Exercise Motivation from a Fitness Guru

Fen Tung and I intersected years ago at MIT where we’d taught Zumba classes. We were both new to teaching group fitness, but even then I sensed a special spark when taking her classes. Fast forward to 2019 and Fen has evolved into a true fitness guru. She holds a personal trainer certification through the National Academy of Sports Medicine and additional certifications to teach boot camp, cardio kickboxing, tabata, jump rope, mat Pilates, barre, Zumba, BollyX, BodyPump and BodyCombat. She is a co-founder of the BollyX workout along with America’s Got Talent finalist, Shahil Patel. Fen is down-to-earth and understands from personal experience how challenging exercise can be. She gets the struggles and offers practical and realistic tips. Her passion to move is also pretty infectious! The fitness wisdom she imparts can be applied to life in general, so I was super excited to showcase it here (note: any italics below are my emphasis of points that resonated with me).

1. What motivated you to enter the field of exercise and fitness?

Funny story: I went to college intending to be a doctor, with no intention or plan on working in the fitness industry. After graduation and deciding med school wasn’t for me, I found a rather low paying admin job to cover rent while I figured out my next plan. I knew I wanted to work out though, having participated in sports much of my life, so I went to a gym near my apartment and applied to work there for a free gym membership. After folding towels and greeting members for several months, a personal trainer there told me I should consider getting my PT certification since I was always working out and it looked like I knew what I was doing. From there, I became a certified personal trainer, then went on to get my Group Exercise Certification and never looked back! While it was my sports background that motivated me to make fitness a part of my life, it was really the free gym membership that helped pave the way for me to discover that the exercise and fitness industry existed and that I would love being a part of it.

2. What is your favorite fitness class to teach and why?

This is a tough question since I love so many different fitness class formats! I’d say BollyX – The Bollywood Workout is my current favorite class to teach (not just saying that because it’s something I helped co-create haha). It’s a super fun, Bollywood-inspired dance fitness class that encourages each person to unleash their inner rockstar! The music and beats are infectious and the dance moves are not only authentic, but also unique, fun and easy to follow. I don’t have a dance background and I feel like I can easily follow the choreography and get a real heart-pumping workout.

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Fen leading a BollyX class at Faneuil Hall

3. What is your advice for someone starting an exercise program for the first time?

My advice for someone new to exercise is to listen to your own body and not compare yourself to anyone else. Know why you are choosing to exercise and why you chose the route you did.  Take it one step at a time (no pun intended), whether it’s walking, running, dancing, bootcamp, etc. We often get sucked into this idea that we have to be good at something we start, and we have to see immediate results or else there’s something wrong with us. Or, if it’s not this format or that format, it’s useless. Do what makes you happy! Do what makes you appreciate your body! We are all on our own fitness journey and we must be our own biggest supporter if we’re going to stay motivated to stick with it. Also, having fitness buddies or other friends/family who support you is very helpful. Ignore all other negativity.

4. What are your top 3 tips in helping people to stay on track or motivated? And how do YOU stay motivated?

I grew up doing sports from grade school through college. But after graduating college, I stopped nearly all activity and gained 30+ pounds. For me, it wasn’t so much about how I looked but how I felt. I hated how I felt. I hated how tired I got doing activities that I used to breeze through. I kept forcing myself to start exercising again, like I did when I was on a sports team. But it just didn’t stick because I was making myself do it because I disliked my body. The more I forced myself to run the way I used to train, the more I didn’t want to do it. Finally, I told myself that I was going to NOT exercise until I wanted to (this tactic may not work for everyone). For several months, I didn’t think about exercise. Then one beautiful sunny April morning, I woke up and really wanted to run. I grabbed my mp3 player (yeah…that’s what I had back then) and went on a leisurely jog. And the greatest epiphany was…I enjoyed the exercise because I wanted to do it. I did it for fun (not with a goal of training for a 5K race) and loved my body for what it could do. For so long, I had an extremist attitude towards exercise. It was all or nothing (interval training, hill running, heavy weight lifting in order to be a fast runner) or else what’s the point in exercising? It is possible to exercise because it’s fun and enjoyable. I used to not bother with dance classes since I didn’t see that it was as effective as bootcamp. But now I understand that it is indeed effective. Physically, it can get your heart rate up, but mentally, the joy, the stress relief, the confidence boost from a dance class is priceless.

Currently I, too, have days where I’m completely unmotivated to move! People look at me and say, “Oh, it’s so easy for you to exercise and stay in shape. It’s your job.” Well, that is the reason that sometimes I feel burned out and want a break! At the same time, it does drive me to stay motivated since being a role model as a fitness instructor and personal trainer is very important to me. I will not ever ask my clients or students to do something I haven’t done myself. I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I’ve been through the same “get into shape” journey as most of my clients. In the end, what helps me stay motivated is the WHY. I try to stay in shape and make exercise a regular part of my life because it makes ME feel GREAT about myself. I don’t do it for anyone else but me. I have had injuries that prevented me from exercising and it really frustrated me. It also made me really appreciate all the things my body can do when it’s not injured. We can’t take our body and our health for granted.

My 3 tips for staying on track:  

  1. Make a plan. If you don’t even bother to plan your workout schedule, I guarantee nothing will happen.
  2. Forgive yourself. If the plan doesn’t happen exactly as you envisioned, don’t just throw in the towel. Find another way. Be RIGID with your goal but FLEXIBLE in the journey to get there.
  3. Be accountable. Tell a supportive friend or two, share your journey. There is no shame for what you are doing and the more people who know about your goals, the more support you’ll have and the more you’ll stay motivated to stay on track. Even though you’re doing this for yourself and not because others want you to, let’s be honest: when we do something in secret, we can slack off! Have someone around who’ll cheer for you when you meet your goals, someone who’ll encourage you when you feel like jumping off the wagon.

As a personal trainer, I want my clients to succeed in meeting their fitness goals, but I CANNOT want it more than they do. They have to want it more than anyone else. 

5. There’s a movement called Health At Every Size (HAES) that fights against fat shaming and promotes body acceptance of every size. Do you have personal thoughts about this concept? 

Having had an eating disorder starting at age 14, I absolutely think it’s critical that we stop shaming any women of any size. While you hear more about fat shaming (which should NOT be done), there exists also a lot of criticism for those who genetically are very slim. The sad thing I’ve noticed is that, in general, people are always critiquing other people’s bodies, no matter the size or weight, especially women. I’ve been through a variety of different weights, all at my 5’2″ stature. Sadly, I rarely hear “you look so strong and healthy!” Instead I hear “you are too skinny, you need to eat more” or “how come you don’t have a six-pack as a personal trainer?” or “maybe you should be cutting back on some desserts.” So, I’m either too thin or too chubby or not ripped enough? Am I ever just right? Apparently not.

The crazy thing is that I did grow up thinking that the less I weighed, the more “in shape” I was. Through education, I learned that this is definitely not the case. Weight has nothing to do with how fit one is. Just take a look at ALL the sports that exist around us, and how each athlete looks different based on the sport they excel at. While social media and Hollywood may have triggered feelings of insecurity, cyber-bullying, body shaming, etc., we can also use it to our advantage of fighting back against all of that. I get that people will always want to share their “best picture” online—who wouldn’t? You think celebrities wake up with an entire face of make-up and perfect blow-outs? But as a whole, we should all realize that THAT is exactly what everyone does. It’s only half the picture of real life. Don’t let that determine how you feel about yourself.

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Fen leading BollyX at a Charles River event

Any questions for Fen? Feel free to comment below!

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