Thursday, March 1, 2012

Work it out

I'm going to be honest with you, the gym situation in China is strange. I've had my fair share of culture shock in the past month, but going to the gym in Shanghai is totally unlike the gym in the US.

We have a small gym located on the first floor of our apartment building. This makes it easy to grab a quick 3 mile run in the morning or to do some simple weight lifting. Most of the time, we stick to this gym because it is convenient and suites most of our needs. But when we are in need of additional equipment or group classes, we head across the street to the Spartan Club. And that ladies and gentlemen, is where things get strange.

Last Monday, I took a pilates class. Despite the card which said the instructor was named Stephanie, she was clearly Chinese and spoke no English. That's not entirely true. She knew the word no and for an hour and a half, said it often while pointing at me. As a side note, no one uses their real names here. People often have an English name and Chinese name. So don't let names fool you into thinking the person is Western, because chances are, they have no idea what name they were given by their employer for Westerners to use when addressing them. Anyhow, back to pilates. Most fitness instructors are not certified in China. Anyone can teach a class, so I wasn't entirely sure what I had signed up for. Thankfully, it was a great class and I got a nice workout. The funny part was that I was the only person in workout clothing. The girl next to me had on a dress and tights. The person to my left wore a long winter coat during the entire class, fur trimmed hood and all. While pilates is by no means a sweaty sport, I was a little surprised to find people in their everyday clothing. But as I walked through the gym, I realized that hardly anyone is dressed in what we would consider to be gym clothing. There was an elderly woman sporting three heavy sweaters and dress pants walking on a treadmill, a girl wearing a jumper and Uggs on the stationary bike, and my personal favorite, a woman decked out in acid washed jeans and high heels taking Zumba.

This trend continued when Matthew and I headed to a cycling class last night. Once again, the instructor spoke little English yet could sing along perfectly to the many Britney Spears songs he played during class. The woman on the bike next to us wore a pair of bib overall snow pants during the entire class. I was a sweaty mess in a t-shirt and bike shorts and cannot fathom how she did not pass out or overheat by the end of the class. Another man had on jeans and a pair of combat looking boots. As if we don't already get enough stares just for being Westerners in a mainly Chinese gym, our workout clothing surely sets us apart.

The other strange thing about the gym is the locker rooms. Clipping your toenails in the sink while completely naked is totally normal here. And while I have no personal knowledge of this, apparently the hand dryers in the men's locker room get a whole lot of use by males drying off their nether regions. Don't worry though, the locker rooms aren't entirely disgusting. There are numerous signs stating that "No Spitting" is allowed.


  1. I've noticed asian people using the gym in what I would consider non-gym clothes! (when we lived closer to DC and thus had a more diverse population around us) I wasn't sure if it was a cultural thing or laziness. Good to know!

  2. I think you should embrace this. See what the most extreme workout outfit you can wear is without someone actually stopping you to question it. Did you pack your rollerblades?

  3. This is cultural, not laziness. For many of these people, just joining the gym is a big expense so the idea of spending more money on clothing that you will only wear at the gym is not common practice. Working out and taking classes are not fashion opportunities here ( yet) which is an aspect I really like. You can wear whatever you like, is comfortable, handy or clean and noone cares. The gym I go to has many of the same things happening in the ladies locker room, but you'll get used to it after a while. I'm at the point now that after my class, I strip down with them and join them in the sauna! These woman have a sense of camaraderie I've never experienced before and the only way to be a part of that is to not be afraid to join in!

  4. I seriously loved reading your description of the workout atmosphere in China. It finally explains the Asians I used to see walk-jogging around the track at Rec Hall in jeans and loafers. Love it. I agree with Matt that you should totally embrace this. You currently have the opportunity to do things many of us would consider "crazy" and the beauty is that none of your friends will see you:) How cool.

  5. I realize I should have used the word different, not strange when I wrote this post, because strange makes it seem as if I am implying that what I saw was wrong and that certainly wasn't my intention. Most things here are certainly not better or worse than in the US, just very different. I honestly envy most of the women here, who have the confidence to strut around with little on or in totally over the top outfits. I've always been to self conscious for that.

  6. Wow! What an experience, Kristin! I can't wait to hear about more of your experiences.

  7. I totally just read this and completely laughed out loud in the office. This just made my day...and made me think that maybe I would get a better workout if I wore some bib overrall snowpants to my spin class!

  8. Hi, I was sent here through another blog, and have just started reading your blog (hoping to catch up by the weekend. Anyway, I'm currently looking for work in China and hope to move by the spring. I'm so glad you posted this because I've read quite a few blogs and no one has commented on the gym situation. I'm a huge yoga/spinning person. This sounds pretty funny, but good to know before I find myself wondering what's going on. Best of luck!

    1. There are numerous gyms in Shanghai to choose from, some are local and others are more international gyms. I currently teach at a spin studio that is owned by expats and runs much like the gyms you are probably used to frequenting. The gym I described above was a local gym and was just different than I was used to. I do attend a local yoga studio and have found it to be similar to the one I attended in the States.


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