She wants to rope more Hongkongers into fitness, so what’s Vanessa Cheung’s game? CrossFit, cold showers and kale
The Nan Fung Group director and gym co-owner, who recently launched a community health initiative, tells us how she got the fitness bug, how she stays in shape and how to squeeze exercise into your day
Growing up the youngest of three children, and a member of the third generation of the family that controls the Nan Fung Group, a Hong Kong property developer, Vanessa Cheung has big boots to fill. But her boots weren’t made for walking – at least not in the beginning.
As with many Hong Kong children, education was the focus of Cheung’s childhood. Aside from swimming and skipping every day – her mother said it would make her taller – she and her classmates didn’t learn about fitness or body awareness. “I didn’t grow up cartwheeling and tumbling in the park. Our schedules were packed with after-school activities like drawing, maths tutoring and choir.”
Cheung went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in biology at the University of California, Berkeley. It was only there, aged 17, that the fitness bug bit.
“It started with spin, weights and kick-boxing classes. Working out was a great way for me to clear my mind and help me to study. The more I trained, the more I wanted to improve, and learn different forms of exercise,” she says. By the time she began studying for a master’s in landscape architecture at Harvard three years later, exercise had become its own form of study. She ran 10km every day, striding out in the sun along the picturesque Charles River.
After eight years, Cheung returned to Hong Kong with a fresh perspective. She started making changes: switching the couch for kettlebells and watching TV for triathlons. She encouraged others to follow suit. “My mum now trains at my CrossFit gym and so does my sister. They are both seeing the benefits of being more active,” she says.
Cheung, now 32, has merged her interests in health and design into a new endeavour: a kefir health food company called Quo. She also co-owns the Reebok CrossFit Asphodel gym, is business development director for the Nan Fung Group and recently launched a not-for-profit community health initiative: The Keep Moving Project. She sees spreading the fitness message as a lifelong mission.
“In the future, under my watch, fitness is going to be a way of life for all Hongkongers, not a luxury for a few,” she says. Waking as she does each day at 5am to fit in at least six workouts a week – a mixture of swimming, running, CrossFit and yoga, Cheung makes you believe she means it, too.
Waking at 5am every day isn’t easy. What is your nighttime routine?
After dinner I sip on a hot magnesium supplement drink – magnesium is said to calm the muscles – while I chop vegetables for breakfast. I add kale and carrots to my breakfast of goji berries and eggs because they are packed with fibre, which helps digestion. Before bed I breathe in and out for 30 seconds, then breathe out for as long as possible. This is part of the Wim Hof Method, a combination of breathing techniques and cold water therapy which is said to heighten your body’s immunity by stimulating a vital cranial nerve. I make sure my phone goes on night mode automatically between 9:45pm and 5am. It’s that discipline which makes going to bed early easy.
Being of a small build, what’s the secret to lifting big weights?
Patience. I focus on technique and I train consistently. If you do these things, you too will gradually lift bigger and bigger weights.
You work long hours. How do you keep mobile at work?
I often stand up for meetings rather than sitting for the whole hour. I also raise my computer screen so that I can stand at my desk. My new community outreach foundation The Keep Moving Project is working with companies and schools to implement low-cost standing work spaces. I truly believe that health doesn’t have to be a luxury and this is one of the ways the foundation is offering easy-to-implement and affordable health initiatives to people from a wide range of backgrounds and of different abilities.
What are a few ways we can incorporate movement into our work day?
Start walking to work and standing up on the train. Take your lunch break and go for a jog. It doesn’t have to be strenuous. While you’re waiting at the bus stop, do 10 slow shoulder rolls to release back tension. When you catch yourself looking at your phone change your posture. I hold my phone up so that when I look at the screen my chin is parallel to the ground.
I believe that wellness comes from incorporating movement into your daily life. You don’t have to go to a gym: just keep mobile. In fact, training hard for 45 minutes and then sitting for hours doesn’t do your body any favours.
Head to the public playground with the kids after work and create your own workout. Complete 10 dips on a bench, three pull-ups on the monkey bars, 10 crunches, and jog around the perimeter. Then repeat.
What advice would you give parents looking to make positive wellness changes in their children?
A shift in priorities is a good start: building up a child’s extracurricular portfolio is a priority for most Hong Kong families because it increases their chances of getting into a good school. So, rather than pushing kids to do more, set aside time to switch off and enjoy being a family.
There is a lot of pressure on children and their parents during the school interview season. Parents can learn ways to manage this stress and to teach their children how to deal with these tough emotions – for example, through practising mindfulness.
With a little more focus on positivity and health, the future of our great city will be even brighter.
Is it true that you take freezing cold showers? If so, why?
That’s true - I deliberately turn the tap to cold for the last two minutes of my shower, as, according to the Wim Hof Method, cold water improves blood circulation, enhances recovery, and burns brown fat. My showers are now very short because of it, so I’m saving water too.