TAF: The Tough(est) Club in Singapore

I interrupt this regularly scheduled blog for a shocking expat revelation I just found out about yesterday: the TAF Club.

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The unofficial mascot of the most offensive club ever

To Singaporeans, this term is no big deal – commonplace, even – if you went to local school.  To expats (at least Americans, where this sort of thing would be so inflammatory that it would incite several lawsuits, no doubt), it’s appalling – and I almost can’t believe it still exists (to some degree, which I’ll explain below).

TAF stands for “Trim and Fit,” which is the name of a Singaporean government-mandated weight management program that existed from 1992-2007.  It was targeted at school-age children – and by “targeted at,” I mean “required of those students with a BMI of 23 or higher.”  

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Asian BMI – yep, it’s a thing,

Yep, you read that right.  23.  Not even considered “overweight” by American standards.

TAF Club students would be required to complete intensive (often just outdoor running-based) extra exercise hours at school, typically arriving up to an hour before an already-early 7:20am morning start – and that’s not all.

TAF students were also required to do exercise instead of eating lunch (exercising, by the way, in full view of their peers and classmates happily eating their lunches), or would be forced to eat lunch at segregated tables where they could buy certain controlled food with “calorie cash,” a special currency that allowed only meals with a predetermined number of calories to be purchased.

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Can I buy half an apple with that 50-cal cash?

Shocked yet?  Yeah, there’s more.

The TAF Club students – and by the way, the irony of TAF being the word FAT spelled backward is not lost on me – would have their individual names called over the loudspeaker during school, meaning each and every student forced to join the club could not even quietly attend their exercise hours; they’d instead be announced to the entire school.

Add to this the fact that the exercise sessions were (often) led by less-than-sympathetic physical educators – people who should be modelling good health, not calling out students’ abilities (and in some cases, their “unfit” body parts) in a negative way.

A simple Google search for “TAF Club stories” yielded paragraph after paragraph of the obviously damaging effects of this type of weight-based differentiation on young kids. Showing up to class sweaty and stinky from a bout of morning exercise in 90-degree weather, being stuck in (and I would argue, condemned to) the TAF Club year after year if you weren’t demonstrably losing enough weight, and even developing lifelong eating disorders were just a a few of the known effects of this type of program.

Let it be known that childhood obesity rates in Singapore did decrease from 14.9% to 9.8% during the first decade of the program – by some measures, a definite success.  But a study done just after that same decade – surveying 4,400 Singaporean schoolgirls in 2002 – found a six-fold increase in anorexia and bulimia among the school-aged population during the very same window of time – coincidental, eh?

Since 2007, the program has been revamped to “shift the focus” away from weight and toward a more comprehensive picture of health and wellness.  The new Holistic Health Framework (HHF) has as its core values “total well-being, inclusion, and quality delivery,” which sounds like a great start to a better-organized program.

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Concepts in holistic health

But if you scroll down the page, you’ll see the carelessly worded admonition that “schools are encouraged to change the name of their weight management programmes from TAF to something more interesting” – meaning that not only do the schools not have to change anything about existing TAF programs, but they can also simply modify the name of the program to fit the new “holistic” guidelines.

Hmph.

I’m not saying I have all the answers when it comes to childhood obesity, a topic that in my opinion is much more complicated, sensitive, and multilayered than adult obesity. What I do know is that peer shaming, public ridicule, segregation, and punishment-based systems do not belong anywhere in public education – especially here in Singapore, where citizen harmony is considered a top priority by the government.

I also argue that putting all of the blame, shame, and responsibility for weight management onto the back of a child – rather than involving and educating the parents – is an absolutely abhorrent way of encouraging behavioural change.

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THIS is what we should be teaching kids about health and their bodies.

I have yet to meet someone who can give me a personal perspective on their experience in TAF – and believe me, I’d be open to hearing from a variety of men and women that have been through it – but I cannot imagine that the experience was anything less than degrading, emotionally damaging, and in the end, ineffective in developing long term weight management skills.

What do you think about forced weight management sessions for overweight school-age kids – and should the government be at their helm?

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Ask Amanda: Total Recall

The timing on this legit reader-request #AskAmanda could not be more perfect as I’ve just returned from a wonderfully indulgent vacation in Japan.  She asked me how I get myself back on track after a weekend (week…month…year…life….) of too much food, too little exercise, and a general lack of health and fitness habits.

