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On the Bench: Staying Focused When You’re Out of the Game



When I launched Tangram Fitness only a few short months ago, I had a mission to build an empowering personal training and health coaching business that also raised awareness on important women’s issues – topics like mental health, eating disorders, self-esteem, body image, hygiene, and chronic illness. My reason behind creating a company like this was quite simple- I had turned my own life around through fitness and nutrition, and I know just how powerful a regular exercise routine can be, both anecdotally and scientifically. Exercise is my drug, the most powerful form of medicine I’ve found, and I wanted nothing more than to share it with others.

Feeling invincible.

Feeling invincible.

What I did not expect, however, was to have to face yet another serious challenge at a time when everything seemed to be coming together perfectly. I had a new business that I loved with some incredibly awesome clients, I was training to compete in a figure competition and feeling physically stronger than ever, and my life had been pretty excellent for quite a while. Everything was moving in the right direction…with one exception. The pelvic pain I’d first experienced five years ago (which was diagnosed as interstitial cystitis, or IC) had returned with a vengeance, despite following an IC-friendly diet and religiously caring for my physical health and stress levels. Each month, the pain became worse, and even as I gave my all to push through it at every workout and training session, I began struggling to accomplish simple daily tasks. I felt like I was sleepwalking with a sixty kilogram kettle bell attached to my pelvis, and I was urinating more than forty times per day, unable to sleep for more than an hour at a time at night.

Eventually, in September, I decided that it might be time to see a doctor. He referred me to a specialist, which led me to another specialist, who diagnosed me with endometriosis. Endometriosis is a common women’s health condition that occurs when the cells from the lining of the uterus grow on other organs of the body, like the bladder, kidneys and bowel. Approximately 7% of women will have endometriosis in their lifetime, with an average diagnosis at between 25-35 years old. While many don’t exhibit any symptoms, for others, the pain can be excruciating. The exact cause of endometriosis is unknown, although recent studies indicate that exposure to pesticides greatly increases a woman’s risk of developing it. Up to 50% of infertile women have endometriosis, and it often coexists with other autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, like lupus and interstitial cystitis. Aside from impacting tens of millions around the world, there are many well-known women who have endometriosis, (most notably, Padma Lakshmi, who founded the Endometriosis Foundation in the US) and yet, you hardly hear about this common disease, especially in Singapore. Unfortunately, lack of awareness has dire consequences. According to my specialist, many local women do not seek help until the endometriosis has reached a severe stage, which can be very difficult to treat.

This Wednesday, just a few hours after boot camp, I underwent laparoscopic and cystoscopy surgery- otherwise known as “keyhole surgery,” which removed nine areas of endometriosis on my organs. Reduction in pain is experienced by 80% of women who undergo this surgery, but there is a 30-40% chance that the endometriosis will return and surgery will be necessary again. For now, I am solely focused on healing quickly and being able to resume my active life again, but I have to admit, being sidelined like this is not my forte. I don’t “do sick” gracefully and one aspect of myself that I could stand to work on is patience, the ability to sit still and let life roll on as it is beyond the fifteen minutes I spend meditating in the morning.

As an athlete and fitness professional, accepting the trials of my body over the past five years has been difficult, but at the same time, it's also one of the factors that drove me to change my life and become an athlete in the first place. Because of the pain, I’ve missed more than a few of my workouts in the past four months, and for many other workouts, I was unable to give 100%. When I confided to a bodybuilder my concerns about surgery, I was told that I may not be able to compete after all because of the scars on stomach (total rubbish, by the way). More than a few people have said, “but you look fine!” Today, I’m finding it difficult to walk to the kitchen, which makes me wonder when I’ll actually be able to run again… two weeks, three weeks, a month?

Here’s the reality: the vast majority of us, at one time or another, will face a major health challenge that will either derail us from our goals or push us to emerge both stronger and wiser. You’re training for a marathon and you twist an ankle. You’re putting forth a serious effort to lose weight and you rupture a disc in your back. You’ve been preparing for a triathlon and you sustain a serious injury. These are all true stories from people I personally know, and they’ve all faced the same decision- keep moving forward, however slow, or stop. Unfortunately, many people do decide to give up, to use their illness or condition as an excuse to avoid anything that may be uncomfortable.

