Exercising in South Korea: Taking it to the Gym!

Ironic Confession: I’m writing about exercising in Korea while simultaneously eating a spoonful of nutella. Judge me if you will, just remember, middle schoolers.

Since the recent and unfortunate onset of winter and its uncomfortable chill, my friends and I decided to try out a Korean gym. It is located directly across the parking lot from our building and for obvious reasons, convenience is a universal bonus. You should know that to attempt to describe this gym primarily in words is basically my only option as pictures could be seen as an invasion of privacy and maybe even a bit disturbing so just imagine you’re on a sort of virtual tour with limited pictures: a verbal virtual tour.

The first thing that is blatantly different is the shoe area. I should have seen this one coming. Asians are obsessed with not wearing the same shoes outdoors as you wear indoors and so often, the floors are slightly raised where it is understood that you are not to wear shoes. My immediate dilemma is that I came already dressed in my gym shoes! Now I’m in the shoe changing area complete with the provided shady sports sandals in case you are somehow barefoot and need their sandals to get to the locker room to change into your gym shoes that you for some reason did not wear to the gym. Questions: Do I take my gym shoes off, walk to the locker room in the community sandals to then put the gym shoes back on so as not to appear rude? Do I just walk on the floor in my gym shoes and horrify and offend a gym full of Koreans? Do I take off my shoes and walk in my socks? Do I need to buy a second pair of gym shoes?!?

I chose to horrify and offend. Moving on, our convenient gym tour guide whom I have nicknamed “Jirrian Michaels” kindly shows us to the locker room and how to use the treadmills (that are all in English). The gym’s equipment is comparable to the quality of a hotel gym from the 90s but with one significant bonus item: hula hoops. NORMALLY (in America that is) I would never be caught dead hula hooping in public, much less at a gym. I am just too shy for that nonsense and moving your hips in such a fashion can be awkward. But, in Korea, liberated as I am to do ridiculous things since my very presence is already a spectacle, yes, I hula hooped.

Since that first experience at the gym, I’m made the shocking discovery that this is in fact a COMMUNITY hair brush in the locker room and I’ve also (sort of) gotten over the countless visual assaults in the form of the naked and never shy Korean women taking their good ole time getting clothed. Every time I enter the locker room, it’s with both intention–to witness as few naked women as possible–and with caution—you never know what you’re gonna get.

COMMUNITY hairbrush
COMMUNITY hairbrush

I’ve also since come to notice a few other things. Not only are the standards of sanitation in the team shower/locker room situation extremely different from the US, there is also at least one major difference in gym etiquette. In my Korean gym, after you use the machines, there is no requirement or expectation that you will wipe down the sweat. Not once have I seen a Korean even use the complimentary towel to wipe down a machine. Even though it is winter, I am CONSTANTLY trying to keep up with my sweat when I work out. I just feel gross if I leave sweat on a treadmill or on a weight machine, which brings me to my next observation.

From the few Korean women I have witnessed at the gym, there seems to be an unwritten rule that the women are required to work out at an intensity that is far below that of the men. This isn’t to say that the men are doing anything particularly impressive. The Korean men I see at the gym are more often than not paying significantly more attention to their smart phones than to their exercise regimen. Every time I’m sweating away on the treadmills, the Koreans are killing it at a 0 incline, 3 km/hr walking pace, which honestly is good because it takes the pressure off of the typical treadmill competition mentality. But why do I feel like I’m being looked at strangely if I lift some weights every now and again? I’m not trying to be a bodybuilder over here. I think my presumption at this point is that Korea’s exercise culture is in some ways like 1960s America: it’s still sort of unfeminine to work out and especially to sweat and it’s basically taboo to lift weights.

The last and probably most ridiculous of the gym differences is the complimentary workout clothes that you are encouraged to wear. I am not kidding, grey and orange workout/prison uniforms are lying in piles on a shelf when you make it past the shoe area and better still, I would say 95% of the Koreans WEAR THEM! I’m sorry, not to be a snob, but there is NO WAY I’m changing into some sketchy gym uniform no matter what stage of culture shock I make it through.

In retrospect, that first day as we rode the elevator up to the 5th floor, I remember thinking to myself how nice it was going to be able to do something alongside the Koreans for once instead of always feeling inferior to them. As the elevator doors opened to the gym’s floor, however, I remembered that of course I am still in Korea. The littlest things are so different here and although they may be subtle when you consider them as isolated events, altogether they can make things so very challenging. This is what I signed up for, to learn to navigate and negotiate compromises in what I am willing and able to do.

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