Before I came to Korea, another acute concern echoed in my mind.
“There will be no gym and many carbs,” said Anxiety-Brain. “You’re gonna get fat.”
“You know, you can be very negative sometimes. I’ll figure something out. I’ll do burpees and find a playground.”
Part of this apprehension stemmed from EPIK uncertainty. I had no idea where I would be living.
As I nursed this anxiety through orientation, it was all burpees all the time. I would wake up, drop down, do a push-up, and then jump in the air like I was on fire. I repeated this 40 to 50 times or until the Gwangju air left me gasping for breath. It was a great way to wake up and combat jet-lag-induced fatigue.
One day, a True Scotsman and I checked out an exercise park near our hotel. We found a fun array of machines and calisthenic bars underneath a freeway overpass. We took off our shirts (the proper attire for outdoor workouts) and hit the pull-up bars. I did 5-7 pull-ups at a time. He repped out 20 muscle-ups in a single set. I felt like a complete weakling.
However, I quickly forgot about my strength inferiority when I saw several elderlies working on the exercise machines and staring at us like we were Martians from Planet Waygook. It was my first experience recognizing the “foreigner stare.” I found it two parts hilarious and one part strange.
During my first two weeks in Korea, I found out that a subtle form of fitness was increased walking. My iPhone has a pedometer that measures my steps (I could rant about laziness and how American society now measures physical activity in “steps” but I’m trying to be more positive). Just glancing at my phone’s health app showed that my weekly average increased from around 7,000 to 10,000 steps per day. It’s not much, but studies show that extra walking can pay cumulative dividends in both physical health and cognitive abilities.
When I arrived in Namak, my concerns subsided. First, I met the Namak Middle School NET. He informed me of several gyms within two kilometers of my apartment and also asked me to join his rugby team. Moreover, I found countless playgrounds and random exercise machines scattered throughout town. I went from a fear of poverty to an embarrassment of fitness riches.
After the settlement allowance hit my bank account, it was time to get back in the gym. I was a lost sheep in search of a new church of iron. I found three gyms to consider. The first one was brand new, called Bum Gym. I considered it for a second, but others told me it was prohibitively expensive. I skipped right by. My next stop was Big Gym. I looked around and saw all the basic equipment I needed – a squat rack, a bench, exercise bikes, and many dumbbells. The kicker came when I asked “ul-ma-yay-yo” (How much?).
The muscle-bound attendant pointed to a calculator – 630,000 won for the year. I couldn’t walk out the door fast enough.
Finally, there was Gun Fitness (I love the English names of these Korean gyms). The middle school NET recommended this one. When I walked up the stairs (the five tiring flights of stairs), the first thing I noticed was shoes, shoes, and more shoes. Gym goers tend to stow their workout shoes at the gym, which means one side of the staircase was loaded with running shoes. I tried not to trip (and succeeded).
I looked around the facility. It looked five times more modern than Big Gym. I was blown away. It had real squat racks (Smith machines don’t count. In fact, they count as negative. Smith machines are the devil’s creation sent to wreck knees and backs). There were also heavy dumbbells (up to 50 kg), and belt massagers ripped straight from the 70s. I braced myself when I asked for the price. The attendant pulled out a laminated sheet and pointed – 300,000 for the year. It was still pricey compared to gyms back home, but I decided to fork over the cash.
Now that I am indebted (sunk-cost fallacy be praised), I go to the gym five mornings per week. My workouts are short, but I focus on one or two main activities and fill the rest of my time with exercises that “feel right”. Monday is heavy back squats and hang cleans. Tuesday is treadmill sprints. Wednesday is a meat-and-potatoes weight day. I do heavy deadlifts, heavy bench press, and a leg press drop set. Thursday is more treadmill sprints and Friday I’m back on the heavy squats and hang cleans (because every day should be leg day).
I notice many differences between Gun Fitness and Crunch Fitness, my prior American gym. For one, I no longer need to pack separate gym clothes and then lug around the sour-smelling sweaty remains in my backpack. The gym provides me fresh clothes every day. I just put on the 3XL shorts (that are still very small on me) and a 3XL shirt and go to work. When I am done, I just throw them in a laundry bin. I grab fresh clothes the following morning. As an extra bonus, the shorts come with one of those mesh liners. Working out commando is awesome.
The next big difference is the locker rooms. In my former gym, there was always one naked guy (usually old) who would chat me up while I was trying to change. At Gun Fitness, while nobody chats me up, everybody is naked pretty much all the time. I learned (reluctantly) that bush is the prevailing manscaping trend (I don’t know how it is for women).
The shower is communal and the site of almost every hygienic activity (except for toilet activities, thank goodness). I knew something was off when I noticed there was no sink to be found. I discovered that people wash their bodies, brush their teeth, and shave right under the shower head. I enjoy the convenience.
Overall, I am blown away by the exercise options in Korea. There are hardcore hikers, hardcore bikers, exercise machines on every city block, and many gyms. On top of that, walking is an exercise in itself (especially if you don’t have a car). My pre-existing concern about a lack of options is no more. It now feels like a distant memory. Goals for even stronger physical health have taken over.
This is about half of my school. While Bella Vista High School had more students, the campus was more spread out. The sheer size of the Namak High buildings surprises me.
“Spare some change, sir? I’ll be honest. I just want kimbap and soju.”
The lone rider surveys the land, scouting his next destination before riding off into the sunset, ringing his trusty bell – a lone beacon of hope.
Even on isolated Imja Island, the schools have immaculately manicured trees. They look like they were plucked straight out of a theme park.
The marshy farmland and windmills tricked me into thinking I was in Holland or something.