The fun in exercise
Ann Leong has taken it upon herself to do what she can for seniors and get them to exercise. She leads an active group in Bukit Batok Nature Park in an energised workout that leaves the heart pumping and seniors coming back for more the next day.
BY: Eleanor Yap
Ann Leong, who is in her 50s, has been singing the praises of exercise for a long time and has taken it a step further by starting an exercise group in 2004. The group’s members, which has grown in strength from the initial five to a weekend crowd of 100 people, are an average age of 60, plus a smattering of regulars who are in their 80s like Dr Phay Thong Huat, a retired dentist and grandfather of 10, who is glad to be out doing something healthy and among his peers. And there are some like 61-year-old Chua Cheon Yee, who will always be grateful for Leong’s dedication, as it has allowed her to get out of depression!
Every morning, including public holidays, Leong, who is affectionately called “teacher” in Chinese, is up bright and early to lead her group at Bukit Batok Nature Park. The mother of four has a set routine that she does each morning which usually begins with a 20-minute session of hula-hooping with a small group of 10 women, and then the crowd comes in for a 20-minute stretching with the elastic band, and continue on with a 30-minute session of simple exercise movements. We speak to Leong about why exercise is so important and what motivates her in getting up day-in and day-out at so early in the morning:
What made you start the exercise group?
It was June 2004 during school holidays when I was brisk walking at Bukit Batok Nature Park. I met a friend who suggested we work out together with our group of other friends, a total of five of us. One of them taught us a set of simple exercise routines. After a while, the group disbanded and I was left alone to carry on with the routines, but I had some interested people who were keen to join in. Over the years, the number kept on growing to where it is today at 80 in the weekdays and 100 people in the weekends.
It is a blessing that with exercise, it can draw nice people together. As we age, all the more we need friends. I am very glad that with this morning routine, many new friendships are born and together, they can learn the importance of growing old and healthy, and choosing to work out their body rather than remaining sedentary at home.
The majority in the group are Singaporean Chinese. We also have some people from Myanmar, China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Canada. Females make up most of the group, however we are seeing an increase in the number of males who come in the weekends and public holidays. I have some people who come from as far away as Upper Thomson, Ang Mo Kio and Lentour.
How did you decide on the various routines?
As time went by, most of us got fitter and we wanted more out of the routines we had. I got queries like how to work out the tummy, what about working out the triceps, etc. These prompted me to find out more. I started researching it from books and from the Internet, taking into consideration everyone’s ages. I even took Dongfang Wang’s (former DJ who is battling leukaemia) exercise class at a crazy time of 5.30am. As a result from the class, I brought in exercise bands. Later, by coincidence, I found the hula-hoop and decided to teach that to the group. About 98 percent of the group didn’t know how to hula-hoop and thought to themselves that they were too old for something like that. I was able to give them renewed confidence and they in turned showed perseverance to learn. See … it doesn’t mean when you are old you can’t try new things!
How do you keep the routines different and fun?
From time to time, I share with the group some beauty tips, basically things that I have learned from my own experiences. Sometimes, I teach them some dance steps or even, line dance. During festive seasons, we have dress-up photo sessions, for instance in Christmas, the group is asked to come in red, green or white outfits, plus a Christmas hat! It is fun to see Santas and Santarinas exercising together.
Also, every six months, I will change the routine a little (from my reading) so that the group is exercising other parts of the body; it is something new to help break the monotony. Our exercises are very lively. Sometimes, we even have jokes. We also invite special guests to come and join in the group (during this session where the writer attended kung fu actor Lau Kai-Fei (Liu Jia Hui/Gordon Liu) joined in). I always keep the members informed of these activities ahead of time and they all look forward to whatever happens. I think with all the above, and my willingness and unselfishness to share, and of course, with all the nice people around, our group continues to grow.
What do you do for work? What does your husband do?
I provide lodging to foreign students. My husband is a workaholic director, who works for an international company and travels around Southeast Asia. He leaves me to devote my time to volunteer in the park and do my other volunteer activities.
You have no personal training background. Do you feel that this has hindered you or helped you? Would you consider getting the credentials?
Yes, I do not have a personal training background. Even without the credentials, I research and read up for the answers to better myself. I have also picked up some lessons to inject into our routine and I am always ready to learn new things to help the group. I am not concerned at this time about getting the credentials, though it would certainly be a bonus. I feel this is not important; most importantly, I am happy that my regulars are healthy and happy to exercise. My greatest satisfaction is when the regulars tell me how they have improved physically and mentally, and they thank me for the time spent.
I understand every six months, some group members contribute $2 for the battery in the radio. Plus you buy the hula-hoops in bulk. Can you comment?
