When we were young, we eagerly awaited those “milestone” birthdays. The older we get, however, those big life events decidedly lose their allure. One Hong Kong Mom is quickly approaching her next decade and has chosen to embrace it with pride. Most of us know Heather Thomas Shalabi as Hong Kong’s fitness guru — inspiring women daily as the founder and director of Flex Studio. Originally from Albany, New York, Heather has been in Hong Kong for over 16 years. She is a busy mom of three and savvy entrepreneur, with a constantly evolving successful business. As she faces 50, she is determined to enter this new era with the same mindfulness and positive energy that she applies to the other areas of her very full life. Here, she tells us her process.
One thing you can count on in life is….time. It keeps ticking away, despite our efforts to slow down the clock, particularly when it comes to aging. We are continually reminded that we’re not getting any younger through various feedback mechanisms — the mirror, our clothes, countless magazine articles, trips to doctor’s offices, our KNEES…the list is endless. As I approach my 50th birthday next May, I was asked to reflect upon how I’ve started preparing for this milestone. Daunted by the task at first, I realized that I actually HAVE started the countdown — for starters, by the fact that I’ve already started telling people, “I’m 50.”
And that’s where I’ll begin. Intellectually, I’ve already absorbed 50 in my psyche. Instead of thinking “down” in age, I think “up.”
On Looking Back: Mindfulness
Why do people say “don’t look back, look ahead!” ? Looking back is one of the greatest joys and teaching tools in our lives. Lately, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reflecting back on the various stages of my life and appreciating who I’ve been in those stages. For example, my kids and I recently went through a Pandora’s Box of documents from my childhood, from early letters I wrote my grandparents as a young child, to leafing through my old scrapbook, to my high school report cards. Although it was hopelessly embarrassing at times, it gave me a real appreciation for what I self-taught over the years, and inured me with great empathy and admiration for myself! Even painful periods remind us of what we never want to go through again in our lives (or never want our children to go through), and in our middle years, we have the ability to control circumstances to our advantage. This type of journey also reminds us of what we love — instinctively — and brings us back to decision making factors which shaped our lives. Most of our lives have not in fact been products of serendipity, but rather of sheer will and directing our energies in a specific direction, consciously or not. If we take time to reflect, we can call upon our consciousness to propel us into the second amazing half of our lives with direction and purpose.
I have also enjoyed “unpacking” my knowledge on various subjects I thought I’d long since forgotten — history lessons, science, literature. For the most part, it’s all still in there, which has been a joyful discovery, as well as a reminder of what we have inside. My children are now in their teen/pre-teen years (my 15-year-old daughter is a rising sophomore, and my 11½-year-old twins start 6th grade in Autumn 2017), thus our conversations have sharpened to become more purposeful and meaningful than I remember them being in younger years. I am grateful and appreciative of our discourse, and the knowledge I can share with them. Their questions are provocative, inquisitive and pragmatic. Through their inquiries, they expose most of the assumptions I’ve made throughout my life! It’s a beautiful thing to have enough perspective to appreciate new ways of looking at things (just look at the staff of Flex — they get younger by the day!) but equally, the wisdom to share how history repeats itself (God help me though, if I ever wear shoulders pads again in public!).
To sum it up, don’t be afraid to look back and spend time contemplating, appreciating, and learning from the past. Embrace what younger generations can offer, but don’t allow yourself to become faded and anachronistic. Our wisdom enables us to be great mentors in a very empowering way to our children and co-workers. (Never, however, start cutting off the crusts from your staffs’ sandwiches or peel their grapes. And stop doing it for your kids too!) This is the moment we’ve been waiting for!
On Being Youthful: The Physical
Unlike the above, my position on staying young physically is very different. I look ahead. I continue to set new physical goals for myself, never shying away from believing I can still perform better (physically) in years to come. In truth, I am really not about aging gracefully. Psychologically perhaps, but when it comes to the body, I am fighting it every step of the way! Or rather, I believe in using science and education to intelligently remain youthful and physically capable of feats we thoughts we couldn’t accomplish past 40. To that end, I believe in simple strategies such as a healthy diet, but not just on a whim — the body loves consistency, so daily attention to diet is imperative (this requires excellent planning skills). Additionally, I believe in a daily dose of good, strong physicality — done the intelligent way. No need to be that weekend warrior who blows out a knee training for an Ultra Marathon during a mid-life crisis, but you’ve got to move — a LOT –- every day. I make sure to have at least 2 hours of exercise a day, and around 5 hours of movement (meaning, general activities when I’m not sitting in a chair).
