Singapore #Fitspo of the Week: Danielle van der Leest

Singapore #Fitspo of the Week: Danielle van der Leest (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)
Danielle van der Leest is a personal trainer for Fitness First Singapore. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

Life goes beyond the digits on the scale and your body is capable of so much more. Yahoo’s #Fitspo of the Week series is dedicated to inspirational men and women in Singapore leading healthy and active lifestyles. Have someone to recommend? Hit Cheryl up on Instagram or Facebook.

Name: Danielle van der Leest (@fitcoach.dani)

Age: 26

Height: 1.84m

Weight: 66kg

Occupation: Personal trainer at Fitness First Singapore

Status: Married with one daughter

Diet: I do not follow any specific diet plans, but have built up a balanced routine over the years. I try to cut down on sugar, go for wholemeal bread and add lots of vegetables to my meals.

I start off the day with my first meal at 5.30am, which would usually include some greek yogurt, high fibre muesli with one banana, and on the side, a glass of water and a cup of coffee with some milk. At 9am, I will either have some oats with an apple or a sandwich.

Lunch can be anything from pasta with vegetables and some meat or fish, or quinoa salad with feta cheese, vegetables and chicken. I would snack on a muesli bar at 3pm (one with the least sugar) or a slice of bread with cheese or egg.

For dinner, I would ensure a good portion of vegetables, meat such as fish, chicken or beef, and some carbs in my dinner because I move a lot as a personal trainer. It is also important to obtain sufficient nutrition as a breastfeeding mother.

Training: My fitness regime has changed since childbirth, as I have to recover progressively from my pregnancy. I work out four times a week and it can be anything from a duration of 30 minutes to more than an hour. I switch among weight training, high-intensity and cardio exercises.

I enjoyed running before my pregnancy, so I am now trying to get back into it. It is sometimes frustrating that I can’t do all the things I did before my pregnancy, but the progress is showing – slowly but surely.

Singapore #Fitspo of the Week: Danielle van der Leest (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)
Danielle van der Leest had a very active childhood, and took part in different sports such as gymnastics, swimming, snowboarding, soccer and hockey. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

Q: You come from a family that is very invested in sports.

A: Yes, I am the oldest child and have three sisters. We grew up with a common love for sports and outdoor activities. In our younger days, my sisters and I used to go for cycling trips, play tennis matches or go for jogs together.

Our mother is also a dietitian, which means we had our fair bit of healthy diet. But of course, kids are kids, so we also had our occasional “sweet indulgences”.

My three sisters were all very focused on their sport. Two of them started at at a very young age with high-level gymnastics. They would train almost every day for several hours. My other sister played in the youth women’s soccer team, which also required a lot of training hours.

What sports did you pursue when you were younger?

For me, I tried out a lot of different sports; some for a longer period of time than others. I did gymnastics and ballet at a recreational level for a while. I tried swimming, hip hop dancing, snowboarding, soccer and hockey. I started with tennis around eight years old and played it for many years at a competitive level. I stopped during my studies, when I had to travel to Amsterdam daily.

What sports did you get into as you got older?

The one thing that remained constant all these years is my love for running. It is very easy to combine it with any other exercises and you can do it anywhere.

When I moved to Asia, I also started doing indoor climbing, weight training, yoga and – my favourite of all – the Spartan obstacle course races (OCR).

I did some obstacle races in Europe, but when I tried the Spartan Race for the first time in Malaysia, I really enjoyed it and it became the centre of my workouts. It really motivated me to focus on being fit. The first time I tried Spartan, it was a lot more difficult than I expected. I think I had to do more than 150 burpees.

Also, I used to train inside a lot, and the heat outdoors really hit me. But after that first time, it really motivated me to improve. The next time I joined I was in the Elite category and I came in 10th in the women’s category.

During my pregnancy I had to slow down, but now I am focused on getting back to the Spartan Race again.

Singapore #Fitspo of the Week: Danielle van der Leest (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)
Nowadays, Danielle van der Leest does sporting activities such as indoor climbing, weight training, yoga and Spartan obstacle course races. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

What was your fitness regime like during your recent pregnancy?

During my pregnancy, I admittedly did fewer workouts than I had wanted. I continued with weight training, but at a lighter intensity than normal. During my first trimester, I stopped running, because I did not feel comfortable during the runs, so I exchanged it for walking or cycling. I continued with teaching classes (strength and high intensity) until I was seven months pregnant and trained my clients until a week before delivery.

I am glad that my job as a personal trainer gives me an opportunity to keep me moving during my pregnancy. To make sure I trained in a safe way, I started to go for certification courses for pre- and post-natal fitness the moment I found out I was pregnant.

Did you struggle with your body image during pregnancy or after childbirth?

Before my pregnancy, I was extremely active – running three times a week, doing weight and high-intensity training. In total, I was working out for around six times week.

When I found out I was pregnant, I took it a down a notch. Of course, I missed my core and toned body before birth, but I did also like the process of seeing everything change. I really enjoyed the first time I felt the baby move in my belly and made it a routine to put oil on my belly and talk to her every evening.

Near the end of my pregnancy, I was kind of tired of that belly being in the way when putting on my shoes. Being someone who have climbed Mount Fuji in the same year, I was actually struggling my way up a flight of stairs. Interesting how your body and fitness level can change throughout your pregnancy.

