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HIIT and run

Morning breakfast, playground and babycino break with little M, followed by a 90-min steady trail run and then HIIT with this fun crew. A great start to the weekend!

Johnny’s HIIT class was just the thing I needed to spice up my exercise habits since I mostly do endurance runs with one or two speed interval sessions thrown in every week. With our #TopfitMorning 12-week fitness challenge going on, it motivated me to do the class. Two of our challengers Lee and Janice joined in – going beyond their requisite three sessions a week – and it was inspiring to see them so determined to achieve their fitness goals.

Birth of the bulge

This story was first published in the South China Morning Post on Monday, Sept 14 2015.

dadbod evolution

Weight gain, fatigue and mental problems are common among first-time fathers, but a little effort can arrest the slide

By Jeanette Wang

The hashtag #Dadbod went viral on social media a few months ago as a lighthearted reference to guys with a “nice balance” of beer gut and buff. But for real dads – especially new and recent ones – the demise in physique after fatherhood is no joke.

Since becoming a first-time father a little more than two years ago, Bernard Soh has put on 8kg and now has a body mass index of 29.4 that’s on the cusp of severe obesity. Once a fit and trim recreational cyclist, he has completely fallen off the saddle.

“Not enough sleep; wake-ups in the middle of the night; not enough time to do things, with added chores. Basically, no time to exercise,” says Soh, 44, reeling off a list of effects fatherhood has had on his health. “I think it’s the same for mums and dads, except we don’t get to breastfeed.”

Weight gain is common in men after having their first child, according to a recent study by Northwestern University that tracked the weight of more than 10,000 men for up to 20 years from adolescence to young adulthood.

Over the course of the study, the typical 182-cm man who lived with his child gained an average of about 2kg after becoming a first-time dad, or about 1.5kg for those who didn’t live with the child. In contrast, childless men lost 600 grams.

Controlling for other variables such as age, race, education, income, daily activity, screen time and marriage status, the weight gain translates to a 2.6 per cent rise in BMI for resident dads and a 2 per cent rise in BMI for non-resident dads.

“Fatherhood can affect the health of young men above the already known effect of marriage,” says Dr Craig Garfield, associate professor of paediatrics and of medical social sciences at Northwestern, and lead author of the study in the American Journal of Men’s Health. “The more weight the fathers gain and the higher their BMI, the greater risk they have for developing heart disease as well as diabetes and cancer.”

Fatherhood has also been linked with a higher prostate cancer risk. In a 2008 study in the journal Cancer, researchers at Copenhagen’s Statens Serum Institut analysed data from all men born in Denmark between 1935 and 1988, and found that men without children were 16 per cent less likely than fathers to be diagnosed with prostate cancer during up to 35 years of follow-up.

Paradoxically, among fathers, the more children one has, the lower the risk of disease. The authors suggested that, theoretically, this might reflect a “healthy father” phenomenon, in which men who retain fertility are less likely to develop a malignancy.

Being a first-time father also affects the mind. Mental health experts emphasise the dangers of post-natal depression for mothers, but University of Kansas researcher Carrie Wendel-Hummell says fathers should also pay attention to their mental health around the time of childbirth when life suddenly changes drastically.

Sometimes, parents also tend to put too much pressure on themselves to be perfect mothers and fathers, exacerbating mental health conditions.

“Both mothers and fathers need to pay attention to their mental health during the perinatal period, and they need to watch for these other types of conditions, not just depression,” says Wendel-Hummell, a PhD in sociology whose research focus brings together biological and sociological understandings of the problems that new parents face. “Anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis and bipolar disorder are all shaped by circumstances that surround having a baby.”

Kenneth Lim, 34, father of a 3½-year-old and 16-month-old, reckons that a father’s health “tends to decline a little in the first five years of your child’s life” until a tipping point is reached. “Then you either decide to start working out again, or just let yourself go and have the dad bod,” he says.

It’s not all bad news for new dads though; research shows fatherhood does have its health merits. First-time fathers show significant decreases in negative lifestyle behaviours such as tobacco and alcohol use, as well as crime, according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family that assessed 200 at-risk boys annually from age 12 to 31.

