Category Archives: Recommendations

The Fitbit Zip activity tracker

Thoughts on Fitbit and activity trackers

I recently started using a Fitbit Zip activity tracker because I was intrigued by this whole idea of doing 10,000 steps a day to keep fit. At S$78 (before the Challenger member 10% discount), it’s not cheap but it’s not expensive either for a tiny pedometer that comes with Bluetooth wireless capabilities and built-in user account.

To be clear, it’s not like I need a pedometer, because I already jog regularly two to three times a week and I watch what I eat most of the time. I weigh myself daily now with a Fitbit Aria scale that logs my weight to my personal account and I can always study my weight variations anytime on my phone or PC.

But once you pique my curiosity and it involves tech and fitness, I just have to try it out to gain an understanding of what other people are raving about. Continue reading

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Garmin Forerunner 620 review

I recently wrote my first article for Geek Culture, a fantastic blog site for us tech pseudo-nerds and gaming fans. It’s a review of Garmin’s latest flagship running watch, the Forerunner 620.

If you’re serious about running, you’re probably already using a GPS running watch to track your weekly progress. And if you’re a geek, I would wager you are also wondering if somebody has fixed the various technical shortcomings of your current watch.

Issues like heavy weight, ugly looks, bulky size, inconvenient battery charging, short battery life, limited data displays, slow GPS lock-on to poorly designed websites, I’ve experienced all of them in the past four years since I started using different wrist devices to record my runs.

That’s why when Garmin first announced its latest flagship running watch – the Forerunner 620 – the geek in me sat up and noticed. From paper specifications alone, the watch appears to have been designed to fix most of these niggling issues. Even with its high price (USD449 with the improved and advanced Heart Rate Monitor, more on that later), it seemed too good to be true.

Check out the rest of the review here. Since I bought the watch, it had better be good, and hence my review is going to be pretty obvious.

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Anyone Can Lose Weight : Technology Can Help

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Garmin Forerunner 210 GPS watch

Garmin Forerunner 210 GPS watch

For those who aren’t on my Facebook, I’ve decided to make my book “Anyone Can Lose Weight” free instead of USD1.00, and you can download it from this page. At the same time, I’m going to post more blog updates on weight management as this is still a learning journey for me and people keep asking me new questions which make me think “Hmmm, that’ll make a good blog post”. What’s really encouraging is that more people I know are starting to count their calories or at least rein in their eating habits, and they’re seeing pretty quick results. Losing weight isn’t a tortuous process, just read my book (which is really an edited compilation of my earlier blog posts) to find out how.

I’m a geek by nature and when it comes to weight management, it’s only natural that I seek out the latest technology to make it easier and more fun.

Obviously, you can lose/manage your weight without spending a cent at all (remember to buy new running socks though!) but it’s interesting how technology has advanced in the past few years to enable weight monitoring on a daily basis, across different platforms (PC, smartphone etc) in an increasingly seamless way. Remember what you’re about to read is purely optional, and is really catered for the geeky folks out there. Continue reading

The Tuition Problem nobody wants to solve

Dear Voices Editor

I refer to the Today report “MPs call for closer look at private tuition industry” (Today 17 Sep 2013)

It was a disheartening story for parents of primary school children to read.

While the original question posed by MPs in Parliament was focused on whether teachers are leaving the Education Service for more lucrative careers in the tuition sector, the replies from Senior Minister of State Indranee Rajah was a disturbing indication that the Ministry of Education doesn’t consider the tuition industry to be a critical issue.

Like it or not, it’s time for policymakers to stop ignoring the Tuition Problem if we are to improve the education system in Singapore. Continue reading

A Gear Shift For The Car Population

This post first appeared on the Breakfast Network.

It was Budget Day and many carrots were handed out.

But most folks I know zoomed in on the two new rules for purchasing new cars:

1. The new MAS rulings for car loans, capped at 60 per cent for OMV less than $20K, and 50 per cent for OMV more than $20K. Car loans are now capped at a tenure of five years.

2. The new tiered Additional Registration Fee (ARF) which increases the tax on luxury cars by up to 180 per cent, versus 100 per cent for low capacity car models.  According to Today: “The ARF for cars with OMVs up to S$20,000 will remain at the current 100 per cent, but two more tiers will be introduced for more expensive models. The next S$30,000 of the OMV of the car will attract an ARF rate of 140 per cent, and any value beyond S$50,000 will attract an ARF rate of 180 per cent.”

The knee jerk reactions came Fast and Furious :

- Car dealers opening their showrooms till midnight for one last desperate lunge at buyers. The question is how many impulse buys were there last night? Once again, it looks like more car salesmen are about to lose their jobs as more buyers are squeezed out of the market.