Every six months, we collect S$2 for our cassette player and batteries. I have seven cassette players and seven “officers” in charge of bringing the player on different days of the week. Sometimes, the money will be donated to our exercise people who are in need of help. Recently, an ex-exercise regular contracted cancer. All this is voluntary and some, especially the newer members, don’t donate. In terms of the hula-hoop purchases, I sell it to them without making a profit. I just source, purchase, collect and distribute them, without them going out to get them. It is not a direct contribution from myself; they actually pay for the hula-hoops.
What motivates you to carry on day-in and day-out?
Firstly, exercise motivates me. The regulars who are in the 80s motivate me. I want to be like them and they are living proof that it is never too old to start exercising. I want to continue to stay healthy and enjoy my family for a long time!
Are you planning to start another group in another part of the island?
Another group was started at Pasir Ris four years ago. I was travelling daily for three weeks from west to east until I decided that they should run it on their own. They are still exercising there. There are others who have asked me to help, but the timing has not been right.
What is your hope for the group?
My hope is that the group stays healthy and happy. That is the most important thing for seniors.
What are some inspiring stories of exercise having benefited your group members (besides the two stories I have included below)?
There was a lady in her mid-60s who told me she felt better physically than she had been in the past. There are some from my group who went to China and went up hills. They commented that they were fitter than their tour mates, who had not exercised. Some have told me they look younger than their actual age, they felt happier as well as more agile.
Do you think you will slow down anytime soon? What other volunteer work do you do?
I did announce sometime back that I wanted to slow down and that I was willing to teach someone good enough to take charge but so far there has been no response. My next strategy is to get as many regulars to know how to lead. In the event, when I am not available, the group can still function on its own. The “helpers” currently include Joo Yeow Seng, who is in his 50s, who has been helping out for five years, Au Say Moi, 52, who has been helping us for four years and Lim Poey Huang, who is in her 60s, who has been involved in the group for two years.
I used to volunteer every Monday mornings at St Luke’s ElderCare (a day care centre) and get the seniors there to exercise. But now they are on their own. Also, occasionally I am invited to be a volunteer at a social activity night, organised by a church group, for the West Coast residents. I usually do more than what is asked of me.
How do you keep fit? What is your exercise routine and nutrition?
It mainly consists of me working out daily with the group. I am serious when exercising and I make sure I get a good workout. As age is catching up on me, I am cautious about my sugar and fat intake, and believe wholeheartedly in eating in moderation.
Why do you feel exercising is important?
A quote – “Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise saves it and preserves it” by Plato.
What advice would you give to seniors who are interested in exercising but have never done it?
I would say to them to find a friend to do it with them. Do something like walk in the garden or park, or even join a brisk walking group. Don’t be shy and if the movements are wrong, it is ok. Whatever move you do, you are still exercising. I have always loved this quote – “What we call the secret of happiness is no more a secret than our willingness to choose life.”
These two are only the icing on the cake as there are many in Leong’s exercise group who say they owe her their good health:
• Dr Phay Thong Phua(above), 88-years-old, has been with the exercise group since 2004. He usually takes a 10-minute walk from his house to the park, and then walks around the park for 20 minutes before joining the group. “If you don’t use certain functions, you will likely lose it,” said the retired dentist and grandfather of 10. He shared that he suffered a transient ischemic attack or a mini-stroke six months ago and that he does not have good balance so he brings along his walking aid just in case, but nonetheless, his health remains good. Despite all this, it has not stopped him from exercising while sitting on the bench where he does what he can. “I have been exercising for 10 years. When I was in secondary school, I also exercised a lot. It stimulates blood flow and secretes endorphins … and you become optimistic. Attitude in life becomes less negative. I am thankful for everyday that I have,” said Dr Phay, who added that exercise is a great way to meet new people. “I attribute my good health to genes and exercise. Exercise slows down conditions like dementia.”
• Sixty-one-year-old Chua Cheon Yee, a retired teacher, was suffering from depression when she was 58 and the effects continued for one year. During that time, she could not sleep and had to take relaxants. After a friend suggested she join the group, which she did in 2008, her demeanour gradually improved. “I was sad and quiet, and I did not want to talk to anyone at the beginning. After about two months, I opened up and was able to sleep. After exercising for 10 months, I managed to stop my medication. The doctor even told me there was no need to see him anymore!” She has slight diabetes but that is under control. “I was initially quite clumsy but have since managed to loose 5kg. I also started running from my house in 2009 to the park and I usually do my own exercise for one hour before I start Ann’s exercise routines. … Exercising is very good. It has helped me a lot.” This grandmother of six revealed her depression is in her past and she has been very active, singing, and doing line and folk dancing.