"Every adversity contains, at the same time, a seed of equivalent opportunity"
– Napoleon Hill
Michelle Lim (@michelle.vlim) is a freelance performing artist and personal trainer at UFIT Singapore. She is passionate about helping people move well and feel their most genuine.
Tell me about yourself – your background in fitness and wellness, and how you ended up where you are.
I can’t recall a time where I wasn’t active. Growing up I always had a schedule packed of all sorts of extra curricular activities: dance, tennis, track, and chasing (ahem terrorising) the boys in the neighbourhood with my friends on our bikes.
When I started pursuing my career in dance, I was captivated by the mechanics behind the art form, taking a keen interest on how the body worked and how you could further it. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to all sorts of conditioning methods like gyrokinesis, pilates, and had skilled rehabilitation specialists tending to any injuries or kinks that needed some extra TLC.
After graduating university, out of necessity, I had to find “dance” related jobs to sustain my daily expenses in New York and one of those jobs was being a fitness instructor. Naturally I started to teach Barre classes and dived deeper into the fitness scene, dabbling with spin, boxing, yoga, you name it. After solely dancing for so long, it was refreshing to move in ways I haven’t in a while.
When I came back to Singapore, I joined lululemon as an Educator and met some great people. Being in the lululemon community gave me the space to hone myself as a fitness trainer; I even went so far as to develop my own group class at Core Collective. With every class I taught, I wanted to feel more sure about what I was programming so I decided to take a personal trainer certification course.
What does being healthy mean to you?
Being healthy is an active pursuit to find harmony between different parts of our lives, beyond the physical. It’s active because our needs, priorities, and goals are ever changing, and the ability to be agile and adapt to those changes is what ultimately determines your health. You could follow a strictly clean diet and exercise regiment, but if it's done obsessively it could compromise your mental health in the short run, and your overall health in the long run.
What was your relationship with your body like growing up? What about now?
I’d say overall, it was pretty positive for the most part. Being active from a young age, I had my focus on whether or not my body could do the stunts it needed to, whether it could run fast and hit a ball, rather than how it looked. It was when I reached my teenage years that I began to question my appearance.
The first instance was when I was studying at an all Chinese school. I was pegged as the brown girl who looked Malay. I remember being asked to go for a Racial Harmony Day photoshoot, just to be asked to pose in a Baju Kurung instead of my Cheongsam (and that was last time I voluntarily wore an ethnic costume). There were times where I would look at myself in the mirror and wonder what was wrong with me, or why couldn’t I look “normal”?
The biggest body-related issue I had came during my later teens. Growing up as a dancer, you’re always looking at yourself in the mirror. So I definitely had thoughts on how I looked, or why I couldn’t be long and lean like some of my classmates. I went on a quest for clean eating, but ended up adopting some unhealthy eating and thought patterns. I remember dropping about 5kg below my ideal body weight, and avoiding any foods that were remotely “unhealthy”.
I never acted upon trying to be anything smaller than that till I was trying to get a high score on my NAPFA test. It was my last chance to get a perfect score and finally address my 2.4km run timing. I began to run a lot more, and tried eating better (or what I thought was better). But that turned into something obsessive and the validation I was getting from my peers did not help. I was finally being called pretty by people who previously didn't give me a time of day. That fed what was an innocent small goal, to become something detrimental to my health. Thankfully, it didn’t last long, but there are definitely parts of it that creep up on me till this day.
I’m glad and proud to say that I now have a pretty positive relationship with food. I love a good snack, indulging in the occasional dim sum buffet, and I love what food can do for you. I love carbs both for the energy it gives me to train as well as the pure enjoyment. Hor Fun is my go-to, whether Chinese-style at hawker centers or food courts, or Thai-style stir fry. I'm a sucker for great wok hei flavour. There is rarely any guilt felt when I eat “bad” food. When looking to treat myself, I tend to fall back on good ol' hokkien mee and the flavourful mala xiang guo.
