Fitness for foreigners: How people exercise in China, Pakistan, Sudan, and Sweden.

The business, culture, and science of working out.
Jan. 19 2011 11:17 AM

Fitness for Foreigners

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

See the rest of Slate's Fitness Issue.

(Continued from Page 1)

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 Slate.fr  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.

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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 www.snob.ru.

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.

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