How did you get back in shape after childbirth?

After my delivery, I started going for walks. After the doctor cleared me for exercise, I started with bodyweight exercises with a focus on core work to improve my core connection. But definitely not all out, and no crunches!

Five weeks postpartum, I started with gentle flow yoga twice a week, added light weights to my training and tried my first run. My first run kind of failed – my pelvic floor felt uncomfortable and I got knee pain right away. I saw a physiotherapist specialising in women’s movement, who helped me with my pelvic floor recovery. I also went to another physiotherapist for my knee. I started doing interval running and now after six months post-natal, I can comfortably run for one hour.

Singapore #Fitspo of the Week: Danielle van der Leest (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)
Danielle van der Leest has managed to maintain a good level of fitness even after pregnancy. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

What did you learn from your pregnancy experience? How do you hope to help other mothers and mothers-to-be?

The morning sickness hit me quite hard during the first trimester of my pregnancy, and I had problems trying to get used to the bulging belly too.

During my pregnancy, I also noticed that there were many mums-to-be who are completely clueless on what exercises they could do, so they stuck to only pre-natal yoga or swimming.

However, there are many other fun ways expecting mummies can keep fit. The same goes for post-natal. I felt there is so little help or information that is readily available for new mums regarding working out after their pregnancy, and things they should be aware of.

In all honesty, although I knew the right exercises to do after delivery, I thought the process would be faster and that I would be back to my jumping and running in no time. But that was definitely not the case.

As such, along with a dedicated team of certified fitness coaches at Fitness First, we created a personalised pre- and post-natal fitness programme for women looking to regain their strength and increase their stamina during and after their pregnancy.

With these programmes in place, new mums can now find proper guidance on suitable exercises for their recovering core. We will take new mums through functional exercises, stretching, cardio and even water aerobics to let them regain their strength and get their body ready for daily life with their new bundle of joy.

You made a career switch from market research and communications, to becoming a fitness trainer. What are the reasons for doing so?

As a Media, Information and Communication graduate from Amsterdam, I worked for a market research company in Malaysia. During my years there, I really missed the connection with people, as I was spending a lot of time at the desk.

Growing up in an active family and once a model, I always tried to be active. I did my first Spartan OCR in Malaysia, and started to focus a lot more on full body strength training. I enjoyed it a lot and researched more into the best ways to get stronger and fitter.

Upon moving to Singapore in October 2016, I thought it would be perfect if I could combine my profession as a model, which involves me keeping fit, with my passion for being active by being a personal trainer.

I decided to embark on a career with Fitness First, which offers me certification opportunities and upskilling courses to get to where I am right now, and I never looked back. Being a personal trainer has given me the opportunity to help others understand their bodies, feel fitter, stronger and better in their own skin, and this sparks joy in my life.

Singapore #Fitspo of the Week: Danielle van der Leest (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)
Danielle van der Leest has helped create a personalised pre- and post-natal fitness programme at Fitness First for women looking to regain their strength and increase their stamina during and after their pregnancy. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

You used to be a model. Did you struggle with your body then?

Back in my modelling years, I was required to be of a certain size. My hips were always “too big”. I did not have any eating disorders but I did go through a phase of being obsessed with clean eating and working out.

As a personal trainer, I now have a better understanding of my body and its nutritional needs, which has allowed me to form a healthier relationship with food. I have also gotten better at balancing and keeping my diet moderate.

When did you feel the least confident about yourself?

I gained quite a lot of weight when I was around 15 years old (during my high school) due to the side effects of certain medication I took at that time. I used to be able to eat anything I wanted and not put on weight, but at that point I suddenly started gaining weight at speed. I overcame the weight gain by running often and watching my diet closely. Gradually, I kept the weight at bay with a balanced diet and lifestyle.

What are your fitness goals now?

During those nine months, I looked forward on building up my whole fitness level again to what it used to be, so the first thing I did was core recovery. Now, I am busy with building up my muscle strength and cardio. My first event was the Spartan Race, Elite category in August. I might not be on the same level as before pregnancy yet, but I was very excited to get back in the race.

Are you satisfied with your body now and why?

Yes, I feel very good in my body right now. I have lost all my pregnancy weight and am gradually gaining back my strength. Also, I am proud of myself for making sure I look after my body with rehab exercises. The “old” me would have pushed through the pain, but now I am more aware of how happy I should be with a healthy body so I am trying to cherish that.

Do you get any comments about your body?

As a personal trainer, you are bound to get comments! Before pregnancy, it was about my abs. During pregnancy, it was about my rather ‘small’ belly and whether I should be doing the exercises that I was doing.

Now, I have quite a lot of people telling me how impressive it is that I have lost all my pregnancy weight and that I looked thinner than before my pregnancy. It is nice to see my hard work pay off.

On the outside, it might look like I am back to pre-pregnancy body, but I still have so much recovery to do to strengthen my pelvic floor and regain muscle mass. So, it is important to work your fitness from the inside out.

Singapore #Fitspo of the Week: Danielle van der Leest (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)
Singapore #Fitspo of the Week: Danielle van der Leest. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)