I’ve spent some time contemplating how I can still reach my big goals for 2014- building an impactful wellness business, changing people’s lives for the better, and competing successfully in figure- while healing fully.  Here are my steps to stay on track, as I work toward moving off the bench:

1. Create a recovery plan of action. Don’t just wait around until you feel 100% again- if that’s your mindset, then you might be waiting forever! Type out a road map that will get you back to where you need to be. Schedule walks and mini-workouts, as well as appointments with physiotherapists, naturopaths, and massage therapists who will assist you on your path to wellness. Put all of your exercise sessions on your calendar, and keep a notebook on your progress. Take things slowly, and aim to increase your speed or intensity by no more than 5-10% each week.

2. Express your frustrations constructively. Bottling up any negative feelings you may be experiencing can hinder your recovery and put you in a sour mood. Talk things out with a trusted friend, keep a journal, draw cartoons or blog about your journey.  If needed, don’t be afraid to chat with a therapist or psychologist. For those of you living with chronic conditions, it’s important to have a regular outlet to express what you’re going through. Painting and creative writing can also be beneficial.

3. Invite inspiration into your life. Identify people and sources of information that remind you of what you’re working on and why. I’ve been following IFBB Figure Pro Ava Cowan’s blog “The Journey Back to Strength," which documents her recovery from a serious injury as she works her way back to the stage. I also read Bodybuilding.com’s Transformation stories every single week for a feel good boost.

4. Recognize that there’s always another event down the road. So what if you miss the triathlon, marathon, or bodybuilding competition you were preparing for? Events are a dime a dozen now, and you can always register for one at a later date. On the plus side, it gives you more time to prepare! Don’t get so hung up on a deadline. If you want to get there, you’ll get there.

5. Take time to meditate. If your body is fighting an illness or injury, it’s more important than ever to reduce your stress levels and gain perspective. Mindfulness meditation can also assist with pain management, reducing chronic pain by up to 57% in clinical trials.

6. Buy yourself a motivational gift. Find a special treat that you’ll look forward to using when you’re back on your feet. A few days before my surgery, I went out and bought some fancy “Run NYC” kicks from New Balance. They’re waiting patiently for me.

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7. Eat for your health. Now is definitely not the time to pig out on junk or rely on processed food. Indulge in lots of whole fruits and veggies, and read up on diets that may help you in your healing. I’ve been following the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol (with a few exceptions- I still include lots of eggs in my diet and I avoid tomatoes and citrus). There are other types of elimination and immunity-building nutrition plans you may wish to try, depending on what you're dealing with.

8. Use this downtime to learn and grow. Make a list of books you want to read and topics you want to learn about, and then dig in! If you’ve ever wanted to build a website, get a certification, learn how to use Photoshop or Excel, or take an online course through a portal like Coursera, now is the time.

9. Practice self-love. Being sick or injured is not your fault; don’t take this stumbling block personally. Honor your needs with compassion, and listen to your body. Write a personal mantra or statement of healing, hang it up in your bedroom or bathroom, and recite it aloud as often as you can.

I’ll keep you posted with my learnings as I move forward, and explore writing more about fitness and nutrition for those of you who have chronic conditions or injuries. We all experience setbacks, but we should never let these barriers get in the way of living a full and fit life!

As always, leave your comments and questions below. I'd love to hear from you!

Take care,

Aimee 
 

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Same Planet, Different Vessel: Men vs. Women in the Gym

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Same Planet, Different Vessel: Men vs. Women in the Gym

After an exhilarating week in Bangkok at the Asia Fitness Convention, I am back in Singapore nursing my DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) thanks to the longest training session I’ve ever endured, with kettlebells no less! I learned so much that I can’t wait to share with you, from new ways to address biomechanical pain to managing pelvic floor disorders through exercise to incorporating balletone, port de bras, "the Five Tibetan Rites" and primal movement into my fitness programs for clients. But, one class I found particularly fascinating addressed the differences between men and women as they relate to training, taught by Dr. Len Kravitz from the University of New Mexico. I admit, I initially bought into the whole “train like a man, look like a goddess,” hook, line and sinker. But after training both myself and other female clients and listening to Dr. Kravitz, that advice no longer makes any sense. Sure, women should never fear heavy dumbbells and can certainly hold their own in the weight room with the guys. But, the fact of the matter is, our bodies are extremely different, as well as our training outcomes. Next time you’re developing a fitness plan, consider the following for maximum benefit and injury prevention:

Rosemary Jennings- fabulously muscular. Sorry ladies, but that’s not happening for 99.9% of us.

