Fitness for Foreigners
How people exercise in China, Pakistan, Sudan, and Sweden.
See the rest of Slate's Fitness Issue.
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.
Photograph courtesy Jackie Spinner.