It’s important to keep that mind-body connection young too, by challenging balance, playing in three-dimensional movement (when is the last time you did a backwards somersault? Or a cartwheel?) and breaking up your movement patterns with activities like SUP, martial arts, any type of inversions, etc. Of course as the founder of Flex, I use the phrase intelligent movement, a lot, but I really do believe that this is the key to staying physically youthful. I also eat really well, and carefully plan meals around my organic fruit and vegetable deliveries. I always maintain a general rule of thumb — output must equal input. In other words, if I exercise a lot, I’ll eat more, and if I have a couch potato day, I eat less.
I also believe in science when it comes to mitigating against an aging endocrine system; everyone experiences hormone change differently, but with so much research touting the benefits of natural supplements and bio-identical hormones to combat perimenopause, why should we ignore these statistics? I believe information is power, and the more I research and learn about possibilities for keeping me feeling “like myself” (read, YOUNG!), the more open I am to helping my body maintain consistent hormone levels until actual menopause. Recently, I also did DNA testing and analysis with 23andme in order to have more information about my genetic composition, and thus help me make informed lifestyle choices. I’m not suggesting we drive ourselves crazy trying to fight the inevitable, but if medical research gives us new tools to nurture our bodies, we ought to be informed. If you think about how crazy parents get around testing their children’s intellectual aptitudes, physical health, etc. to nurture them to the best possible future, both body and mind…why don’t we do that for ourselves as we age? Anti-aging is still a relatively new science, and I believe that even in my generation’s time we can expect huge new breakthroughs.
So keep moving, and push past your trepidation around new sports, physical hobbies, or anything you think might embarrass you if you fall. Managing both that psyche of fear, and physical capacity will indeed keep your brain sharp. In fact, new studies have shown that high intensity interval training (aerobic exercise) keeps you mentally alert by optimizing and in some cases, increasing grey matter. Currently there are a number of important longitudinal studies underway which examine the relationship between mental health and regular exercise during the ageing process. Exercise is important for stimulating the endocrine system (which regulates our hormones), and by pushing our boundaries, or comfort zone, we create space for growth.
In short, my strategy is to embrace science AND nature, by going back to basics with clean, natural foods and home prepared meals, and staying informed on the latest studies on anti-aging.
On Looking Ahead
As I look ahead, I am excited by the prospect of combining things I’ve been passionate about all my life, but never knew how to integrate. Through experience, we become more capable of living three-dimensionally, not linearly. We can structure our work with purpose, and combine the disciplines we love by seamlessly binding them together in unique ways. For example, in October, I will be running a retreat at Song Saa, a private island in Cambodia, combining yoga, literature and philanthropy, three areas about which I’ve always been passionate. When I was younger, I viewed these as distinct vocations or hobbies, but through experience I’m now able to integrate them. This path has afforded wonderful professional and personal growth; through this integration we can develop our own unique voice yet remain intimately connected with community. And that is really living life. 50 and beyond is looking good!
Heather Thomas Shalabi is the Director of Flex Studio Hong Kong. Her interest in movement and the body stems from her decade-long training in classical ballet whilst a young girl, and daily yoga practice in New York City during the 90’s. Heather’s recognition of the benefits of Pilates, and passion for the discipline led her to embark on intensive training, completing her full Studio certification through in 2003. Heather opened Flex Studio in January of 2005. Pre and Post Natal conditioning through Pilates and the Gyrotonic Expansion System® is an area Heather studied extensively, having practiced both systems of movement regularly during her first and second pregnancies. Recently Heather has embarked on the study of Traditional Pilates, training under Benjamin Degenhardt and his 360°Pilates Continuing Education program, which she hosts every year in Hong Kong. She also leads workshops and retreats annually around Asia. Finally, her daily yoga practice continues to inform and inspire, a lifelong learning journey.