Going Beyond Limits With Sabrina Fung-Lam
September 5, 2017 | BY Chloe Street
How extreme fitness became a way of life for the businesswoman and mother
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“If I’d known it was going to be this hardcore, honestly, I might not have done it,” says Sabrina Fung-Lam, scion of the Hong Kong-based global trading behemoth Fung Group, as we discuss the punishing exercise regime she embarked upon two years ago. Glowing and animated, with an athletic physique, it’s hard to imagine the woman before me could once have needed an overhaul, but for Sabrina, these past 24 months have seen dramatic lifestyle changes.
“It just started out as a typical, ‘Let’s get a trainer, let’s get fit,” says Sabrina, recalling how the struggle to return to optimum weight after her third child provided the motivation to make a change. The personal trainer recommended by a friend, however, turned out to be anything but typical in his methods.
“My friend was looking good so I just asked him for the name and number of his trainer and I booked myself in. He didn’t tell me that it was going to be super intense two-hour sessions during which you’re not allowed to drink water or wipe your sweat with a towel.”
Sabrina's personal trainer has her on a gruelling regime of daily sessions that last two to three hours. These can consist of anything from indoor weights work to cardio and obstacle courses in the park, and even running up The Peak wearing three layers of thermals in 32 degree heat.
“As someone who never used to drop an ounce of sweat two years ago to now being able to go trail running for four hours under the strong sun and thunderstorms at midday, Sabrina has demonstrated that willpower and hard work can produce endurance,” says Sabrina's coach. While the workouts vary, they are all high intensity and are undertaken every day without fail. No excuses.
“A workout tends to be the first thing that most people cancel each day,” says Sabrina, “but I organise my day around my training.” On the advice of one of her father’s fitness-focused friends, she has learned to be unashamed about giving exercise absolute priority on her calendar.
“He told me you put it in your diary and when people ask if you are free at that time, you just say you’re not. It sounds simple, but it’s actually quite difficult to execute.” Given that Sabrina has a demanding job as managing director of the retail arm of the Fung Group as well as being mother to three children under 11, one imagines “difficult” to be an understatement.
“If you keep letting meetings, lunches and other engagements take priority, you will never get the workout done. So, once I have one booked in, it doesn’t change unless I have a board meeting. My secretary knows now that nothing is more important than my training.”
And just as other engagements are no excuse, so too is a lack of equipment. Sabrina can train anywhere, using anything. “If it’s a hot day, for example, I will take advantage of the weather, put on three layers of clothes and run home. Actually, I did that twice yesterday.”
See Sabrina's grueling training regime in our exclusive video:
If she’s staying in a hotel with no gym, Sabrina will select a bottle of wine from the minibar—not for refreshment but to use as a weight substitute for an in-room workout. On long plane journeys, you will find her doing planks on her seat, “and in the bathroom I’ll do little lunges or dips, or I will put one of those rubber bands around my ankles and pulse while I’m watching a movie.”
The no excuses mantra has led to some workouts so brutal they border on bonkers. The toughest to date? “I’d say it was the run I had to do right after I got stitches on both my shins.”
This came 40 hours after a plastic surgeon had operated to repair bone-deep lacerations sustained in a mishap while she was jumping up metre-high steps during a workout. “I then had to climb 1,800 steps up a mountain in the driving rain in the New Territories.”
The doctor, while not forbidding it, was disapproving, as was her driver—“he’s seen me doing some pretty hardcore exercise but that day he was worried.” She let her husband, Kevin, think she was simply going to receive treatment for her cuts. “I told him afterwards but he would just have thought I was crazy,” she laughs.
So what compelled her up that mountain? “It was in the schedule. And this is typical of Sabrina's coach. He said, ‘You know that your feet are still attached to your body and the stitches are not going to explode, so the worst thing that can happen is that you’ll be in pain.’” And in pain she was—initially. “The first 10 minutes were agony, but I have to say that once I got going it was fine.”
Surviving the ordeal made Sabrina even more convinced by her coach’s belief in the power of the mind over the body. “Whether you’re an athlete, a mother or an executive at a company,” says the Harvard graduate, “it’s that same philosophy you need to apply.” Sabrina’s analytical mind finds her coach's teaching more engaging than that of trainers she has worked with in the past, as he explains the benefits of each move before having her execute them.
Sabrina's coach is also a purist: listening to music or watching TV in the gym are strictly forbidden. Sabrina generally works out in silence, though motivational speeches by athletes are allowed over the speakers—Michael Jordan, whose portraits and quotes adorn the walls of the gym, being a particular favourite of her coach.
