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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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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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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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Tangram's October Client Fitness Inspiration: Nell van den Ende!

Nell1v.jpg

When Nell first contacted me back in June, she was approaching the 6-week mark after giving birth to her gorgeous daughter, Nia. Once Nell had been checked by her gynae and given the all clear for exercise, she was keen to get going straight away!

Nia is Nell’s second child and, like many mums, Nell found it more difficult to make the time to exercise during her second pregnancy. She ended up gaining slightly more weight than the first time round. Nell was determined to lose this baby weight as quickly as possible but she was also aware that her tummy muscles were not in the best shape!

Nell knew of Diastasis Recti (DR) but did not suffer with it much after her first pregnancy. Bryn, her 3-year-old boy, was a smaller birth weight baby and, at that point, Nell's body was pretty strong after years of exercise. Nia however was a larger baby at birth and like many mums, this made Nell’s DR much worse the second time around.

Diastasis Recti (DR) is a splitting apart of the outer abdominal muscles. It's very common in pregnancy, especially with larger weight babies or twins, and in expectant mothers who have previously given birth to at least one child. The muscles are forced apart by an intra-abdominal pressure created by the growing womb. In many cases, if the connective tissue which surrounds the deep inner core muscles is weaker, this can herniate through the gap, causing a mottled effect, which some people refer to as the ‘mummy tummy’.

It’s very important that DR is managed immediately before a new mum embarks on any type of vigorous exercise. Failing to do so can cause chronic lower back pain, pelvic floor dysfunction and a long-term lingering mummy tummy.

So, despite Nell’s desire to lose her baby weight fast, she knew we really needed to begin her programming at a low level, mainly encompassing DR recovery through inner core strengthening.

It took Nell 4 to 5 weeks to regain much of her inner core strength and in this time we did see a measurable reduction in her DR.

Nell took off to the UK over summer feeling stronger and happier in her body. As we’d taken the slow approach in healing her DR, it meant she was able to go jogging again without any lower back pain, or having to pee constantly!  Returning to Singapore in September, she was now determined to lose the remainder of her baby weight before going back to work.

We had 6 weeks of training and she’s really given it her all! Nell’s programming has progressed from low level DR regeneration to encompassing full body strength and endurance exercises. We’ve even added elements of HIIT to her workouts to shrink those fat cells!

HIIT training is very difficult in the postpartum period due to weakened pelvic floor muscles but as we managed her DR correctly, Nell now has the inner core strength to support her pelvic floor muscles during this type of exercise.

Her overall body strength and particularly her abdominal strength has improved massively, allowing her to really push herself in our sessions. She’s lost a lot of her baby weight and inches all over her body. Usually this type of training and progression would correlate with an increase in energy levels and improve quality of sleep but you’ve got to remember Nell is a mum of two. Nia is still breastfeeding and waking repeatedly through the night and Bryn is a 3-year-old boy…enough said!!

Super mom? Yep, I definitely think so!

Well done Nell, you should be very proud of your achievements, you work hard, smile throughout and have really taken on the challenges of motherhood! Congrats from the team at Tangram Wellness.

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Tangram's September Fitness Inspiration: Gloria

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This month I’d like to give a massive shout out to my wonderful client, Gloria!

Gloria has been training with me for the past 7 months. She first approached me after she’d been unable to exercise for a few years following the birth of her daughter and a few medical issues over the years.

Gloria wanted to feel healthier in her body and get her life back on track. She’d suffered from a niggling lower back and neck pain for some time and, like many of us, she was concerned about the health issues that often arise with getting older.  

Gloria initially had poor energy levels. She rated her fitness ability, aerobic capacity and muscular strength very low. These factors, however, did not halt her progression. Gloria has proven to be a fighter; she works hard and shows determination in every session.

Over time we’ve seen Gloria’s lean muscle mass gradually increase. Her body composition has become trimmer and her ability to perform advanced compound exercises has improved tremendously.

Despite rating her fitness ability as low and claiming on her first session that she detests running, Gloria’s high intensity treadmill sprints are now a regular component of our sessions and she almost enjoys them…. almost!

It was apparent from quite early on in training that Gloria’s core muscle strength required attention. This is not surprising after enduring a difficult labour and subsequent complications. We therefore made core strengthening high on our list of priorities from the beginning. By progressing her workouts gradually week by week, Gloria has managed to reconnect her inner core unit which was shattered during pregnancy.

