Fitness for Foreigners

How people exercise in China, Pakistan, Sudan, and Sweden.

See the rest of Slate’s Fitness Issue.

Omanis playing soccer on the beach

It’s badminton season in Bangladesh. With cooler temperatures and mild winds, the capital has sprouted hundreds of temporary courts —ragged nets or clotheslines strung between signposts, trees, or window bars. Cricket is the rage, but very few Bangladeshis go to the gym. Until recently, there were just a few high-end exercise clubs used by the wealthy. But growing awareness of the perils of obesity and diabetes has brought a small explosion of cheaper, smaller gyms that cater to young middle-class men. Of course, obesity is a concern for just a small minority of Bangladeshis. Most keep fit, or at least thin, through backbreaking labor and periodic food insecurity.Dan Morrison is the author of The Black Nile.

The latest fitness craze in Britain is the same fitness craze that’s obsessed Britons for some time. It’s eating. Yes, that’s right, eating, which is said to be the best overall workout any body can know—for the stomach, the gut, and just about every vital organ. Eating and cooking are everywhere; newspapers have become food supplements; cooks are the main news on television. Designer food, fast food, slow food, green food—wardrobe-sized fridges are packed with the stuff. That’s just how crazed this country has become. And just look at how amazingly fit we all are. 
—Inigo Thomas lives in London.

Though Western-style health clubs are gaining a foothold among Cambodia’s small middle class, most residents of Phnom Penh, the capital, still prefer to sweat it out al fresco. The current fitness trend is a form of open-air aerobics falling somewhere between a Richard Simmons video workout and “The Macarena.” Around sundown, portable sound systems are set up in the city’s public parks, where, for a 500-riel (12 cent) fee, bystanders can join in the impromptu exercises. To a soundtrack of the latest Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga hits, rows of enthusiastic men, women, and children perform a series of coordinated moves. Even the elderly get in on the fun, swinging their arms and nodding their heads to the beat. Compared to the disciplined self-flagellation of the city’s gym scene—where minor government officials pump iron, bodyguards at the ready with towels and water—there’s something to be said for letting it all hang out in public.
—Sebastian Strangio is a journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

In an effort to combat video-gamers’ anemia and other diseases of modest affluence, some Canadian municipalities are marrying the country’s passion for hockey with the traditional YMCA. Sherwood Park, the suburban hamlet in oil-rich Alberta where I grew up, built a massive fitness and community complex with twin ice rinks at its heart in 2001. The center has proved so popular that it’s already expanding, defying the decline in fitness elsewhere in the country. Participaction, the government program charged with inspiring Canadians to exercise, recently downgraded its minimum recommended level of activity because so few Canadians were meeting the existing standards.
—Jeremy Keehn, a former senior editor at the Walrus magazine, now lives in New York.

Chinese people are pretty skinny when compared with Americans, so exercise is more about socializing than about burning calories. Badminton and basketball are common street sports, and students perform daily group calisthenics. The parks are full of spry senior citizens who can be found practicing tai chi, walking backward, and vigorously slapping their arms, torso, and thighs (improving circulation, of course). Line dancing and ballroom dancing in parks are especially popular among women—the tinny blare of Communist folk tunes over a loudspeaker will always evoke summer evenings in the courtyard of my Beijing apartment.

Gym culture is still in its infancy, and many women take a dainty approach to exercise. At my Beijing gym, a session with the personal trainer involved a stroll on the treadmill, three-pound weights, and a lot of flirting. The workout usually ended with a leisurely shower and 15 minutes of gently patting moisturizer onto the face and body.
Michelle Tsai is a freelance writer traveling to Chinatowns on six continents.

Every Sunday morning, the Colombian capital’s principal roads are partially closed to cars to give free rein to cyclists, roller-bladers, and joggers. Tens of thousands of people enjoy the 120 kilometers of routes of the ciclovia that stretch across this sprawling city of 8 million. Since its founding 35 years ago, Bogotanos have been exploring their city’s different neighborhoods; the preening of the wealthy North, the enjoyable chaos of the South, and the vibrant street performances of the city center. It’s a source of immense pride that this program has been copied across much of Colombia and other cities around the world.
—Toby Muse is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker based in Colombia.

For the vast majority of urban dwellers in Egypt, exercise most likely comes in the form of a daily trek to the subsidized bread line. Approximately 40 percent of the country’s 80 million people live on around $2 a day. But despite the limitations, some segments of Egyptian society have adopted elements of America’s fitness craze. For those who can afford it, there are walled-in private clubs with swimming pools, tennis courts, and leafy members-only areas, mimicking the country’s colonial past. Today, the exclusivity of such historic private escapes is being reconstructed in the new luxury developments, dubbed satellite cities, cropping up outside of Cairo, where private gyms, squash courts, and golf courses advertise to tourists and wealthy elite alike.

