Circuit breaker's biggest losers: Why some people ended up fitter, not fatter

Aryan Goyanka, 9.6 Hao FM DJ Wen Guoxian, SPH Radio DJ Joshua Simon and Saphira Nur Idayu demonstrating a "full scorpion". COURTESY OF VIVEK VENKATRAM, WEN GUOXIAN, KUA CHEE SIONG, ALPHONSUS CHERN

SINGAPORE - Just before the circuit breaker started on April 7, Mr Pan Dewei decided to set some goals.

Since his gym was closed, he would go jogging every night for 45 minutes in his neighbourhood in the east of Singapore, getting some fresh air at the same time.

He would banish the temptation to snack while working from home, eradicating sugar and excising his favourite salted egg potato crisps from his diet.

As a single person living alone, Mr Pan, who works in the legal industry, felt he could control what he ate.

Avoiding what he calls the "trap" of calorific delivery meals, he chose to cook more, emphasising grilled proteins and salads.

It was a bid to exert control amid the stresses of the coronavirus, a well-recognised response to dealing with a crisis, experts say.

Mr Pan, who is in his 40s, says: "It was a way of imposing some discipline and structure on an ambiguous and fearful situation, where you fear the worst.

"The pandemic had upended everything. You seek to impose control the only way you can, over your own life."

He lost 7kg in about two months and now weighs 78kg. He is 1.76m tall.

He took the more austere path, while others were making too many trips to the refrigerator, cooking, baking and snacking during the Covid-19 shutdown.

Comfort-eating has come into its own with the term "quaranten", coined for the ten pounds (4.5kg) or so gained from over-indulgence during the lockdown worldwide.

When it comes to how people respond to the coronavirus, experts say that over-eating and abstinence can be two sides of the same coin.

Dr Joan Khoo, chief and senior consultant at the department of endocrinology at Changi General Hospital, says: "The circuit breaker and and the Covid-19 situation are difficult times.

"Many people cope with stress, anxiety and loneliness by eating more, especially craving fatty and sweet foods that stimulate the production of brain chemicals such as serotonin, which induces pleasurable sensations and relieves anxiety.

"Higher production of the stress hormone, cortisol, also increases hunger and promotes deposition of fat around the belly."

"Conversely, other people may be motivated to control their weight if they are aware that they are going to be less active and eat more, especially if they had been advised to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight to manage conditions such as diabetes."

Ms Saphira Nur Idayu demonstrating the "front kick through" while wearing a Fitbit. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

She notes: "Since the pandemic induced feelings of helplessness and lack of control, some people decided to take charge of at least one thing in their lives: Their weight, by dieting and embarking on an exercise programme."

Other experts say Singaporeans embraced pandemic pavement pounding also as a reaction to long periods of confinement during the circuit breaker.

Even those who were normally sedentary took to exercise during the circuit breaker, says Mr Chiang Hock Woon, deputy chief executive officer of Sport Singapore.

According to the annual National Sport Participation Survey, the percentage of respondents who were not active in the past year decreased during the circuit breaker period, from 15 per cent, compared to the annual average of 21 per cent last year.

Sport Singapore recently launched Get Active TV, which is part of the GetActive @ Home initiative to encourage staying active and strong during this period.

It had 900,000 views last month, compared to 500,000 views in April, says Mr Chiang.

He says: "The demand is very strong. Exercising at home wasn't something that people were used to, but some have found it effective.

"There is a sense of self-discovery and re-invention for some as they don't need to travel to their office and have more free time during the coronavirus."

Mr Danny Teo Jun Hao, a senior trainer at fitness firm ExerciseOnly, notes that the extended circuit breaker, which was about two months, was lengthy enough to start off many on a training regimen, such as a 30-day fitness challenge.

But healthcare practitioners caution against excessiveness and obsessiveness in embarking on any weight loss programmes.

They recommend more sustainable and moderate weight loss, which means losing no more than half or one kilogram a week, while eating a variety of food.

She learnt to accept her body

Ms Nur Idayu Abdul Rahman had refused to do any exercise in the first three weeks of the circuit breaker. PHOTO: COURTESY OF NUR IDAYU ABDUL RAHMAN, ALPHONSUS CHERN

Ms Nur Idayu Abdul Rahman, 25, refused to do any exercise in the first three weeks of the circuit breaker to stem the spread of Covid-19.

For most of April, she was plagued by worry as she pondered the financial impact of the coronavirus on the video production company that she runs with her 22-year-old husband.

Being unable to film outdoors meant that work at Electus Films slowed to a trickle.

"I felt awful at the beginning with stresses and uncertainties, wondering whether I would get my next gig. When everything stopped... I didn't want to move," says Ms Idayu, who used to do parkour in a park regularly.

