Racing to lose weight

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

This article was first published on Sept 7, 2014. 

My family's athletic ability ranges from fair to middling but nobody, absolutely nobody can beat us in Olympic-level, gold-medal competitiveness. The drive to win is strong enough these days to wake us up at 5am and propel us en masse to the gym.

We used to compete in the stakes of whose day was worst or whose share of domestic chores the hardest. But around April, when I threw my back out while tying my shoelaces before a Zumba class, it became obvious that our family of four, two parents eyeing 60 and two children in their 30s, was in imminent danger of failing the tests of jeans and suitcases.

The weighing scale has never meant much to us. As veterans of food rationing in India, the words "You've reduced!" were often heard in a tone of dismay, relics of a culture where losing weight indicated a decline in prosperity.

I weighed myself perhaps five times in all seven years of teenhood, despite living in a hostel where eating disorders were rife. The scales I knew to judge myself against were: Can you haul the overfull family suitcases on and off luggage conveyer belts and then race to catch a train? And how good do you look in jeans while doing so?

The jeans test is administered by onlookers and thanks to my family's innate sense of fairness, we have never lied to one another to ensure top spot, never refused to give credit where credit is due.

Neither do we lie to ourselves, so after a few glances in the mirror three months ago, I began looking for a gym that could accommodate our special needs. My father, a top swimmer in his day, wants to regain some muscle; my brother, a basketball player with sports injuries, seeks new ways to keep fit; my mother, a yoga practitioner, has been robbed of some flexibility by age and illness. As for me, I am the fastest reader and undisputed champion of the 10-hour nap-marathon, but have hopes of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro one day. Or maybe Mount Faber.

Having found a gym with trainer-therapists who could help with our physical injuries as well as whip us into shape, all four of us signed up and began exchanging high-fives and jokes about the jeans shopping spree soon to come.

Beneath the grins, we sized one another up with bared teeth. It was game on, starting with my father apologising in advance for his awesome athletic form, which would doubtless leave us all eating his dust.

It took a few weeks, but he could soon alternate 10km walk-jogs with pull-ups and perfect squats. Unfortunately, he then slipped in the rain en route to his personal training session. Until his wounds heal, there is a little less pressure on us remaining three.

My mother insists she is above competition, but bullied her trainer-therapist into creating a workout routine she could do four times a week in spite of incredibly painful tendinitis. My brother whacks out dozen-rep sets of push-ups and, in between, eyes me benevolently as I try to complete one measly push-up without having to resort to girly knees on the ground. I win in the endurance stakes and last longest when it comes to cardio.

(Never mind how long. Longer than them is all that matters.)

"We mustn't over do it," warn my parents as we pass the foam roller around one evening. So rest days are strictly enforced, but the war carries over to the dining table.

"My trainer says quinoa is good," says my father, flexing a new recipe. "My trainer told me no carbs at night," retorts my brother, skinning grilled chicken. "My trainer says to reduce the portions," I say. (All three of us train with the same person.) Meanwhile my mother eats everything and accuses us of latent eating disorders.

Thanks to a professional diet plan, it's not been the Hunger Games, but in a little over a month our jeans and pants are a lot looser. Shirts fall better, in some cases sag. New holes have to be punched in belts cinched tighter. As suitcases fill for an upcoming trip, it becomes easier for all four of us to haul luggage out of storage and move it from room to room.

As we change shape, so does the battle. Out of the blue, my mother launches a hug attack. "You're getting bony," she says, poking my elbow. "Your shoulders are so small," I say, tape measure ready to prove it.

"Those pants look good, but loose," my father tells my brother.

Grinning, teeth bared, we wait to see who will be the first to succumb to the compliment contest and ease up in this second leg of the fit race.

Game on. So far, we're all winning - er, losing.

akshitan@sph.com.sg