The fitness craze has also made some inroads into Egypt’s poorer communities by way of weight lifting. Impromptu gyms with basic facilities have sprung up in lower-class neighborhoods, churning out beefy young men who look like they might bust out of their T-shirts at any time. In Cairo, Schwarzenegger-mania comes complete with copyright-infringed posters of everyone’s favorite former governor tacked up on rundown gym walls.
Sarah A. Topol is a journalist based in Cairo.

France has seen gyms and fitness clubs emerge in the last few years, though not in the quantity you find in the States. Cycling, walking, swimming, and running are still far more popular than weight training. The main reason French people practice sports is not to maintain their health (though that comes a very close second), nor their looks. Nope, according to a 2003 study, French people practice sports because they enjoy them. Should it come as a surprise, then, that ranked fourth in popularity were “p étanque and billiards“? Let’s overlook the French cliché of 1) including pétanque and billiards in a study about sports; and 2) having them reach the Top 5.

I don’t know about billiards, but pétanque is a sport that transcends age: As a kid, you learn to play on the beach using bright-colored balls. Teenagers and parents enjoy it throughout the summer. And pétanque is like a national sport for retirees. So, the next time someone tries to make you feel guilty about not going to the gym, crush them with your pointing and shooting skills, French-style.
Cécile Dehesdin is a writer for  based in Paris, France.

While American fitness freaks are looking to the east, and even Iran for ancient exercise inspirations, Iranians are going the other way, incorporating whatever works for Westerners—and Tehranis have definitely become gym crazy. As the city sulks under noxious pollution caused by low-quality gasoline—the latest result of punishing sanctions—residents that used to climb the mountains at the upper end of the capital to get a little fresh air while elevating their heart rate, have come inside, getting hooked on the latest workout trends. I asked a local friend who knows about such things, and she reported that, “yoga is off the hook in this country,” as is spinning.
—Jason Rezaian is a freelance writer based in Tehran.

“So,” I said, turning to Salim Al Shanfari. “My friend told me that you run marathons in the desert.” Al Shanfari nearly spit out his coffee and laughed. “I’ve never run in my life,” he finally sputtered and then fished a cigarette from the packet on the table. I knew it was too good to be true. Omanis just don’t really exercise. Men and boys play soccer, particularly when they are younger, but it’s more of a national pastime, like drinking afternoon tea—with a couple of lumps of sugar, of course. It’s rare to find women who regularly work out. In the capital of Muscat, but rarely in the villages, people sometimes walk through the neighborhoods in the evening, at a slow pace and usually only after being advised by their doctors to get fit. Health clubs are popping up in the bigger cities but are expensive by Omani standards and mostly attract young men. “If you think about how Americans exercise, how it’s part of their daily routine, that doesn’t exist here,” said Al Shanfari, an air traffic controller who doesn’t run marathons in the desert. “Sick people exercise to get healthy and people in the military [work out]. Normal people don’t exercise.”
—Jackie Spinner is a U.S. journalist based in the Middle East, where she is currently a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Oman.

No one would call Pakistan an oasis of fitness. Burqas, bombs, and blistering heat are not conducive to a leisurely jog. But there are ways—and following these rules might help. First, leave your humility at home. That shalwar kameez you see everyone wearing? It’s comfortable, but it might be the most unathletic attire ever created. Dare to wear short sleeves—shorts if you’re foolhardy—and be prepared for gawking, whistling, and the occasional cat call. Think of them as supporters. Second, pick up soccer and then befriend the Brits. They’ve been doing the whole “surviving while outstaying one’s welcome overseas” bit way longer than us. Tucked back on the high commission grounds in Islamabad when I lived there was a mini-replica of the Wembley field, complete with a rolled pitch, stadium lighting, and a pub within crawling distance. Third, bite the bullet and join one of two or three respectable gyms serving a country of 170 million. (Poor and desperate, we bartered my wife’s nutrition counseling in exchange for two memberships.) Finally, if none of those work, buy a jump rope. Sure, hopping around can get tedious. But you can do it out of public sight, and if you’re looking for an extra challenge, I hear jumping in a shalwar kameez is really tough. 
—Nicholas Schmidle is the author of To Live or To Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan.