Learning how to properly activate her Transverse Abdominals during each exercise has not only strengthened her core and flattened her tummy but also means she no longer suffers from chronic lower back pain.

A true testament to Gloria’s determination with her training was made apparent over the summer. Gloria spent a couple of months back in her homeland of Italy visiting family and friends across the country.

Before leaving, Gloria voiced concern over the fact that she wouldn’t be able to train for two months. She worried that the progressions she’d made, especially regarding her core strength, would be lost. I devised a core strengthening workout plan for Gloria which she could perform anywhere, anytime…and she stuck with it! 

The hard work and consistency paid off. By sticking to this 20 minute plan, 3 times a week for the entire 2 months, Gloria has returned to Singapore in great shape. Her core strength is awesome and we can continue to push her in her sessions, without the usual holiday setbacks…this makes me a very happy personal trainer.

For Gloria, personal training has been a lifestyle change. She looks and feels so much healthier, her energy is high and she really enjoys herself in her training sessions! For her consistent hard work and excellent results, Tangram applauds her in being September’s client fitness inspiration! Well done Gloria, from all of us at Team Tangram. xx



 

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Tangram's August Fitness Inspiration: Cristina Bel Ascanio

 Cristina is working it out! 

Cristina is working it out! 

My job as Fitness Specialist at Tangram means that I’m lucky enough to meet some pretty phenomenal women here in Singapore, ladies who balance full-on careers and families alongside gutsy and intense training programs. 

I’m constantly in awe of my clients. It’s truly inspirational to watch such strong progression and dedication on a weekly basis. Getting results in the gym requires hard work and real consistency. This is difficult enough for most of us, but try doing it after 10 hours at work or a sleepless night with two cranky toddlers!

Hats off to you ladies, you deserve to be applauded on so many levels. So, this month we're introducing a new feature here on the blog, highlighting some of the amazing fitness journeys we're fortunate enough to be a part of here at Tangram. 


This month I’d like to share one of my client’s stories, Cristina Bel Ascanio:

Cristina is a super committed lady. Despite working 10 hour days, 6 days a week in a stressful environment, she consistently comes to see me twice weekly at the end of her 10 hour shift and she’s never missed a session since we started training together over 8 months ago.

Cristina initially had very low energy levels and was highly stressed from work. She wasn’t sleeping well and generally felt quite lethargic. Cristina was very concerned with stubborn fat cells clinging to her midsection and really wanted to lose a few kilograms.

With training, we automatically noticed her energy levels improving. The exercise alone helped reduce her stress load and Cristina subsequently lost inches from her waistline. Her sleep has improved over time as has her overall strength and fitness. Although Cristina’s weight remains the same, her lean body mass has increased significantly giving her a lean and toned physique to be very proud of!

 Stretch time!

Stretch time!

Cristina’s glory does not just lay in her stats; her ability to perform well over a variety of disciplines is really impressive. This super flexible yogi can really hold her own in muscular strength and endurance and also smashes a 10km run.

The benefits of Cristina’s multidisciplinary approach to fitness are that the various disciplines complement each other so that the sum of the parts are much greater than the whole. Yoga is her first love but, through consistent hard work in the gym, we have developed her core and strengthened the prime muscles of her upper and lower body to enable her to
really exceed at yoga and hold her body in positions she never dreamed were attainable.

Running was previously an activity Cristina didn't particularly enjoy but she’s worked hard at the HIIT components to her gym program, gaining speed and endurance along the way. She now enjoys running 10km along the East Coast parkway on her day off as the stamina she’s built in the gym makes running more about pleasure than pain.

So from myself and all the team at Tangram Wellness, WELL DONE CRISTINA!

You are a great example of a focused and disciplined attitude in the face of life's stresses.

High fives for all your hard work, Cristina! If you'd like to get in touch with Anna to see how she can assist you with your fitness goals, drop her an email at anna@tangramwellness.com . As always, thanks for reading, and may you have a fit and healthy month ahead! 

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Pregspo, Geriatric Wombs and Feeling "Complete": I'm Going to be a Mom!

"Congratulations!” I was sprawled out on a massage bed at a hotel spa in Istanbul, Turkey, when my bodywork therapist exclaimed this praise as she rolled her hands over my calves.

