When you’re thinking of fitness, which pictures come to mind? Vigorous young people with perfectly muscled bodies who sweat in well-equipped gyms? This is one side of fitness in China in general and Shenyang in particular. Another is that of hordes of the elderly who populate parks and squares to pursue all sorts of activities – some of which do not seem to tally with what “fitness” means in the Western hemisphere. As with so many topics, fitness here has many – vastly different – facets to it.
An Australian friend who has been living in Shenyang for about a year remarked recently that the number of gyms in the city seemed to have tripled since she came. Many of these gyms are expensive affairs with gleaming imported running, rowing and weightlifting machines tailored to specific muscle groups. Just like in many other countries, these gyms offer a wide range of classes like Zumba, Pilates, Yoga, Spinning etc. to the inclined fitness fanatic. There are several very well-equipped gyms around the city of Shenyang to choose from, if you are ready to foot the bill. In one of our future posts, we will introduce you to one of the bigger gym chains here in Shenyang, Bally Fitness, through an interview with their creative director, Jennifer Perras, a lovely Canadian expat brimming with passion for all things fitness.
While, prestige being an important part of Chinese culture, these expensive gyms are surprisingly well-frequented, there are even more Chinese who are not willing (or able) to fork over a bucket load of cash to slake their thirst for fitness. These people have managed to find a surprising number of ways to keep fit for free.
One such cheap way to the perfectly fit body is to use what I call the “playgrounds for the elderly” in parks, on squares or sometimes even just by the roadside scattered around the city. I call them “playgrounds” because they are full of brightly painted fitness equipment that looks like it was made for overgrown toddlers. You get jungle-gym type gear, rotating plates that make you limber in the waist, simplistic bench-pressing mechanisms, and many other contraptions – some of them reminiscent of medieval torture devices. All of this gear is in near constant use. From early morning to early evening, the city’s elderly, school children and all those lucky enough to have some time off, use the free opportunities to get fit.
But the fitness gear is not the only free way to a healthy life in China. In many parks and by the river, you can also see people walking on gardening-gloved hands and feet like malformed spiders. This supposedly is good for working all muscle groups – but I believe it is especially beneficial for the abdominal muscles of onlooking foreigners who regularly burst out laughing witnessing this spectacle. Another activity that is something of an acquired taste for laowais is the – mostly – senior citizens who walk backwards while hitting themselves and occasionally pushing out a loud shout or two. Both the hitting of various body parts and the yelling are meant to release qi, i.e. energy flow or life force according to Traditional Chinese Medicine.
While this pursuit is often practiced solitarily by elderly gentlemen (爷爷, yé ye, grandfather), the Ayis (阿姨, āyí, aunt) and Nainais (奶奶, nǎi nai, grandmother) prefer to improve their dancing skills. There are groups for everything from tango and ballroom dancing to traditional Chinese fan dances or video-clip style dancing to the current favorite Chinese pop hit. Both the Yeyes and the Nainais also tend to practice Tai Chi of various varieties: with or without swords, from slow and controlled to kungfu-like choppy movements, there is a style of Tai Chi for everyone.
In the evenings, people of all ages also march in long columns, four to six abreast, all wearing identical shirts and sometimes even pants, accompanied by the sounds of energetic Chinese pop music and encouraged by “squadron leaders” with whistles , waving of flags and boot camp-like yells.
Yet others bike along the river. They are usually riding Tour de France worthy contraptions and are clad in professional bike gear from head to toe. And about two thirds of them use the most necessary accessory for the Chinese biker – the loud speaker. These loud speakers hang from bike frames or handlebars and blast anything from classical music to Chinese folk-pop – at eardrum-splitting levels. When you are on the side walk, this sounds quite funny, because their velocity means that the sound is terribly distorted as they whoosh past you.
In addition to these outdoor varieties, the Chinese have also found ingenious ways of getting fit indoors without having to spend a lot. Most notably, there are many Chinese who spend an inordinate amount of time at Decathlon. This French sporting goods store is very popular here in Shenyang, but their sales figures are nothing to boast about. You wonder how those two statements go together? Many Shenyangers go to practice any imaginable sport in the comfortably air-conditioned space of the store, but most do not necessarily buy anything while they are there. Whole families come fully prepared in their tracksuits and workout clothes to use the equipment that us silly foreigners thought was there for the purpose of selling. They play ping pong, they throw darts, they play racket ball, they shoot hoops,… This “trying stuff out” can sometimes go quite far. My husband once purchased a knee brace at Shenyang’s Decathlon just to find out at home that it had been worn and was all sweaty! Not ideal, to say the least.
What kind of sports do you play or how do you keep fit here in Shenyang? Which aspect of fitness in China should we write about next? Let us know through your comments or via email.
Written by Julie Marx