As well as guiding her exercise regime, her coach also manages Sabrina’s diet. She has a set of precise rules to eat by, and every so often, when she is trying to achieve a particular fitness goal, she will live off meal boxes prepared by her coach that come in at just 800 calories a day.
“My intake is definitely lower than my output,” she says matter-of-factly as I boggle at how she is still standing let alone about to tackle three hours of cardio. Each gym session starts with a weigh-in, and if Sabrina is even 0.1kg above where she is meant to be, her coach will not allow her to leave until she has shed the extra weight, whatever intensity of exercise it takes.
When we meet for lunch, Sabrina is on a meal-plan week and therefore unable to sample the delights of the Landmark Atrium cafe. Back when she started her regime, she avoided such mealtime socialising on meal-plan weeks, but today I marvel as she asks the waiter to heat and plate the food in a little plastic box she pulls from her immaculate Delvaux handbag while simultaneously ordering a bottle of red wine.
“At first I went through a soul-searching stage but now I’ve found the balance. I drink two or three glasses of wine a day and, when I’m not on a meal-plan week, I eat everything, from carbs, to steak, to little bits of dessert, cheese, everything. It’s just portion control.”
Sabrina is even allowed to eat her favourite treat—ice cream—four times a week. “You don’t really have to deprive yourself or cut out any categories of food. If you want a burger, have it. Just skip the mayonnaise and ketchup and half the bun.” Also stashed in her Mary Poppins handbag is a tub of carrot sticks, which she carries at all times to avoid cravings and sugar lows leading to food purchases.
“I’ve learned to snack before meals when I’m not hungry,” she says. She allows herself the odd lapse too. The night before we meet, Kevin wanted them to dine at Nobu following a tough day at work. “He said, ‘Hey, forget your meal plan,’ and I thought, ‘You know what, you’re right.’”
Her transformation has also inspired Kevin—and friends and other family members—to pursue a healthier lifestyle. “They have gone through the same adjustment and evolution that I have, and now lots of them are asking if they can train with me or be involved.”
Kevin has recently joined her on the regime and her father, Victor, who initially had reservations about the intensity of her training, will now suggest that she turn up the dial on the stepper when she’s in the gym. Sabrina’s secretary has taken up walking for an hour with her husband each evening and delights in researching fitness challenges in which Sabrina and others in the office can participate. “People close to me have picked up the exercise bug. I find it very rewarding.”
Initially, Sabrina’s motivation was weight loss—she lost 18kg in the first four months and 3.5 in the next two—but once she achieved her optimum weight (“I’m there now, but I fluctuate”), she started to focus on challenges. She did her first 10-kilometre run last year (“for me, that’s a lot”) and recently returned from Japan where she ran a 14-kilometre race at Mount Fuji and then climbed almost to the top. She’s considering signing up for the staircase race up the ICC in December (2,120 steps to the top). She’s always focusing on the next goal.
“Too many people just celebrate when they reach a goal. Now, when I reach a goal, I’m already thinking of the next one the day I reach it.” The words of her coach help explain this attitude: “Compliments and applause all happen outside my door,” he says. “To reach the highest goals, my students must commit to three principles: show up, listen and do the work.”
Increasingly, however, Sabrina’s motivations are broader than personal fitness goals. “With sports, you can always do more,” she explains, “but what I really want to do is inspire other people around me to be more aware of the benefits of health and fitness.”
The week before our meeting, she gave a talk to a group of University of Hong Kong students about goals and found herself discussing exercise and sport and their ability to transform people’s lives. She wants to start working with charities that get underprivileged children involved in sport. “It’s not always about buying people books,” she says. “Exercise gives you balance.”
While her physical transformation has been impressive, it’s the mental and emotional shift that’s had the most impact on Sabrina and those around her. Her training has given her a fortitude and discipline of mind. “It’s about getting the mind ready all the time, 100 per cent of the time,” she explains. “I’ve been able to apply that at home and at work.” And she is rightfully excited and proud of what she has achieved.
“Two years ago I would never in my wildest dreams have imagined that I would have done all these things. Whether it’s running a 10K or going to Mount Fuji or running up a hill with stitches, I just would not have imagined it. You wouldn’t have put my name and exercise in the same sentence.”
The main lesson she’s learned from the experience? “Given my journey, I would just say always do your best; you never know what the outcome might be.”
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