Choosing health over fitness in 2020

By Lisa Twang, Jan 02, 2020

To most people, Denise Ooi looks like a strong, fit 37-year-old. But when we met her, she told us how frustrating it is that she keeps gaining weight, even though she works out so often (nearly every day, and sometimes twice a day). At one point, she even gained 30kg in a year.

Denise lives with thyroid disease, an illness with symptoms like fatigue, high blood pressure, amenorrhea (missing periods), and weight gain. She’s also struggled with body weight issues and depression after taking slimming pills, despite being fit for most of her adult life.

This is the story of why she's decided to take better care of her body this year, and how she realised she doesn’t need to conform to society’s ideals of what fitness should look like.

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Hi, I’m Denise, and I’m a sports rehabilitation therapist. I help others by treating and managing their injuries, and I’m also passionate about sports.

This year, my resolution is to focus more on my treatment for thyroid disease, and balance it with my fitness goals. Because I’ve learned that fitness doesn’t equate to health, and I can’t take my health for granted any more.

When I was younger, I thought being fit and slim was more important than being healthy.

A photo of me when I was eight years old.

A photo of me when I was eight years old.

As a child, I was obese and was bullied in school because of my weight, but it didn’t affect me much until I was a teenager. When family members made comments about my body, like how I lost weight, or put on weight, it made me very self-conscious, and I became obsessed with my weight.

At 16, I was introduced to slimming pills and would receive them regularly from my GP. At the time, I thought slimming pills were the only way to lose weight.

My mother recommended that I see this GP for weight loss, after a friend of hers had also consulted him. Back then, we trusted the doctor, and it didn't occur to us that seeing a doctor for weight loss could be harmful. 

Looking back, I feel that my doctor was unethical as he continued prescribing weight loss pills even when I was suffering from harmful side effects like dry mouth, physical weakness, and insomnia. The pills would suppress my appetite, and I would only eat one apple a day.

I started losing weight very fast: I lost 10kg in a very short time (I don’t remember how long exactly). But soon after I stopped taking the pills, I gained 30kg. The weight gain made me feel so ashamed that I started skipping school, and this affected my grades greatly. But at such a young age, I had yet to realise or understand the consequences. 

I continued taking other types of slimming pills from the same doctor, and even bought weight loss supplements from overseas. I spent all my savings on these pills.

At 20, I also discovered the gym together with my mother, sister, and my then-boyfriend, Aloysius, who is now my husband. By 22, I would run 10km three times a week, while going for yoga and hitting the gym two hours a day.

Although I was my fittest self, I was never satisfied with my weight, and still took weight loss supplements while continuing my fitness regime. 

Aloysius and I, aged 22.

Aloysius and I, aged 22.

Back then, there was little understanding about the side effects of weight loss pills. It was only when we saw news reports of people suffering health issues or even dying as a result of taking these pills, that my family became concerned. Gradually, I stopped taking slimming pills completely as I realised they weren’t good for my health.

But by 2012, I noticed something wrong with my body: although I was physically active and eating well, I started gaining weight rapidly (30kg in a year). I saw a specialist, who diagnosed me with hypothyroidism and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).

Hypothyroidism means my thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormones, and PCOS is a hormonal disorder where my body has an imbalance of hormones, causing me to have irregular periods. 

Both of these conditions are very disruptive to my daily routine. I feel robbed of my energy, and also have to battle my moods a lot. I feel down and unmotivated sometimes; just getting up in the morning or going to sleep at night are hard for me. The medication I’m on also has the side effect of muscle weakness, and I’ve felt my muscles have deteriorated as well.

A photo of me at the time, when I had gained 30 kg. At my heaviest, I was almost 100 kg.

A photo of me at the time, when I had gained 30 kg. At my heaviest, I was almost 100 kg.

At my lowest point, I felt depressed. I didn’t feel like myself, and dark thoughts went through my head. I wanted to give up, and life felt meaningless.

Because my weight would fluctuate a lot, I had clothes in many different sizes. And while I struggled with physical and mental tiredness and weight gain, I isolated myself from my friends and neglected my family for many years, which is one of the things I regret most. I didn’t like leaving the house, as I didn’t want to be seen. I lost touch with many close friends, who would wonder why I didn’t join them when they invited me for gatherings.

