Of hula hoops and hearty push-ups


The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JILL HOCK­ING

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.

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