It was a nondescript afternoon in late May. I trudged home, despondent. My day's mission – to find a gym to work off the winter flab – had been fruitless. The gyms I had visited fell into two categories: lush, zen, expensive, air-conditioned affairs with monthly prices only marginally less than my salary, and dingy basements populated by bare-torsoed Asian hardmen with snake tattoos and menacing eyes. Thus, I resigned myself to a summer of untoned thighs and bingo wings. That was until I entered my housing complex and noticed a spry old man using one of the public exercise contraptions at the base of my apartment block. He had worked up quite a sweat, and his cheeks were flushed. A cartoon light bulb illuminated above my head. Why not use these completely free gym devices to design my own fitness regime? A couple of laps jogging around the complex, using all the equipment I came to – for a month, to see how it compared to my old gym regime back in England. So I began.
My first task was to scour the housing complex in search of all the equipment. The estate where I live has 66 building – pretty massive even by Shanghai standards – so I was hopeful that the range of exercise devices would be wide. I was right. I found no less than ten separate exercise pavilions, each with various devices. The ones I chose for my workout were the ones which looked most interesting and beneficial. Here they are. (Disclaimer: I'm neither a fitness instructor nor a physiologist, so my terminology will not be medical…)
The 'Pull Down'
You see these everywhere around Shanghai and it's very popular. In most parks and city green spaces you'll spot locals working out on these. The 'Pull Down' is based on the same principle as the lat machine in gyms. It works out the back muscles and biceps as you pull the two wires down one by one, causing the little wheels to spin.
Another popular one, the 'Twister' seems to have little rhyme or reason aside from stretching your side muscles. It isn't the most flattering of actions – lurching your body from left to right – but it does leave you feeling toned.
The 'Leg Lift'
The 'Leg Lift' reminds me of the calf machines you find in gyms – the ones where you either position your lower legs above or below the bars and lift accordingly, stretching the calf.
The 'Leg Swinger'
This is my personal favourite, and I often stay on it longer than my designated six minutes. There's something about the swinging action that makes me feel, rather childishly, as if I'm striding on air.
The Upright Bike
Not a bike in the normal sense of the word, i.e. you don't pedal. Instead you kind of haul yourself up, pivoting on your knees and pulling the handles towards yourself. It works the lower arms and thighs.
The Foot Disc
The correct usage of this bad boy is anyone's guess. I've never witnessed anyone
working out on it, so I have no idea of what it was originally designed for. It looks like a
big yellow steering wheel, but the position of the chair makes it clear that it's meant for the feet. I use it precisely the way you'd drive a car with your feet (not that you ever would, presumably…) but the benefits aren't clear.
Like the arc trainers and ski machines you find in gyms. This is the most professional looking of all the outdoor exercise devices in my housing complex, but is rarely used and always available, thanks to its being tucked away in a shady bamboo grove. It's a good all-round workout for arms, legs, and abs.
Training in my own back yard has been fun and valuable both socially and health-wise. Over the month I've got to know a few neighbours and security guards, and I definitely feel some benefits to my physique. The exercise devices lack the weights and traction of gym equipment, so I haven't developed the muscle tone I would have gained using a traditional gym. Another factor is the weather. While exercising in the fresh air is good in theory, in practise it's rather a different story, as Shanghai's air isn't exactly fresh. And summer is coming, so it's been boiling hot and/or stormy. On rainy days I either had to brave the tropical wetness and thunder (and horrified glances of my neighbours) or forgo my workout in favour of staying dry indoors.
Now my month of research is over, I plan on still using the free equipment. It's free, and any exercise is better than none. So give your local exercise machines a go, and you might end up saving on gym subscriptions.
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