No excuses: Fit dads share what makes them go

The advent of parenthood rarely heralds a period of optimum fitness for any working dad. Between dropping your kids off at school and grabbing lunch on the run, you are stuck on a busy work day that grows increasingly longer as you clock in more and more hours to support your family.

You are stressed, you're constantly tired, and you're left with little time for things like exercise and healthy nutrition.

While maintaining a work-life balance remains an elusive struggle for most working adults, keeping active and sticking to good eating habits amidst a dizzying conundrum of modern-day demands is not as impossible as it sounds.

We caught up with fathers who have managed the feat while juggling their daddy duties.

No excuses

Bio-fuel engineer, Lim Ee-Van, 36, makes no excuse not to exercise. "There are 24 hours in a day. You have to ask yourself what you really want out of it," he says.

The lean father-of-two walks the talk. An ardent runner who participates regularly in marathons, Lim trains an average of three times a week, either before or after work, depending on his schedule.

"I usually have to be in the office by 9am, so I would wake up at 6am to go for a short run near my house in Damansara Utama on my training days," he says. And by 'short', he means a good 30 minutes to cover 5km.

The course comes easy for Lim, who has completed the Ironman Triathlon three times (the Ironman is a long-distance race that comprises a 3.86km swim, a 180.25km bike and a marathon 42.2km run, to be raced in that order, and without a break within a time limit of 17 hours).

"The goal isn't to run insane mileage everyday. You just need 30 minutes to keep your legs moving and your heart pumping and you'll get faster over time," he explains.

It was his training for the Ironman race that really tested his physical limits. "When I was preparing for the event, I trained vigorously. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I would wake up at 4.30am to cycle about 17km, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I would run a minimum of 12km in the morning, and up to 15km in the evening.

"You suffer during training, but when you're out there in the race, everything is going to be easy," he says with a smile.

He credits his unwavering discipline to his tough early education. Lim says he attended a military school where they could be "penalised for anything from the top of our heads to the tip of our toes".

There, he learned to adhere to a stringent lifestyle, and also acquired a penchant for sports. "I was a fat boy in primary school, but was forced to live a highly disciplined lifestyle after I went there when I was about 14."

Lim played competitive rugby, and later took up endurance sports like adventure racing, canoeing, mountain biking, and abseiling.

He progressed to triathlons in 2003, and has not looked back since. This year alone, he has participated in marathons held in Kenyir, Terengganu, and Port Dickson, Selangor, in March and April, and is looking forward to a race in Desaru, Johor, at the end of the year.

He does not run for the prize, but takes genuine pleasure in his journey to the finish line.

Lim has since made his outdoor adventures a family affair. So many of today's activities for children are sedentary in nature, he notes. He encourages his children - Ryan, six, and Nadia, four, to lead an active lifestyle by taking them on regular trips to the park.

On weekends, Lim wakes up as early as 5am to run with his wife, Aileen Har, who is co-owner of the popular local boutique Cats Whiskers.

"It's a little bit harder to train now that I have a family, but it's made possible with an understanding spouse and a ready support system. My mother or her mother takes care of our kids when we go for a run.

"Usually, it'll be around 8.30 or 9am when we complete our 20km run, and that's when our kids will be up and we can spend the rest of the day with them."

Lim believes that adequate nutrition makes up the other half of the health equation. His brief brush with iron deficiency prompted a complete change in his eating habits. "My iron levels fell below the average for about 11 months. It was so bad, I was hyperventilating after just one flight of stairs.

"I had to take iron supplements, and I made a full recovery this year. Now, I only take whole foods. Processed foods like white bread for instance, are a definite no-no."

In spite of the debilitating experience, Lim is determined to stick with his exercise regime. "I hardly fall sick nowadays. Whenever I'm feverish, I go for a run and sweat it out, and I'll be okay," he says.

"I plan to do this till I'm 80," he concludes with a laugh.

A juggling act

A juggling act

Meanwhile, like many of us, Wilfred Yeo, group director of a local hotel chain, is perennially bound to a hectic work schedule. The jovial 44-year-old admits: "I have been really busy lately. It's making me quite stressed."

Despite that, the father-of-two still makes it a point to incorporate exercise into his daily life. For Yeo, maintaining a sound balance of mental, physical and spiritual wellness is imperative for healthy living.

The animated Yeo, who has led an active lifestyle since his primary school days, is now a familiar face in the local marathon circuit. He says he enjoys training for races, though he runs primarily for health reasons, and also, because he enjoys the challenge.

His definition of physical fitness has however, changed over the years. "I started working out seriously only in 2003, when I decided I needed to do it to stay healthy. There was a time when I was trying to bulk up, which I did. At one point, I could lift up to 80kg on a barbell," he reveals.

"But as I got older, I realised that having a strong heart is more important than aesthetics. So I worked to improve my cardiovascular fitness."

His new goal took him from indoor cycling (Revolutions Per Minute, RPM) at the gym to running marathons. "There was only so much I could do with indoor cycling. I wanted a bigger challenge and I decided to run. I had friends who were competing in marathons, and I thought: if they can do it, why can't I?"

His first few training sessions, however, yielded less than stellar results. "I have done up to three hours of RPM, but I couldn't even last 3km running outdoors. I was panting away by the end of it."

The challenge prompted Yeo to push even harder. He started running around his housing area in USJ, Selangor, to build up his speed and stamina.

"I've mapped out a few different routes in my area using this app called Map My Run. I clock in a minimum of 20km per week now," he shares.

"Some days I'll run just 4 or 5km, but recently, I ended up completing 14km.

"I started out wanting to do just 8km, but decided I wanted to do more when I hit the third or fourth kilometre, and that was it."