“These decreases were in addition to the general tendency of boys to engage less in these types of behaviours as they approach and enter adulthood,” says the study’s lead author, David Kerr, an assistant professor of psychology at Oregon State University.

“This research suggests that fatherhood can be a transformative experience, even for men engaging in high-risk behaviour. This presents a unique window of opportunity for intervention, because new fathers might be especially willing and ready to hear a more positive message and make behavioural changes.”

Another study in 2011 suggested that fathers have a 17 per cent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than childless men. Stanford University arrived at this finding after tracking 135,000 men aged 50 to 71 over a 10-year period.

Also declining among new dads are testosterone levels, according to a University of Michigan study last year. The hormone-lowering process starts even before the babies are born. Fathers’ testosterone levels have been linked with parenting behaviour and involvement, with higher levels associated with lower parental involvement.

A fully involved father was what Anand Chandran wanted to be when his firstborn arrived 16 months ago. In the initial months after Leah’s birth, the 32-year-old investment banker almost stopped his regular workout regime as he wanted to be around his wife and daughter.

“After a while, I realised I needed to build a routine into my life if I was going to stay fit. So I sorted out my priorities, with fitness being number two behind daddy and husband duties,” he says.

Chandran rises well before sunrise to cycle or run, and returns in time to see his family wake up. This resolve has made his #dadbod an anomaly; a fitter and buffer upgrade from his pre-dad bod.

“Fatherhood has been tiring – probably the most significant bout of prolonged exhaustion [I’ve experienced],” says Chandran. “It’s tough trying to fit other priorities in but having at least one other pursuit like exercise in the weekly routine helps. It alleviates a bit of the stress and fatigue of parenting with the endorphin boost, and makes sure you’re defined as a little more than just dad or husband. Also, I want my daughter to lead a healthy and active life, so I need to start living the routine myself.”

Sweat science

This article was first published in the South China Morning Post on Tuesday, Sept 8, 2015.

Science suggests wearing the right gear can lift athletes by making them think it will allow them to go faster, or higher

By Jeanette Wang

Hands up if you’ve experienced that amazing boost in motivation to exercise after buying some new workout gear. Sportswear goes beyond just skin deep; it has a profound effect on our minds, too.

Increasingly, sports apparel companies are becoming aware of this and investing time, money and effort into researching and producing clothing that supports athletes not only physiologically, but also psychologically.

When Nike, for example, developed the Pro TurboSpeed suit – which moves through air faster than bare skin – for the London 2012 Olympics, they sought insight from athletes as to what gives them a mental boost. Nike designers found that patches of contrasting colour made the athletes feel faster, so fluorescent yellow strips were placed on the inside surfaces of the arms and legs of the suit.

At Australian company 2XU, design lines and placements of seams, logos and trims on its renowned compression garments are precisely engineered for maximum freedom of movement and comfort for the wearer.

“Comfort and emotion is critically important,” says Dr John Sullivan, a leading sports scientist and one of the top US sports psychologists, who spoke at the 2XU Heart of Performance summit in New York earlier this year. “If an athlete doesn’t feel comfortable, then they have one more thing to think about. And in that moment, you want them to focus on what’s in front of them.”

Last week, Lululemon launched “Engineered Sensations”, a new range of yoga and running pants categorised according to how the wearer would like to feel: relaxed, naked, held-in, hugged or tight? Two years in the making, the range was the result of a lot of customer feedback as well as understanding the world of sports technology and material, says Tom Waller, vice-president of Lululemon’s Whitespace innovation and R&D lab.

“We found there was a convergence [in the fitness world] towards tight pants, which people equated with compression, and therefore performance enhancement. But that’s not really true. What people are looking for is a sensory input which their mind can perceive – and everyone likes something different: some want to feel naked, others want a tight, supported sensation,” says Waller, who has a PhD in sports technology from Britain’s Loughborough University.

“It’s important that you look like you feel good and feel like you look good.”

That’s because when we feel good, we have greater confidence and will perform better, he explains. It’s well-established through studies that next to existing abilities and skills, one of the most important and consistent predictors of people’s performance is their perceived self-efficacy.

Professor Yi Li, an expert in high-performance sportswear from the Institute of Textiles and Clothing at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, believes good sportswear takes care of both the physiology of an athlete – such as body temperature, skin moisture and muscle conditions – and the psychological needs. Key to this is making the athlete feel comfortable.