Rosemary Jennings- fabulously muscular. Sorry ladies, but that’s not happening for 99.9% of us.

Men have 10 to 20 times more testosterone than the average woman. Our hormones account for major gender differences, and lower levels of testosterone in the female body prevent us from building large amounts of muscle mass. Many women are concerned that if they lift heavy weights, they’ll end up looking like a man or a female bodybuilder. The truth is, it is incredibly difficult for a woman to add lots of muscle to her frame. Many years of training, high calorie diets, supplements, the right genetics, and unfortunately, steroids, all play a big role in building the bodies of today’s female bodybuilding athletes.

The phases of your monthly cycle have an impact on your athletic performance. Initial research suggests that performance is best just after menses and worst during pre-menstruation and in the first few days of menstruation. When estrogen is at its highest, performance tends to be better and when progesterone steps in, performance decreases. This would indicate that if you’re competing, you’ll want to time it with your mid-luteal phase and late follicular phase (days 10-14 and 18-23). The impact of birth control pills on athletic performance is still up for debate. On the positive side, birth control regulates the monthly cycle, making it easier to plan for races and other competitions. On the negative side, some studies show that the pill can interfere with strength training and muscle gain.

Women have two joints that are wider than those in men: the hips and the knees. This difference makes us more susceptible to pain and injury in these areas. Our wider pelvis is designed to accommodate the fetus and gives us greater lumbar spinal curvature, which leads to more chronic back pain. The curvature of our thigh bones adds more stress to our knees in comparison to men, which is one big reason women are more susceptible to runners knee, as well as being two to eight times more likely to have an ACL injury. Core training and multi-mode training incorporating squats and lunges should be staples in every woman’s workout plan!

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Women have lower bone mineral density than men. The bone tissue in our skeleton continues to grow until around age 30, when it hits what’s known as “peak bone mass.” The hormone estrogen has a big impact on our amount of bone mass. Generally speaking, if a woman has her period earlier in life and takes an estrogen-based contraceptive, she will have higher bone mass than a young woman who does not get periods due to excessive exercise or extremely low body weight. Low bone mineral density increases the risk for osteoporotic fractures; the risk increases significantly after menopause due to a lack of estrogen circulating in the body. Calcium and Vitamin D are two supplements that can be helpful in the prevention of osteoporosis.
 
Women have 8% to 10% more body fat than men, on average due to body composition and reproduction. Essential fat is only 3% in men and 12% in women, and in the average range, women have 25% body fat while men only have about 15%. When body fat percentage in women becomes too low, it can lead to menstrual dysfunction and increase the risk of bone injury, which is often seen in female athletes and known appropriately as the “female athlete triad” (low energy intake/disordered eating, amenorrhea, and weakening of the bones). According to Dr. Kravitz, on the upside, women have an advantage in the sport of swimming, as body fat aids in buoyancy. Women have less ‘drag’ in the water and expend about 20% less energy.

Women have 23% greater fatigue resistance than men at the same specific task and intensity. This is due in part to lower absolute muscle mass, low muscle oxygen demand, and increased blood flow to the muscle due to estrogen.  What does this mean? Fit women can bang out more high volume sets and require less recovery time between sets- 60 seconds vs. 2-3 minutes for men. Women also need fewer rest days between intense workouts, in part because estrogen inhibits inflammation and decreases post-workout skeletal muscle damage. That said, women with low estrogen levels may take longer to recover and may have to work harder to increase muscle strength.
 
So, there you have it- maybe men and women really are from separate planets! Actually, hormones and chromosomes account for our differences. How will you use this information to tailor your training program? What other differences can you think of that impacts athletic performance? Leave your thoughts in the comments section- I'd love to hear from you! 
 
Be well,
Aimee 

 

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Setting Up Non-Negotiables for Better Health & Wellbeing

Take care of yourself so that you can take care of others. "Forest bathing" is a great non-negotiable!