“For what?” I muttered, fatigued from a few days of touring the city on foot.

“You’re having a baby, pregnant, yes?” she asked.

“Nope,” I said.

“Are you sure?” she replied.

“Yep, I’m sure,” I answered, reflecting on all the yummy cheese I’d enjoyed during my European holiday.

“Well… how do you say? Something like, if God wills it,” she commented, wrapping up my massage. Waves of nausea and annoyance rippled through my chest and into my throat.

Not a week went by in Singapore without someone mentioning the “P” word to me, and now, on my vacation, I was confronted once again by my perceived “defectiveness”, my ambivalence, my fickle confusion.

“Yes, if God wills it, “ I replied weakly, eyeing the exit door.

As a 38 year old woman with endometriosis and a thyroid disorder who had been told that a natural pregnancy was probably not in the cards for me, I’d already lived for years with the idea that conceiving was the domain of other women- women with a healthy reproductive system, a big extended and intact family, or a sole mission to have a child. And, while my husband Ryan and I had talked many times about the prospect of adopting or seeing a fertility specialist, I’d reached a point of my life where I’d come to accept that what was meant to be would be. I had seen firsthand the incredible emotional pain some of my friends had gone through on their fertility journeys, as well as the havoc it created in their bodies and while I'm strong, I did not think I would be strong enough for that. With my existing health issues, Ryan and I decided that the turkey baster or IVF were not going to be a part of our future.

A week after we returned home from Istanbul, when I began experiencing relentless cramping and vomiting, I thought little of that awkward conversation with the masseuse, chalking up my body’s rebellion to more reproductive system troubles, the stomach flu, food poisoning… until anonymous infants began appearing in my dreams. Finally, I caved in and bought a pregnancy test- just in case. The next morning, two bright pink lines surfaced in less than the second it took to set that little plastic stick on the bathroom sink.

Frantic, I woke Ryan from his slumber, shrieking, “you’re going to be a Dad, I can’t believe it!” as I paced through the house. At that moment, we became two of the happiest yet most perplexed people in the world- our decision to become parents had been made for us and ever since then, it’s felt like the most “right” path we’ve ever come across in our nearly forty years on Earth.

 Yes, it's finally hit us- we're going to be parents!!! 

Yes, it's finally hit us- we're going to be parents!!! 

At the time, I’d already started training again with my eyes on a figure competition, and had also hired a powerlifting coach. After a year of dealing with the energy-draining effects of hypothyroidism, my health was finally turning a corner and I’d reached a place where I felt confident about living as an athlete again. At around 17% body fat, I was lifting 4 to 5 days a week while employing a high fat Paleo-style diet recommended to me by my functional medical doctor for both endometriosis and thyroid issues. I’d also taken up yoga and cut back on my hours at work, as well as reducing my stress load significantly. I partially attribute these changes in my diet and stress levels as well as treatment adjustments for endometriosis and hypothyroidism to being able to fall pregnant naturally.

One of the first things I learned as a mama-to-be was that 17% body fat is not a healthy scenario for a little growing bean, so I immediately increased my carbohydrate intake while allowing myself to eat whatever I craved, which was surprisingly limited to pickles, beans, brown rice, peanut butter, coffee ice cream, and eggs. Meat made- and still makes- my stomach turn; the very sight of a steak was enough to send me bolting to the toilet.

Simultaneous to this, I was so focused on having a “fit” pregnancy, feeling both the pressure to be the best mom I possibly could well before our baby emerged into the world while being acutely aware that in the wellness field, women are often held to a somewhat ridiculous standard in terms of physical appearance- one that has perhaps fueled a trend of pregnant trainers and coaches with noticeable six packs, still lifting nearly twice their body weight into their third trimester. How do I know about this burgeoning “Pregspo” movement? Simple- I’d searched out every single “pregnant weightlifter” video available on YouTube and Instagram, trying to make sense of the space between the life I lived prior to conception and the new life I was going to have to build as a woman with a geriatric, high risk pregnancy. However, just as the decision to become a parent had been made for me, my “fit pregnancy” journey has been largely dictated by circumstances beyond my control, as the past six weeks have been organized around vomiting, migraines and incredible food aversions which have turned this Paleo-fueled athlete into a near-Vegan with a newfound love for caramel-coated popcorn.

