I hope you have had a chance to read Part 1 and Part 2 of my Exercise Journal, I also hope to inspire some of you beautiful people to embark on a journey of healthy, active living.
In this article, I would like to share some tips, advice and important notes I have gathered from my personal experience and professional knowledge:
We live in an idealistic world. It is true that our world is becoming more accepting, opening-minded, and people are generally kinder to each other, yet the society and the media is still governed by idealistic standards.
The idea for this article was sparked when I walked pass an international clothing brand store recently – a full-window poster of a model showcasing the latest woman’s fashion. At the first glance, it seemed good: Nature, not ‘posey’, seemingly minimal retouching, ‘effortless’ and most importantly, the model had a “natural” figure. She was perhaps a size 10 or 12, as Tyra Banks might say, “fiercely real”.
I personally know much more size 10-12 women than size 6-8. Every women and men of all sizes are equally real and natural, seriously, none is “less real” and should not be told that “hey, you are normal too! You actually fit our standard!”. None should be made feel less than others, in any way.
When I glanced at the store window, I can almost visualise everything that might have went on behind the lenses – “she is real, sure, representing the majority, breaking fashion standards, but she can’t be too real, not allowed to gain more weight. She should have the proportions of ‘standard’ models, just a slightly zoomed-in version. Fix her up, conceal her freckles, acne and fine lines, make her look more flattering, there we go. Naturally flawless”.
You might doubt the validity of my opinions, you might say, hey, weren’t you a model, you have a good figure, good skin, how can you have an opinion about people who aren’t like you?
Trust me, the idealistic beauty standards of the society affect everyone. Being the audience of the media, you may have the power to filter the information, interpret messages on your own terms, should you decide to do so. However, when you are part of the process of creating such standards, it becomes naked and raw.
When I tapped my foot into modelling as a sort of side-career, I stepped into the world of idealism. It involved room full of beautiful people who are seeking a job, perhaps fame too, and sometimes self-assurance. If you are above-average beautiful, you are never beautiful enough - there are more competition budding out every day. Already a size 8? You need be a size 6. Losing weight already? You need to maintain a toned body and ‘look fit’, while being marginally anorexic. You are 2 fingers too short, your teeth are too skewed, your breasts are too big, your breasts are too small, it goes on and on.
Modelling is supposed to be empowering, the models are supposed to be the face of something, the face of a new fashion concept, the face of a brand, an event, a cause. I have worked with incredible photographers (or artists, which I feel is a better term) who worked with me to discover me, to discover and unveil my shine. These artists expressed the personality and soul of their models and themselves through their images. They were truly passionate about creating art from the models. When it comes to the commercial side of things, I have worked with those who viewed the models as tasks, blank canvases, living coatracks to be moulded into what is needed to sell. Sure, there may be good reasons to do so - catching up to commercial beauty standards, more commercial value. The result of this are images of me that is, well, sometimes barely recognisable. There’s not much of individuality remaining, but an idealised version of my appearance based on how the industry think I should look.
The problem is, looking at these ideal versions of myself was not healthy. For a young woman who is still trying to grow into her own body, these images made me doubt my natural appearance – I started to notice flaws about my appearance, which weren’t flaws to begin with, but a twisted product of comparing myself to the ‘beauty standards’. It took years of growing up, finding myself, as well as working with lovely artists, for me to develop a healthy relationship with my body.
I often interact with teenagers, around secondary high school ages. I enjoy spending time with them, chatting with them and giving kindness and support. Speaking from personal experiences, being a teenager is not all that flowery and easy. Teenagers are like beautiful and delicate orchids, sensitive to the environment, and easily affected by changes in the environment. The most common complaints I hear from teenager girls are about their appearance, more specifically their skin and weight. Many teenage girls’ confidence is compromised by changes in their body due to natural hormone changes during puberty and feel compelled to lose weight when they are perfectly healthy or even borderline-underweight, using makeup to cover their young skin, and become socially-withdrawn from self-consciousness.
Many teenage girls also feel the need to catch up with the latest beauty trends and routines, simply because the ever loud idealistic beauty industry targets these young ladies, blasting them with idealistic appearances, body images and beauty standards everywhere they go. From an early age, as early as 11 or 12, children/teenagers already begin to use to makeup to conceal their perceived imperfection, to change their appearance to “fit in”, and to lose weight to look more attractive. Early exposure to makeup on a regular basis can be damaging for the young skin; chemicals from the makeup, especially cheap or counterfeit makeup can contain harmful chemicals and over-abundance of bacteria that can cause infections, fertility problems and early aging of the skin. Unhealthy dieting and excess weight-loss during teenage years can lead to delayed menstruation, weaker bones, decreased productivity in school, depression and more. There can be irreversible health consequences.
