As more Vietnamese swap country life for the big city, physical fitness is falling by the wayside. By Dana Filek-Gibson. Photos by Nguyen Nguyen.

It’s early morning at Tao Dan Park, and a group of women are congregating around their aerobics instructor, a squat lady with a microphone. Some are working hard, bouncing up and down to the techno beat — but most are halfhearted, staring off into space or stopping to rest on the park benches.

That’s the problem with local attitudes towards fitness. People might be willing to give work-outs a try, but only until the first bead of sweat appears.

Vietnamese physical fitness As more Vietnamese swap country life for the big city, physical fitness is falling by the waysideTo be fair, exercise is not something most Vietnamese have had to think about until recently. Even today, a farmer in the countryside logs more than enough hours tending crops to stay fit. But as a growing number of people trade rice paddies and coffee farms for factories and office buildings, the separation of work and exercise has raised a new question among many urban Vietnamese: If physical fitness is no longer a job requirement, how does it fit into one’s daily life?

Nguyen Bao, a personal trainer affiliated with Star Fitness and the Saigon Personal Trainers Network, concedes that for many of his fellow countrymen, exercise does not rank high on their list of priorities. More concerned with food, shelter and employment, many view physical activity as a leisurely pursuit rather than a form of preventative medicine.

“Vietnamese think that health is hospital,” Bao says. “When you have sickness or pain, you go to hospital and the doctors will give you health. Going to the gym is to help you stay away from hospital, but Vietnamese people don’t know that. They think the gym is something for sport.”

But that mentality could have adverse effects on public health. According to a 2009-10 survey by the World Health Organisation, 28.7 percent of Vietnamese adults nationwide are physically inactive, the large majority of them concentrated around urban areas like Hanoi, Hue and Ho Chi Minh City. Combined with even minimal changes in diet — let alone the introduction of fast food chains like Burger King and KFC — this lack of exercise has caused the number of people suffering from conditions like hypertension and obesity to escalate. The WHO estimates as many as two million Vietnamese suffer from type 2 diabetes, with more than half of them undiagnosed and possibly even unaware of their condition.

Schools do little to help. Physical education classes are lackluster at best and space in local schools is limited. As Bao remembers it, his gym teacher was “only focused on the result”, meaning that naturally athletic students were praised for their abilities while the rest were encouraged to simply try harder. The idea of treating physical fitness as part of a healthy lifestyle was never even discussed.

As such, the challenge now falls on Bao and his peers to change the thinking and lifestyles of the local population. While he rarely works with younger Vietnamese clients, Bao has seen a growing number of middle-aged locals get into fitness training, often at the behest of a doctor. He also says there is a noticeable difference in the approach of local trainees versus their foreign counterparts.

“Vietnamese people [exercise] to lose weight or … because they had a heart attack or something,” he says. “But with foreigners I see a difference. Most of my clients want to push themselves to maximize their energy. If [foreigners] have an appointment, they commit. Vietnamese people, they [make an] appointment with you and say, ‘I’m tired’ or something and cancel.”

The same problem holds true for Nguyen Thanh Tu, the manager of sales at GetFit Gym and Yoga, one of the largest fitness centres in the city. Unlike Bao’s clientele, the majority of GetFit’s members were born in 1985 or later, making them a younger demographic. Tu says they know they need to get in shape; how to do it is another question.

“A lot of Vietnamese people now, they come and they don’t know how to exercise,” Tu says.

Roughly a third of GetFit’s 3,000 members make use of its personal training services to guide their exercise routines. But for every 10 appointments the gym makes, only three clients actually show up. Even on a good day, no more than 800 people will pass through GetFit’s doors, a fraction of its actual membership. According to Tu, some 10 percent of memberships sold are never even used, but simply paid for and left at the front desk.

“We really have to work to get people coming in,” he says.

And they do. To sign people up, the gym tries everything from telemarketing to iPad giveaways. Clearly, with GetFit’s sheer numbers, the methods are working. But what the gym is selling is not entirely about fitness. Membership affords people another space in which to see and be seen

But Tu says just getting people in the door at all is a good thing. Despite all the fair-weather members he meets, there are also a select few whose lives have been drastically improved by getting fit. On Teacher’s Day last year, he received a phone call from one of the gym’s older members, a man who had begun exercising under doctor’s orders and had managed to change his health for the better. Tu still believes there is a long way to go, but he saw this small thank-you as proof that all the cold calls and discounts are slowly but surely making an impact.