Which brings me to the point of this post: it’s time to throw away these ridiculous expectations we place on women on account of their possession of a womb- that they MUST have children in order to feel happy and fulfilled, that if they do have babies they MUST eat a whole and natural diet throughout pregnancy, that they MUST- or MUST NOT- exercise regularly through each trimester, and that they MUST follow any sort of blueprint to "prove their worth." Let us each discover what is right for us as individuals- there is no such thing as a “one size fits all” diet or exercise plan or lifestyle choice or definition of wellness.

I’m just entering my second trimester and am feeling much stronger than I have in a while. I go to the gym when I feel like it now, and I lift about 40 to 60 percent of what I was lifting prior to that positive pregnancy test, although I hope to gradually increase the load, doctor approved. I can no longer run outdoors, and while a part of me envies those expectant women who continue to pound the pavement, I know that my own body doesn’t welcome it and that therefore, it’s probably no good for my baby and me. Alongside my daily morning egg whites and avocado is a tub of caramel-coated popcorn, which I enjoy as I please throughout the day. I haven’t weighed myself in weeks, and I’m guessing my body fat is around 20% now- the abs are disappearing and the shoulder caps are completely gone. 

And, just because I’m elated to become a mom despite being scared shitless about commencing this journey just shy of age 40, doesn’t mean that I suddenly feel it’s the right road for every woman, or that my new reality "completes me." I was already complete well before this angel showed up in my belly. 

Fit pregnancy, healthy body, fulfilled life- at the end of the day, it means something different to everyone, and that's A-ok. 

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Navigating Italy... Without the Wine or Pizza

 Watching other people exercise at  La Vogalonga,  Venice's famous boat race.

Watching other people exercise at La Vogalonga, Venice's famous boat race.

As I type this from my desk at the gorgeous new Woolf Works, a women’s co-working space in the heart of central Singapore, I am nursing a horrid case of jet lag which feels eerily akin to the hangovers I used to battle at least a few times a week. I’m usually zippy and fresh after a long flight now that I’m not downing the mile high cocktails, but this time, no such luck.

My husband Ryan and I have just returned from a blissful two week holiday in Italy, my favorite “old country”, where we embarked on a driving adventure in the North, commencing in Rome and ending in the delicious foodie village of Modena, with a few nights each in Bracciano, Venice, Florence, and Assisi. Italy is perhaps the oddest destination choice for a teetotaler who also happens to be a figure competitor with autoimmune issues (read: food restrictions & intolerances).

After all, aside from washing down copious amounts of cheese with buckets of wine while basking under sunlit grapevine canopies, what else does one do in Italy?

 Thousands of wheels of cheese, oh my! A cheese tasting at t he     4 Madonne dell ' Emilia  Dairy.

Thousands of wheels of cheese, oh my! A cheese tasting at the 4 Madonne dell'Emilia Dairy.

It was my second trip to Italy as a sober chick, and I still thank my lucky stars that I’d never visited as a card-carrying lush because my only memories of it would have likely been based on embarrassing vacation photos. And, I’ve gotta say, the rumors are true- this Mediterranean paradise is indeed the toughest place in the world to continue a commitment to health & sobriety, no matter where you are on your journey.

First, wine is offered everywhere, and the refusal to partake is sometimes met with quizzical glares. “Baby?” one waiter had asked me on my first trip there, rubbing his tummy with a smile.
Second, the food is RICH- think cheese, bread and cold cuts galore. I wasn’t once able to score an egg white omelette for breakfast, and I’ve yet to spot a sweet potato or protein shake there. Third, the concept of a “gym” is still quite foreign. Although they do exist, exercising with the aid of machines just isn’t Italy’s scene and the only heavy lifting you may see is the lifting of a 50kg wheel of parmesan cheese. Finally, the entire vibe of Italy reeks of leisure and indulgence- a lust for life- which may be why so many gravitate to the region, including me!

So, how does one thrive as a vacationer in Italy while staying sober or upholding other health & fitness goals in the process? Here are my 4 tips to loving your Italian vacation without hating yourself when the holiday’s over!

 A Crodino Mocktail. Crodino is a non-alcoholic bitter apertif... and delicious! 

A Crodino Mocktail. Crodino is a non-alcoholic bitter apertif... and delicious! 