To date, the fit dad has completed numerous 10km runs and four half-marathons (21km), including the PJ Dawn half-marathon in May, which he finished in two hours and 35 minutes.

"A very good or fast marathon runner usually takes only about one hour 50 minutes to complete a half-marathon. And of course, the younger ones are much faster. But I don't think I need to be fast. I'm running for health, so I just have to be part of the 'janji habis' (as long as we finish) gang."

"For me, it's really about strengthening myself mentally. I'm an achiever in all that I do and I find personal satisfaction in marathon running." Still, Yeo admits that age-related issues have affected his training. "Speed deteriorates, cartilage in the knees give way a little." In fact, he has experienced knee pains when he runs, and has engaged the help of sports doctors and a physiotherapist to rectify the problem.

He now uses compression shorts and tights to facilitate his runs. "I hardly get any problems anymore. Not even cramps."

Yeo has passed on his ardour for exercise to his children. "I go on regular runs with my son, Eugene, who is 17. We've also done 10km runs together, and he runs in school too. He is also active in basketball."

His daughter Charmaine, 15, is also into sports. "She's not really into running, but she plays netball actively in school."

But despite regular exercise, Yeo says his cholesterol levels are still a little high. "I'm actually very careful when it comes to eating, so I'm not sure why. I hope to bring that down by looking after my diet and running more."

Always active

Always active

An athlete in his high school days, Mah Poon Keat, 55, senior vice president of a cement company, has led an active lifestyle for as long as he remembers. His lean and sturdy physique is proof of his regular trips to the gym.

"I started going to the gym in 2006 when I noticed a spike in my sugar levels," he says.

Mah adds that it was his son, Kit, a model and local reality television star, who inspired him to join the gym. "Kit has always been very disciplined when it comes to staying fit. So I decided to go to the gym too to maintain good health and to stay fit. Now I am beginning to enjoy it too."

His fitness routine now comprises at least two to three visits to the gym every week. Mah follows through each session with a mixture of cardio and resistance training.

"I try my best to meet that target," he shares. Inevitably, work gets in the way sometimes. "It is hard to find time to exercise sometimes, especially in my line of work. I have to entertain clients regularly, and occasionally, I have to travel.

"Trying to get some exercise while I'm travelling is also a challenge. I also try to watch what I eat, but frankly, I am very poor at that. I have a sweet tooth, and I love everything sweet. This is an area I definitely have to improve."

Apart from training at the gym, Mah also plays badminton with his colleagues and friends once a week. Occasionally, his daughter Sue Ann, 24, also joins him at the gym.

The easygoing Mah says he is in excellent health. "So far, touch wood, I have not experienced any injuries or discomfort while working out. I also engaged a personal trainer when I first joined the gym, so I learned the proper techniques to exercise and to prevent injuries."

For now, Mah just wants to stay healthy and fit. "I have no problems with my cholesterol levels. For the record, I have not taken any sick leave for as long as I can remember.

"Fourteen years ago, my company introduced an award scheme to reward those who do not take sick leave at work, and I have not taken a single day of sick leave since 1998."

For all ages

For all ages

According to Jerrican Tan, a certified personal trainer and the managing director at Fitness Innovations Malaysia (FiT), Malaysia's first global standard education, training and certification centre for aspiring fitness professionals, one of the most common problems that afflict ageing in men is a dip in testosterone levels.

Lower testosterone levels result in a drop in resting metabolic rate (RMR), which leads to the loss of muscle mass and weight gain as we age.

Most people experience a 3% decrease of RMR with each decade after they hit 30.

Tan, whose primary areas of interest include fitness education, bodybuilding, sports performance and weight management, adds: "After the age of 20, we will also experience a 10% of strength loss with each decade. Reduced blood flow, decreased joint mobility and lower bone density are other common age-related problems.

"Women are more prone to osteoporosis as they grow older. But both men and women are equally susceptible to arthritis due to the decline of function of the musculoskeletal system."

Luckily, we can prevent this loss with regular strength-training exercises, which are designed to build or preserve muscles.

Tan recommends performing resistance training at least two to three times a week. "This will help boost testosterone production and improve overall health," he says.

It is equally important to maintain your cardiovascular fitness. "We should perform moderate intensity cardiovascular exercises for at least 200 to 300 minutes per week. The goal is to maintain your health regardless of your age."

For those who can't stand working out on a treadmill (I have a friend who calls it 'hamster training'), Tan suggests circuit training or boot camp. "Most of these programmes incorporate both resistance training and cardiovascular training.

"But rather than your age, the most important aspect to consider before you engage in any exercise programme is your current physical condition."

He explains: "As we age, we will experience physiological changes to our cardiovascular, respiratory, neuromuscular and endocrine systems.

"These changes may affect how we react to exercise, thus it is imperative for us to understand our current physical condition before we jump on the bandwagon."

That said, age should never be a barrier. "A healthy 40-year-old can actually train like someone who is 18. Why not?" he says. "Also, there are 18-year-olds who may not be able to train like a fit 40-year-old."

Besides that, Tan opines that health concerns like joint and back pain should not stop one from exercising.

"People with these problems should exercise once they have been cleared to do so by a physician or a sports doctor. Otherwise, their muscles might atrophy and their health condition might further deteriorate.

"Corrective exercises that work on core stability and knee stability, as well as hip mobility and ankle mobility, can help improve their overall physical condition."

Exercise should be incorporated into one's lifestyle from young, Tan adds, "We tend to pay more attention to academic goals when we are young. But if exercise is instilled from childhood, then we are more likely to make it a part of our lives later in life."

Socio-cultural factors also determine the role of exercise in the Malaysian psyche.

As he concludes: "We will probably exercise more if the people around us exercise as well.

"Come to think of it - if we can organise parties and get-together drinks and dinner, why not exercise?"