Singapore #Fitspo of the Week: Sari Marsden

Sari Marsden is an executive coach, personal trainer and author. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

Life goes beyond the digits on the scale and your body is capable of so much more. Yahoo’s #Fitspo of the Week series is dedicated to inspirational men and women in Singapore leading healthy and active lifestyles. Have someone to recommend? Hit Cheryl up on Instagram or Facebook.

Name: Sari Marsden (@sarisarius)

Age: 40

Height: 1.62m

Weight: 59kg

Occupation: Executive coach, personal trainer, author

Status: Married

Diet: I follow an 80/20 approach to diet – 80 per cent of the time, I eat healthy food choices for my performance. The remaining 20 per cent of the time, I allow myself to indulge without a guilty feeling. I do not see my food choices as a “diet” because that seems to imply short-term deprivation. I prefer to adopt a practice of “conscious nutrition”.

For breakfast, I love having poached eggs on toast and avocado. For lunch: protein, starchy carbs and vegetables. For dinner: protein and vegetables. Favourite snacks: pineapple, mango, guava, almonds nuts, dark chocolate and the occasional protein bar. My favourite desserts: bread and butter pudding and mango sticky rice. 

Training: Typically, my weekly training looks like this:

  • Sunday: Distance run (30-45 minutes)

  • Monday: Weight training (60 min)

  • Tuesday: Recovery day or yoga/mobility session (60 min)

  • Wednesday: Morning – interval/speed run (30 min); Afternoon – weight training (60 min)

  • Thursday: Fitness Dance at Mountbatten Vocational School (60 min)

  • Friday:  Weight training (60 min)

  • Saturday: High-intensity interval training (30 min) followed by restorative yoga (60 min)

Q: That’s a really packed fitness regime. Did you grow up as a sporty kid?

A: I grew up in a small hometown in central Java, Indonesia. As a kid, I was quite active in that I loved playing outdoor with my friends – so many traditional childhood games! In front of my house there was a mango tree that I loved to climb too. 

At school, I was athletic and flexible, but I sucked at playing sport. Throw me a ball and even today, I probably won’t be able to catch it. However, I loved to dance and even won a traditional Javanese dance competition.

Sari Marsden admits she is not proficient in sports games, but prefers dancing when she was younger. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

When did you start lifting weights?

I love a good weight-lifting workout. I love the experience of becoming stronger and I have noticed great improvements in my life as a result, not just physically, but also mentally and emotionally. Weight training is a great complement to my flexible body. 

To develop my career as a personal trainer, I went through much education and gained many certifications, including “corrective exercise specialist”, as well as Muay Thai fitness instructor, and spinning instructor. 

As part of my personal development, I participated in fitness physique competitions between 2011 and 2014. I picked up a few medals along the way, and even had the honour of winning an International Body Fitness Championship for Singapore.

Recently, I picked up athletics. I like throwing but I haven’t grown to love it yet. I am always looking to try new forms of exercise and movement as I find that keeps me fresh and stops my body from getting too comfortable.

I also love my work at Mountbatten Vocational School (MVS) as a fitness dance instructor. Dancing with students at MVS brings me such great joy and a wonderful sense of lightness and freedom. The children’s enthusiasm is infectious.

When you were a radio DJ back in Jakarta, you led a pretty unhealthy lifestyle.

I was skinny, unfit and a smoker in my 20s. Back in Jakarta when I was a radio DJ and programme director, I routinely worked long hours, went out for late night events and neglected my sleep. I was one of those classic cases who paid a monthly gym membership just so I can enjoy a coffee in their comfortable lounge, rather than working out on their gym floor.

I ate a lot of fried food, drank sugar and really just ate whatever I wanted without thinking about it. Many of my friends were envious as I never seemed to put on any weight. What I didn’t know then was that I was the classic “skinny fat” person – I actually had a relatively high amount of body fat, that was only hidden by the fact that I had very little muscle mass. 

Although I looked slim, my energy level was poor. I often felt tired and weak. Although I appeared “healthy” to many people, this was far from the truth. In actual fact, I was thin and weak. This really woke me up to how the world at large often defines “healthy” in a purely visual way. When I started to work out, I quickly realised that “thin” and “healthy” are not the same things.

What made you decide to change your lifestyle?

I became motivated to exercise because of the change that I saw in my husband after he committed to be fit. He lost fat and gained muscle very quickly and I noticed that our conversations began to change; I had no idea about "fitness speak". 

I admired the change in him, but yet it bothered me that each time we had a conversation, he would talk about what he did at the gym and I could not relate to what he was saying. I became curious and wanted to find out what the fuss was about. So, I decided to start working out and hired a personal trainer. The rest is history. 

Sari transformed her unhealthy lifestyle in her 20s and became a fitness trainer after being inspired by her husband. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

You teach leadership courses and you are also a personal trainer. How do these two jobs complement each other?

My work is the result of an ongoing journey that involves many passions in my life: personal development, nutrition, leadership, health and fitness, and coaching. The essence of all my work is to help people to align their physical, emotional and mental states to create the results that they want in their lives.

I love helping people to be fitter and to be better leaders. For me, they go hand in hand. Working in both disciplines – leadership and fitness – with a wide range of clients for more than a decade, I could see how a shift in a posture can create a shift in how a person thinks, feels and speaks, and therefore in how able they are to engage with and lead others. 

