These Up-and-Coming Asian-American Trainers Ditched Corporate Life for Fitness

These Up-and-Coming Asian-American Trainers Ditched Corporate Life for Fitness

This story is part of AAPI in Fitness, a series of articles highlighting the challenges and triumphs of fitness trainers, athletes, and gym owners from the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. Read the rest of the stories here.

BREAKING INTO THE fitness industry is not easy. It’s even more difficult when you don’t conform to long-established standards that determine exactly who counts as “fit.” That type of shallow categorization has made it difficult for Asian-Americans to thrive in the mainstream fitness world. The bright side: things are changing thanks to a new vanguard of fitness pros with AAPI backgrounds.

Both Eric Sung30, and Claudette Sariya31, are personal trainers who specialize in strength and conditioning for endurance athletes in New York City. They also participated in Men’s Health/Women’s Health Strength in Diversity Initiativewhich provides resources for fitness pros from marginalized communities. Sung and Sariya each took non-linear paths to embark on their fitness careers, setting aside cultural, familial, and social expectations to strike out on their own.

Parts of their experiences are common for Asian-Americans entering the fitness space; others are wholly unique to their journey. They joined me—an Asian-American fitness pro who has long worked for more representation in the industry myself—to speak about their fitness backgrounds, their responses to cultural expectations, and how they want to influence the next Asian-American generation so that they have no doubt they can succeed.

MEN’S HEALTH: How did you get your start in fitness?

CLAUDETTE SARIYA: I started leaning heavily into fitness toward the end of college where I was in a really low point in my life. I was getting over a really bad breakup and ended an engagement. It was a toxic relationship that really beat me down in terms of my self-worth. I realized the little promises that I made to myself—I’m going to wake up and I’m gonna run, go to a barre class, all those things—helped me feel stronger physically and mentally. When I moved to New York to pursue PR and marketing, fitness was my way to release stress.

I found myself in this predicament as a young 20-year-old in the dating world. I was on a date with someone, and he wouldn’t stop. So I kicked him off of me. That’s when I realized strength is so important, in a lot of different aspects. I went into [fitness] hardcore, took kickboxing classes and things like that, to just make sure that I was strong and could protect myself. I decided I wanted [to become] a trainer when I was in between PR and marketing jobs. I realized how much I loved working with people, helping them get stronger—because I knew what that felt like for me. It was a scary decision, but I knew how much happier I would be and how much our landscape needed representation.

ERIC SUNG: I’ve always loved playing sports, so I was always drawn to exercise. I started working out fully in college because I just wanted some abs. I was going to Queens College for accounting and economics. I worked at a firm for about two years. And then, [I took] kind of the same path as Claudette, where we thought we were on a track to a career, but then we figured out it wasn’t for us.

But the pivotal moment for me was seeing my parents and grandparents not being physically active. I think that’s what drove me to help other people find their niche in terms of fitness because it’s such a broad, general realm.

After becoming a trainer for about two years, I dabbled with group fitness. I did that for two years as well. I do mostly one-on-ones now. I passed my CSCS [editor’s note: Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification]which was really good because it helped me understand the principles and the systems that most coaches need. Then applying that to running because I found my niche in running and endurance. I’m also trying to spread more information to Asian-Americans, because our Asian elders have a different perception of fitness and health. It’s more medicinal. It’s more superstitious. But I feel like fitness and exercise is overlooked.

“I think a lot of the times when people think of ASIAN-AMERICAN WOMEN in general, they think of them as very passive and soft-spoken. And we’re DEFINITELY NOT SOFT-SPOKEN.


MH: Did your family accept, understand support your decision to make fitness your full time career? Or was it a struggle for them to understand your career?

CS: They were definitely concerned. At the time I was working in PR and marketing, steady paychecks, benefits, unlimited PTO, all of it. But they also understood because they could see how tired I was, how upset I would be about deadlines. They still worry—[fitness] is an unpredictable industry. While we all need our bodies, if we work in a gym and another COVID happens, what are we going to do? But I think they feel better now, especially as we’ve seen the different partnerships that I’m able to do, how happy I am, and that I’m still able to support myself. I always send them behind-the-scenes photos and videos—we just did a UFC promo with Sole Fitness. They’re really excited. I also feel like they understand what I’m doing now more than they did when I worked in PR and marketing.

ES: My parents were really chill about it. Maybe behind my back they were concerned, but they let me do my thing. I feel like most of [the concerns] stemmed from imposter syndrome with myself in terms of like, “Am I making it? Or am I doing the right things?” But they’re really supportive.