1. Get real. Accept that you’re not going to be able to stay on track 100% on all fronts without being miserable. Yes, you read that correctly! Italy is not the place to aim for perfection, and if you want to stay happy, you’ll need to make a few concessions. That means deciding the difference between your “non-negotiables” and your “wiggle areas” before you go. For me, remaining sober is a “non-negotiable”, and I was prepared to do whatever it took to keep it that way, which meant constantly refusing glasses of wine and grappa and even asking my hubby to enjoy a few meals without the booze when I started to feel fatigued by it all. In my nearly seven years of sobriety, Italy is for some reason the only place that I’ve been where I feel like I struggle a bit, mainly because the strong smell of alcohol is so pervasive, which is also a good reminder for me that recovery is a lifetime job. 

However, I knew that restricting across the board throughout the trip may trigger some depression or anxiety (as restricting is known to do for many), so I loosened the bodybuilding belt and allowed myself to eat what I wanted- including some things that made me feel a bit awful afterward- and I also made sure to get in at least 10,000 steps a day. I exercised when I could, but I didn’t make it a top priority. The result of this approach? Feeling balanced and content overall while encouraging my intuitive body to lead the way when it came to eating. For instance, after a bit of an inflammatory flare up from a few too many pastries I started not to want them anymore and that was ok.

2. Lace up those walking shoes. You may not be able to find a gym in your area, but you can certainly find a million reasons to tour around an Italian village on foot. Opportunities for walking and hiking are endless in Italy, and the best way to get to know the country is a “step at a time,” whether that’s winding through cobblestone streets, hiking up mountain peaks, or climbing a few dozen flights of stairs at one of the many stunning cathedrals, like Il Duomo di Firenze. If you have a smart watch like FitBit, decide on a step goal for each day ahead and don’t forget to bring your camera! Yes, you may not get to pump much iron or attend regular yoga classes in Italy, but there’s no excuse not to get the blood flowing. Many of the smaller villages are also great for running, and there are countless public parks as well, including my world favorite, the Villa Doria Pamphili.

  Villa Doria Pamphili,  I love you. 

Villa Doria Pamphili, I love you. 

3. Focus on all of the options you DO have, rather than the ones you don’t! Italy offers so much variety in the way of both food and beverage, and while you may have to miss out on a few things, your options for enjoyment are endless. Gluten intolerant? Then pastas and crusty breads are out for you, but all the succulent fruits, sun-drenched veggies and scrumptious cheeses are not! Does booze make you break out in handcuffs? So, wine’s not going to be your thing but you can still drink all of the Crodinos you want, as well as rich and frothy coffees and my all-time favorite, acqua frizzante with a slice of lemon. There are also AA meetings throughout the country and online groups like SMART Recovery if you need some extra support. Doing the Paleo thing? Then head to Tuscany for a sizzling grilled steak and some traditionally cured meats, or to the Amalfi Coast for some amazing seafood. 

If you want to feel deprived, focus on all of the things you can’t have. If you want to feel gloriously satiated, enjoy all of the things available to you. The same advice applies to everyday life, by the way. ;-)

 I asked for egg whites- or just eggs- pretty much everywhere we went. This was the reality more often than not! 

I asked for egg whites- or just eggs- pretty much everywhere we went. This was the reality more often than not! 

4. Capitalize on the fact that we all need a break sometimes, and schedule your vacation to Italy accordingly. If you’re engaged in a regular exercise routine 4-6 days a week and you’re pushing yourself to the max most days, congratulations! Now, here’s the rub- you actually need to take a week off from training once in a while to get the most benefit out of it. A recovery or de-loading week is generally recommended anywhere from every 3 to 8 months, depending on your sport or intensity. This means dramatically reduced physical activity for a good week to let the body rest and repair itself. If you’re not engaged in a serious training plan and feel like you wouldn’t benefit from giving your body a break, focus on a mental “time out” instead. I doubt that anyone today reading this isn’t experiencing some form of stress in their life, whether in their job, marriage, finances or mental well-being. Use your vacation as a chance to reset, and maybe commit to a short daily meditation session or some time at a spa while you’re there. A holiday is meant to be just that! Give yourself permission to breathe and relax.

As a health & behavior change coach, addiction therapist and soberista, these are four of my tips for enjoying your holiday in Italy while upholding a healthy lifestyle. Health isn’t meant to feel rigid, so remember to make some space in your life for flexibility and flow!

Ciao for now,

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