What I have observed in personal training these days is that trainers often over-emphasise the word ‘training” at the expense of ‘personal’. At the end of the day, personal training is about connecting to what really matters to that person as a whole, integrated human being.

What I have observed is that most people still see leadership development as a subject one learns in a typical classroom setting via purely mental activities. However, I believe that, fundamentally, leadership is a relationship, and, as such is developed via whole body experiential learning, not simply in our head.

An increasing amount of research now suggests that our body and health play a huge part in our personal development, but many still don’t know what to do about it or how to make changes. 

As an executive coach, and a leadership trainer, I challenge my clients to involve body movement in their practice, alongside their mental and emotional well-being goals. I believe that when you move your body, you move your life.

You also co-authored a book with your husband.

Yes, “Fit to Lead” is a leadership book that offers a dynamic new vision of leadership development that places the role of your physical body firmly alongside that of your thoughts and emotions. It combines the principles of executive coaching and fitness training to provide you with a holistic system for transforming your leadership and producing breakthrough results for yourself and the people you lead. 

The book is about a passion, one that my husband Marcus and I share. As our lives and personal journeys have become intertwined through marriage, our passions and interests have mingled and infused with one another. This book is the result of thousands of our conversations and how it has led us to create a new way of looking at personal development, performance and leadership, not just in the corporate world, but in life as a whole; not just for businessmen and business women, but for anyone who is interested in learning , growing and developing to produce peak performance, in whatever field they so choose.

Writing a book together with my husband was very empowering. We had our ups and downs in the journey and we agreed to disagree on more than a few things. However, we both knew that we respected and loved each other. Marcus is my inspiration, he keeps reminding me to stay on purpose. We are a great team. 

What are your fitness goals now?

Right now, I am training to take care of my stamina, agility and energy. Since the book was launched in 2017, I have been privileged to visit many places and have the opportunity to work with many corporations, communities and women’s leadership networks across the region. This challenge has required me to up my own levels of focus and energy. I need to be healthy and fit to lead too.

Skill-wise and for the sake of learning, I’d like to learn a martial art. Next year! 

Sari co-authored a book with her husband which combines fitness and leadership topics. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)

When did you feel the least confident about yourself?

Even though I often present a confident front to the world, like anybody else I do still have occasional fears and doubt. In my 20s I was not a confident woman. I was a young lady from a small hometown who jumped into a big-city life on her own, and I also had to lead a high-profile team. I tried so hard to fit in while trying to stand out. Both of them were frustrating pursuits.

I faced many criticisms and judgement and I was not comfortable in my own skin. I worked really hard – too hard – to prove myself, but I still did not get the results that I wanted. My confidence level shrank. I was insecure about myself. It was a very tough time in my life.

How did you overcome it and become more confident?

I realised that I needed to do something about it and so I enrolled in a personal leadership development programme and asked for coaching. One thing I learned through this coaching was that my unwillingness to ask for support was a major roadblock for me. In those days, I viewed asking for and accepting support as a sign of weakness. My whole identity was wrapped up in my ability to do everything required on my own, and I saw the need for support as a fundamental flaw in my own character.

I thought that in order to be successful, I had to show that I was a strong woman, and my definition of “strong” meant that I had to do everything on my own. I was trying to be a super hero and it backfired on me in a major way. 

Over the years, I have learnt to redefine “strength” and I see now that it requires a lot more strength to be vulnerable and open to the support of others than it does to be closed and to go through life as a rock – it does not take much strength to be a rock.

This “superwoman” pattern showed up again in the early years of my fitness journey, when I decided to enter fitness physique competitions and do it all myself. While the desire to do things on my own was there, I won nothing, but when I made the decision to seek support from master trainers and competitors, I began to win. Allowing myself to accept support has helped me to be a confident woman. Before, I had believed exactly the opposite.

Are you satisfied with your body now and why?

Like almost everyone I know, I go through phases where I am not satisfied with the way I look (face or body) for some reason. Before I stepped into the gym, I criticised my look too and it has everything to do with my self-limiting beliefs; that I am not good enough and not attractive.  

Now, instead of looking at my body as ugly/fat/skinny, another way to look at is that “my body is my responsibility”. The energy I create is also my responsibility. I am in charge of my own body. It is not about knowing every anatomical and nutritional detail, but more about taking care of the beliefs I hold about me as a woman. 

Today, I see my physical body as my ally; what I see is what you get. It is an open book. It tells a story of successes, failures, struggles, and courage, and I don’t need to hide any of them. My body has curves and muscles that speak about the values that I hold as a woman and the impact I want to create on the world.

Do you get any comments about your body?

Yes. I was told I was too muscular, too weak, too soft – ah, the endless comments!  The most hurtful comments of all often come from myself. I grew up disliking myself as a young girl: I believed that I was too loud, not pretty and I believed I was not attractive because I didn’t fit my society’s conventional standard of beauty. I criticised myself very harshly. 

I have learned that criticism, whether from myself or from others means nothing. Instead, I have decided to live in accordance with my principles and my values and I now trust that this is enough, that I am enough, that I have nothing to prove either to myself or to other people.

I don’t have to fit in or stand out from the crowd. I just need to stay on my purpose: To be fit to lead.

Singapore #Fitspo of the Week: Sari Marsden. (PHOTO: Cheryl Tay)