Teenage boys are not spared. On television, in films, teenage boy characters as young as 13 or 14 are often played by actors as old as 25 or 27. The media often portrays an unrealistic ideal image for teen boys: tall, muscular, perfect hairstyle, chiselled facial structure, flawless skin, no baby-fat whatsoever. It is equally tough for young teenage boys to catch up to this unrealistic standard, and may lead to dieting, bulking, unhealthy use of protein supplements and even steroid abuse. On the other hand, this kind of gender standardisation and generalisation can affect the confidence of boys who are still in search of their gender identity and can lead to bullying from other teenagers.
One of my many seemingly ‘irrational’ concern is that my children and their children will grow up experiencing all of these, all of these pressure, feeling of inadequacy, unhealthy views of their appearance, or focusing largely on their appearances because society tells them to. There is a slow change in the beauty and fashion industry, as well as the media. However, this transition to change industry standards is still superficial and not effective enough. Why? Sales, business, finance, the economy. All of these are more prioritised over population health, including both physical and mental health. If the media is loud, then we shall be louder - we need to normalise normal.
Welcome to part two of my exercise journal! If you haven’t yet read part one, you can find it here.
In part one of the exercise journal, I shared my personal experience in living a sedentary lifestyle, how it impacted on my health and quality of life, and how I made the final decision to change my lifestyle completely. In part two of this journal, I wish to share the rest of the story and journey with you.
If you have lived an active lifestyle at some point in your life, but stopped due reasons of your own, I encourage you to start again. I know that you still remember how it feels to be active, the sweat, adrenaline, hitting milestones, seeing achievements and improvements, physically and mentally. Wasn’t it great? All you need to do is change into your activewear and start again, you know how.
If you are like me, who didn’t know much about ‘how to’ exercise – where do I start? What do I do? What sort of exercise is good for me? Do I need to join a gym? Do I need to join a class?
For some people, not knowing where to start can be confusing and discouraging. My advice is, try, there are so many different types of ways to exercise, and many of them are actually fun! Give them a try. If you try, you find ‘the one’ that’s most suitable for your body, your schedule and your enjoyment.
Before jumping straight into any form of exercise, it’s important to reflect on your current health status – do you have a heart condition? Do you have high or low blood pressure? Issues with your spine, hip or knees? Old injuries? Allergic to chlorine? Certain health/medical conditions may contraindicate certain types of exercise. It would be a good idea to speak to a relevant health care professional first to determine some dos and don'ts.
Everyone has their likes, dislikes and preferences when it comes to exercising. Many people thrive in the gym and work well under the motivation of an instructor, exercise class or groups. However, I felt that the gym environment was not quite for me, as I much preferred peace, quiet and some privacy when I worked out. I am in no way discouraging anyone from going to gym, I am only sharing my person experience, which may resonate with some of you out there.
I began daily walks around the block in April 2017. In the beginning it was quite brutal as I was absolutely unfit, heeving and grunting, muscle spasms, red-faced. One day I had to ring my parents to pick me up 500 meters from the house, because I had such terrible spasm and couldn’t walk. I started something - I thought to myself – my body will adapt, and it will get better. My perseverance proved that it was right. As the days passed, I grow stronger, and I started to slowly challenge myself further each day: from 30 minutes of walk daily to an hour, then to 40 minutes of walk + 20 minutes of light jogging. 2 months later, I could run 5km and more.
If you are a jogging veteran or marathon medal-holder, my achievements are barely comparable. But the point was never for me to compare myself to anybody, but to track my own growth and challenge myself. I was unfit to the point where rushing up 5 flights of stairs could make me nauseas and dizzy, I have come far and will not quit.
I began resistance training in June 2017. In South Africa, winter begins around June, which means the sun sets at 5pm instead of 6pm. The earlier darkening of the sky really limited my jogging time, as I only get home from work around 4:30pm or later. I wasn’t going to let any more excuses prevent me from my newly-developed habit of exercising, so I moved exercising from outdoors to indoors, in my lounge to be exact.