“A sense of comfort sure plays a part in putting a person in better mood, or even a more competitive mindset. We call that sensory psychology,” says Li, who supervised the design and construction of sports apparel for the Hong Kong Olympic teams in 2008 and 2012.

“Another psychological factor that affects performance directly is peace of mind. When an athlete feels less intimidated by the fear of injury, he is a lot more likely to go all-out and push himself beyond limits in a sports event. Even the colour of the garment is important in establishing personal pride, team spirit or a sense of belonging.”

Superstition, or the symbolic meaning given to a certain piece of clothing, is another factor. Take for example basketball star Michael Jordan, who throughout his entire career wore his old blue University of North Carolina shorts underneath his NBA team uniform. World No 1 tennis player Serena Williams has her own “lucky” sportswear: a pair of socks that she wore throughout one tournament.

The psychology of sportswear is interesting, says sport and performance psychologist Edgar Tham, because it “borders on the mystical things we experience in many cultures”.

“However, the good news is recent studies confirm what we intuitively use or know,” says Tham, founder of SportPsych Consulting in Singapore. “One such study in 2010 [by the University of Cologne] showed that lucky charms boost confidence, effort and overall performance, while another study found that wearing certain clothes can change one’s mental processes.”

In the latter study Tham refers to, Northwestern University researchers coin the term “enclothed cognition” to describe the systematic influence that clothes have on the wearer’s psychological processes. Enclothed cognition involves the co-occurrence of two independent factors – the symbolic meaning of the clothes and the physical experience of wearing them.

The study, published in 2012 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, involved three experiments on undergraduates that explored the effects of wearing a lab coat with respect to carrying out attention tasks. A pretest found that a lab coat is generally associated with attentiveness and carefulness.

In experiment one, wearing a lab coat increased selective attention compared to not wearing one. In experiments two and three, wearing a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat increased sustained attention compared to wearing a lab coat described as a painter’s coat, and compared to simply seeing or even identifying with a lab coat described as a doctor’s coat.

So, clothes can put us in a very different psychological state. At Lululemon’s Whitespace lab in Vancouver, Waller’s team of 30 scientists, and engineers tinker constantly with materials and design. Using a biomechanics lab with an environmental chamber that can simulate all sorts of weather conditions, they study how tiny changes in the clothing influence how the wearer feels.

The goal: to remove psychological barriers to performance.

“You speak to most athletes and they’ll tell you that one could be in physical peak, but if the mind, heart and body are not in sync, then you’re not at the full potential,” says Lee Holman, Lululemon’s senior vice-president of women’s design.

Who knew so much thought went into creating tight fashionable athletic pants?

“We’re not in the business of selling rainbows,” says Waller. “We aim to make clothing that shifts what you believe to be possible.”

Flex obsessed

This article was first published in the South China Morning Post on Tuesday, August 25 2015.

Post-race yoga at Vancouver’s Stanley Park. Photo: Lululemon

From Vancouver’s Stanley Park to a Bali beach and a Hong Kong hotel, yoga is being repackaged as ‘flowga’, ‘broga’, and as plain exercise, and winning new adherents

By Jeanette Wang

On a vast field in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, against the downtown skyline glowing in sunset hues, a few thousand people formed their bodies into a down dog, flowing along to silky tunes spun by a live DJ.

This wasn’t your usual yoga class – a rock concert awaited after, to top off a day that began with a 21km race around the city’s famed seawall. Run, yoga, party: the annual Lululemon SeaWheeze two Saturdays ago is part of a collective that’s democratising yoga.

“Yoga is becoming more accessible to everybody,” says Travis McKenzie, global events manager with Lululemon, the yoga and fitness apparel company. “There are more studios, more online practices available. There aren’t as many barriers to entry. People are becoming more mindful and aware of slowing themselves down and becoming more present.”

Participants of the Lululemon SeaWheeze half marathon run along Vancouver’s famous sea wall. Photo: Lululemon

The trend is apparent in Hong Kong: more people, especially men, are picking up yoga, notes yoga instructor Victor Chau. “Yoga, to a lot of people, is very deep, super spiritual and you need to be flexible to practise it. This is not necessarily true,” he says.

