Many of us barely have time to include fitness into our hectic lives, let alone develop an entire social enterprise around it. Yet Lionel Choong has managed to achieve just that, and at a young age too. Founder of Innervate Fitness, this entrepreneur believes that fitness is for everyone, young and old. His gym focuses on CrossFit, a strength and conditioning programme created by Gleg Glassman emphasising constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movements adopted from different disciplines including weightlifting, gymnastics, calisthenics and various others.
Through community-centric CrossFit classes, Innervate aims to create a positive social environment that empowers, encourages and makes a difference. The Wellness Insider caught up with Lionel in an exclusive interview about CrossFit, his social enterprise and why he believes that fitness can bring about change.
Q: Could you start off by telling us how you became interested in sports and fitness?
I became interested in sports at a very young age, doing basketball back in secondary school and then moving onto track and field soon after in junior college. I always had an inclination to be active. The interest eventually grew to overall fitness; I was interested in a sort of gamification in CrossFit whereby you had to do workouts and clock movements that were measurable and trackable, I remember when I was able to buy used gym equipment for the first time, that’s when I really started to workout a lot more.
Q: As an athlete, what motivates you?
As an athlete, what motivates me would be a few items. I do simply want to keep fit and maintain my fitness, but I genuinely enjoy the sport of CrossFit as well. I am also motivated by inspiring and encouraging others to lead a better, more fulfilling lifestyle.
Q: What improvements would you make in yourself as an athlete?
As an athlete who has been doing CrossFit for close to 8 years now, and also having moved away from simply ‘being an athlete’ to now empowering others to do better as well as running a gym / business, I think the main improvement for me now would be to keep staying consistent in training, to look at training long-term instead of chasing numbers and personal bests again and again but at a more holistic level.
Next would, of course, be my nutrition. As an athlete, there is just so much room for me to make improvements in becoming a better, all-rounded athlete instead of one-day (I hope never) becoming a round athlete.
Q: What attracted you to social causes, particularly helping at-risk youth and the disabled?
I have always had a heart for helping the disadvantaged and marginalised. I think what attracted me to do so was perhaps a ‘calling’ if you may, seeing the impoverished not given any spotlight or attention and therefore the help that they need ached my heart and motivated me to want to do more and start a social enterprise.
For me, youth has been a big part of my being. Being helped as a youth when I wasn’t capable as a student meant a lot and therefore I wanted to do the same too. At the same time, I tend to see the potential in many of these youths that come through our doors or go through our programmes. I feel that they have such a bright future ahead if they are only guided in the right manner or way.
For the disabled, similarly, my fellow coach Moses felt the same, wanting to help disabled individuals as much as possible – as there was simply no one doing this for this particular group in Singapore for whatever reasons there may be.
Q: What led you to believe that fitness can bring about change? How do you marry the two? How do you bring innovation and creativity into it?
We believe that Fitness improves firstly the physical capacity of an individual, which is extremely important for many of them, especially for the adaptives (Disabled). Having them know that they can move without restriction and to have confidence (and the physical skills to) navigate life is so important for them.
For the youth, similarly, in terms of the physical aspect, it evens the playing field. As they build a strong fitness foundation, they are able to adapt to more and other sports more readily as they continue to grow and mature as an individual. Of course, beyond that, for the youth, they are able to engage in a new and trendy hobby, which helps them channel their energy away from vices and negative distractions to a more positive output.
All groups also gain in terms of an increase in confidence in who they are. Knowing that they are capable of achieving certain physical goals that are visible and tangible gives them the confidence that when they do meet challenges, they are able to fight and achieve more intangible goals such as in their academics, career and other obstacles in life.
However, one of the most powerful ways in which fitness or what we do brings about the change is helping to add integration into the community. As it is a diverse community, everyone is made to interact with another individual from a completely different background and race, with varying languages too. However, being a part of a community that is driven and focused on achieving more is extremely important and to us, that is one of the biggest and strongest outcomes.
There is a duo approach in what we do, a Rehabilitation and Reintegration of the individual.
Q: What inspired the inception of Innervate?
When we first started the gym, my partners and I intended to fill a gap, not necessarily labelling ourselves as a social enterprise. It was sort of the right moment for us as we were all keen on starting something new and some of us just graduated or were in a transition between jobs. We started small with the youth and with Operation Broken Wing (OBW – see below). Eventually, it ballooned with the start of the Silvers class and then the Adaptives Class.
Q: How do you bring about “social good” through exercise?
We bring social good in two ways.
Fitness For A Cause – We do social good by organising community events for the marginalised here in Singapore and in the region; at the same time, we run various programmes to help rehabilitate many of these individuals as mentioned.
Fitness For All – By welcoming all to be a part of Innervate and our community, we provide a very safe place for everyone to be encouraged, stirred and eventually empowered to become better in their lives, not just in fitness.