To give you an idea of what I mean when I’m talking about overdoing it, take a peek below. Over the five glorious days I spent in northern Japan, a typical day of eating looked a lot like this:

As you can imagine, upon my arrival back to Singapore, I solemnly and quietly slid my bathroom scale away under the sink, vowing to give myself a week to “recover,” and devised a plan on how to get back to my fit, firm self after a weekend of overindulgence.

Step one: food.  Whenever I need to clean myself out, I don’t go for the typical quick fixes (think juice cleanses, starvation diets, or some protein-shake regimen).  I simply buy the clean, healthy foods I enjoy and commit to eating them – and only them – for about a week.  For me that looks like:

  • breakfast: none; I return to my intermittent fasting program
  • fast breaker meal: banana or apple with natural chunky peanut butter
  • lunch: can of water-packed tuna mixed with plain hummus and 1/2 avocado
  • snack: a cup of full-fat Greek yogurt with blueberries and nuts
  • dinner: 1/2 avocado and 3 eggs over German bread with a side spinach salad

Sure, it’s not super exciting, but it definitely works – and that’s what matters to me.  The ingredients are cheap and simple, there’s barely any cooking involved, and I like all the food listed here.  I pair every meal/snack with 1/2 liter (16 ounces) of water and make sure I drink at least one container of coconut water (especially important in the Singapore climate) per day to offset all the dehydration of the (black) coffee I tend to gulp by the gallon.

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Step two: workouts.  When I’m coming back from an inconsistent or nonexistent workout schedule, I like to come back with a week of two-a-days – either an endurance cardio workout in the morning and superset weights in the afternoon, or a HIIT workout early and a slower weights program later.  I don’t overdo it in either workout session, but I do like to make up for lost time a bit and recommit my body and mind fully to exercise.

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Step three: sleep and skin.  After even one weekend of indulging, especially at age 33, I can see the effects of too much alcohol and sleep deprivation all over my (bloated, dull, patchy) face.  I like to use the first week back to do some serious rehab on my skin (think exfoliating scrubs, hydration mask, and heavy-duty eye cream every night, plus a scheduled facial as soon as I can make time for one), and get tons of sleep (for me “tons” is anything above 7 hours, and I cherish every second of it) until I no longer resemble the walking dead.

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If the Korean girls do it, I’m doing it – cleanse, tone, eye cream, face mask – ALL OF IT!

Finally, a wonderful step four: massage.  Sure, I was just on vacation, surrounded by leisure time and onsens aplenty, but I was also crammed into an economy-size airplane seat for about 10 hours each way and traveled two red-eye flights to make the trip happen. When I got  back, my neck felt like it had been strangled and my sore legs (from two days of snowboarding after an 18-year hiatus from the sport, sigh) felt like they were radiating pain.  I like to get a nice, deep, almost-painful massage to work out the travel tension and body aches from a whirlwind trip and help me get back in the mindset of work, business, and responsibilities again.

What are your best post-vacay rituals?  How do you get back to your healthy routine?

Ask Amanda: Slim, Shady

I was in an Uber yesterday when the driver (a homeopathic-remedy enthusiast and roughly 70-year old Sikh man) was regaling me with his detailed and lifelong fitness regimen, including everything from jogging around the block every day to taking “two mugs of warm water” upon waking to rubbing saliva in his eyes to relieve conjunctivitis (again, I said he was enthusiastic, if not a bit senile).

When he mentioned that his wife had the propensity to fall ill at a much higher rate than himself, I asked what her fitness practices were, to which he simply replied: “Oh, she’s very slim, she doesn’t need to exercise.”

I don’t think there’s a sentence in the world (regarding health and fitness, at least) that can make my blood boil more than that exact sentiment, although as an aside, these are close:

  • “I want to lose weight but I don’t want to change my diet”
  • “I want to look ‘toned’ but don’t want to get big manly muscles”
  • “I have to cut down a few pounds fast, so I guess I’ll just do some extra cardio”
  • “But foods high in fat will make me fat!”
  • “The elliptical machine is my favorite”
  • “I won’t try yoga because I’m not very flexible”

And honestly, I could probably go on for pages if only I’d kept a running list of every piece of fitness and health-related misinformation I’ve heard in my 11 years in the business.

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But, I digress.

The issue at hand is this: everyone needs to exercise.  Everyone.  You.  Me.  Your grandpa. Your pregnant wife.  Your uncle with the knee replacements.  Your parents.  Your best friend that doesn’t put on a pound no matter how much she eats.  Your boss. Everyone.