There are many apps and programs available out there, some freely and some require subscription. Many of these programs required minimum equipment (I only purchased a yoga mat and some dumbells), and can be done at the comfort of our home, at any time of the day we wish, which really takes away any hinderance or excuses that might prevent us from slacking off.
I used these programs mostly as a guide, since I am a dietitian myself, already follow a healthy, balanced diet of my own, and have some knowledge (book-based) in trainng and sports. I chose to exclude cardio exercises, and focused exclusively on resistance training, as I feel that 2 months of cardio training have prepared my body to transition into resistance training, and that I wish to improve my strength and muscle tone.
I have never in my life done any resistance training, my new-found confidence was once again put to test when I shook like a leaf after planking for 20 seconds, or seeing stars after 5 straight-leg jack knives. It was another growth curve where I needed to be committed and motivated to climb to the top. I trained religiously, 3 days per week and approximately an hour each time. Slowly but surely, I grew stronger, tackling reps with ease, and started to develop beautiful and well-deserve muscle tone throughout my body, muscles I didn’t know I could ever have. The sweet fruit of perseverance motivated me to continue for 21 weeks (over 5 months). During one of these months, I travelled abroad. I did not let a holiday slow down my workout progress, and continued my routine workouts in hotel rooms, Airbnb rooms and even shared hostels using blanket or towels as make-shift mats (sorry for the extra laundry, and room-mates who probably thought I was insane).
I started dancing in August 2017, I was introduced to it by someone who does it semi-professionally. I was 3 months into resistance training, motivated and hungry for something new to add on to my routine. If you know me personally, you will know that I had no rhythm, no beat, no moves and avoided dancing in front of anyone at all costs. I wanted more challenge, and dancing would be THE challenge – I walked in to my first dancing class, and by the end of the night, I knew that I was not going to give it up.
Compared to resistance training, dancing required a whole different set of muscles, different strengths and body awareness. It was super fun, and I was learning to appreciate my body, my physique and femineity. Through dancing, I also found another area to improve on – I was as bendy as a broomstick, it hinders me from achieving beautiful shapes in dancing, and the stubborn me was going to tackle this obstacle of flexibility.
I began flexibility training in September 2017. At this time, I was still busy with 3 days of resistance training and 1 day of dancing per week. I began to stretch 2 days a week, around 30-45 minutes each time. I researched on stretching techniques from credible sources, and developed my own program based on what works best for my body. I would also supplement my training by attending flexibility training workshops held by industry professionals, where I had the opportunity to get pointers on technique correction and on how to advance further in my training. Note: For my own flexibility training program, I extracted and merged stretching, yoga, pilates and core workout techniques.
In early November 2017, I started easing off from resistance training. I was very active and started to shed weight quicker than I intended. I could have adjusted my dietary intake to supplement my increased activity levels, however, my intention was never to be ‘shredded’, but to be stronger and healthier. After 5 months of resistance training, I happily concluded this chapter and placed more focus on dancing and flexibility training.
It is now August 2018. I dance 2-3 times per week, stretch 2-3 times per week, go for walks, jogs and hikes few times a month, depending on my schedule. I am now at intermediate level of dancing, tackling the moves I dreamed of completing (literally). In terms of flexibility training, I have achieved front and middle splits, and striving further into my flexibility goals. With no childhood conditioning in either, I am extremely proud of how far I have come. Knowing how much I still need to work on and how far I still need to go, I am very motivated and will not let anything hinder me from living an active and flexible life. I am now stronger, happier and healthier than I have ever been.
What I hope you can take away from this article, is to take initiative of your own health, think, plan, research, speak to professionals, try, try some more, and try something new. It may not be easy and there will be obstacles, and you might take a break and realised that it has been weeks or months since you exercised - keep trying, the rewards will not only be the proudest sense of achievement and self-confidence, but also improved health and wellbeing!
Guess what? There's more to this journey. Stay tuned for part 3 ;)
I spoke to a friend recently and the conversation shifted to the topic of emotional health. As a health care professional, my main focus may be on physical health. However, as a person, I am an advocate for emotional and mental health. I may not be professional in this department, but it is something that needs to come to light, and be talked about.
We talked about finding happiness. Now that is a rather large topic and everyone has their own interpretation and opinions about it. I have encountered a few people who happen to share the same statements - they choose not to think about the question of whether they are happy. Some choose to rather focus on the immediate issues that needs to be solved to avoid bigger logistical problems, and find thinking about such things ‘unrealistic’, and some men would label such way of thinking 'femine' and steer clear of it. There is nothing wrong with having a realistic and logistic trait, However, we really ought to ask ourselves : are we truly happy? are we on a journey of seeking happiness? Or, are we merely alive?
