Covid-19 Special

Coronavirus: From losing weight to becoming a plant parent, they developed new good habits during the circuit breaker

Some people developed new good habits during the circuit breaker - psychologists weigh in on how to make them stick

PHOTOS: CHEN YIXI, A. SYADIQ, SHANNON LEE, JOEL CHAN

During the earlier part of the coronavirus crisis, there was much humble-bragging online about maximising a "productive pandemic".

While few may have mastered a new language under the circuit breaker which started in April, some people have, inadvertently or not, shed bad habits or acquired good ones then.

These new routines are here to stay, say some interviewed by The Sunday Times. Local celebrity Xiang Yun wanted to lose the extra kilos that made her unhappy. She is now determined to maintain her stunning almost 10kg weight loss.

Others found that the stay-home period encouraged the sprouting of new hobbies, where old pastimes - which were now too expensive, or involved too many other resources or people - were no longer possible.

Psychologists have some ideas about how to make a desirable circuit breaker habit stick in the long term.

Dr Brandon Koh, an industrial-organisational psychologist at Singapore University of Social Sciences, advises analysing what factors led you to gain better habits during the shut-in period, and to find ways to sustain them.

Consider your responses to questions such as: If you have lost the flexibility of time, for example, by returning to the office, how will you configure your schedule to keep up your good habits?

Good goal setting helps, he says.

Aims like keeping to a fitness routine should be specific to keep you on task. They should be moderately difficult to achieve, as goals that are too hard are abandoned, while those that are too simple may not motivate you.

Conversely, if you have formed bad habits like sleeping late, do not despair. Dr Koh suggests "targeting and removing the cues that trigger that habit". He recalls how covering boxes of titbits with black paper helped a family member of his stop munching mindlessly as it tamped down the appeal of the snacks.

Practising mindfulness also helps one cling on to the benefits of wholesome new routines.

Developmental psychologist Jeslyn Lim from Mind Culture, a centre that provides various therapies to improve mental health, says: "Forming and maintaining new habits require effort and motivation. Having a concrete plan and being mindful throughout the day can aid you significantly."

She suggests applying the same mindfulness - when washing hands thoroughly - to deliberately making sound decisions, whether it is choosing healthy meals or setting aside time to enjoy your new hobby of knitting.


Xiang Yun lost 9.9kg, Edmund Chen gained washboard abs

The circuit breaker kick-started a health drive for Xiang Yun, Edmund Chen and their son Yixi and daughter Yixin.
The circuit breaker kick-started a health drive for Xiang Yun, Edmund Chen and their son Yixi and daughter Yixin. PHOTO: CHEN YIXI
 

At the start of this year, veteran actress Xiang Yun was thinking of quitting after more than 30 years in show business.

The popular Mediacorp artist was downcast about her weight gain and dealing with hot flushes and other signs of menopause.

Sweat sometimes soaked the back of her clothes and there were episodes where she drooled excessively, she recounts.

"Going through menopause these few years has been scary. I felt my body was swollen and my face became square in shape. I was very upset. I was 59.1kg and I thought, this is unacceptable.

"At the beginning of the year, I felt no hope. I was thinking of resigning," she confides.

Xiang Yun (left) started a diet, cut down on alcohol and tries to sleep early, while her husband Edmund Chen (above) started doing strength training exercises and now boasts a sculpted body.
Xiang Yun (left) started a diet, cut down on alcohol and tries to sleep early, while her husband Edmund Chen (above) started doing strength training exercises and now boasts a sculpted body. PHOTOS: XIANG YUN/ INSTAGRAM, EDMUND CHEN/INSTAGRAM

Like her husband Edmund Chen Zhicai, a fellow entertainment industry veteran, she is 59 this year.

They have two children, Chen Yixi, 29, and Chen Yixin, 20, who are also actors.

In February, after Chinese New Year, Xiang Yun embarked on a Taiwanese diet programme, which she declines to name, which was recommended by a friend.

The circuit breaker period, which started on April 7 and saw filming grind to a halt, kick-started a health and fitness drive for the entire family.

Daughter Yixin says: "I think it's the butterfly effect. I would think: 'My brother's exercising, I'd better exercise, too.' We would inspire and encourage one another."

For the first three days of Xiang Yun's diet, she ate egg whites and cucumbers. Although it was hard initially - she dreamt about food - she went on to cut out sugar and pork.

Standing at 1.58m tall, she had hoped to lose 3kg. To date, she has lost 9.9kg.

Though she takes a little sugar now and has the occasional cheat meal, she is thrilled about her weight loss and wants to "work harder" to bring down her visceral fat levels from 10 per cent to 6 per cent.

She has also been inspired to improve other aspects of her health. She now takes a glass of wine, instead of two, on special occasions and tries to sleep early.

"I got rid of all my bad habits. Health is the most important thing," says Xiang Yun, who currently hosts variety show Silver Carnival on Mediacorp Channel 8.