One thing that helped me through this hard time was my love for sports. It became my lifeline, and I also love feeling strong and powerful when I go for trainings.

I’ve joined obstacle course races like Spartan races, conquering obstacles like wall runs barbed wire crawls.

I also took up Krav Maga and close quarters combat, and even started re-learning my grandfather’s martial art, the 7 Star Praying Mantis fighting style (七星螳螂拳), from his best disciple. My grandfather had founded the martial arts school and taught me basic fighting stances when I was four, but I stopped training when he passed away a year later. I never forgot about my grandfather, and practising his martial art made me feel connected to him again. Though I had to stop training, I’m planning to pick it up again and get friends to join me.

Another goal I’ve set for myself this year is to train for my first sports competition: The WKSF Singapore Kettlebell Championship 2020. I started kettlebell training at Strength Avenue with Aloysius in 2018. He wasn’t ready for high-intensity workouts, so I brought him for less intense, yet challenging, kettlebell exercises. I now train four times a week, and Aloysius joins me twice a week.

Practising my OALC (One Arm Long Cycle) lift, where the kettlebell is lifted with one arm.

Practising my OALC (One Arm Long Cycle) lift, where the kettlebell is lifted with one arm.

Competition training is new to me; in my obstacle races, the goal was just to finish the course with my group. But I’m ready to challenge myself with the kettlebell championship this year. I took part in my first novice meet last month, and I ended up beating my personal best, doing 106 OALC reps in 10 minutes (previously, I’d done about 80).

Receiving my kettlebell novice meet participation certificate was one of my proudest moments last year. This was taken with my kettlebell coaches, Andyn and Pen.

Receiving my kettlebell novice meet participation certificate was one of my proudest moments last year. This was taken with my kettlebell coaches, Andyn and Pen.

I don’t have any specific goals for the upcoming competition, other than to make my coaches proud. They’ve cheered me on and encouraged me, and I want to do my best. 

While working out has made feel good about myself, it hasn’t helped my hypothryoid issue. I know that I’ve been putting off treating my illness more seriously, so this year I'll be looking into the possibility of surgery.

It might have taken me years to come to terms with this, but I’m slowly learning to accept my illness, and my body for what it is. A big part of that is because of the people in my life: friends, my parents, and Aloysius, who’s never stopped supporting me. 

No matter how down I felt about the way I looked, Aloysius always made me feel beautiful. He was always there to remind me to go for my check-ups, and would take time off work to bring me to the doctor. Even now, he reminds me to take my medication every day, and prepares nutritious meals for me. His concern has been part of the reason why I've finally realised that I need to take better care of myself, for both of us. 

I’m also very fortunate to have an aunt who is a doctor. She noticed a change in me and gave a prognosis, and over the years she also gave me vitamins that were very helpful. Together with my mum, they helped me get better.  

This year, I’ve resolved to take better care of myself so my illness doesn’t impair me. One day my illness may seriously get in the way of my daily functions, and I won’t be able to do the sports I love. I realise that the only time I have is now, so I’m telling myself to enjoy every single day. 

As for the insecurities that I had about my body, it was the encouragement from my loved ones that helped me to grow my confidence. Before, I mostly cared about losing weight and looking a certain way. Now, I recognise my insecurities about my body, and manage them through positive self-affirmations. I tell myself I am worthy, and I am loved.

Sometimes, I realise how far I’ve come in loving myself. If I had told my story here when I was younger, I wouldn’t have shared any of my photos. Now, I think, “Even if I’m 100kg, I’d still be comfortable with myself.”

People have too many comments about my body sometimes, and I can’t keep up with them — so I’ve learned not to let it bother me anymore. I may not look like society’s ideal for a fit female body, which was what I aspired to have in the past. Typically, people associate a fit person as someone with a slim body and defined muscles. But strength is a whole different thing; some people may be skinny or big, and yet be stronger than people with defined muscles. This is something that I hope other women can understand: being fit isn’t just about how you look. 

This is the body I have, and it’s allowed me to do so much. I’ve accepted my body for what it is: Strong, beautiful and powerful. And I’m determined to take care of it as best as I can, so I can continue to enjoy a long, healthy life.

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