Take care of yourself so that you can take care of others. "Forest bathing" is a great non-negotiable!

It’s a universal conundrum: you’re dead set on adopting a new habit that will inch you closer to the kind of life you’d like to have. Maybe you’re trying to lose weight and want to incorporate exercise into your schedule five days a week. Perhaps decreasing your anxiety is a priority and you know that a daily walk in the park after work would help you unwind. Or, maybe you’d like to spiritually reconnect through a morning prayer or meditation practice. Sticking to this new habit over the first few days usually isn’t too difficult and you may actually start to feel like you’re getting somewhere… but then something always happens that we like to label “life.” Your child comes down with the flu. A coworker’s been fired and you’re stuck holding the bag. Your partner is having a family crisis. The weather’s been terrible. You feel depressed and unmotivated. There’s simply too much to do.

When something always seems to be getting in the way of your goals, a change of strategy is required, as well as a shift in thinking. That’s where “non-negotiables” come in. So, what is a non-negotiable? A non-negotiable is something you incorporate into your life NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENS. The boss just told you that you have to prepare a gripping, award-winning PowerPoint deck within the next 24 hours? You’re still doing your non-negotiables. In a foul mood and just want to hide under the covers? You’re still doing your non-negotiables. A UFO landed on the rooftop of Takashimaya department store and the aliens are giving out free Chanel handbags? Yes, you’re still doing your non-negotiables. Non-negotiables aren’t only about adopting healthier habits and organizing your day. Non-negotiables teach you the practice of honoring your desires, making time for yourself, and gratefully accepting that taking care of yourself should always be a top priority.

Non-negotiables are always on your calendar, and they are always marked “important.” Reminders about your non-negotiables should be posted on the fridge, your laptop screen, and your work desk. Non-negotiables automatically remove all guilt about having to turn down invitations or needing to postpone any family obligations, if only for a little while. Non-negotiables let the world know that you also matter, and that you’re sticking to your guns this time.

When you decide to set up new non-negotiables, start with one and only one. Once it becomes ingrained, you may slowly add more. As a general rule, practice your non-negotiable for at least 60 days before adding a new one. This isn’t just a habit, it’s a non-negotiable, and that’s a really big deal.

In general, non-negotiables should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, and Timely. Here are fifteen specific “SMART” examples of health and wellbeing non-negotiables to get your mind buzzing:

1. Engage in at least thirty minutes of moderate exercise every weekday before work.
2. Write one full page in a gratitude journal every evening before bed.
3. Meditate or pray upon waking each morning for twenty minutes.
4. Stretch in the living room for fifteen minutes each evening before dinner.
5. Input daily food consumption every evening at 8pm in a calorie counter (MyFitnessPal is a great tool and it contains nutrition information for nearly every single hawker stall dish available in Singapore).
6. Take a thirty minute walk in nature after work every weekday (the Japanese call this Shinrin-Yoku, or “forest bathing").
7. Call one friend every afternoon during lunchtime.
8. Sit down to eat a healthy breakfast every morning at 7am.
9. Go rock climbing every Saturday with your spouse at Climb Asia.
10. Bike to work every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
11. Participate in a boot camp every Saturday morning.
12. Have an adventure date with your significant other every Friday night at 8pm.
13. Spend one hour walking with your dog each evening after dinner.
14. Take a dance class every Thursday and Sunday.
15. Eat two pieces of fresh fruit each day- one with breakfast and one with lunch.

Now that you have a few ideas, I hope you’ll adopt a few “non-negotiables” of your own. I have three that frame each day for me: 20-30 minutes of meditation each morning after my shower, a minimum one hour of exercise six days a week, and a prayer of gratitude each night before I go to bed. They are the fuel of each day, and they ensure that I take good care of myself so that I can better care for others!

Do you have any non-negotiables? Would you like to establish some? Have any questions about setting up non-negotiables and keeping them? Leave your comments down below. I’d love to hear from you!

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Substituting Your Habits

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Substituting Your Habits

Steep climb, incredible view.

Steep climb, incredible view.