Q: Could you tell us a little more about the fitness charity movement ‘Operation Broken Wing (OBW)’? How can others get involved?
Operation Broken Wing (OBW) is a fitness charity event organised by Innervate Fitness with Singapore Children’s Society acting as its beneficiary. Designed to raise funds for the youth at risk in Singapore, athletes will have to perform a 15-minute workout called Fight For Hope, where each repetition performed translates to monetary donations from sponsors made to the beneficiary.
During Fight For Hope, on the call of ‘GO’, each athlete will rotate through 5 stations that includes – Sandbag Squats, Burpees, Kettle Bell Swings, Push Press and Box Jumps, having 1 minute at each station to complete as many reps as possible. After 5 minutes are up, they’ll have a 1-minute break.
Others can get involved by registering for the event at: https://www.operationbrokenwing.com/singapore or going to the event itself as a sponsor for a youth or volunteer!
Q: When you work with at-risk youths, what are the top problems that they face and what can each member of society do to help?
There are a myriad of problems that a youth faces in their life. However, there are two big issues that pop out each time.
They face acceptance issues, stemming from a low self-esteem and low self-confidence, thinking that what they do is inadequate or not good enough, not receiving enough validation and in turn living for validation, which turns ugly when the validation is given by a negative source or a wrong part of the community.
They face a lack of support – such that when it comes to intervention or time out programmes by schools, there is often a ratio of 30 to 1 whereas at premier schools or programmes, there is much more focus, close to a ratio of 1 to 1 – people say that this is just a function of capability but this is in turn a furthering of the inequality gap that is present in Singapore.
Members of society can definitely help to volunteer more to fill these gaps, to promote inclusion as the best possible style in whatever small way that they can. To go down to the level of another person if there is a need to, not just in fitness, not just in OBW but in everyday life. No matter how old or young it is still possible to lend a hand, be a guide to another. As a 30 year old, going down to understand the needs of a 13 year old, his likes, dislikes, no matter how crazy it might be, is what is most important, not just the counselling and ‘mentoring’ but simply being present.
Q: What is your favourite aspect of your work? What do you find most difficult/challenging about it?
There are two favourite aspects of work – firstly is making things come to life. From events such as OBW to programmes that help beneficiaries or empower others to do more.
Also the coaching of different individuals and demographics – this stems from the elderly to kids and youth at risk. Above and beyond the coaching, it is the improvements in their lives that we see. For the elderly, the physical aspects are so evident, being confident in getting off the floor without needing any assistance after months of functional training is so encouraging. Another is of course, the intangible growth that many of them have, from changing of a lifestyle, gaining of a community, or seeing that they can be more.
One of those moments for me was when a youth at risk declared that he’d rather do CrossFit than to go to the block beside his school to take a couple of puffs.
What is challenging is of course, the creation of events and rallying of the community efforts itself, it requires a lot of effort and many sleepless nights at times.
Another would also be the encouragement of others to come on board this programme as it is a dual challenge, to convince others about CrossFit and also to convince others about how it can help the marginalised – from Corporates to beneficiaries themselves.
Q: How does CrossFit differ from other fitness programmes out there and what should those new to this sport know in order to prepare for it?
CrossFit differs in a sense that it focuses on functional movements, we run through the mechanics of these movements big time and our methods focus on improving that before ramping up the intensity, not the other way around. It is also very quantifiable and trackable, so it isn’t just dependent on how good you feel at times.
No need to prepare any physical aspect at all, come as you are! But of course, do mentally prepare yourself with an open mind.
Q: Are there groups of people who should not train in a CrossFit gym?
Those who think they are too good to be doing CrossFit. Those are the hardest as they think they know it all or are closed to being coached and helped.
We coach kids, elderly and of course, disabled too, so everyone can do it, it’s so long as whether you are open enough to be patient with us and yourself to improve yourself, one step at a time.
Q: What else do you think can be done to foster more interest in fitness and social causes in Singapore?
A greater support of each other and to see that as an entire industry, an increase in efforts helps the overall industry too.
Q: You recently took part in the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon (SCSM). What motivated you to join and how would you describe the experience?
I wanted to take part in this year’s Standard Charted Singapore Marathon for the same reasons I did last year and with anything new that I try. To show everyone: the youth that I’m teaching, the elderly that I’m helping and everyone else out there, that you can try something completely new and out of your comfort zone. You might not necessarily be the best at it but what matters is that you pluck up the courage to try it, give it a shot and you never know how that’ll benefit you!
The experience this year was much better, I was able to run with fellow Under Armour athlete Natalie (Yeo) and because of that, I never really felt ‘alone’ through the entire run as we were both at about the same capacity. While keeping up with my schedule, I’m also recovering after the marathon so I can keep myself in tip-top condition. It’s important not just to train for a marathon but also get the proper cool-down afterwards; I know that Under Armour has a Recovery sleepwear line to help athletes recover.
Photo Credits: Edelman Singapore and Pexels.