But when she decided to exercise again, her spirits lifted.

"I found that every little achievement made me happy," she says.

Ms Saphira Nur Idayu demonstrating the "lizard crawl" while wearing a Fitbit. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Notifications on her Fitbit fitness tracker - which shows whether she is getting enough sleep or has hit her target heart rate, a measure of optimal exertion for cardiovascular fitness - helped her re-establish an exercise routine.

Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month which fell within the circuit breaker period, also helped regulate her mealtimes.

She worked out daily for two hours before breaking fast at slightly past 7pm, taking 10-minute breaks, so she did not feel too thirsty.

She did mainly Animal Flow workouts, encouraged by her friend, movement coach Khairil Alias, 32, who sent her specific instructions on PDF files.

Animal Flow is a form of exercise involving ground-based movements with names like Full Scorpion and Lizard.

Ms Saphira Nur Idayu demonstrating the "full scorpion" while wearing a Fitbit. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

After two months of daily workouts and controlling her intake of carbohydrates, Ms Idayu, who is 1.59m tall, has lost 2 kg. She now weighs 67kg.

She has also gained a new self-image. Her pre-coronavirus life, surrounded by throngs of people and filled with 12-hour work days, has given way to staying home with her husband and her mother, eating home-cooked meals like salmon or chicken breast with broccoli, and avoiding rice.

When the clamour of everyday life subsided, she realised she had internalised a flood of negative comments about her body.

"It's so quiet; you're much closer to your head. You don't realise until you're alone with your thoughts how negative they can be. I had low self-esteem and I didn't look the way I wanted to look," she reflects.

She is more confident now that she feels healthier. Though she knows it is a long road to complete self-acceptance, she is her own cheerleader.

"Sometimes you need to be your own bro and tell yourself, it's okay, you're doing well."

She ramped up her fitness goals during the circuit breaker

Stay-at-home mum Cinly Lee, 30, wanted to lose her belly fat after giving birth to her third child seven months ago.

Ms Cinly Lee on her exercise bike during a workout on June 25, 2020. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

The Covid-19 circuit breaker allowed her to focus more on her fitness goals.

She no longer had to ferry her two elder children, aged five and four, to their abacus, swimming and Kumon enrichment classes, which were suspended during the circuit breaker.

"I gave myself a challenge since I had more time," says Ms Lee, who is married to a 36-year-old executive director of a construction company.

Ms Cinly Lee (centre) during a workout over Zoom on June 25, 2020. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

From gym sessions three times a week previously, she worked out every weekday since early April, when the circuit breaker started. Her online workouts include HITT (high-intensity interval training); strength-training and body-weight-based classes on Zoom; as well as exercise sessions using a stationery bike at home.

She also became more strict with her diet, cutting out rice at dinner and switching from vegetable oil to olive oil.

"Because we weren't allowed to dine out during the circuit breaker and had to prepare most of our meals at home, it was easier to adopt a healthier diet and stick to it," says Ms Lee, adding that weaning her baby daughter onto solid food also helped. She had to eat more previously in order to support her breastfeeding.

Ms Cinly Lee doing inch worm pushups during a workout over Zoom on June 25, 2020. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

"Initially, it was difficult especially since I like to eat carbs like bread and cake. But your body gets used to it and being determined adds to your progress too," says Ms Lee, who is 1.64m tall.

She has lost seven kilograms since April, going from 75kg to 68kg, and is gunning for her target of 60kg.

The endorphins released through exercise, which are chemicals in the body that trigger positive feelings, "drastically improved" her moods.

Ms Cinly Lee after a workout on June 25, 2020. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

"During the circuit breaker, most of us had to stay at home. It affected me both physically and psychologically as I am usually an active person. It can stressful when everyone is confined," she says.

"I soon realised that dedicating 45 minutes to a workout, away from my family, gave me a chance to recharge. I was taking good care of myself, which in turn allowed me to better take care of my family's needs."

Getting in better shape for NS

Aryan Goyanka wanted to get in better shape for his national service enlistment in August. PHOTO: COURTESY OF VIVEK VENKATRAM

Teenager Aryan Goyanka has a fitness deadline.

The 17-year-old wanted to get in better shape for his national service enlistment in August.

"I'm excited about NS. The strict regimentation and discipline is something new for me and I'm looking forward to it," says the former International Baccalaureate (IB) student, whose international school has closed since April.

Pre-Covid-19, the Singapore permanent resident, whose parents hail from India, used to go to the gym three times a week. During the circuit breaker, this was replaced by thrice-weekly individual and group virtual workouts involving lunges, planks and sit-ups with a trainer. He also ran at least 5km almost every day in East Coast Park, near his home.

Before, he could do five push-ups a minute, but he now does 30.