CS: When I had that conversation with my mom, it was surprising to me how she accepted my decision to go into fitness full time. She said this to me: The things that you’re meant to do should be easy. While there’s going to be challenges, if you’re on a path and you keep getting hit with obstacle after obstacle, it’s probably not the right path for you. When I worked in PR and marketing, I had impostor syndrome. But with fitness, I feel like you have so much creative freedom, and you can really express yourself. There really isn’t much room for self-doubt.

MH: Have you found that you were the only person who looks like you in many or most rooms that you’ve been in over your career? If so, how have you traversed that space?

ES: At first, I was the only Asian face that I saw at the time. I didn’t really see many faces that were Asian in any ads or the products and marketing. The Men’s Health Strength in Diversity program helped me see that there were opportunities for us to prosper and kind of trailblaze the path for other Asian-Americans, for other people that look like us, that think like us, or had the same experience that we had. We can show people hey, we’re here.

MH: When we have our community workouts, do you find yourself being one of the only male Asians in the room?

ES: Oh, yeah. There’s not many out there. There’s more now, and I like where it’s going, but there’s always room for more. It’s part of our job to keep on bringing that awareness. I had a childhood where I would always brush off my culture, my identity—I went to a mostly white school. So I would always try to tuck my heritage to the side just to fit in. So part of the mission is to be proud of who we are and where we come from. I think that alone will help people realize and get out of their comfort zone in terms of being exposed in marketing and advertisements.

aapi in fitness claudette sariya

Courtesy Sariya; Leanne Mattern, MH Illustration

Sariya after a race in Brooklyn. She recently co-founded Asian Women Stay Running, a run club for women from AAPI backgrounds.

MH: Claudette, have you noticed when you walked into a room that you were the only Asian-American?

CS: I definitely noticed that when I moved to Tennessee. You would feel the attention, even if they’re not turning to look at you, you still feel pressure. That didn’t really occur to me that pressure was there until after I moved to New York. I remember getting onto the subway, and for the first time in my life, I felt invisible. It was such a relief to blend into the wallpaper. I don’t necessarily feel that anymore, just because I feel like I don’t pay attention to it as much. But I know that I am one of the few like Laotian-American, Southeast Asians in fitness here in the New York landscape. I think a lot of the times when people think of AAPI women in fitness they think yoga, Pilates, barre—low impact, softer types of movement, versus strength and HIIT and conditioning. It’s really cool that we can offer a different lens onto what Asian-American women are capable of. It’s an even bigger message in itself, because I think a lot of the times when people think of Asian-American women in general, they think of them as very passive and soft-spoken. And we’re definitely not soft-spoken.

MH: I also grew up in a very white dominant area. There were moments when I wanted to dye my hair lighter, I would get colored contacts—my dad would tell me when I was younger, “you know, you’re not white, right?” I’m like, I’m not? I had a boxing coach, he was like, “You have beautiful brown eyes, take those contacts off and change your hair back to black. You’re so beautiful.” And after my coach said that, I started looking within myself. Should I appreciate my Asian-ness? Should I appreciate my dark features? So Eric, and Claudette, did you guys start to feel that too?

ES: I think a big part of my frustration growing up in Tennessee was not understanding Buddhism. I’m not religious at all, but my family is involved with the temples. I think part of the reason I was brushing it off was because I didn’t understand it, and it was just so disconnected from where I was in my life in high school. But now that I’m older, I see it as a way to connect with my family, especially because we’re hundreds of miles away from each other.

MH: What are some challenges you’ve experienced as an Asian-American who works in fitness?

ES: There’s very little blueprint to follow in terms of being Asian in fitness. Most of the coverage is on [people of] different races, it’s harder to see what we’re capable of, whether it’s getting on the front page, or getting partnership deals and stuff like that.

CS: Being an Asian-American woman, I think a lot of times people see me and they underestimate me—especially training at Goldman Sachs, because it’s such a boys club. They’re like, this girl is gonna tell me what to do?

MH: What are major wins you’ve had?

CS: The SID program is a huge win. When I showed my parents that they finally understood and they were like, “okay, our daughter is not a failure because, them coming over as immigrants, their idea of success in America is a stable job, house, family, all of this and something to brag to their friends about. They can be like, “My daughter is on this national magazine.” I am one of the founding instructors at Sole Fitness. One of the few females that we have on the team.

