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How Koreans try to stay fit with gyms shut

Indoor gyms in Seoul have been ordered to close until Jan. 17. (Yonhap)
Indoor gyms in Seoul have been ordered to close until Jan. 17. (Yonhap)

For the gym rats and the casual gymgoers alike, last year was a frustrating one with fitness centers going back and forth between closing, reopening and operating for limited hours depending on the social distancing level in place. And this year might see more of the same.

The latest gym closures, which went into effect Dec. 8 and is scheduled to continue until Jan. 17, has been the longest shutdown so far. In the meantime, people are finding alternative ways to exercise without hitting the gym.

One alternative people discovered was to head to public, outdoor “gyms” located in parks and mountains alongside hiking trails. Most of these workout stations, run by the government, have gym equipment that are outdated, although some spots do offer newer and better maintained equipment.

Before the pandemic, these locations were mostly used by elderly citizens in the neighborhood, but as gyms shuttered, younger people have been willing to compromise and make use of these outdoor facilities.

“I used to work out in indoor gyms during the weekdays and came to the mountain to exercise on the weekends. But as social distancing levels were raised to 2.5 and gyms closed, I now come to the mountain every day and exercise with these simple equipment,” said Hong Sang-young, 39, from Seoul.

“I try to work out when there is the least number of people, like in the early mornings or late afternoon,“ said Hong, who noted a surge of people in their 20s and 30s joining him since the Level 2.5 distancing, the second highest in the country‘s five-tier COVID-19 alert system was implemented. ”It isn’t as crowded as the indoor gym where I sometimes had to wait to use an equipment, but there are about five to 10 people on average,” Hong said.

Hong, however, was worried about some people who do not wear masks while exercising because the facilities are outdoors.

Scenes of packed, popular outdoor workout stations in parks have prompted the government to cordon them off as a precautionary measure.

Another alternative that people have found, one that is especially attractive in the cold winter months, is working out at home. Working out while watching YouTube videos has become more widespread during the pandemic, but some people have taken it to a whole new level, by setting up their own mini home gyms.
Home-gym (Courtesy of Lee Chan-hee)
Home-gym (Courtesy of Lee Chan-hee)

Sales of exercise equipment have thrived in the COVID-19 pandemic. Purchases of stationary bikes surged by 86 percent, while sales of push-up bars shot up 82 percent in December compared to same period last year, according to e-commerce website Gmarket. Sales of treadmills also jumped 72 percent and sales of dumbbells climbed 70 percent.

Some who set up their own home gyms have even put up daily passes for sale on a used-goods website, hoping to lure customers. The practice is illegal because commercial gyms require premises to be registered as an official sports facility. However, the demand for home gyms is there – people have posted online hoping to search for home gyms they could use for a fee.

Another service that is attracting more attention than ever is hiring personal trainers to come to homes instead to conduct workout sessions, also known as a “visit PT”.

While the visit PT market has been around for at least seven years, it has largely been an exclusive service for those who were willing to shell out anywhere between 200,000 won to 300,000 won per session, according to a trainer who has given such lessons. With COVID-19 forcing gyms to close, the visit PT market has grown exponentially.

“Before the daily number of people who tested positive for the coronavirus went over 1,000, the number of people who signed up for visit PT increased by 20 percent each month last year,” said Pyun Mu-song, CEO of Fit Delivery, a company that specializes in visit PT. “The membership renewal rate was at around 70 percent.”

“Over 80 percent of our customers are women, with most of them housewives above the age of 30. The most popular times for training are in the afternoon before their husbands return from work and after-work hours when many train with their husbands,” Pyun said.

One reason why visit PT is more popular amongst female customers is because it mostly involves exercises that can be done without equipment or with resistance bands for weight loss, he said.

Despite the limitations visit PT has with the lack of proper equipment, as workouts can go on unaffected by the back-and-forth changes to social distancing levels has led many to turn to visit PT. For more conscious or shy beginners, the convenience of exercising at home with a personal trainer without worrying about the gazes of other gymgoers has also been another bonus.

“Nowadays, people who give visit PT a try because they can’t go to gyms are increasing,” Pyun said.

For those looking for more varied workouts, there are visit PT services that rent out simple equipment to those who sign up for personal training at home.

Other ways of working out at home include using virtual reality goggles and game consoles to make breaking a sweat more fun and dynamic.

While home workouts may be here to stay in the near future, over 214,000 people having signed a petition on the Cheong Wa Dae website, demanding gyms to reopen.

By Lim Jang-won (ljw@heraldcorp.com)
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