What bothers me the most about this sentiment is the implication that just because someone is not overweight, he or she is “spared” the burden of exercise; the idea that the only feasible reason that a human being would ever want to move their body in a manner outside of the basic activities of daily life is to achieve a particular weight, shape, or body type.  For the record, this is bullsh*t – solid, wretched, bullsh*t – and I hate it.

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The benefits of exercise far outweigh (zing!) the empty vanity of being thin.  Exercise is a key component in longevity (assuming, hey, you might wanna stay on this Earth for a while), heart health, bone density (don’t wanna be that grandma with the ol’ broken hip, do you?), diabetes control, and injury and chronic pain prevention.  It reduces stress and anxiety as effectively as many medications, helps you sleep better and longer, gives you more energy during your waking hours, and improves your mood.

I’ll go one step further and say that it’s not just exercise, but weight-bearing and resistance exercise, that is most crucial for people of any size.  Without strong muscle support, your joints become weak and more susceptible to impact and overuse problems, especially as you get older.  Being frail is not a good look for aging – and in fact, studies have shown that people with a slightly overweight BMI actually live longer than those who are “slim.”

Furthermore, lean muscle boosts metabolism and burns more calories even at rest, meaning that you can afford the occasional indulgence without stressing about weight gain because your body becomes more efficient at burning off the excess fuel.

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Both of these women weigh 150# (68KG).  On the left is lean muscle, due to exercise.

And yes, there’s more to my soapbox before I step down.

At the ripe old age of 33, I have plenty of friends and acquaintances that “used to be” skinny.  “Used to be” fit.  And sure as hell “used to” eat a lot worse, drink a lot more, and exercise a lot less than they do now (on this point, I will include myself, haha).  But many of these are the folks that, at age 18-22, I now call “future fat.”  They’re the ones that didn’t establish healthy eating and exercise patterns because they “didn’t need to,” relied on crash diets and skipping meals to trim down every now and then, and are now facing the worsening effects of a permanently damaged yo-yo metabolism, higher-than-desired body fat, and the uphill battle of trying to go back in time while stuck with a body that is situated firmly in the present – and in its mid-30s (spoiler alert: NOT AN EASY PROCESS).

Perhaps living in Asia has heightened my sensitivity to the “don’t need to exercise” remarks because many Asians here in Singapore, particularly women, are genetically slim and actually do believe that they don’t need exercise to stay healthy (since, again, the prevailing measure of “health” is simply “size”).  I’ve heard from many of my Asian clients here that they’re the only one in their household that “has to” exercise, or that they won’t bring their wife or daughter to train with me because “they’re already skinny” – and each time, I have to bite my tongue nearly off to avoid making a scene.

When will we dissociate the holistic idea of “health” from the vapid ideal of thinness?  And how?

Beachin’ in Boracay: A Memoir

Folks, it’s been over two months since I had one of the most epic vacays of my life – and if you’ve been following me on Instagram, you got to see up close and personal some of the absolutely incredible moments I was able to spend (along with my wonderful travel companion and fellow blogger Justin Walter from Around the World with Justin – check out his post on our trip here) in Boracay, Philippines.

Let’s be real: I think we could all use a little beachside throwback in the depth of winter.

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Our first day in paradise

Here’s the thing about Boracay – location is everything.  Like, all the things.  You need to be centrally located (Station 2 is my personal reco), and you sure as heck want to be directly on that long stretch of beautiful white beach (aptly named, White Beach).  We were lucky enough to enjoy a sponsored stay on one of the only resorts in the area that spills out directly from the lobby onto the sand – The District.

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Unedited gorgeousness that is The District

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Not even kidding that this is #nofilter on White Beach

You guys, The District is The Sh*t.  From the moment we checked in, we were greeted with the utmost in friendly service and professionalism – every staff member made sure to say hello, ask how we were doing, and make sure we we comfortable throughout our stay.  Nothing felt forced, and every interaction was pleasant and easy.

Oh, and did I mention our actual room?  Take a look around this baller suite:

The bed was so comfy it was damn near impossible to get up each day (but hey, those beach chairs don’t fill themselves) except for the siren call of the delicious (included!) breakfast.  Mangoes do not get fresher than this, my friends – and again, the service at breakfast (including the action omelette and noodle stations) was impeccable.

But let’s not get hung up on staying inside the hotel.  The amazing beach chairs were our favorite places on property, and also where we spent most of our lazy, luxurious days – drinks in hand, sunscreen on, in and out of the bath-warm water all day long.  There are kayaks, jetskis and stand-up paddleboards to rent (beach staff will arrange it for you at a very reasonable cost) – that is, again, if you can get up out of your lounger.