There are times when maybe I’ve put on a bit of weight or get stressed where I catch myself falling into old habits and thought processes. I’m still learning to sit with those feelings and listen into what my body is really trying to tell me. More often than not, it’s not about the weight or the food, it’s about something a lot more profound. The more I listen, the more I understand myself, and the more I can address those little voices in my head, the more I can enjoy yummy things.
What’s more important when it comes to changing your body?
Mindset and consistency affect how well you can achieve and sustain your exercise and food goals. Of course, exercise and food are building blocks of bigger picture. A lot of us have already heard that “abs are made in the kitchen” or that changing your body is X% gym Y% food. I don’t disagree with any of these statements. Ultimately, your activity and food have to work together in order to achieve your goals. Depending on your goals, how you eat or how you exercise is going to have to accommodate accordingly.
However the more important thing is to have a positive mindset and be consistent with your goals. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. This is not to say that you have to count every grain of sugar you’re putting into your coffee, because it’s not for everyone and it’s certainly not for me. But if you can at least take stock of what you put into your body – for example how much of a certain thing we eat regularly – you’ll be able to isolate things that serve you and things that don’t.
How do you reconcile your relationship with food with your own fitness/nutrition journey?
I find that the more I know, the easier it is to combat any negative or false information that may pop into my mind. For example, there's a common oversimplification that carbs are bad for you, or make you fat. There is a lot more nuance to food than exclusive categories of 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' – it makes more sense to think in terms of how our food can serve us (giving us energy, nutrients, and/or happiness?).
If I’m training for a half marathon, I know I need to fuel up. My mind may go, "why are you eating so much carbs, you know that’s going to make you fat." But because I know better, I know to say, "hey, to do this run today I need to make sure my glycogen stores are replenished, that carbs don’t have a direct correlation with making you fat, and that ultimately this surplus of calories is going to help me complete my half marathon."
If I'm not training much that day, I still eat carbs – it's my staple, like most Singaporeans – but I might choose a lower GI option like wholegrain noodles or rice.
Advice for anyone who wants to work on their fitness and nutrition, but is afraid of it becoming obsessive and dysfunctional?
Take it one step at a time, and know that not all steps are meant to be the same or taken by you. If you feel like something is not quite right, step away for a second and reevaluate. Is it uncomfortable because it’s new, or is it because you can sense it becoming an issue? Find an accountability buddy, not just to help keep you on track, but to catch you if you may be veering off. Stay open to when you get feedback from this person, they might be able to see things that you don’t. If you’re not sure of where to go or how to start, find a few credible people or resources that can guide you through at least the initial stages (in this case, Google and WebMD are not always your best friends).
Who would you advise for and against calorie and macro counting to?
It really depends on the person and their relationship with food. Not everyone with a history of disordered eating is triggered by macros, some might find comfort in knowing that is going into their bodies. Not every person with zero issues with food would count it because it’s laborious to them. I say, try it, and if it sticks or you enjoy it, keep at it. If not, it’s not the biggest necessity in your fitness journey. I’d say, MAYBE, the only group that I would advise counting macros and calories would be individuals with diet-related health issues like diabetes and high cholesterol, because again, if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it.
If there was one thing you could change about how people relate to their bodies, what would it be? Why?
It probably would be to stop comparing where you are with others. Just because someone looks 'fit' (the meaning of which is questionably: thin? Lean? Well-defined?) doesn’t mean their cholesterol isn’t out of whack. Just because someone is of a larger size doesn’t mean they don’t care about their health and that they haven’t gone a long way. So on and so forth. We all have varying desires, starting points, and journeys. Take yours, get good people around you, keep learning and unlearning, and try to enjoy the ride as much as you can.
Enjoy a healthier twist of Michelle's go-to Hor Fun with our beginner friendly recipe here! Customise your dish with your pick of noodles from our Hor Fun series available in major FairPrice and Sheng Siong outlets*, Shopee and Fairprice Online!
*Subjected to availability