Her 17kg weight loss inspires foreign domestic workers to pick up sport

Jen before and after weight loss.
PHOTO: Jen Macapagal

When Jen Macapagal first moved to Singapore to work, she was fresh out of school and eager to start a new life. However, the stress from adjusting to life here got to her and her health suffered.

"I was only 21 when I first came here in 2008 from the Philippines. At that time it was a period of transition for me so I didn't have a fitness regime. I didn't see exercise as a priority and wasn't aware of the benefits. The thought of exercising was already tiring for me!" said Jen, now 32 and working as a programme manager and team lead at Alpha Development.

After two months in Singapore, Jen found her first job but it caused her a lot of distress. Between coping with the challenges of a new environment and having no close friends to rely on, she started picking up unhealthy habits such as heavy smoking and late nights out with minimal sleep.

Then in 2009, a friend introduced her to dragonboating. She was curious to try something new and pick up a healthy hobby that also allowed her to gain new connections.

"I ended up getting hooked onto the sport so I continued going for training and even raced competitively! However, despite having regular training, I was still clubbing, drinking alcohol and smoking a lot," she recalled. During this time, Jen hit her heaviest weight of 69kg. (That translates to a high-risk BMI for her height of 1.57m.)

Jen at her heaviest.
PHOTO: Jen Macapagal

This lifestyle continued for the next few years until 2013, when her close friends took part in an aquathlon - a multisport race where you swim and then run immediately after.

Jen did not know how to swim, so she engaged a swim coach to teach her. It took her a long time to get comfortable swimming in the sea, but that also served as motivation to pick up triathlons eventually.

Noticing that she struggled with breathlessness and lack of stamina in swimming and running, Jen decided to quit smoking when she signed up for her first Ironman 70.3 race in Cebu, Philippines in 2014.

An Ironman 70.3 race is a half-Ironman that involves 1.9km of swimming in the open water, a 90km bike ride, followed by a half marathon of 21.1km.

Jen posing with her hard-earned Ironman Malaysia medal.
PHOTO: Jen Macapagal

That became her turning point in life. "My routine changed drastically that year as I was leading a dragonboat team and training for triathlons too. My weekday nights were packed with training and my weekends involved longer endurance sessions for triathlon before going for dragonboat training," she shared.

Just as things were looking up for her (whilst the numbers on the scale were going down), Jen lost her job in 2015. She also failed to finish the Ironman 70.3 Dublin. These crushed her mentally and caused her deep stress.

After she picked herself up and found a new job, Jen realised that she wanted to do something meaningful. "Facing the ups and downs in my life made me see that I can do more, especially with all the life skills, values and holistic benefits I have reaped from sports over the years," she said.

That led her to create Race2Share in 2015, a non-profit group that supports and empowers foreign domestic workers (FDWs) through its sports programmes.

Jen with her Race2share community.
PHOTO: Jen Macapagal

"Race2Share started with some of what I call volunteer athletes, who take part in races and raise awareness or funds at the same time for different causes. We also engaged communities like youths at risk and marginalised groups to inculcate the value of sports in their lives.

"Now we hope to get more people inspired by the work we do, gain more meaningful partnerships and collaborations with like-minded groups both in Singapore and regionally, and ultimately encourage more FDWs to pick up sports and adopt healthier lifestyles," Jen explained.

From merely doing fundraising campaigns and ad hoc projects in the past, to realising an advocacy that speaks true of its mission and existence, Race2Share has helped Jen get on track and stay on track.

Over the last five years of leading a healthier lifestyle, she has lost a total of 17kg (from 69kg). She even completed her first full Ironman race last October in Langkawi, Malaysia.

Jen completing her first full Ironman in October 2019.
PHOTO: Jen Macapagal

"Some of the great benefits of living healthier are becoming more mindful, feeling sharper and waking up every day having that good level of confidence and productivity at work.

"After completing my first full Ironman race, I've realised that our minds and bodies are capable of achieving what seems impossible, if we nurture them properly and commit ourselves to our goals.

"Being mindful of our health is not only a gift to ourselves but also to our loved ones, the people around us and to the purpose we serve in this world," she concluded.

This article was first published in Shape.