 
When I began my journey to quit smoking and drinking five years ago, I felt like the anchor that tethered my sense of self to the Earth had been violently yanked out from the sea bottom and hurled into outer space. There I was, drifting through the atmosphere, angry, nauseous and directionless. Smoking and drinking had been a ritual for many years, my bookends to each day.  As soon as I woke up, I’d pour myself a cup of coffee and sit on my patio stoop in my pajamas with a pack of cigarettes and a stinky glass ashtray. On my morning walk to the train, I’d puff away, rushing to finish before I reached the platform. After work was done, I could officially relax when I poured my first drink around 7pm— almost always a glass of wine in my kitchen or at a neighborhood bar. My pack of cigarettes would be emptied between the first glass and the last, and I’d usually drag myself to the convenience store just before bedtime to buy another pack for the next morning. Day in and day out, these were the habits that set the pulse of my life. Deciding to give it all up was like losing both my identity and my oxygen. There were times when I just swung there, suffocating in space. The deprivation was overwhelming.

In those first few raw weeks, I began to figure out that running around the block whenever I wanted to smoke or drink would alleviate some of the physical and mental discomfort I was experiencing. This was my personal introduction to the concept of “habit substitution,” one of the primary techniques of behavior modification. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that running around the block was molding me into an actual runner (and eventually, a marathoner), and that runners generally don’t smoke and drink to excess, and that I was starting to feel better. By substituting a bad habit with one that is healthier or more positive, it's very difficult to continue to embrace the negative behavior. Can you imagine crossing the finish line with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other? Or racing with an ashtray mouth and a hangover? Not going to happen.

When it comes to breaking habits, too many well-intentioned people dole out the same tired advice about “willpower” and “white knuckling it” and “toughening up.” For many of us, deprivation is just a short cut to another failed attempt. Substitution, however, has shown success across all types of habits. If you’re looking to change your behavior and in essence, your life (after all, we are our habits), here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Divert yourself from your bad habit by substituting it for a more positive one that is somewhat similar in execution, movement or sensation. Smoking was my primary bad habit, and it often triggered my urge to drink. The two eventually went hand in hand. With both, I was inhaling deeply, engaged in movement and allowed some quiet time to explore my mind. I’m a fidgety, high-energy person, and smoking and drinking gave me something to do. Similarly, running gets me in touch with my breath while burning off excess energy, and giving me time to be alone with my thoughts. In “The Power of Habit,” author Charles Duhigg writes that “to change an old habit you must address an old craving. You have to keep the same cues and rewards as before, and feed the craving by inserting a new routine.” So, if you eat habitually after work, you may wish to try investing in a juicer and making yourself a fresh squeezed, tasty juice to indulge in instead. If you’re snacking at your office desk to cope with stress, consider doing a quick set of pushups whenever the urge strikes.
  • Find a community that embraces your new habit and join them! If you’ve decided to take up running, for instance, there are many runners groups from beginner to advanced levels sprinkled across Singapore. Here’s a list to get you started. If dancing is more your speed, take up some classes to keep yourself on track and make supportive new friends. There are groups for any positive habit these days, whether it be weightlifting, knitting, swimming, meditation, juicing, rock climbing or even parachuting. If you're worried about being new and not knowing what you're doing, remember that EVERYONE starts EVERYTHING they do at the very beginning.
     
  • Be gentle on yourself. If a new behavior doesn’t stick, try something else.  There’s no reason to beat yourself up. Changing bad habits takes time. It took me a full year between deciding to quit smoking and drinking and actually quitting smoking and drinking for good. While some people are able to quit their bad habits “cold turkey,” they are in the minority. For most, it requires trial and error, patience, and persistence. Make a creative list of some habits you’d like to adopt and activities you’d be interested in trying. You never know what you might become!
     

 

Have a question or comment about habits? I'd love to hear from you! Leave your thoughts in the comments section.  

-Aimee 

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Can Dragon Boating Cause Muscular Imbalance?

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Can Dragon Boating Cause Muscular Imbalance?

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Question: I'm on a dragon boating team here in Singapore and I only paddle on one side. I'm worried about muscular imbalance. Is this something I should be concerned about and if so, what can I do about it? -Julie

Answer: Great question, Julie! Since I’m not too familiar with the awesome sport of dragon boat racing other than enjoying it as a spectator, I decided to do a little research on what the training entails. It looks like coaches generally take one of two approaches: a) ensuring that the rowers regularly switch sides or b) having the rowers train only on their stronger side.  Dragon boating engages several major muscles in your torso, including your deltoids (anterior, posterior and lateral), scapula, rhomboids, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, and abdominals. But, you probably knew that already.

