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Nick Jonsson before he embarked on his lifestyle change (above, left), and after completing his first Ironman triathlon the following year. Photos: Nick Jonsson

From 30kg overweight and depressed to Ironman competitor – how a Singapore expat addicted to alcohol and junk food turned his life around

  • Physical and mental health are interconnected, and Nick Jonsson is living proof: he became a happier man after he lost weight, quit alcohol and took up exercise
  • Improving your physical and mental health starts with making positive lifestyle changes, including eating right and exercising, an expert says

Nick Jonsson is well aware of the tight links between our physical and mental health. In just a few years he has transformed from an unfit, overweight and depressed expat who was addicted to alcohol and junk food, to a healthy and happy long-distance triathlete.

“In 2010, I weighed 104kg, which was 30kg too much for my 1.81-metre (5ft 11-inch) frame,” shares the 47-year-old Swedish entrepreneur and author, who has been living in Singapore for the past five years.

“Desperate to lose weight, I started exercising and changed my diet. It worked, and I managed to keep the weight off for the next four years. But then I began experiencing personal problems and the extra kilos piled back on.”

Jonsson had dealt with his personal problems – he’d separated from his wife and resigned from his job – by going out to bars and bingeing on alcohol, which he says relaxed him.

Nick Jonsson in April 2018, when he was overweight, depressed and addicted to alcohol. Photo: Nick Jonsson

“I’d drink 10 to 15 beers and one or two bottles of wine at night, but then I’d wake up the next morning and feel so bad for having drunk excessively the night before that I would drink again to make myself feel better,” he recalls.

He also abandoned his healthy diet and turned to fast food for comfort.

One year without alcohol: how my life has changed

The constant drinking and poor eating habits soon began to take their toll on Jonsson’s emotional health. He was depressed, anxious and stressed all the time and felt uncomfortable in his body, and disconnected from others. He also suffered from high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

“My heart used to beat so fast that I thought I would have a heart attack at any moment,” he says. “I was so scared that I wrote my will and bought life insurance, because I was convinced that I was going to die.”

Between 2014 and 2018, Jonsson’s life went into a downward spiral. On the outside he seemed happy, but on the inside he was falling apart. “I lived in Indonesia and Vietnam for a few of those years before moving to Singapore. I tried getting professional help for my mental health, but the language barriers made it hard,” he says.

Jonsson before his transformation: overweight, depressed, and feeling guilty about his drinking. Photo: Nick Jonsson

By April 2018, Jonsson had remarried. Unable to hide his depression any longer, he confided in his wife and business partner, Dona. She persuaded him to get a physical check-up and speak to a therapist.

For his alcohol dependence, Jonsson joined a support group for alcoholics. Then he engaged a fitness coach to help him get into shape.

Almost immediately after taking these transformative steps, Jonsson noticed a shift in the way he felt, saying that “life seemed brighter”. A few people in his support group had competed in triathlons, and this inspired him to start racing, too.

Jonsson in Singapore, his home for almost five years. Photo: Nick Jonsson

“At first I joined small races, then I decided to do the ultimate race – the Ironman. I set that as my top goal and began working towards it. Fifteen months later, in August 2019, I completed my first Ironman in my hometown, Kalmar, in Sweden,” he says.

“The race comprised a 3.8km swim, a 180km bike ride and a 42.2km run. It was an amazing achievement, considering that I never saw myself as athletic and could barely walk 1km just a few years before.”

In February 2020, before the global coronavirus pandemic was declared, Jonsson competed in the Ironman in Bangsaen, Thailand, placing 201st out of 1,303. This August, he will be competing in Kalmar again.

It’s incredible to witness the positive impact my physical health has had on my emotional well-being, and vice versa
Nick Jonsson
After he quit alcohol and began exercising regularly and eating better, Jonsson’s blood pressure and cholesterol levels went back to normal – and he shed 30kg.

“As my physical health improved, so too did my mental health,” he shares. “I used to feel disconnected from others and unfulfilled, but now I mentor other members in my support group and enjoy a greater sense of purpose as a result.

“I relax with exercise rather than alcohol and am no longer anxious or depressed.

Jonsson with his medal after his first Ironman in Sweden. Photo: Nick Jonsson

“The better I feel emotionally, the more motivated I am to take care of my body. It’s incredible to witness the positive impact my physical health has had on my emotional well-being, and vice versa.”

According to Hong Kong-based psychologist Dr Adrian Low, when we’re physically healthy and free of illness, we’re more likely to feel good about ourselves.

We also have a lower risk of developing depression and anxiety, tend to feel more hopeful about the future, enjoy being around others, and are better able to manage stress and negative emotions.

Adrian Low is a Hong Kong-based psychologist.

“Conversely, when we suffer from poor mental health, we’re less motivated to make positive lifestyle changes, get routine health checks or seek medical help. People with anxiety and depression also tend to suffer from headaches, fatigue and digestive issues,” Low says.

“If not addressed, poor mental health may weaken your immune system. It’s also a risk factor for conditions like heart disease, obesity and high blood pressure.”

Low adds that taking control of your physical and mental well-being starts with adopting healthy lifestyle habits.

Jonsson and his wife and business partner, Dona, on holiday. Photo: Nick Jonsson
This includes eating more vegetables, fruit, whole grains and healthy fats, which contain essential nutrients for a healthy body and mind, and avoiding alcohol and junk food, which he says may worsen anxiety and depression.

Exercising regularly is also important – it improves your mood and is a great way to relax.

Finally, get sufficient sleep every night, rest or nap when you need to, and find healthy ways to deal with stress, like meditating and doing deep breathing exercises.

The not-quite alcoholic who ran away from the bottle after 40 years

Whether you’re trying to improve your physical or mental health, Jonsson also recommends getting help, especially when you feel stuck and find it hard to move forward or implement changes.

“It’s easy to get caught up in that cycle, where you can’t seem to take charge of your physical health and your mental health suffers because of it, or where you’re so emotionally beaten that you stop caring about your physical health.

“But you have to get help, whether it’s from a therapist, a coach, a support group or a close friend. Taking that first step may feel like a struggle, but’s worth it for all the positive changes you’ll see.

From coach to psychiatrist – how to find the right therapist for you

“My life is so different now compared to a few years ago. I’m living proof that committing to a healthier lifestyle can transform your emotional state.”

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