- On any Facebook stream, you can see two clear reactions: “It’s about time!” vs “Another policy to favor the rich!”. It’s also obvious who is cash-rich and who isn’t, based on the comments.

- Speculation among the more car-savvy folks on how much the COE will drop due to this. Personally, I’m guessing 20-50 per cent drop over six months as the market of buyers shrink. The question is: Of the people who are interested in spending over $200K on a new car, how many of them are cash rich?

Don’t be hating me okay… but I think the Gahmen’s latest measures on tiered ARF tax and cap on car loans are logical and sensible ways of controlling the car population.

Some may think that this favors the rich, but not really, since the rich are taxed more on luxury cars now. Sure, it’s not going to stop a millionaire from buying his Porsche, but it does make the average Joe looking to buy a BMW think a bit harder about his purchase.

The latest policies favor the financially prudent who know how to accumulate cash for a rainy day. For too long, people have forgotten the virtue of saving cold hard cash, relying instead on loans and credit, and spending more than their means. Even if the COE price doesn’t drop much, at least this is sound public policy that will appease those who have been unhappy about the current COE system and have been asking for alternatives (which have been soundly rejected by the Transport Ministry repeatedly).

It also sends a very explicit message to young people just starting out in their careers that owning a car is not a given, but a luxury item. The 2000s were a period when COE prices were low (I got mine at under $5,000 in 2009) due to wrong projections of COE deregistrations, and many young people could afford cars then. Since then, there have been one corrective action after another by the authorities to reverse the over-supply of COE in the market, and this looks like the most potent move yet.

More interestingly, the latest move on capping car loans comes from the Monetary Authority of Singapore because it wants to “safeguard against borrowers defaulting on their repayments” and encouraging financial prudence.

Now how many people have defaulted on their car loans recently? That would be a newsworthy number to know. If the number is low, maybe the G folks should just say it straight: “We don’t want you to borrow money for a car you can’t afford.”

My Mid-Life Food Crisis

Bicycle at Kallang

Update 3 Feb 2013: I’ve switched from the HPB iDat app to MyFitnessPal, which provides a much better food database, nutrition breakdown, user interface and it syncs properly across devices. The problem with locally created apps, especially those from govt. agencies, aren’t very well maintained or designed. But it was a good start and I do thank HPB for it.

Late last year, I got infected by a really bad case of athlete’s foot (that’s foot fungus if you’re not an athlete). It refused to heal despite all sorts of medicine being used, and I had to stop jogging for the whole month of Dec and the early weeks of Jan because it became too painful to even walk. I’ve since ditched the useless Western medicine and am using an ancient method of vinegar soak (50% white vinegar, 50% water for 20min twice a day) and it’s killing the fungus with an unholy vengeance.

The infection forced me to stop eating heavy foods and reduce my snacking, because I knew I couldn’t burn them off with another long run. This was especially miserable during the Christmas season when people are supposed to be making merry and gobbling food.

But that didn’t change my thinking on food, which was to “live to eat”. Two years of running with the Nike+ system gave me more stamina, but I gained about 3kg rather than losing weight. I love my pork lard, dry noodles and curry rice!

Then a few weeks ago, I purchased a digital weighing scale to replace the old spring version which has been showing the wrong readings for years. The new scale came with a fat percentage analyzer, and to my horror, my fat count was over 24% (healthy is 20% or under).

Didn’t help that my BMI was borderline overweight at 25 (it should be under 25). I’ve been mildly unhappy with the gradual disappearance of my jawline over the past few years too, and the weighing machine sparked the decision to change my eating habits for good.

Some fundamentals in adjusting food habits:

1. Data is critical. Most of the time, we make decisions without the right information. Working in journalism and Microsoft has taught me a healthy respect for collecting relevant data before acting. One of the reasons why I never lost weight since my army days is because I haven’t actually bothered to research what I was eating. How many calories was I actually eating a day? What is the trajectory of my unstoppable weight gain?

2. Exercise is unavoidable. Thankfully I have been jogging regularly over the past six years to ensure I don’t fail the IPPT fitness test. But I needed to ditch the rudimentary Nike+ Sportband pedometer because it was always showing a longer distance than I actually covered (due to my smaller strides). And the Nike+ website is a continual disaster with login failures and all sorts of problems. I can’t believe how a great company like Nike can tolerate having such an abysmal online experience for runners. I’ve covered over 900km with the Sportband and I was getting really fedup with the Nike site and my lack of weight loss.

So, I spent a day researching on calorie counting apps, and remembered the Singapore Health Promotion Board folks telling me about their iDAT (Interactive Diet and Activity Tracker) app. I downloaded it and was astounded to find all sorts of local food and their respective calorie figures in the database. It also comes with a basic GPS feature to track your various fitness activities.