ES: I think the SID program for sure. That helped me get a few mentions in magazines, and stuff like that.

“Part of the mission is to be PROUD of WHO WE ARE and WHERE WE COME FROM.


MH: You’re training a New York Housewife [for Bravo]. You train celebrities. Eric, what are some of your expectations as a male Asian trainer? Like, when I say expectations? I mean, like, do people think that you should have been like a Bruce Lee? Anything along those lines?

ES: Not being in fitness is one of them. Like, oh, you should be a doctor, you should be on like Wall Street or do finance, which I did. People don’t really expect me to be a trainer or a coach when I tell them.

CS: Expectations were, oh, she’s going to do yoga. She’s going to teach just studio classes. She’s just going to do gluteus max out or core blast for Life Time. They didn’t know that I can do a kettlebell snatch with good form .

MH: Did you have someone who was Asian to aspire to be like in the fitness industry when you were younger?

CS: Yes, actually. Cassie Ho, of Blogilates. I started following her when I was still in college doing her core workouts in my dorm room. She was the only Asian blogger at the time in fitness.

ES: That guy, Six-Pack Abs, Mike[Chang[Chang[Chang[Chang]. I don’t know if he’s still active. He was jacked too, I was like, I want to be like that guy.

MH: How do you stay authentic to yourself?

ES: Staying in your lane in terms of your niche, knowing what you have to offer, what sets you apart from other people, and posting things that are authentic to you. I read this somewhere—if you try to mimic the person that’s above you, you’re never gonna be that person. So why bother when you could just be yourself?

MH: How do you want to influence the next generations who are looking into entering the fitness industry?

ES: I feel like one of the best ways to see who you are as a coach is to train kids. I think when you train kids, it tests your coaching skills and it also helps shape their minds a little bit, too. It doesn’t have to be strictly Asian kids, either. Getting them that exposure, where it’s like, ‘oh, well, my coach is Asian, and he knows his shit.’

CS: I want them to know you can do anything if you put your mind to it. You just have to believe in yourself and bet on yourself. I think with the Run Club and how we’re bringing in AAPI women in the fitness and wellness industries, workshops, networking—I think that’s going to make a huge impact.

aapi in fitness eric sung

McCarthyVision; Leanne Mattern, MH Illustration

Sung combines his loves of strength training, conditioning, and running for a well-rounded fitness background for all types of clients.

MH: What do you think can help make the industry more equitable?

ES: People that are in fitness, just keep on trying to break through by putting content out, putting education out there for others to soak in. It could be public speaking, soft skills. You’re going to be able to better communicate to other people and to relate to other people, and create that connection and create relatability that other Asians might want or need to get their foot into fitness and exercise.

CS: I also think that’s just like, one branch of a larger tree. I think another branch that needs to be a part of the picture the responsibilities of the brands [in the industry]. When they’re searching for fitness models to come in and put on ads and commercials, the more we show ourselves and our values as trainers and fitness influencers, the more likely they’ll choose us to be in their campaigns.

MH: What do you view as a biggest challenge as an Asian-American and part of this industry?

ES: Sometimes traction is hard to get Asian-American. That can be said for other races too. It goes back to like the brands and the marketing—where are the opportunities for Asian-Americans to break through? There can always be more that can be done.

CS: I think the biggest obstacle is getting that traction and exposure. That’s why programs like Strength in Diversity are so important because they give you that opportunity to network. Once you get that exposure, it’s a matter of really standing your ground and showing up, because it’s not just about showing up for you—it’s about showing up for those who are going to be following your footsteps. For me, sitting at a table for a meeting for Sole, I’m the only woman and I’m also the only Asian-American. So I know that everything that comes out of my mouth has to have meaning and has to be productive.

ES: Back to brand thing too. Lululemon had a Lunar New Year campaign, and models and images were Asian-Americans or Asian figures. Then that month is over, and what I see right now is [only] white and Black fitness models.

MH: So we’re not just for this month. We’re here for the long haul. So yes, highlight us for AAPI [Month]but also, we would like to see more diversity in your campaigns.

CS: I think it’s important for a lot of brands to have a resource for diversity and inclusion, because if not, there are going to be campaigns where hat’s overlooked. And that’s not good for their brand in general. They have to understand that we’re not token people to be included to hit a benchmark. It needs to be woven in through the narrative, because we deserve to be part of the narrative, we are a part of the narrative and to be left out is just not good.

aapi in fitness

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