Yoga originated in India thousands of years ago as a philosophical and spiritual discipline to deliver practitioners from suffering or disease. These days, yoga is often treated as exercise or even complementary therapy for cardiovascular and respiratory disease. To many, yoga is not a way of life; it’s just a workout.

In the same vein, classes are increasingly being led in English rather than referring to poses by their Sanskrit names; for example tree pose instead of vrikshasana, and shoulder stand instead of sarvangasana.

The setting in which yoga is practised is also changing. Local wellness company Mayya Movement, for example, organises yoga at Kee Club in central with a live DJ. Farther down Wellington Street, you’ll find a Broga class – yoga for “bros” – led by a practitioner beamed live from London. It is followed by a mingling session over tea cocktails.

Victor Chau leading “flowga” – yoga on a junk – at Victoria Harbour. Photo: Lululemon

Two months ago, Chau led a “flowga” class – yoga on a junk sailing in Victoria Harbour. He says although the delivery of yoga classes has changed to suit the local and modern audience, the fundamental teachings and philosophies of yoga have not changed much.

“Two hundred years ago you needed to find your guru, who might have resided in a cave or forest, making yoga available to only a select few,” says Chau. “But today, you can learn it in a studio, from a book, on YouTube or even on Instagram.”

At the W in West Kowloon – and in the hotel chain’s properties worldwide – guests are told to “forget about being zen and start being fabulous”. The in-house TV service offers yoga videos to cure jet lag, give an energy boost, prep for a big night out or nurse a hangover.

The videos are led by Tara Stiles, an instructor from New York who’s been branded a “yoga rebel” by traditionalists for her yoga style called Strala, which focuses on flowing movement rather than poses. Stiles created Strala in 2008, drawing on Eastern movement and healing practices, as well as her background in classical ballet and choreography. Apart from studios in New York, Seattle and Singapore, Stiles also teaches on YouTube.

“I grew up doing yoga but my friends weren’t doing it because they felt it was too rigid, or they weren’t flexible enough, or weren’t having fun in the class. I saw the opportunity to create something more fun and help people connect and feel good,” says Stiles, who was in Hong Kong in June to launch her “Fit with Tara Stiles” programme at the W.

“I think it’s actually positive to be recognised as something that’s rebellious and different because there’s still more people not doing yoga than doing it. Yoga can make you feel good, and if you’re not doing it then you’re not feeling good.”

Tara Stiles is known as a “yoga rebel” for her own style of yoga called Strala. Photo: Franke Tsang/SCMP

At W Bali in September, Stiles held a yoga retreat that included sunset yoga on Seminyak Beach accompanied by a rock band. It ruffled some feathers, according to Arnaud Champenois, Asia-Pacific senior brand director at Starwood Hotels & Resorts, which owns the W brand.

“We received a nasty email from a local yoga association asking why we brought this girl to Bali and destroyed their business model of yoga gurus and retreats,” says Champenois.

Michael James Wong, a London-based yoga teacher, thinks what’s important is having the right intentions and practising yoga in a way that suits and serves the individual.

“For me, it doesn’t matter if you’re a traditionalist in the practice or if you’re bringing a contemporary spin to it. If it inspires you and inspires others, then why wouldn’t it be positive?” says Wong.

Not your usual yoga dude: Michael Wong is the founder of Boys of Yoga. Photo: Michael Wong

Last year, Wong created Boys of Yoga, a project to make the practice more accessible to men and raise awareness of what it can do for them physically, mentally and holistically.

“In five years I hope that yoga is as commonplace as running, cycling and walking in how we perceive its benefits,” says Wong. “On a physical level, yoga is one of the best types of functional movement for the body, and on a mental and emotional level, it’s an amazing way to help find your own sense of self-confidence, happiness and compassion to yourself and the world around you.”

Go Fish!

Until about 20 years ago, nobody thought there were any fish to catch in Hong Kong’s waters. These days, sport fishing is growing in the city as avid anglers discover where the hotspots are. I joined Hong Kong Deep Sea Fishing Charters recently on their boat Thai Lady to check out what the fuss is all about. Story here.



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