Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Koreans and Exercise

Here's the question:
I'm planning to live in Korea soon. And I was talking to some friends who studied abroad there recently. They tell me that unlike America, Koreans don't jog or run in the streets. I'm from Madison which is a very heavy biking and running city. I love to run outdoors and lift weights. I was wondering how Koreans exercise? Do they even exercise? One of my friends told me that they don't really exercise, but instead just eat less and diet. From the international students I see here, majority of the korean students are very fit. I was wondering if you had any knowledge on exercise in Korea.
Your friends are right. Koreans don't run, jog, speed-walk or bike on city streets.  It would be nearly impossible to do so anyways. I typically am out running or biking with my dog at 5:00am and even at dawn, I find it difficult to get in a solid workout without being interrupted by traffic, drunk twenty-somethings, trash or, my personal favorite, the puddles of vomit --or "pizza" as  Koreans call it-- which are flung all over the sidewalks.

They do, however, do a lot of exercising in other areas. There are countless gyms blanketing most cities that are usually pretty active from open to close. In most towns and cities, there are small parks that have body-resistance exercise machines. Those seem to be the most popular with the older crowd and especially with the ajummas. And if that wasn't enough, scores of ajumma can be spotted grouping together near any major waterway for some only-in-Korea-would-this-pass-for-exercise aerobics slash white-gloved hand movements. 

On the weekend, you'll find that most of the city parks are swamped with people of all ages exercising. They're riding bikes, running, jogging and walking dogs. Sports fields are full of people playing soccer, basketball and baseball. I like to play tennis and usually have to make a reservation nearly a month in advance is I want to play. In the summer, the rivers and lakes are bustling with skiers, windsurfers and jet-skiers. In the winter, you'll find it pretty packed on the slopes as well. Koreans certainly exercise, just in acceptable venues and the street, for the most part, is not acceptable.

I can't find it now, but I read a couple years ago that the average Korean child gets twelve minutes of exercise a day compared with the forty-eight minutes the American child was getting. In fact, it's getting so bad that child obesity in Korea is nearly double what it is in Japan and rapidly approaching America's rate. The adult rate obesity rate is getting pretty bad as well, but that's what happens when you work late and eat dinner even later. 

I guess dieting or eating less would be one way of staying slim and Koreans are just as apt to fall for diet trends as the rest of the world is (see the Japanese banana diet), but I think most people here (outside of Gangwon) see the value of an honest workout and a healthy diet -even if they are snobby about their foods' health benefits and/or superiority. 

Oh, and in case you're wondering where I've been, you can visit The Pious One...


Alex said...

I think it depends on where you live. When I lived in Seoul, everything Ask the Expat said was true. However, many people also went to the mountains (a stone's throw from any point in Korea) for a weekend hike.

This year I live in a more rural environment. While people do give funny looks to runners in the streets, it's possible and there are lots of exercise trails around in addition to the parks with machines as mentioned. The mountain behind my house even has those machines every so often for the first couple of kilometers of the hike, because you know, you should break up that cardio with muscle work outs. :-p

The Expat said...

You're so right about the mountains. I should have mentioned the vigor in which the older generation gets out there and hikes on the weekends.

I've always found that odd. Whereas in the US (at least the South), the younger generation took the mountains and trails, it's the complete opposite in Korea.

Logan Row said...

George is right about the Gangnam Station area—there are far too many people and cross streets to enjoy a jog in that immediate area. But, if you’re set on finding somewhere to jog outside, you’re not entirely out of luck. The best place south of the river I know is near Lotte World at Jamsil Station. There’s a long running track (with that rubbery low-impact terrain) that skirts the edge of two large lakes connected by a narrow channel. Also, if you live near the river (north or south) there are bike and jogging paths that run for miles through the city and beyond. And, if you look hard and ask around, you can always find little local jewels. For example, near Seollung Station (two stops from Gangnam if I remember correctly) there’s a marked running path that wraps around some old Yi Dynasty ruins. I don’t know if the city or the neighborhood set it up; but it’s there for anyone to use. I’m sure you can find examples like that all around the city. If you’re only interested in breaking a sweat, however, I recommend a few hours in a No-Rae-Bang!!

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