The iDAT app's main screen, which shows you a quick summary of your calorie intake versus requirements.

The iDAT app’s main screen, which shows you a quick summary of your calorie intake versus requirements. The green bar shows your daily baseline requirement and the yellow bar shows calories expended by exercise. The orange bar refers to how much you’ve consumed so far in the day.

So I decided to do a simulation of my usual intake of delicious SG food and it wasn’t a good report card. It’s scary how many calories our local food contains. We know they aren’t healthy, but the numbers are sobering. My baseline benchmark is a bowl of minced pork porridge, which is about 320 kcal and not the most exciting meal out there. 

  FOOD CALORIES (kCal)
BREAKFAST Breadtalk curry bun 214
Soya bean drink with sugar 138
LUNCH Chicken Rice 666
Soft Drink 133
TEA Ice Milo 175
Biscuit 150
DINNER Economy Rice with 2 veg and 1 meat 580
Ice Lemon Tea 87
SUPPER Crispy snacks 200
  TOTAL 2343

Give or take, the average SG male needs 1800-2000 kcal a day on average to keep going. Of course, I don’t eat such rich food at every meal but with an excess of 343 kcal a day, one will gain 1kg in just 22 days if you lead a sedentary lifestyle and don’t exercise.

“Calorie In” must be balanced with “Calorie Out” to maintain the same weight. When you take in less calories than you expend, you’ll experience a calorie deficit which then leads to weight loss. Vice versa too. 

According to online wisdom, 1kg of body weight is equivalent to 7700 kcal. To burn off 1kg of weight, you need to have a calorie deficit each day of 500 kcal over 15 days. The reverse is true – overeat by 500 kcal per day and you’ll gain 1kg in 15 days. The advice is not to have a deficit of more than 1000 kcal per day for healthy weight loss. The HPB website has much more info and you should do your research there. 

Now what puzzles me is – why didn’t I know all this facts on weight management before? Why is it nobody teaches this in school or provide such advice when dishing out gems on healthy living? My suspicion is that most people never bother to find out until they meet a nutritionist or read a blog post like this.

Anyway, armed with this data, I reworked by daily diet to look something like this:

  FOOD CALORIES (kCal)
BREAKFAST Gardenia Softmeal Bread 2 slices 137
Cheddar cheese spread (thin) 30
Kopi O Kosong 5
Apple Raw 96
LUNCH Wanton noodle soup 290
Cordial Drink 88
TEA Wheatmeal biscuit 110
DINNER Economy Rice with 2 veg and 1 meat 580
Ice Lemon Tea 87
SUPPER Nestum 3-in-1 drink 110
  TOTAL 1533

Overnight, I would have shaved off 800 kcal from my usual unhealthy diet. Even with a baseline calorie requirement of 1800 kcal, I would have a deficit of 267 kcal. This would theoretically lead to a loss of 1kg over 28 days. I don’t stop myself from eating my favorite mee pok or fried rice though, I just eat half a portion and substitute the rest with colorful fruits to ensure I don’t feel hungry. 

Here's another day's reduced diet mix.

Here’s another day’s reduced diet mix.

Now all my friends know I’m an impatient guy and I like to see quick results, so when you add exercise to the mix, the calorie deficit increases even more. To cut the long story short, jogging about 6km at a moderate pace (say within 35 min) will burn about 400 kcal, or roughly the equivalent of a bowl of dry wanton mee.

So if you choose to exercise every day, you can still stay slim even if you eat like most Singaporeans do. However I personally think that exercising everyday at that rate is dangerous as your body doesn’t get enough time to recover, so I do it every alternate day.

My current goal is to lose 3kg so my BMI goes down to about 23, and with the above focus on diet, data and exercise, I’ve lost about 1kg in the first week (which is deemed the safe limit for healthy weight loss). This is the first time in my life that I’ve actually bothered to lose weight seriously, and it’s not as hard as it seems. My jawline has redefined itself and my jeans are already looser.

However, there was a day I cut back too much (about 1200 kcal deficit) and I spent the whole day feeling a little faint and sleepy, so don’t go to the extreme and go bulimic on me please. Once I reach my desired weight, I will recalculate my daily requirements so I can maintain the weight.

This is the park connector route that I take to work. There are several traffic lights to cross though.

This is the park connector route that I take to cycle from Bishan to work in the Marina Bay area. There are several traffic lights to cross though. Thanks Jerry and Dom for figuring this route out for me!

