I walked into gymnastics class in Penang, Malaysia ready to put on a performance of handstands, cartwheels, and somersaults — my five year old self reincarnated. For the past week, I’d been on an eating craze, ferociously trying all of the best vegetarian foods in Penang. With each serving of kaya toast, I felt my arm muscles deteriorate and figured I’d better do something active before my biceps turned to butter. Hence, signing up for classes at the crossfit gym at The Underdogs Strength & Conditioning Gym in George Town, Penang.
The gym is well away from the center of town, to the point where my cab driver seriously questioned what business I had in a random building that looked empty from the outside. When I told him it was a gym, he gave me a look of disbelief and quickly sped away as soon as I shut the door.
I walked into the gym and a coach greeted me with a big smile.
“Today, we’re doing a gymnastics test,” the coach told me.
“A test?” I asked.
“Yes, we’ll be doing a series of exercises, timing them, and then you can record your results. The goal is to get better and better each time you test by training in between,” she told me.
Six other Malaysians joined the class. Each of their bodies were chiseled in their own special way. Six packs showed through their shirts and Dictionary.com couldn’t find a better definition of quads. I told the group sheepishly that while I hit the gym a few days per week, I hadn’t done gymnastics since I was a kid.
Then, the test began. It started with chin-ups and was followed by pull-ups, hollow planks, a tuck-hold, and middle splits. On some of the activities, we took turns. The group cheered me on and took my picture — but were confused on why I joined such a random class. After I’d survived the “test,” a few of the gymnasts asked me where I came from, how long I was here, and started telling me their favorite things to do around Penang.
For that hour, it felt like I’d embedded myself into a part of the community that is so mundane yet says so much about daily life of a handful of people who live in Penang (Penangites?).
Over the next few days, I joined a variety of other fitness classes I could find during my travels. I joined a crossfit class, a weight lifting course, F45, and briefly entertained the idea of joining a pole dancing class in Singapore. At each of them, fellow course mates felt a keen sense of duty to ensure I was doing the exercises correctly — and they always made sure I had a way to get home safely. Partner workouts are common in group classes, creating an easy way to get to know someone new in just a short amount of time. As a solo traveler, this small bit of connection helps stave away any sense of loneliness.
Exercising as a group is something that nearly every community does in some sense. Come sunset, many parks all over Southeast Asia are packed with group fitness classes doing Zumba, tai chi, circuit training, calisthenics — all activities that are cheap to participate in and adaptable to every fitness level. Yoga centers and group cardio classes are a gym staple all around the globe.
The next time you want to experience a destination as a local would — especially in a large town or city — why not head to the gym? It’s something that rarely graces the best-things-to-do-lists but is sure to leave you with better biceps and fun memory.