I feel that many of us are consciously or subconsciously avoiding these questions. Many of us may have lost touch with our hearts, somewhere along the way.
I have been on both ends of the spectrum. Living and breathing as the day go by, filling the body, it was easy; feeling and digesting the finer details of life and being alive, filling the soul, it can be overwhelming. i wish not to lose touch with myself, with my heart and feelings. There are people who choose to stay numb, to not feel and not think to escape their problems, or escape negative feelings such as hurt or inadequancy. The truth is, the world will not disappear when we close our eyes. We cannot fix any problems and advance ourselves if we pretend that our problems do not exist. The consequence of avoiding problems, is that we are essentially avoiding ourselves, shutting out our heart, and the problems may seize the opportunity to silently and slowly consume you. They would snowball, and eventually be much more difficult to rectify.
I was a dietitian who disliked exercise. Yes, you heard right. Dietitians and nutritionists are largely associated with fantastic images on social media mostly consisted of salad, squats, planking and running marathons with a bright smile and barely breaking a sweat.
But I disliked exercise.
I was in fact a very active child. The leader of the kids in the block, bug hunter, tree climber. I was always galivanting outdoors, taking long walks along the river or visiting friends on the other side of town.
The change came when the change came. well, puberty, and relocation from China to South Africa - a brand new country full of strangers, unable to roam freely outdoors due to safety concerns, relying solely on parents for transport. I preferred to lounge at home where it is safe, and free from all the teenage insecurities.
Another change worth mentioning was Physical Education class at school. In China, we jogged, the girls jumped ropes, kicked shuttlecock, played Chicken. The boys played basketball, soccer, and hung out by the jungle gym. PE was a break, a get away from the hefty Chinese school workload and the PE teachers knew that well. Most of the time we played, and the PE teacher would light up a cigarette under the oak tree, chatting to the young and attractive sub teacher.
I suppose the cultural shock I experienced in South Africa was multi-faceted. PE lessons in my new school included swimming, volley ball, tennis, soccer... what even was volley ball? I've never learned how to swim, I was terrified of drowning. Why did the soccer ball always, always hit MY head? I could not catch a baseball if my life depended on it. Never mind. I thought to myself. I have terrible hand eye coordination, that's what it's called. I'm not good at it, therefore I dislike it. It's hot and sweaty and tiring. The young Elena had endless excuses to escape from exercise and she convinced herself that she didn’t need any of it.
I lived a sedentary lifestyle from teenhood through to adulthood. If I could drive, I would not even walk 500 meters. I spent my evenings and weekends indoors, or somewhere I could sit comfortably, cinema, restaurants, a couch during lunch gatherings. I banked on my genetic predisposition to stay lean without exercise.
The truth is, I was naïve and did not take responsibility for my own health. I had the mentality of ‘everything is fine now, so I don’t have to change and don’t need to try’. Thinking back, this is the exact mentality I was taught to NOT have – The best way to achieve and maintain ideal health is to live a healthy, balanced, and active lifestyle, where prevention of illnesses should be the focus, not waiting for something to go wrong then decide to change.
One cannot solely rely on a youthful metabolism to take care of one’s health and physique. We cannot overlook the importance of staying active. I made this mistake, and boy did I suffer the consequences: I was constantly struggling with low blood pressure, joint pain, stiff back, irritable bowel syndrome, and suffered from chronic fatigue, always feeling tired, deflated and demotivated. It was affecting my quality of life, my ability to function, to learn and to enjoy everything that life have to offer.
Chronic fatigue and low blood pressure led me to the doctor. After some tests and assessments, he prescribed me multivitamins, regular eating times, and 2-3 times of exercise weekly. I was embarrassed, and even more so sharing this story to you – I was a student studying to become a dietitian, and I was prescribed everything I was taught to preach to my future patients – Oops.
After a small reality check, I signed up for a gym membership, thinking that once I've signed a binding contract, I will have to get my money’s worth of exercise. I graced the gym for a few months, before excuses took over again – I was tired after a full day, I was too hungry to go to the gym, I ate too much to go the gym, I am comfortable in my lounge wear, blah blah. I believe that I did not truly realise the need for me to change, was not dedicated to change, and did not make a sincere decision to change.
