Spacing correspondent Megan Hall is in Beijing this summer. Over the next few weeks, she will be sharing her observations of China’s capital as it prepares to welcome the world to the 2008 Olympic games in August.
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BEIJING — Beijing’s parks must be some of the busiest in the world. They range in size from small corners of housing complexes to large, immaculately landscaped gardens. At any hour of the day they are packed with groups playing Chinese chess or cards, or elderly people sitting while their birds sing in cages on nearby tree branches.
A reasonably new feature of many of these public spaces is public exercise equipment. As well used as the benches and ping-pong tables, brightly coloured manual machines huddle on the edges of many parks, each designed to provide a slight workout to a specific part of the body. Despite the lack of instructions, Beijingers seem to have learned how each machine works, and although Beijing’s parks seem to be used mostly by the elderly population, the machines attract all age groups.
Beijing Shining Star Sports Equipment claims to provide most of the exercise equipment in the capital and, like many companies in China providing for the home market, they are very proud of their products. Their website boasts that the equipment â€œbrings a new lifestyleâ€ and â€œenables people to do outdoor exercises while enjoying sunshine and fresh airâ€. According to some locals I spoke to, the installation of most of the equipment began in 2001 when the government began pouring money into the hutongs for general repairs and improvements. And although many elderly Beijingers already practice daily exercises that consist of yoga or tai chi, the machines seem to have worked their way into their health routines.
Although the equipment is not hooked up to a power source and doesn’t adjust to fit every person individually, it uses creative designs to simulate high-end exercise machines found in most private gyms. A manual treadmill, for instance, is made of dozens of hollow metal rods on an incline that spin when you step on them, allowing those who use it to run as they would on a motorized treadmill. The creative designs make for funny-looking equipment so that in clusters the equipment resembles an adult playground more than a room at the local fitness club. At any time of day, however, someone is invariably using them. Their popularity picks up drastically after the dinner hour at about seven o’clock. In many neighbourhoods, it’s not uncommon to see every piece of equipment being used as most people live just down the street from their local parks. For those who don’t, there is usually exercise equipment available on sections of local sidewalks.
Compared to private gyms that require memberships to join, this public fitness equipment provides the opportunity for physical activity that’s accessible to everyone while at the same time helping to animate Beijing’s urban landscape.