Seeing, being seen and working outGraphic designer Oh Joo-yeon works out at California Fitness Center in Apgujeong-dong, but prefers the “women-only” area on the fourth floor. In other parts of the gym, she doesn’t like the ambience.
“Sometimes, the atmosphere of the place feels like it exists for people who want to show off their shape, not for people who are trying to get fit,” said Ms. Oh, 31.
“Many of them are very conscious of how they look inside the gym,” she said. “They are very well dressed, some of them with full makeup on.”
In the last few years, new gyms have sprung up by the thousands in Korea. According to a recent report from the National Statistical Office, the number of gyms in the country jumped from 15,000 in 2000 to 19,000 in 2002 (the last year for which numbers are available).
The trend is particularly noticable in the swankier parts of Seoul. Since California Fitness Center, one of Asia’s biggest fitness chains, opened branches in Myeong-dong and Apgujeong-dong in 2000, a series of health and fitness clubs have been launched in some of the city’s trendiest districts.
Bally Total Fitness, which has 420 branches in the United States and Canada, opened in Seoul two years ago, at Gangnam Station; membership at that branch is now over 3,000. Bally has two other health clubs in Busan and Daegu.
Gyms aren’t new to Korea. In the past, however, they have been used largely by people with a specific interest in bodybuilding. There were also larger sports centers or hotel fitness clubs, with higher membership fees, but people who exercised at gyms on a regular basis were few in number.
But as younger Koreans have become more interested in a healthier lifestyle ― or, to use the inescapable term, “well being” ― going to gyms has gained social cachet. And some gyms seem to have more cachet than others.
A staffer at California Fitness Center, whose total Korea membership exceeds 14,000, says only 60 to 70 percent of the members of its Apgujeong-dong branch live or work nearby. The rest, she says, come to the gym from neighborhoods throughout the city.
“Some of our members come from places as far as Incheon or Ilsan in Gyeonggi province,” said the staffer. “Some of them are active bodybuilders. But mostly they just enjoy exercising here.”
Ahn Seung-mi, a 26-year-old office worker, is one of them. Ms. Ahn, who became a member two months ago, lives and works near Jangchung-dong in northern Seoul, but doesn’t mind taking the subway to exercise in Apgujeong-dong.
“I’ve worked out in neighborhood gyms before,” she said. “But I like it here better. It plays better music. In smaller gyms, I became more conscious of other people, because there were fewer people working out.”
“It stimulates you to push harder to see so many people at the gym,” says Janet Han, a banker from Canada who was a member at California Fitness Club in Apgujeong-dong before she moved back to Vancouver. “Most trainers are my age. They know what kind of look you want for your body before you even say. Among gyopos, it’s also where you can meet other expatriates.”
Some of the clubs in Seoul’s business districts openly promote themselves as social spots, not mere training facilities. In Teheran Valley, the center of the dot-com industry in southern Seoul, the gym Sangrie’s online mission statement says that “the future model of a fitness club for leaders should provide a new social scene,” and suggests the gym as a place for industry professionals to “rest and recharge.”
SFC Fitness at Seoul Finance Center in Gwanghwamun, which charges an annual fee of 2 million won to use facilities including a health club, sauna, lounge and indoor driving range, has similar aspirations. “The surroundings of the place just naturally allow our members to build acquaintanceships,” says a staffer. “We just facilitate the atmosphere.”
At SFC Fitness, some members join clubs that regularly meet outside the gym. The center also arranges annual marathons for its members. Members of the California Fitness Club in Myeong-dong and Apgujeong-dong have formed online clubs at Daum, an Internet portal site, with membership totaling about 4,700.
Certainly, the new fitness clubs make efforts to meet the expectations of their more affluent clientele. For one thing, they have the look down; some of their interiors are designed by some of the country’s most prominent architects.
A hallway at Sangrie has elaborate iron decor meant to resemble a forest setting, and furniture in the lobby and the lounge is shaped like butterflies and stars. The front facades of the California Fitness Center gyms consist of floor-to-ceiling glass windows.
Other gyms use celebrities to try to attract members. California Fitness Center’s Apgujeong-dong location has framed photos of members (and well-known actors) Kim Ho-jin and Kim Jeong-eun in its lobby. There seems to be a fair amount of secrecy involved in fitness clubs’ celebrity marketing, but according to an industry insider, some clubs catering to younger Koreans have deals with entertainment management agencies in which the agencies’ clients get free memberships.
“It’s a mutual exchange for club owners and stars,” says Cho Hee-ryeong, staffer at a fitness club in Gangnam. “It’s true that clubs benefit from entertainers working out in the same gym as ordinary members.
“But for the stars as well, these gyms are a convenient place to work out, because the majority of members in major clubs don’t stare at celebrities like they do in neighborhood gyms. A lot of them work in advertising, entertainment and media. They are used to seeing celebrities.”
One factor that seems to be driving the gym trend, at least among men, is a change in the Korean notion of the ideal male body image. Lee Gi-chul, a professor of physical education at Korea University, says the increasing popularity of the muscular male image in the media ― as opposed to a tall, slim figure ― has lured many Korean men to gyms.
“Some of our older members are in it for other reasons,” says Yu Hee-sung, a marketing manager for Star Tower Fitness in the Star Tower building in Yeoksam-dong, southern Seoul. “But most of our male members in their 30s and 40s tend to join to bulk up their muscles. Interest in a muscular body has definitely risen within the past few years.”
A staffer at California Fitness Center in Apgujeong-dong says a growing number of married couples have been joining together, often at the wife’s instigation.
“Many women drag their husbands to the clubs to work out together,” she said. “They even make specific requests to their trainers to guide their partners to shape their bodies like certain celebrities.” (Some of the male celebrities who have become models of the muscular type among Koreans include Gwon Sang-woo and Bi.)
Mr. Lee, the physical education professor, agrees that the gym fad has a great deal to do with interest in looks.
“But you still can’t say it’s a culture practiced by a wide range of the public,” he said. “It mainly targets people who can afford to spend that much money and time on leisure activities, and for most average Koreans, it is still not an easy thing to pursue.”
by Park Soo-mee