She will next play a cleaner in year-end drama serial Jungle Survivor.

During the circuit breaker, she sometimes joined Yixin's daily, hour-long high-intensity interval training sessions on Skype with her friends.

Meanwhile, son Yixi persuaded his father to gain more muscle tone by joining him in strength-training exercises at home.

These helped Yixi to recover from an old sports injury that had left him unable to walk for almost a week last year.

Yixi observes: "During the circuit breaker, we as a family became more disciplined."

By exercising together, they also became closer, although he says his father's more chiselled body has been a source of torment for him.

Yixi says with mock despair: "I still have no abs. People my age will tell me: 'Eh, your father is very hot.'"

His father deadpans: "I comfort him that it's because he has baby fat."

Describing the greater teamwork and bonding within the family during the pandemic, Edmund says: "It was a challenging period, but we got closer and respected one another in the confined space.

"At home, I have three directors. Yixin is the F&B director because she cooks a lot.

"My son is the operational and lifestyle director because he pushes me to exercise every day, even though laziness is part of my DNA. Xiang Yun is the sleeping partner."

He is "talking nonsense", his wife quips.

Edmund recalls how he used to be able to "bao" (Mandarin for carry) his beautiful bride after they married in 1989, then had to "tuo" (pull) her along in the intervening years.

Now that she has lost weight, he can "bao" her again.

Yixi chimes in: "This is what I have to go through, this comedy skit, every day."


Drawing got author out of creative rut


Author Mok Zining picked up drawing, which she says gives her comfort because as a beginner, she has less expectations to be perfect at it. PHOTO: VIVIAN CHOO

Producing her own drawings during the circuit breaker gave debut author Mok Zining a kind of freedom from writing.

In mid-March, the 25-year-old returned home from the University of Minnesota in the United States, where she is pursuing a master's degree in creative writing.

Her first book, The Orchid Folios, which is about the history and symbolism of the Vanda Miss Joaquim orchid, Singapore's national flower, will be published by Ethos Books in Singapore in November.

When the circuit breaker started in early April, Mok, who is single, could not engage in hobbies like rock climbing, which she used to do in the US.

She started drawing more, ironically finding comfort in being "so bad" at it.

"The biggest appeal is its low stakes. I don't have to have discipline and there are no rules... It allows me to laugh at myself.

"I'm able to accept small failures in my writing. When I'm judgmental about my work, such as when I am rewriting, I end up writing something that is very similar and I get stuck in a loop. Drawing makes me feel liberated from that loop."

Drawing abstract, repetitive shapes with markers or colour pencils gets her out of creative ruts in her writing, as well as in dance, another passion of hers.

She studied dance as a minor as an undergraduate in Northwestern University in Illinois in the US. She has taken part in public performances and enjoys ballet and contemporary dance.

"Both writing and dance are very tied to my identity, so when I fail, it hits me a lot harder than if I failed in drawing.

"Sometimes, I get frustrated when I fail to capture what I want to express or if I fail to execute a movement in a dance that I know," says Mok, who is taking a hiatus from dance as she recently underwent surgery for an injury.

Her drawings, filled with curves, spirals and flowing lines, have opened her eyes to connections between different art forms.

The sense of an erosion of boundaries, which she has sometimes felt while drawing, is reflected in her work, where the hybrid orchid in her book reveals various aspects of Singapore, such as colonialism, biotechnology and multiracialism.

"These ways of thinking complement and can illuminate one another," says Mok.


Becoming a proud plant mama


Ms Shaza Ishak, managing director of theatre company Teater Ekamatra, says tending to plants has helped her to be patient because they grow so slowly. PHOTO: A. SYADIQ

During the circuit breaker, when Ms Shaza Ishak went shopping for groceries, she noticed plants wilting outside a garden centre in her Bedok neighbourhood.

She had toyed with the idea of buying plants there before Covid-19 hit, but figured that she and her two flatmates were too busy for gardening.

But seeing the dying plants "was depressing", says the managing director of theatre company Teater Ekamatra. She decided to buy some to stop them from dying, and also because she had more time to tend to them since she was working from home.

The garden centre was shuttered, but there was a number to call. She got in touch with the owner, who let her have some plants for a low price.

After making the necessary e-payments, Ms Shaza, 31, became a plant parent. Just like a new mama, she has given her plant babies names and sends their photos to her friends.

"Being at home all the time, the plants became a bit of an obsession, as well as a way for my housemates and me to bond," says Ms Shaza, who is single.

From having zero foliage, her four-room HDB flat now hosts 25 plants, including cacti, hoya and ficus plants, a fishbone fern and a small olive tree.

During the day, some of the plants are rotated every few hours around the flat for optimum sunlight.

She even has an Excel spreadsheet keeping track of when the plants were last watered and repotted. She has also exchanged mint and curry plants with her friends via delivery services.

The benefits of her new hobby are manifold. She has learnt to be more patient, for one thing.

"Because plants grow so slowly, it's a whole new understanding of the phrase, delayed gratification," she says.