In fitness, as in pretty much everything, Poland is a bizarre mix of cultures. A good chunk of the population belongs to the Franco-European school of fitness—walk a lot, but don’t do anything too strenuous—and many haven’t run or lifted a weight ever, really. On the other hand, I belong to a health club in Warsaw that is indistinguishable from any gym in any large American city. During the day, it’s filled with the same people—second wives, out-of-work-actresses, gay men—you would probably find in a New York gym, taking the same spin classes. There is a particularly good Pilates-plus-weight-training class and a solid core of male gym rats who stand around watching one another lift heavy objects.

At the moment, however, if you are really cutting-edge, you own horses. In the summer, you ride them in competitions. In the winter, you ride them in expensive indoor rings. In Poland, horses aren’t just for teenage girls: At least three fortysomething women of my acquaintance have recently taken up the sport; both boys and girls get sent to riding camps; and men ride, too. And if you don’t ride, you fence: Fencing classes are also proliferating like mad. I think it must be something to do with the legacy of the dueling cavalry officers who once upon a time dominated the social life of so many Polish cities.
—Anne Applebaum, a Slate columnist, is the author of Gulag.

I thought the “freshman 15” would be my last brush with alliterative weight gain, but then I moved to the capital of Qatar and learned about the “Doha dozen.” The country has a 40 percent obesity rate, and Qatari culture is seemingly averse to exercise—McDonald’s delivers here, and many favor driving their newest Beamer to the corner store instead of wearing out their Manolo Blahniks. I began a boot-camp fitness program popular with Western expats fighting the dozen, in which British trainers hurled incomprehensible cockney insults at me. Self-imposed misery is what separates us from the chimps.

Non-Western expats cope differently: Every weekend, there’s a pick-up cricket game that takes place in a construction lot by my house. On their only day off all week, the South Asian players, who usually labor on scaffolding for pennies, bat joyfully beneath steel girders for hours. Such games are common among the thousands of workers who fuel the boom economy—most come to Qatar without their families, and sport serves as a solace. On some natural-gas-processing plants, where workers live in encampments alongside Western engineers and managers, soccer leagues form out of a common sense of boredom. In the 115-degree desert temperatures, the ethnic hierarchies of the country melt away—leaving only the thrill of the pitch and the shared prospect of heat stroke.
—Clare Malone is a freelance writer based in Doha, Qatar.

The top floor of the shopping center near my office in central Moscow, Russia, was, until recently, occupied by a children’s club, or so they called it: ear-shattering music, mind-numbing games, and sorrow-drowning cocktails for the parents. It has now shut down, and a gym has opened in its place. I experience this as something of a personal victory. Though formally my contribution amounts only to buying a membership ($1,000 for the year, a bargain by Moscow standards), I feel I have helped bring this day closer by overcoming distance, expense, and, yes, stigma to attend a succession of Moscow gyms over the last 15 years. One of the first to open was Gold’s Gym, and I believe I was the only native Russian speaker among its members. Then a former competitive fencer, now married to a wealthy and influential politician, made it her mission to bring exercise to the Russian masses. Her health clubs were called World Class—and, truly, they were—and a year’s membership set one back around $3,000. Trophy girlfriends would spend entire afternoons flirting with their personal trainers before retiring to the tanning beds; at World Class, I was the only non-blonde. The former fencer persisted, opening clubs all over town. Copycats proliferated, and gradually possession of a gym membership became a status symbol akin to an iPhone. The middle class still smokes and drinks too much, but increasingly, it goes to the gym to work off its hangover. In the last few months, two different naked women have approached me in the locker room to discuss the news: I am clearly no longer alone at the gym.
Masha Gessen is editor of Snob magazine and

Nearly 17 years into South Africa’s democracy, sports and fitness are no longer resolutely divided along racial and ethnic lines. Soccer, by far the nation’s biggest sport, is now everywhere—from dirt fields of townships to five-a-side leagues in the suburbs. (And since last year’s successful hosting of the World Cup, stadium games are increasingly peppered with white fans blowing vuvuzelas.) Amateurs looking for exercise are trying other team sports, too. Cricket was once only revered (and understood) by South Africans of English or Indian descent, but a speedy version called “action cricket” draws new players, men and women, to after-work matches. While rugby is still best loved by thick-necked Afrikaners, anyone can join the scrum in pick-up games for fitness. For South Africans who prefer the air-conditioned gyms in urban centers, elites of all races can usually be found at an indoor cycling class. Spin, the beloved country.
—Gretchen L. Wilson is a freelance journalist based in Johannesburg.