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In the epic words of 311, “I’ll be here awhile…ain’t goin’ nowhere…”

At some point you start to feel guilty from all the luxury, but The District has you covered on that, too – they’ve got a full service gym that is cool, clean, and wonderfully equipped – a little bit of heaven for a trainer like myself, who actually likes working out on vacay.

The daytime in Boracay can only be beat by one thing: the nightlife.  As soon as the sun starts to set (which it does, early, in the winter), the island starts to liven up.  We watched the sunset each night from our perch atop the Star Lounge restaurant, over freshly grilled seafood (or, like my friend Justin, some less ocean-y options), delicious wine and cocktails, and chilled-out music – absolute paradise.

The District is right in the middle of all the nighttime action – steps from D’Mall (tourist trap but must-see scene nonetheless), amazing clubs like our fave Epic, and all the cool local beachfront action (I bought these delicious garlic peanuts from a beach seller for about 50 cents and it was the perfect boozy snack before bed).

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I’m not drunk, you’re drunk

Our stay was only a weekend, but it will last in my memory forever – it is far too easy to fall in love with the slow-paced beach lifestyle, amazing scenery, and warm service that characterize both Boracay and The District.  We cannot wait to come back and walk into this lobby again soon…

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For more information: The District Boracay
T: (63 2) 234.9058  |  T/F: (63 2) 234.5917  |  M: (63 917) 7737572
Email address: reservations@thedistrictboracay.com

From ROCKtober Onward to GOALvember

(Ok I know, all the little “keywords” are a little annoying, but bear with me.  It helps me focus.)

ROCKtober has just come to a close, and as you can imagine, I definitely chose October 31st as a “drinking night.”  Halloween combined with Saturday?  It was a party explosion that I wanted to – and did – take full advantage of.

My friend Danley and I in full Halloween effect

My friend Danley and I in full Halloween effect

This is what drives me nuts about drinking, however.  Drinking = eating.  For me, that’s all there is to it.  I cannot throw back a few without becoming ravenously hungry, and then the calories of beer are quadrupled by the calories of a burrito (re: Saturday’s choice) and compounded by half a pack of Tim Tams upon arrival home.

So I am pulling it back even further in the coming month.  At the risk of becoming redundant, let’s take a look at the goal chalkboard, shall we?

#squadgoalz

#squadgoalz

To review, I spent October KILLING it on yoga (I went to more classes in ROCKtober than I did in the first four months of living here combined), running (finally getting back in my groove here, though I’ll have to step it up soon for a Ragnar Ultra, to be discussed in more detail soon), salads (I’ve basically identified every salad location within 5 miles of my work and home), water (easy peasy), and even Crossfit (hit a two-in-a-row this week; a recent record).

I can definitely step it up on the alcohol (per above), junk food (where DID the cookies come from?  And the dark chocolate peanut butter?), and as always, positive self-talk.  Speaking of self talk, by the way, I was super touched by a piece written by Catilin Moran and it really did make me stop and think that if I could only see myself through my mother’s eyes, how much more forgiving of myself I could be…

But I digress.  Let’s talk GOALvember.

I am keeping the same goal board up, because consistency is hard to come by, and I like my goals.  They’re solid.  I just need to keep refining my interpretation of said goals (trying to throw out my entire closet because I hate how I look in every single thing is kind of the opposite of positive self-talk) and focusing on the positive, lasting changes I am making, not on the habits yet to form.

On another note, have I mentioned how much I still love Singapore?  Especially now that #thehaze is starting to fade (and yes, I feel like I personally had some hand in chasing it away with my Halloween costume, like some sort of live voodoo doll), I feel like Nick and I have really hit our stride here, personally and professionally.

What "hitting our stride" looks like

What “hitting our stride” apparently looks like

A final fun development this week is that I found out our little street (Bristol Road) is going to be featured in Expat Living magazine under their “Street Talk” section – with Nick and my picture and all of our wonderful words about our cute little neighborhood.  Stay tuned for the January 2016 issue.

Not particularly relevant, I just found this hilarious and tangentially Singaporean

Not particularly relevant, I just found this hilarious and tangentially Singaporean

Onward to GOALvember, readers – let’s all renew our commitments to being better versions of ourselves.

What are your GOALvember targets?  How successful was your ROCKtober?