I posted this photo in April, 2017. I ordered a new pair of trainers and sports top. It was my last excuse – I will wait for my activewear to arrive, and then I will start working out.
The real, final, last straw was a visit to the emergency room, followed by a week of bed rest due to pneumonia. I was involved in a month-long project where I worked long hours and had little sleep. My immune system and fitness level was simply not strong enough to handle a heavier-than-usual workload. This is not okay, I thought to myself, I am a young woman in my 20s, who is otherwise healthy and able, I should be kicking around the world full of energy and stealth. I needed to be stronger, I needed to change.
Long story short, 14 months later, I cannot be pried off my trainers, yoga mat, and don’t even think about taking me out of the dance studio. I have maintained a habit of exercising 1 to 3 hours, three times per week. Being active has become a part of my life, a part of my normal routine. I have never been physically stronger, my energy level has soared, and I’ve barely even had a minor cold in the past year. The bonus is, I am healthier, mind body and soul.
If you are living a sedentary lifestyle by choice, I hope that my experience can encourage you to think about your own health, and how you can improve it. Excuses, fear of change, and a false sense of ‘everything is okay right now’ hinder us from positive changes that will help us achieving better physical and emotional health. It is never too late to try to change, but it might just be too late if your never change.
Stay tuned for part two of The Exercise Journal – routines, programs, tips, advices and more!
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According to source, China has an average life expectancy of 84.1 years (2015), with a steady growth since 1930 (source).
One of the most popular image associated with life in China is grey-haired grannies sitting underneath a tree, swinging their fans and chattering away about their daughter-in-law and grandkids:
It is indeed quite correct :) Growing up in China, i found that older people are never truly the frail generation. Grandparents are seen walking their grandchildren to school, grocery shopping for the famil; cook, clean, and gather in parks to practice taichi or dance. Many grandparents are still working as shop or stall tenders and are very productive members of the society. The elderly only seems to ‘really get old’ when they are in late 70s or 80s.
I can go on about how the Chinese economy have improved and that the quality of life in China have raised significantly. However, I am not writing a scientific/journalistic report today.
I would like to share with you the longevity secrets of my Chinese grandmother- She was born in 1926, a whole 91 years ago! Granny has had a roller-coaster of a life: Her parents survived the first world war, herself and her sister were the only 2 out of 9 siblings who survived the second world war, famine and many more. Nowadays, granny’s favourite activity is to play with her great-grandchild in a beautiful high-rise apartment, with a gorgeous of view of the metropolis.
What I find remarkable about granny is that she lived independently until the age of 88. Yes, I think its absolutely amazing that she was able to walk to the market every morning for grocery shopping, visit friends, cook, clean completely by herself . Granny loved a clean house and always moved furniture on her own to mop corners. She has always been healthy and was never bothered by chronic conditions.
For more than a decade I lived with granny, and I have come to the realisation that she is the one who planted the seeds of healthy lifestyle in me from a tender age. I have learned a great deal from her throughout the years. Today, I am sharing my Chinese granny’s golden secrets of longevity:
1. Vegetables, fresh vegetables
Every morning, granny would visit the farmers market to buy the freshest vegetables, harvested before the break of dawn and bejeweled with sparkling dew. She always preferred farmers market over supermarket vegetables, and never, ever in her life cooked with frozen or canned vegetables.
Granny’s typical meal would be 3 dishes of food, 2 of them would be vegetarian, and one would be a meat dish. In fact, the meat dish is often mixed with vegetables. In my professional opinion, vegetable should constitute the largest portion of the mean, as they provide us with excellent vitamin, minerals, antioxidants and fibre.
Granny’s choice of freshly harvested vegetables were absolutely right. When vegetables are stored/displayed, nutritional value gradually decreses, even more so when they are processed. This does not mean that we should never eat supermarket vegetables or frozen veg - have your daily veg, but try to strive for the freshest cut.
2. GLV: Green Leafy Vegetables
Granny loves green vegetables! In China, there is definitely a much bigger variety of GLV, and many more way of prepraring them.
GLV was a staple dish for every meal. I cannot stress more on how often we should eat GLV (by the way, daily). To this day, one of my favourite dish is still stir-fried greens with garlic and salt.
Benefit of GLV: Green is good! GLV are typically good sources of vitamin C, vitain K, folate, potassium, manganese and fiber. So great for blood sugar management, heart health and general wellbeing!
A dietitian who is passionate about health, writing, and living life to the fullest.