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: Victoria Cheng (@victoriacheng)
Occupation: Food writer and presenter, part-time boxing instructor
Diet: I eat whatever feels right at the moment and I try to listen to my body. My job in the food industry makes it difficult to follow any diet long term, so the key is finding a realistic balance. Nowadays, my long-term diet is more health- and nutrition-based than just for appearances.
Training: One hour of boxing 2-3 times a week, short run once a week, horse-riding once a week, 2-4 times of other sports.
Q: What kind of sports did you do as a kid?
A: Competitively I did gymnastics (10-18 years old), taekwondo (7-24 years old), and ballroom and Latin dance (10-25 years old). On a leisure level, I did sailing, skiing, snowboarding, kickline and swimming.
My mom also forced me to play her favourite sport – tennis. I hated it back then but love it now. My mom is really sporty and outdoor-loving, which really influenced my brothers and I growing up. We were always running around, doing something.
You were most active in taekwondo. How did you pick it up?
Both my parents wanted me to learn some kind of martial arts as a girl, as a form of self-defence. They also loved martial arts – my father is from Hong Kong and was trained in Wushu, and my mom is from Bangkok and learned Muay Thai.
My mom had enrolled me in ballet at five years old, and I was introduced to taekwondo at seven years old. At eight, my Sahbumnim (taekwondo master) told me to make a choice between those two. There was only so much time in a day and he saw potential he wanted to foster. I suppose he didn’t want to waste his time on someone who wasn’t fully dedicated. You can guess which one I picked.
For a decade, my brothers and I practically lived at the dojang, Monday to Sunday for hours every day.
How did you get into boxing and become an instructor?
Funnily enough, I used to think boxing was boring; a sport for simpletons. Coming from taekwondo, where we use all four limbs with grace, why would I be interested in a combat sport that used only my fists in big gloves?
Then my friend, Chris Lim, approached me two years ago, asking if I was interested to teach at a new concept gym he was putting together. I was intending to get into instructing fitness classes, so the timing was good, although the topic wasn’t completely ideal: boxing fitness in a dark room with neon lights (first of its kind in Singapore and it sounded odd). I accepted the trial anyway, and then met national boxer and the studio’s master trainer, Leona Hui.
While I started off a little cocky, thinking, “I’m a 2nd-degree, competition-level black belt, how hard can this be?” But I learnt how technical and difficult boxing was. Most importantly, I realised the wisdom that the more you learn about something, the more you realise how llttle you actually know.
It’s been a humbling experience, but also constantly exciting, because every time I step into training with a professional or national boxer, I learn something new. I’m also grateful to them for taking any time at all to teach me. Meanwhile, I love teaching as well, and hope I’ve been translating that same enthusiasm I feel towards the sport to my students in class.
You are also a food writer. How do you balance your love for food and fitness?
It’s important for people to realise that if you’re prone to weight gain, the most effective way to look “in shape” or slim is watching what you eat. Working out helps, but as I’ve learned, despite working out religiously, I actually hit my heaviest weight, at 72kg, three years ago. It was a combination of muscle gain and increased appetite to match my increased gym time (which translates to more fat, and a denser body).
When I first moved to Singapore nine years ago and joined a food magazine, I also gained some weight (same as my current weight actually, but it was more fat and I wasn’t working out as much). I went through a phase of crash diets and calorie counting, a lot of yo-yoing and unhealthy irregular habits.
Nowadays I don’t strictly do calorie-counting, but I do have a rough estimate of how many calories I consume per meal. It’s almost become subconscious in how I balance my meals - if I’ve had a day full of saucy carbs (as in gravy or cream) or junk, then I’ll eat clean the next day or two.
I’ve tried meal prep before and frankly, I think it’s horrible and I ended up throwing out the food after day two, because I’m so sick of it.
Your work also involves a lot of travelling. Do you squeeze in any workouts when you’re overseas?
Ha! Have you ever been guilty of using up luggage space for running sneakers you end up never using? Yeah, that was me before.. over-ambitious about all the potential workouts I’d do. And honestly, sometimes it still is the case.
The best way to discover a city is by foot. So if safety and time permits, I’ll at the very least go for a brisk walk or a run around the city I’m in. If there’s a gym, I’ll create my own circuit depending on my goals and what equipment is available. If the city has a place known for something in particular (e.g. spinning studio in NYC, Karate in Japan), I usually schedule a visit to try it out.
