Leading and sustaining an active lifestyle is never a walk in the park. Stephenie Gee talks to four fitness pros who divulge the roots of their active lifestyle and offer top tips to get you – and keep you – in the mindset of working out
The days of men telling women what we can and cannot do with our bodies have been consigned to the dustbin of history. But now comes a time when social media dictates what’s in and what’s out, what’s beautiful and what’s not, and cultivating a relationship with one’s self and body has never been a more challenging endeavour. Just take a scroll through Instagram – flawless complexions, girls with perfect summer abs pulling off skimpy crop tops, Kardashian-Esque hourglass figures – and it’s enough to give anyone a complex.
“We are relentlessly exposed to unrealistic body images that are being shown in the context of promoting ‘health’, which is incredibly misleading and dangerous,” says The Gym coach and Lululemon Hong Kong ambassador, Jen Mackay. “Everything on social media is presented to us as genuine and perfect, but more often than not, we are being shown an edited snapshot out of context. Also, for so long, society has depicted being skinny as the ultimate beauty standard for women, with being strong or not stick-thin as an unfeminine and unattractive aesthetic. Fortunately, I’m starting to see a shift in this outlook with women beginning to recognise the value and power of being strong.”
Feeling empowered comes from the ability to be the best and healthiest version of ourselves. It comes from confidence, whether receiving some hard-earned kudos from your excessively callous and aloof supervisor or simply a good hair day. But regardless, empowerment comes from within, and according to Mackay, there’s no better way than via training.
“Exercising is without a doubt one of the best ways to be empowered. Progress is measurable, and when you train consistently, you can see and feel how you improve. There’s no one else doing the work for you, so you know you’re in full control of your progress, and that is incredibly empowering. You’re showing up for yourself and respecting your body,” she says.
It’s easy to say for someone with toned arms, defined abs and lean legs, but rest assured, these are not empty words. Trixie Velez, founder of award-winning Pilates and fitness studio Defin8 Fitness, is here too to vouch for it. “I started training at a very early age because someone called me fat, and exercise has definitely helped me gain confidence and strength both physically and mentally,” she says.
“I almost can’t remember the time before I began exercising, but I can tell you the difference when I stopped (I paused for one or two weeks during the pandemic). I became really sluggish, less positive and demotivated. Training is now such a big part of my life that when I stop, I feel like a completely different person. The physical aspect won’t change right away (maybe you’ll feel a little weaker when you start training again), but you will see the change in your mental well-being right away. Training gives me a clear mind and headspace and the emotional stability to deal with the daily stresses of life in a more positive way.”
The beneficial impact that an active lifestyle has on mental health is no deeply hidden secret, and as a self-proclaimed “painfully shy introvert” (“believe or not”) to Nike Master Trainer, fashionable “fitfluencer” and #legend100 member with over 41.5K followers on Instagram, Utah Lee is one who knows.
“Developing your physical strength helps to also discover your inner strength,” she tells me via email. “Working out trains your physical and mental health, and when you’re stronger, both physically and mentally, it helps to boost your self-esteem.”
In fact, for wellness studio XYZ by The Art of XYZ founder Belinda Koo, it was perhaps the mental growth that truly transformed her. “I originally thought that the more I spun and weight-lifted, the stronger I would become and the more I could do. However, when I started doing more, I also needed more, and it was a downward spiral where I started comparing myself to the men around me and ruining relationships with them.
“My competitive nature escalated to a point where I found myself being controlling, argumentative and arrogant. That’s when I started questioning why I wasn’t happy and discovered the need to heal the different layers of myself and not just focus on the physical parts. It takes courage to open the door to your inner world. By working on ourselves first, we walk the talk, and we can change the community around us bit by bit.”
As with anything, whether it’s writing, planning a trip or working out, the beginning is always the hardest. Humans are superficial. What we see registers before anything else, so there’s nothing like cute workout gear to drive you to get your body working. While comfort, support and functionality all come first and foremost (as they should) when it comes to activewear, it doesn’t hurt to look – and thus, feel – your best too. One that fits the bill is Lululemon’s new Train collection, designed not only with butter-smooth fabrics and holds-you-in fits but also the mission to “inspire and invite more women to hop on the sweat journey”.
“I’m lucky to be a Legacy Ambassador for Lululemon and have built a great relationship with them over the years. I’m in alignment with their values and their purpose and have always been inspired by how they strive to empower and elevate those in their community,” says Mackay. “Also, their products are truly the best in the world, and I feel very honoured and proud to be part of this Train collection, where we’re showing the beautiful diversity of what being strong, active and healthy looks like. It’s exciting to be involved in a campaign that is inclusive and empowering for women.”
Every body is different. Some maintain a leaner physique more easily than others, some genetically carry more muscle than others, and some naturally have a bigger frame. But if there’s one thing that Lee, Koo, Mackay and Velez all agree on, it’s to never let your body dictate what exercises you can and cannot do. “For me, there is no ‘right body-type workout’,” says Lee. “Human bodies function the same way – mine, yours, my grandparents, my kids – if you’re exercising properly at a moderate intensity, you’re doing the right exercise for you.”
Velez says, “We all have different bodies, and the perfect exercise and workout for us will be the one we can do safely and long-term. Exercise and training can be found in so many different forms, and our body type doesn’t define what we can do. It is how we do it and how we perform it properly.”
Don’t wait around
“Getting started is almost always the hardest part. Don’t wait for what you think is the ‘perfect time’ to start because it doesn’t exist. Just start.” – Jen Mackay
Inside then out
“So often we emphasise physical growth that we end up neglecting the mental benefits we can get from training. Start viewing these exercises in another light and try to focus on finding a balance between mental and physical wellness; it is through this method that we can stay motivated. I personally would recommend looking at exercises that help improve the mental self; meditation and self-affirmations are a good start to reduce that emotional blockage and enhance self-love.” – Belinda Koo
Find a buddy
“If you have the budget, investing in a personal trainer is beneficial as the professional can help to assess your posture, alignment and need as an individual, as well as design a programme that will best suit your body and goals.” – Trixie Velez
Small steps at a time
“Training can definitely feel like a chore at times – this is completely normal. Consistency is the most important element when it comes to training and leading a healthy lifestyle. It’s important to recognise that motivation is an emotion, so it will only be temporary and occasional. Discipline is a skill we need to develop to make training sustainable. View discipline as a form of self-respect; you are showing up for yourself and your health. Movement should be a daily lifestyle habit, whether gym training or yoga, or simply some light stretching or going for a gentle walk. Use the skill of discipline to develop the habit of a daily movement.” – Jen Mackay
Love yourself first
“Mirror work is an excellent way to help us connect with our bodies. By meeting with your reflection regularly and engaging in that self-dialogue, self-affirmation that says, ‘This is my body. I am grateful for it; everyone is different and beautiful in their own way,’ we can all learn to embrace and love ourselves for who we are.” – Belinda Koo
“Set your training session early in your day if your work schedule allows for it; just get it over with. Plus, working out early in the morning sets you up for the rest of your day by boosting your energy.” – Utah Lee
Eat clean not less
“Extreme training sessions with a thin diet consisting of barely any nutrients and calories is not a sustainable method. We need to learn to live. I, as a matter of fact, never ask my client to go on a diet. I just ask them to eat smarter; to enjoy life with a little bit of Zen. The yin has to go with the yang; it’s all about finding the balance.” – Utah Lee