A few months into living in Spain, I briefly joined a gym, more because it had a rooftop pool (a dream in the sweltering Madrid summer) then for working out. Better was its downstairs bar, where everyone went to drink and smoke after the elliptical. Then I found Karen Taft, a dance center on Chueca’s Calle Libertad. Founded by a Danish ballerina in 1949, Karen Taft has the appropriately crumbling, musty-footed smell of sweaty dance studios everywhere, a madeleine for dancers the world over; though here you are as likely to hear the insistent stamp of a flamenco class as the soothing strains of Tchaikovsky. I took Pilates and modern dance from Bárbara, an expat German who had come to Spain not to teach middling dancers choreography set to Fergalicious, but to become the Next Great Flamenco Star. Saturday morning classes were filled with hungover and aching would-be hip-hop stars complaining genially they’d only just gone to bed when they realized it was time for class. At 1 p.m.
Sarah Wildman is a visiting fellow at the International Reporting Project at Johns Hopkins SAIS.

I tried to go jogging in Juba, Sudan, once, and after receiving lots of odd looks and then putting my foot straight into a great big cow pat, I gave that up—which really just shows I’m not that committed to running. Since then, I’ve been reduced to a few sit-ups on the floor of my shipping container. (Yes, when in Juba, I live in a shipping container. There’s a distinct absence of light, but they can be transported flat, and they’re relatively cheap and structurally sturdy.) In Khartoum, though, it’s wonderful to take a brisk stroll at sunset on the banks of the Nile. Providing you don’t have a camera on you, the police posted along the way leave you alone. And as dusk falls, you see groups of friends who come out to sit on the banks and drink tea together. It’s a nice bit of escapism from the city crowds.
—Rebecca Hamilton is the author of Fighting for Darfur: Public Action and the Struggle To Stop Genocide.

With temperatures ranging between near zero and well below freezing for eight months of the year, the thought of exercising outdoors in Sweden may sound like folly. But in the last year, government-subsidized outdoor gyms have been popping up in parks and along running paths across the country as Swedes, accustomed to socialized everything, petitioned local politicians to make free exercise equipment accessible to all. One Swedish fitness magazine describes the benefits of the latest workout fad in terms that compulsively hygienic and appearance-conscious Swedes can understand: “You don’t need to exercise in a crowded room with sweaty people, and you don’t need to look good for the gym.” In September last year, Stockholm’s sports and culture minister, Madeleine Sjöstedt, inaugurated a new outdoor gym in Södermalm—one of the capital’s bobo neighborhoods—praising the complex as “a place that will enhance public health and appeal to people who don’t feel at home at the gym.” Some of the equipment sporty Swedes now access for free in the freezing open air include stretch apparatuses for two, pull-up bars, bench press machines, and back strengtheners.
Kristine Bergstrom is an editor at Bollywood news site

Fitness fans in Thailand take advantage of the low cost of labor, which keeps massage, classes, boot camps, and personal trainers reasonably priced. Pilates and yoga are popular, as are high-intensity Muay Thai (kickboxing) sessions. And the action is not all indoors. In spite of Bangkok’s air pollution, an active triathlon chapter and Hash House Harriers bike and race throughout the year, and Lumphini Park is crowded each morning with joggers getting in a few laps before the tropical sun becomes too intense. Crazes for miracle-promising gadgets like Power Plates and Ki Fit catch on quickly and are featured in high-end department stores, with knock-offs quickly following. Finally, the city’s notorious traffic congestion ensures that it’s quicker to walk from main arteries and public transportation, adding a bit of exercise to every errand.
—Cynthia Barnes returns to Bangkok frequently from her current home in Colorado.

Here in Istanbul, Turkey, where I swim laps at a university health club, time in the pool looks a little different than in New York: A pear-shaped boy prefers the deep end, where he sinks to the bottom, twirling slowly, floating gaily back to the surface to bob and splash. Then there are the two bronzed women who emerge from the locker room in flowery towels. Wearing the briefest of black bikinis, they slip long limbs into the far lane, dog-paddling daintily to and fro, painted toes barely pushing the water. In the center lane, a thick man in his 40s dives in, sending tremendous waves skating around. He swims furiously, nearly drowning us, his hairy arms thrashing. But two laps later, he’s standing in the shallow end, soaking, massaging his vast upper body, smiling. I smile back, then continue swimming, getting nowhere fast on another day far away from home.
Nathan Deuel is a writer based in Turkey and Iraq.

Live somewhere we didn’t cover? Know of a foreign fitness trend that we missed? Please post your observations about other countries’ exercise trends in the comment section below.

Also in Slate’s Fitness issue, Emily Yoffe gets shredded by Jillian Michaels and coddled by Jack LaLanne and our handy flowchart helps you navigate awkward, naked gym situations.

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