What are your fitness goals now?
Stamina building and boxing related. I’m aiming to fight at least once this year, so I need to work on technical sparring, and gosh, my stamina needs so much work. It’s awful how fast I gas out compared to my peers. I also have a triathlon goal on the backburner as well.
When did you feel the least confident about yourself?
Since forever! The worst was when I hit puberty and suddenly had a big butt and hips – butts were definitely not trending in the 90s. I switched to really baggy pants and often tied a sweater around my waist all-the-time to cover it.
It didn’t matter what I was wearing, I would cover my bum as much as possible. Later as an adult, I rarely wore skirts because of my thick lower half (legs especially). I’m still self-conscious about it to be honest, but overall I started caring less about it.
How did you become more confident?
You reach a point when you understand why grownups always tell you to stop being so unhappy about yourself, that one day you’re going to look back on your old pictures and think, “I looked great!”
The real turning point though was getting back into fitness. Right after college, there was a lull in my active life. When I moved to Singapore in my mid-20s, I joined a gym and signed up for physical training for the first time (prior to that, it was just sports, I thought gyms were a snore). Over time, and especially over the last few years, as I got physically stronger, my mind felt stronger too. My sense of self-worth grew. In fact, when I was at my heaviest, I was well aware of my weight gain, but I was also really content with my life and myself.
Prior to that I was at my slimmest as an adult at 58kg. I was working out a bit, but mostly I wasn’t eating much because I thought being thin was part of what meant to be liked and accepted by people, especially my then-boyfriend. I wasn’t eating, because I wasn’t happy. I was in a toxic relationship and lost confidence in myself, and I lost weight.
So fast-forward to getting out of that relationship, working out, and finding meaningful friendships, and eating to my heart’s content. I was just happy, slowly healing and feeling more myself over the months. I found that sense of self-worth, and part of that was the literal strength I gained participating in obstacle courses, challenging my body but also progressing.
Side note on the story: I actually met my current beau when I was at my heaviest/biggest, and he liked me then. While I wasn’t ready to date yet, I remembered thinking, “Wow, if this guy likes me now, without fuss about my appearance, he’s probably a keeper.” Three years later, we’re now happily living together, and of course eating and working out together too.
Are you satisfied with your body now?
I panicked all the time especially about fitness shoots. I work out and play sports because it makes me feel good, I really enjoy it – even more so without a camera around, to be honest. Then I can just really get into the moment of the training or experience. I don’t diet, so when I am ambushed by an invitation to be featured, though grateful for the opportunity, I stress about looking perfect for these shoots.
I’ve since stopped stressing so much. My active life is authentic; it’s real. And this is the body that it comes in - healthy, strong, flexible, happy, and yes, a little chubby in the natural places. Plus, I know in another 10 years, the 40-something-year-old me will be looking back thinking with deja vu, “I looked great!”
Do you get any comments about your body?
Of course. Even the most perfectly of perfect models get criticisms; I definitely get them too. I don’t think I would ever wish to become a model – it’s a job that insists on what you should look like by someone else’s ideals. That’s tough to deal with. If I get criticisms, well, it’s not my job to look the way you like. But no one really says it to my face these days, except my brothers – as siblings do. Plus, the disclaimer is in my moniker: The Chubby Ninja, so bugger off haters!
It’s encouraging to meet other women who look past whatever label that has been stuck on them – skinny, fat, thick, curvy, boyish – and admire one another for what we are. It’s heartwarming whenever I post candidly about appearance concerns, and people relate and are encouraging to me and towards one another.
What are some misconceptions of fitness in today’s society?
Lots. But one particular one that irks me is about body types. Last year, I met a man, who asked if I liked to work out (frankly speaking, for me it’s always almost a man in this scenario; perhaps because women know strength and ability has nothing to do with what we look like). I said yes, and that I work out six to seven times of HIIT (high-intensity interval training) a week, he actually smirked in disbelief.
Through conversation, it became evident that he thought fit women meant willowy, slender body types exclusively. I’ve witnessed or experienced other conversations like this over the years. It doesn’t bother me much now though, because I’ve also discovered that people who actually understand what fitness is, what it means to be active, and actually lives that life, also understands that being fit comes in many shapes and sizes.