"Besides, you can give all your love to plants, but they can still die on you... It matures you. It's 50 per cent about effort; the other 50 per cent is up to your 'child'."

She did not get rid of a plant which had apparently died and was surprised when seed-lings sprouted a week later.

"I feel like all my breaks have been spent hanging out with my plants," says Ms Shaza, who looks forward to checking on them in the morning to see if there are any new leaves sprouting.

Indoor gardening has been a balm for her now that time feels "rubbery", sometimes flowing fast, sometimes slowly, in ways you may not expect, she says.

Teater Ekamatra has had to let go of two employees due to the pandemic. She has been working from home for more hours than usual on projects like Baca Skrip, a monthly series of online readings of Malay plays that will run till next month.

The upcoming session on Friday features Ikan Cantik (ikancantik.peatix.com), written by playwright Aidli Mosbit, which explores ideas about beauty.

Ms Shaza says the sedate rhythms of gardening have a different quality.

"It forces you to be slower. There is some fragility to it. I have the time to take a breath and to do it more consciously."


Wine-and-dine Zoom sessions here to stay


Ms Shannon Lee prefers to minimise social contact, so she has continued meeting her friends over Zoom with food and wine. PHOTO: SHANNON LEE

While others have been wining and dining in phase two of the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, Ms Shannon Lee is not giving up virtual socialising. She has continued her Zoom calls with friends, with a bottle of red wine and a platter of cold cuts and bread sticks.

Her virtual happy hours, which started once or twice a week during the circuit breaker, are sometimes like mini theme parties. The nibbles for Spanish night, for instance, include marinated olives and a Spanish chorizo omelette.

Ms Lee, 48, who works in real estate management, has grown to like the flexibility of tele-socialising. "I get to choose what I like and I don't have to travel anywhere," she says.

When dining at a restaurant, for example, a group may have to cater for someone going carb-free and someone who does not eat meat.

In contrast, when Ms Lee is at home on Zoom, the hummus she whips up for bar snacks can be customised to contain as much or as little garlic as she prefers.

As such, the single mother of an 11-year-old has not been meeting friends face-to-face much. She prefers to minimise social contact because there are still Covid-19 cases in the community.

Consumerism has taken a back seat for her, like many others, during the pandemic.

In a recent survey conducted by personal finance website SingSaver, respondents in Singapore felt that their spending habits had changed. About 87 per cent agreed that the pandemic has led them to spend less and save more.

With the world going into recession, Ms Lee says "it's inevitable that we look into our personal finances and minimise risk and exposure".

She has signed up for a credit card that offers better rebates and is looking anew at her financial portfolio.

While many have baulked at video-conference catch-ups before, deeming them too impersonal, Ms Lee feels these and other Covid-19 adaptations are keepers for the long term.

She saves on the expense of taking a cab to and from drinks sessions.

"It's cost effective and forces us to make more efficient use of our time," she adds.


Chilling out with meditation

The circuit breaker was a stressful time for Mr Nikhil Gupta, his wife Pooja Kawatra and their children Aayan and Kaira, so he suggested the whole family take up meditation to destress.
The circuit breaker was a stressful time for Mr Nikhil Gupta, his wife Pooja Kawatra and their children Aayan and Kaira, so he suggested the whole family take up meditation to destress. ST PHOTO: JOEL CHAN

The circuit breaker with its upheaval of routines was an anxious time for the Gupta family.

Mr Nikhil Gupta, 41, an associate director in the IT section of a bank, had to get used to working from home.

Screen time shot up to almost nine hours a day for his two children, Aayan, 12, and Kaira, seven, who had to do home-based learning and tuition online, and could not go downstairs to play in the evenings as they used to.

Stay-at-home mother Pooja Kawatra was cooking more than ever.

Mr Gupta suggested the whole family take up meditation to destress, a technique that had worked for him and his wife in the past.

Ms Kawatra, 41, who is the founder of the Mums & Babies parenting blog, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2009.

She says practising meditation together had helped the couple with their emotional well-being on the "roller coaster ride" of cancer.

They were worried at first about the kids proclaiming they were bored, a frequent refrain during the shut-in period.

Daughter Kaira would ask what to do when she closed her eyes, but her parents soon found that she was eager to follow what her elder brother Aayan did.

Aayan kept the family on track by making sure they meditated every night.

The breathing exercises helped him to sleep better, he says.

Ms Kawatra recounts: "I didn't want to force it on them. It's the same effect when you ask them to eat veggies. If you force them, they won't like it. If you offer vegetables to them every day, it may work. Once they accepted it, it became a routine."

Meditation has helped build a "calm home life" that is good for mental health during the pandemic, she says.

The family still try to do at least 20 minutes of meditation before bedtime daily, seated near the Himalayan salt lamp on their living room floor, even though Kaira sometimes gets wriggly 10 minutes in.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2020, with the headline 'Creatures of habit'. Subscribe