much later, when we’ve been rung out, do we realize how much we’ve been shaped by what we’ve absorbed.

There are a million posts about goals and resolutions that will promise you the secret formula for a winning New Year. The truth is, you probably hold a lot of that wisdom within you from your own wild life experiences, and I bet you already know how to set and structure goals. Our goal-setting process is hardly ever the problem; we fail to reach our aims when we’re not clear on our WHY, when we overlook our history, when we forget what’s powered our surviving and thriving in the first place.

 When you know your “why” and your worth, baby, you’re that much closer to living the dream.

Happy 2017.

Listen, if you're having a really hard time figuring out how to execute a resolution or goal for the coming year, drop me a note at aimee@tangramwellness.com. But, I really believe you've got this. You just have to spend a little more time with your inner wisdom and personal history than you may be comfortable with. If you liked this post- or hated it- leave me a comment. If you loved it, share the love. Thanks as always for reading! 

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Strong Mama, Solid Core: A Trimester-by-Trimester Core Training Guide

TrimesterCore.jpg

Core strengthening during pregnancy is quite often an area of concern. We’ve heard about how a stronger core will help us throughout our pregnancy, but is it really safe to work the muscles of your midsection during this time of immense physical change?

The answer to this is, “Yes, absolutely!"

It’s actually beneficial to incorporate core strengthening exercises into your pregnancy fitness program. In fact, this is one of the most important ways of ensuring a healthy pregnancy, labour, delivery and recovery.

There are, however, certain moves we should avoid, including:

Deep closed twists, in which the abdominal area is compressed. We see this a lot in yoga poses and certain exercises recruiting the obliques, for example the supine bicycle twist. You'll want to avoid twisting your core too much during pregnancy, as your uterus is working hard to make optimal conditions for your growing baby and twisting motions can disturb this process. 

Abdominal crunches, which involve deep flexion of the spine should also be avoided, especially after trimester one. This movement can cause abdominal separation (Diastasis Recti) as the uterus grows in size. Another negative of the abdominal crunch, like any exercise which involves lying on your back, is that the weight of the uterus can compress the vena cava blood vessels leading to your heart. This can cause lightheadedness and may also reduce oxygen supply to the fetus.

There are certain core exercises by which the safety can vary from person to person depending on one's ability to be able to activate smaller and usually forgotten stabilizing muscles ahead of the move. 

A great example of what I'm referring to is the front plank. It's essential to engage the pelvic floor muscles and transverse abdominal muscles ahead of performing the plank. Failure to do so can put too much pressure on the abdominal wall and again, contribute to that dreaded Diastasis Recti. If you're unsure of how to engage these deep core muscles ahead of planking, then this move should be avoided.

We're all built differently, with different levels of experience- our training plans should reflect this!

Ok, so which core exercises should you be performing as a mama-to-be?

Below are 3 examples of exercises which will keep your core strong during each trimester of pregnancy and are generally quite safe to perform:

TRIMESTER 1: OBLIQUE SIDE PLANKS

Oblique Side Plank, with modified version at the bottom

Oblique Side Plank, with modified version at the bottom

Your obliques are often neglected, but these muscles are such important stabilizers throughout pregnancy and strengthening them will help you eventually push your baby out! What could be better than added strength on delivery day?

 Teaching points:

·      Remember to breathe throughout the hold; aim for 30 seconds and try 3 rounds.

·      Imagine a zipper running from your pelvic floor muscles to your ribs. Activate and squeeze your core tight as you zip up.

·      If this move is too difficult, then drop your bottom leg to a bent knee position, as shown in the bottom photo.

TRIMESTER 2: SUPINE LEG EXTENSIONS

Supine Alternating Leg Extensions with Elbow Support

Supine Alternating Leg Extensions with Elbow Support

This exercise activates your transverse abdominal muscle, which is a key player in preventing Diastasis Recti.

Teaching points:

·      This exercise should be performed on your elbows especially after trimester 1 to prevent pressure on the vena cava vein.

·      Try three sets of 10 slow reps and exhale deeply on each extension.

·      Push your lower spine downward and pull your knees closer to your body to avoid lower back pain.

TRIMESTER 3: SITTING WALL SUPPORTED SQUAT

Wall Supported Squat

Wall Supported Squat

You may not think of this a great core strengthener but remember that your core includes your glutes, hips and lower back muscles too. Performing this move will not only help strengthen all the muscles of your core during pregnancy but will also help with your labour. This squatting position can be one of the easiest delivery positions and practice will help a speedy delivery!

Teaching points:

·      Try and hold the squat for 30 seconds at a time and breathe throughout.

·      Aim to keep your knees at a 90-degree angle.

·      Remember to engage your lower back muscles against the wall and squeeze your pelvic floor muscles to help activate your transverse abdominals too.

Ok strong mamas-to-be, happy core training!  

If you would like further information on how to exercise safely during your pregnancy and postpartum period, please contact Pre and Postnatal exercise specialist Anna Kwan: anna@tangramwellness.com for both private and small group tuition. Thanks for reading!   

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