Of hula hoops and hearty push-ups
THE INCIDENTAL TOURIST
IN a clearing in the pine woods, I gaze at two elderly Korean women whirling giant plastic hoops around their waists. Nearby, a septuagenarian man gets his heart pumping on a step machine. Another does push-ups, his back as straight as a plank. After 15 minutes, the hulahooping women call to their husbands, hook the hoops to a peg on an oak tree and rejoin the hiking path in Bukhansan National Park, on the northern outskirts of Seoul.
The mountains of Bukhansan are alive with walkers of all ages on this mild midweek spring morning. Hikers clamber up rocky paths and heave themselves up rope ladders to reach Uiam, a peak with hazy views to an ocean of soaring concrete and glass. They spread picnic rugs by tumbling streams, take off their boots and hoe into rice, kimchi and savoury pancakes, before picking their way back down the mountain, laughing and chatting.
The next day, cherry trees are frothing blossom in Seoul’s Namsan Park. At dusk, I j oin a passeggiata Korean-style on the path to the North Seoul Tower. There are young men in suits, their girlfriends in floaty dresses; couples pushing prams; and families shepherding elderly relatives on walking sticks. A gaggle of powerwalking seniors flashes past, faces shaded by enormously long sun visors. Dotted around the park are fitness stations where locals put their backs into bench presses and elliptical trainers. On one machine, a man swings from side to side like a giant human windscreen wiper.
Exercising in the open air is part of everyday life here. I see hordes of Koreans walking for pleasure and exercising on outdoor gym equipment. Amid Yeongtong, a highrise satellite city an hour south of Seoul, a wooded hill is threaded with paths and crowned with gym equipment. Older women in pink and purple long-sleeved tops exercise silently. Young mothers lift weights as they take turns minding each other’s children. Teenage girls also multi- task, doing squats, giggling and capturing the moment, arms raised in a victory salute, on their smartphones.
A few days later in the southwest port city of Mokpo, I notice a taxi driver killing time. He does one-arm pushups against his taxi and then goes all out at the fitness station set in the wide concrete footpath. On the island of Jeju, I follow an old man up the steep stone steps to Mang Oreum, an extinct volcano. At the top, he lays down his trekking poles and stretches his hamstrings on the exercise equipment. (This, I decide, is the Korean approach to fitness — you bust a gut climbing the mountain, then work out some more at the top.)
The benefits are plain to see. Koreans appear fit, healthy and toned. Even in restaurants, elderly people sit cross-legged on the floor, their backs ramrod-straight. So while South Korea might be better known just now for the giddy-up dance craze of Gangnam Style, when I think gyrations I conjure up the hula-hooping grannies in the pine woods. They could well have the secret to living to a ripe and healthy old age.