Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Korean Gym Confusions.

Now that I've nicely settled into my new routine, I thought about my fitness goals that had been waylaid by my unexpected, but enjoyable, trip to America and all of the insane business in my life the past few months. If you will recall, I wanted to start running regularly (maybe even train for a race) and to lose the last 20 lbs (10kgs) or so that are between me and having the body I'd really like to have. There is a really nice gym facility across the street from my taekwondo studio that advertised yoga and dance classes and also had an indoor pool (a little difficult to find in Korea), so on Monday, William and I checked the place out.

It took awhile to decode the pricing scheme and swimming pool schedule. See... in America when a gym also has a pool, while there are some classes, there are nearly always lanes available for free swimming for exercise. Not so in class-dominated Korea. The pool is only open for free-swimming Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and on weekends and holidays. Also, membership at the gym does not include the free swimming during the week, just on the weekends, so if I wanted to swim on Tuesday or Thursday, I'd need to pay about $3 each time (which is not terribly unreasonable, it just seems strange that it's not included).

Also, the yoga and dance classes are run separately from the health club, so again, I'd need to pay extra to take one. This is a pity, indeed.

But in the end, the gym price struck me as reasonable for Korea, 46,000 won ($42ish) for equipment use (and they have fairly nice new-looking equipment), assistance from trainers, a half hour stretching/strength training class at 8pm (right around the time I'd usually be there because it's just before TKD), and free use of the pool on weekends and holidays. So I decided to try it for a month and see if I liked it. Plus I could check out the classes while I'm there and see which one I'd like to take in the future (as I love gym dance classes and yoga).

William didn't want to join, but he found some of the outdoor (and free) facilities near the club to be worthwhile (they have a jogging course around a soccer field that looked nice), so that's good. I joined and headed upstairs to the trainer room for my "body assessment."

I need to give some background here.

Koreans have a strange understanding of fat and thin in my opinion. Se Jin's nickname in her family, for example, is "fatty." And if you've been following my blog and looked at pictures of her, you'd know she is about as far from "fat" as you can get. I think that maybe because she is tall and has bigger shoulders than most Korean girls, she is "fat." While it is true that there is a narrower range of body types in Korea than in America (because of the whole homogeneity vs. diversity thing), both women and men have many different natural shapes and muscle tone.

The predominant (and preferred) body, for women, seems to be the "stick" figure, meaning thin everywhere, narrow shoulders, hips, and just a little bit of chest. If you don't have this shape, it is difficult to purchase clothes in stores here. You are also thought of as unattractive. Another Korean girl I worked with at Oedae, Jenny, had one of the nicest bodies I'd ever seen (by Western standards) because she had curves. But she always hid it under baggy clothes because in Korea she thought she was fat.

Also, Korean girls seem to be terrified of muscle tone. So I often think even the skinny girls look flabby to me. In America, most skinny girls have some tone, unless they're anorexic or something. When the "dancing girls" on Korean TV show off their midriffs and it's like, "ok there is some flesh," whereas when the Dallas Cowboys reveal midriffs, you're like, "damn, I think I just went a little gay."

Strangely enough, they apply this "everyone from the same country looks the same" mentality to foreigners. So even though I'm OBVIOUSLY fatter than Se Jin or Jenny, they insist I'm not fat because I have an "S-line" meaning an hourglass figure. (Why this is attractive for me and not for them, I have yet to understand). I've been turned away from stores yelling that they don't have my size, but so have my girlfriends who have the same build as Koreans. They look at white skin and think, that person won't fit into Korean clothes. They don't even look at the actual body shape most of the time. It's weird.

Anyhow, I present you with these observations because it helps to understand the strange advice the trainer gave me. He asked me what my goals were. I said I wanted to get stronger for taekwondo. Then he weighed me and took my height and told me that first I needed to lose 20 kgs (yes, seriously... that's 44lbs for the metrically challenged). I just smiled. They hadn't given me a range of healthy weight, they just gave me a number. Because everyone of that height should weigh EXACTLY the same amount...

Then they had their machine scan for fat and muscle composition (I question the accuracy of such a machine, but whatever). So according to the machine, I'm 30% "overweight," but I'm 45% over-muscled and only 12% over-fat... So to lose as much as he wanted me to lose, I'd have to lose 10 kgs of fat (which I want to) and 10 kgs of muscle (which I don't want to). He looked at my results and was really confused for about two minutes and then showed them to me and said that maybe I should just lose 10 kgs. I said ok. Because that's what I was planning to do anyhow.

He made a plan for me this month, which was not as focused on weight training as I wanted it to be, but he said that this month we'll do 80% cardio, 20% weights and then next month I can do 60% cardio, 40% weights. So I guess this month I'll focus on the running.

He had a female trainer show me how to do warm ups and proper form for the back extensions and squats he wants me to do and then set me on the treadmill for 40 minutes and the bike for 10. I surprised myself with how well I can run now. I spent about half of the time actually jogging (I still take "walking" breaks, but they are getting shorter and the jogging intensity is increasing). Then the female trainer had me join the stretching/strength training class. Then it was time for taekwondo.

I was tired the next day, but felt pretty good. I skipped both the gym and taekwondo on Tuesday because we went hiking with the other teachers at school for staff bonding (pictures to come), but then yesterday--even though I was really, really sore--I went back. It was great! I've seen other teachers there both times.

I think I'm going to enjoy it.


  1. Is the prevalence of classes related to a group-focused culture (that is, people do things in groups)?

  2. It could be. There is definitely a group mentality in Korea that is very strong and very deeply rooted in the culture.

    The thing is, that the whole idea of "classes" here is more than just group mentality. Like when you want to pick up a new hobby, there are almost no people who teach themselves something. They find a class or private tutor. And classes are insane--usually five days a week for a couple hours a day or once a week. There are rarely any options in between. Also the prevalence of private education academies seems related to this, so I think it has more to do with how they understand learning and education (requiring an expert scholar/teacher to learn). And they really respect teachers (even for hobby classes and whatnot) immensely. It's interesting.

    But a little frustrating if you want something more casual...

  3. Over-muscled? That's a new one...

  4. "...whereas when the Dallas Cowboys reveal midriffs, you're like, "damn, I think I just went a little gay." -HahaHA!!!

  5. Based on the little I know about eastern Asian culture, the "learning from an expert" thing makes sense. Now if I could only find a good course for non-professional furniture making! (I will soon be posting on Facebook photos of my first nice carpentry project.)



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