Fitness is an important factor of living in Cambodia. Going running, swimming or working out at the gym releases stress hormones and builds up confidence. As a result, those who exercise regularly notice an improvement in their overall health as well as in their relationships.
In this article I summarize the interview I had with the co-founders of LIFT Academy (short for "Learn and Improve your Foundation for Transformation"), Shan Vital & Hanna Bee. You will learn that there is much more to fitness than meets the eye.
Like most of my friends in Cambodia, I approached exercising without any clear directions. That was in 2019. My goals at that time were to a) release stress and b) to lose weight. With that in mind I made my way to the gym, where I met other people with similar mindsets. After the treadmill had become my new best friend, other regulars at the gym showed me some basic workout routines, which I followed until my gym was closed due to Covid regulations.
What I learned from Shan and Hanna was that a gym buddy is great for motivation, but cannot give you the directions you need for long-lasting results. This means that you can only go so far by working out on your own or with your gym friends. For long-lasting results, having an actual workout plan is crucial. I know it sounds daunting, like another entry on your ever-increasing to-do list. But bear with me. Those who have seen Hanna on Facebook know that she is toned, with noticeable muscles. My first thought was that she must spend a huge amount of time exercising every day. However, Hanna is maintaining her body shape by working out three times per week for less than 1.5 hours each, however unbelievable that sounds.
As Hanna explained to me, she is following a set of movements targeted at building/maintaining muscle, not any other movements that do not result in her goal. This means that having a specific workout plan is actually the opposite of another entry on your ever-increasing to-do list. Instead of costing you more time, it actually saves you time. The interview with Hanna and Shan made me realize that there is a big difference between working out hard and working out smart.
The focus of LIFT Academy is to work with clients towards their specific fitness goals (e.g. losing weight, gaining muscle, core strength, body recomposition, posture). In contrast to traditional gym models, LIFT Academy does not charge fixed membership fees (where you pay and then not show up!). Instead you pay for what you get, namely your results. An integral part of this personalized approach is coaching regarding other areas of your health, such as nutrition and sleep. At the same time, LIFT Academy utilizes an app to communicate and track customers overall fitness goals. The goal of this hybrid approach is to reach people not just in Phnom Penh, but also in the far ends of Cambodia (and other parts of the world) who can use LIFT’s apps for their own workout.
What surprised me the most during the interview was the emphasis that Shan and Hanna placed on educating clients on their body in regards to fitness and health (I had thought this knowledge was already out there somewhere in the fitness buddies’ bubblesphere). During the interview I understood the need to professionalize the fitness industry in Cambodia, away from a buddy-based system to a professional coaching system. New to me was also LIFT's focus not just on physical fitness, but on mental fitness as well. Both founders talked passionately about the positive changes in confidence level and relationship quality that their clients experienced after overcoming a major fitness obstacle (such as achieving their first pull-up).
Hanna and Shan explained that on the long run, being able to overcome fitness obstacle after fitness obstacle causes a deep shift in the way you approach the world. This change is summarized in LIFT Academy’s motto “Achieve your impossible”, which I found very cheesy when I heard it the first time. However as Shan explained, “Achieve your impossible” does not actually mean that you learn to do something physically impossible. Instead it refers to the change in mindset when you notice that something you thought was impossible is in reality very much doable, as long as you have the right tools at your disposal and you put in the right amount of effort. Client’s own effort was a key word during the interview. Both Shan and Hanna talked about the frustration they experience when they see a client’s potential, but the client does not invest enough time/energy/focus.
Everybody who has been living in Cambodia has experienced this particular frustration. Decision fatigue sets in much quicker than in the First World and so good things remain undone, despite knowing about the benefits they could potentially bring. I readily notice this wariness in my own life when I’m thinking about starting something new in my life. Shan emphasized that the decision to workout needs to come from the client. Being a customer’s cheerleader is a waste of time if that person is not fully committed. However not everybody wants to invest relationship energy (to build the necessary connection with the coach) and focus energy (to keep up their exercise regime) when working out.
The paradox is that when you are low on relationship energy and/or focus energy, working out at LIFT Academy is likely going to help you charge these two batteries again, but in order to get up, go there, set goals and then work on those goals, you need relationship energy and focus energy to begin with. What helped me overcome this gap in 2019 was to channel my frustrations into some of kind energy that was pretty rough, but good enough to get me to the gym (though I never followed any workout plan whatsoever other than the advice of my gym buddies). After 3 weeks I noticed that routines starting to sink in and after 3 months, gym had become a regular part of my life. That is until Covid hit and all the progress I had made towards weight loss went straight to hell. Now I have to start right from the beginning.
In closing I like to highlight the opportunities that come with new companies such as Shan’s and Hanna’s LIFT Academy. A common view of Cambodia is that you cannot get the same level of service that you get in Europe, Australia or the US. I strongly contest this view. Newcomers are starting to bring in new ideas; ideas that would have a harder time getting heard in the over-saturated markets of the First World. Hence is worthwhile being on the lookout for passionate people and the change they bring.
What my interview with Shan and Hanna taught me is that fitness is much more than a treadmill and a pool. Getting professional advice and a workout plan tailored to your needs will make a big difference. LIFT's expertise is readily available to anybody who is willing to put in the effort. Putting in the effort is hard, but worth it.
A big thank you to Shan and Hanna for their valuable time and all the best to LIFT Academy during the Covid pandemic.