And last week, I finally got a bicycle (has it been 12 years since I last cycled on my Giant?) so that I could keep up with the cycling goblin kids. Also, it’s a great way to get together with the AC dragonboaters who are all now in the same phase of mid-life crisis, going on SG park connectors like we are primary school kids again. I cycled to work for this first time this morning at a casual pace along the Kallang canal route, burning about 285 kcal over 11.7km and 51min, and I tell you, it’s lovely not having to worry about hell drivers in the rear view mirror. It’s also great to be able to cycle with the boys you grew up with over the past 30 years!

On the flipside, this means I’ll be riding my Ducati Monster less now :(

Now I know I’ve been annoying my Facebook friends by posting all sorts of calorie information on various foods (do you know one cup of roasted salted peanuts has 1000 calories?!?) but really, once you start getting into the data, you can’t stop. After one week of reading the iDAT app, I can tell you offhand the calorie count of most local food.

The younger version of me will pooh-pooh this and say “one should enjoy life and your food”, but I’m not young anymore and my metabolism is really slowing down. Strangely, my palate has also changed – I don’t really hanker after char kway teow or other oily food anymore.

Gone are the days when we used to be athletic dragonboaters or gung-ho army officers, and there’s no point trying to relive the days of the past. Aging is inevitable and if we choose to ignore reality, there will be a price to pay in days to come. Good food can be had in this food paradise, but just in moderation (and I really mean in moderation) while keeping the discipline to not over-eat or snack unnecessarily. I’ve stopped adding milk to coffee and take Coke maybe once a week. No more regular snacking on Collon or Cheezels too.

I must caution you though – once you embark on this path I took, you’ll never look at local food the same way again.

I have compiled my writings on weight management into a free book called “Anyone Can Lose Weight”. Download it for free now.

Getting to the root of kiasuism

This commentary was published in Today on 27th Aug as a parent’s reflection on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2012 National Day Rally the night before. I focused on the topics of education and the birth rate, which readers will know are my two pet topics on this blog and in real life. Contrary to popular belief, the family photo wasn’t a National Day thingy, but Chinese New Year from earlier this year :)

As a parent of two primary school children, I paid extra attention to the Prime Minister’s take on education and the birth rate. I was glad to see some glaring gaps finally plugged, or at least touched on.

Finally, new fathers can look forward to longer paternity leave. The lack of it is something that has puzzled me for years, given that I have changed nearly as many diapers as my wife.

Improving work-life balance was another key topic that was tackled head-on. It’s true, people are just too busy to procreate.

Somehow, people need to learn how to say no to constantly checking their emails and deliberately carve out quality time for their families. Perhaps the Civil Service could take the lead by limiting the maximum working hours in a week?

Indeed, there were many gems in last night’s rally. But I hope the new policies laid out by Mr Lee Hsien Loong will take into account larger, deep-seated problems that may ultimately derail the Government’s good intentions and long-term vision.

For example, I was happy to see Mr Lee emphasising that, while pre-school standards need to be raised in several areas, parents should let their children enjoy their childhood and not introduce them to primary school content too early. Yes, improving the early phase of education is important, but it has to be done in tandem with a serious relook at the remainder of the student’s journey.

I’ve seen the benefits of my children not having exams at Primary 1. But when students reach Primary 3, the demands of the curriculum take a big leap, many folks get stressed out and it’s back to square one.

There is a lot of unnecessary tension created in the primary school system today by parents, teachers and tuition centres who make their students learn more than is actually spelled out by the Ministry of Education.

If the primary school problem is not resolved, kiasu parents (of which there are many) will inevitably derail the improvements to the pre-school system.

A simple solution may be to standardise exam papers across all standards in primary school. This may in turn change mindsets about elite versus neighbourhood schools (another hand-wringing issue for parents).

As the PM spoke, I also wondered how much the current education system is linked to the dismal national birth rate. Why? The mindsets of young people are shaped by the values that they imbibe in school and later at work.

A relentless focus on grades and wealth as key measures of success has led to a society where many people want to succeed materially first before they want to start their families.

Implementing radical policies such as a new Medisave for children may help young parents cope with childcare costs but, for many people, they may never be enough.

The long-term solution to the birth rate may be to develop a holistic education system and societal culture that shapes a very different national mindset from what we observe today.

I was also heartened by the PM’s call to Singaporeans to have bigger hearts on this small island.

Kindness and graciousness are not things that can be easily taught through national campaigns or classroom lessons. But if more Singaporeans can have the opportunity to enjoy more balanced lifestyles while contributing to the nation’s progress, I believe it’s not just the birth rate that is going to improve dramatically.

It’s our very attitude towards life and others that is going to undergo a great transformation.

Ian Tan is a 36-year-old marketing manager and ex-journalist. His wife Goy Sze Wei became a homemaker in 2005 to look after their children Isaac and Isabel, now aged nine and seven.