My answer to your question may prompt a few dragon boat coaches to scold me, but I’m going to give you the lowdown anyway. Paddling on one side only over an extended period of time is indeed likely to lead to a muscular imbalance and may have a detrimental impact on your spinal alignment and posture. In fact, it is one of the leading causes of injury among rowers and can easily send you crawling to the chiropractor’s office. A study published in 2012 looked at the relationship between posture and biomechanical parameters of the Iran Women’s National Dragon Boat team and concluded that there was a relationship between dragon boating and lumbar scoliosis, as well as uneven shoulders. Now, that is only one study and we therefore shouldn’t automatically conclude that this is a typical result, but it’s something to consider.

I understand that you love your sport and don’t want to give it up. The fact is, nearly every sport carries risks, but in my opinion, the benefits often outweigh the risks. So, what can you do? First, see if there is a team you can join which will allow you to train both sides! Second, you should be hitting the weight room regularly for some full body strength training. Aim to lift weights 2-3 times a week in a series of phases. For the first phase, you want to perform bilateral exercises- using both limbs simultaneously to move a load. For the second phase, you’ll work each side separately, alternating the load. When you do this, pay close attention to which side seems to be more dominant for each muscle group. Be sure that your stronger side doesn’t begin to overcompensate for the weaker one- if that happens, lower the amount of weight you are moving. For the final phase, you’ll want to gradually spend a bit more time working just the muscles of your weaker side. Give each phase 4-6 weeks and take notes on your progress.

Now, there are a few training methods I’d like to recommend to you to prevent further muscular imbalance while strengthening your core, back, shoulders and arms. The first is battle rope conditioning. If your gym doesn’t have battle ropes, then you can easily pick up one of your own and strap it around a tree or basketball post. I guarantee you’ll get funny looks from your neighbors! You don’t need to invest in a fancy rope that the sporting goods stores are selling for $200+. You can just go down to a shipping supply store here in Singapore and ask for a 50’ foot, 1 inch or 1.5 inch polypropylene 3 strand rope. It will save you a lot of cash!   
The second method I recommend is upper body Olympic ring training. Here’s my favorite video on the basic exercises:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fdIvU6JoCZo
You can order Olympic rings from Rogue Fitness in the US- it’s an awesome company with great customer service. No, they did not pay me to write that. The rings take about two weeks to get to Singapore. http://www.roguefitness.com/
If you need some assistance with form and exercises, I use both the battle ropes and Olympic rings regularly in my training sessions.

Hope this helps. Happy rowing!

- Aimee 

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Welcome to Tangram Fitness!

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After months of preparation, I am so excited to officially launch a new kind of fitness and wellness business in Singapore! Tangram Fitness takes a "long view approach" to fitness by giving each client the tools they need for lifelong health and wellness, incorporating mobile personal training, nutrition education and health coaching. We have more than a few unique features, including Singapore's first and only "pay as you please" bootcamp; an eight week weight training course for women called "Lifting the Weight"; and a Q&A blog to answer all your questions about transforming your body, shifting your habits and ultimately, changing your life. Tangram Fitness also aims to raise the bar by beginning a new conversation about real health and wellness issues facing women today- no fluff and no fads. Topics you'll read about here include:

- The truth about diets and metabolic damage
- How to set up "non-negotiables" in your life and stick with them
- Why women should lift heavy weights
- Places to recharge your batteries in Singapore
- How meditation can boost athletic performance 
- Why Asia needs to REJECT the American diet!
- Sweating away anxiety and depression 

- Focus on Food: mussels for muscles, quinoa, bitter gourd, green drinks, and hundreds of other "power" foods. 

So, without further ado, let's get this new community going! 

What are YOU interested in learning more about? What types of fitness and wellness services would be most beneficial to you? Do you have a burning question about fitness? Send your wishes, requests and queries to aimee@tangramfitness.com. I look forward to hearing from you!

-Aimee 

 

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