Aryan, who is 1.85m tall, has gone from 91kg to 87kg, and feels more energetic over all.

His new fitness regimen is also a distraction from the coronavirus.

"Working out diverts your attention from a lot of negative news and helps you stay focused on one goal," he says.

DJ finds fasting fun

To celebrate his 30th birthday earlier this month, Joshua Simon went on a 53-hour fast and spent a lot of time reading and writing in a journal. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

During the Covid-19 shutdown, SPH Radio DJ Joshua Simon discovered the joys of fasting.

His usual gym visits and rock-climbing sessions were disallowed during the circuit breaker and he did not enjoy doing workouts at home. So the 30-year-old Singaporean decided to focus more on limiting his food intake to avoid weight gain.

"I needed something exciting. I wanted to try something new," says the Kiss92FM radio DJ and independent pop artist, who had adopted a vegetarian diet for the first three months of this year as an experiment.

After researching the topic, he decided to try a combination of two popular diet trends - the ketogenic or keto diet, a very low-carb, high-fat diet; and intermittent fasting, a way of eating that alternates between fasting and normal food consumption during a specific period of time.

In the keto diet, the body breaks down fats to form substances called ketones, which act as an alternate fuel source in a metabolic process known as ketosis. Proponents say that intermittent fasting helps the body reach ketosis faster than on the keto diet alone.

A bad break-up in 2018 prompted SPH Radio DJ Joshua Simon to lose 11 kg in about a year, but also resurfaced an old habit of bulimia he thought he had left behind. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Besides going on midnight walks, he practises a form of intermittent fasting where he goes for 20 hours each day without food. Although he is not completely sold on the keto diet - he misses rice - he is keen to embrace intermittent fasting for the long haul.

"I like having a system. Intermittent fasting ensures I don't binge and helps me control what I eat. It's a reminder... to fill yourself up with other things," he says. To celebrate his 30th birthday earlier this month, he went on a 53-hour fast and spent a lot of time reading and writing in a journal.

Fasting, he says, has also helped him "repair (his) relationship with food". Obese as a child, the memories associated with being larger than his peers still haunt him.

"It's not only attention that a child seeks, but also acceptance, I felt excluded from that because of weight," says Mr Simon, who is dating someone.

He has always enjoyed entertainment and pop culture but similarly felt "repelled" by what he is drawn to, because the clothes and looks feted by the industry never fit him.

A bad break-up in 2018 prompted him to lose 11 kg in about a year, but also resurfaced an old habit of bulimia he thought he had left behind.

Standing at 1.85m tall, he now weighs about 95 kg, down from 110 kg, and he hopes to reach 85kg.

He says he did not take note of how much weight he lost during the circuit breaker as he does not want to weigh himself and "fixate" on the number. But he feels and looks better than he has ever been, he says.

Intermittent fasting has helped him look at food as being "just food", enabling him to gain objectivity regarding his struggles with food.

He says: "To repair anything, you have to look at it from a distance, from many angles. To fix a bike, you have to get off it."

Right now, his relationship with food is "progressing". "There's a lot less fear," he says.

Less washing up leads to 5kg weight loss

At 1.7m tall, Wen Guoxian weighs 65kg now, compared to 70kg before (left). PHOTO: COURTESY OF WEN GUOXIAN

A reluctance to wash dishes helped DJ Wen Guoxian, 46, lose five kilograms without really trying.

Circuit breaker restrictions started dictating the food the SPH Radio DJ ate since April.

For starters, he had to ditch his habit of eating out. Preferring to cook a few fast and simple one-pot meals, he opted to steam or stir-fry chicken or fish for his protein.

Deep-fried food, which requires more time cleaning oily crockery and mopping the kitchen floor, was out; as were desserts which take too much time to put together.

The vagaries of nabbing online delivery slots, scarce during the circuit breaker, led him to set up a rationing system - where he restricted himself to, say, three chicken wings for a meal - just in case his supplies ran out.

The DJ at 96.3 Hao FM station - hao means "good" in Mandarin - says: "My friends said I must be fighting a war with the rations I was on, but I was just lazy. I didn't plan to slim down."

Some acquaintances expressed envy and surprise at how he lost so much weight so quickly. At 1.7m tall, he weighs 65kg now, compared to 70kg before.

Mr Wen, who kept up his regular Tabata workouts, a form of high- intensity interval training, says he felt deprived at first, but found other consolations during the circuit breaker.

"At the beginning, I thought, why so cham (a Singlish word denoting being in a bad state), can only eat this or that. But I found myself enjoying not going out, when I had always thought of myself as someone who could not stay at home for long," says the bachelor who lives alone.

He has been relaxing and working on his own projects, such as setting up a home audio system.

"Cooking is not really as tough as I'd thought. I'll be cooking at home more."

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