Norwegians: Fitness Fanatics

March 1, 2015.  When we first began considering the move to Norway, I asked a Ukrainian colleague about how she’d characterize the country.  “I think most places have a national obsession,” she said.  “For the French, it’s food.  For Americans, it celebrities and money.  For Norwegians, it’s fitness.  They’re mad for fitness.  Exercise, exercise, exercise all the time, no matter the season.”

A white-haired couple in their 70s dismounts their bikes after a studded-tire ride along an icy forest path.

And after living here for a few months, I’d say she’s spot on.  In the winter, lots of people cross-country ski several times a week, often leaving work early after a fresh snowfall to enjoy Oslo’s lighted trails.  Ice rinks by the dozens host throngs of kids and adults who enjoy figure skating, speed skating, hockey, and curling (yep, it’s not just big in Canada.)  Many folks have giant studded snow tires on their bicycles so that they can ride the streets and forest paths no matter how slick.  And I’ve seen loads of runners racing over the ice wearing cleated track shoes — or training barefooted.

To stop yourself on ski-skates, you must either “snowplow” or have your skis and poles equipped with “handbrakes.”

When there’s no snow, or during the summer, folks use skis on skates.  Sailing and swimming are of course huge here, but perhaps the most common Norwegian summer sport is hiking.  Entire families — from the quite young to the very old — take week-long trips over the rugged mountains, backpacking from cabin to cabin along specific routes deemed essential hikes for those desiring to be “true Norwegians.”  Apparently some families even travel these trails in winter using snowshoes and cross-country skis!

I get why exercise is so popular here.  It’s critical to physical health and mental wellbeing when there’s so little sunlight during the winter.  Before we moved, I asked a psychiatrist friend of mind what he’d recommend that I do to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a big problem in Scandinavia that contributes to the high incidence of alcoholism.  “Omega 3 fatty fish several times a week, a SAD light, social gatherings with friends, and an hour of aerobic exercise five times a week” was his reply —  which is the typical regimen for most Norwegians.  (In fact, many people somehow manage to squeeze in two hours of exercise per day.)

So after a few weeks in Oslo, Matthew and I joined SATS Elixia, a Scandinavian chain of health clubs.  The front-desk clerk politely explained the complex procedure for taking classes:  “You sign in online, select the class you’re interested in, and book each session up to ten days in advance.  If the class is already fully booked, you’ll be put on a waiting list.  If a spot in the class opens up, you’ll get an email.  If something happens and you can’t make the class, you must cancel no later than an hour prior.  If you forget to cancel and don’t show up three times within a 30-day period, you can’t take any classes for a month.”  Ouch.  Talk about a hard-core gym policy.

Gym members have to swipe in with their card at the front door, then swipe in again at a kiosk to get a “ticket” that the instructor collects at the beginning of class.

Feeling a bit daunted, I signed up for my weightlifting class as legislated, and showed up about five minutes early.  The desk clerk again matter-of-factly informed me: “You’re late.  You must show up ten minutes before class, or we’ll give your spot away to someone on the waiting list.  Lucky for you, no one else has shown up yet.  Remember this for the future.”  Then she handed me a slip of paper that I had to give to the teacher in order to participate.  Yep, just like at the butcher shop, ski shop, bank, pharmacy, movie theater, and everything else in Norway, you get a numbered ticket in order to take a gym class — even after signing up weeks beforehand.  Go figure.

Handy bins to pick up “nye skoposer” (“new shoe bags”) and deposit “brukte skoposer” (“used shoe bags”) — plastic booties to cover your street shoes until you can change into gym shoes.

As I walked further into the lobby, the desk clerk reminded me to put plastic booties on over my street shoes until I had a chance to change into something else.  (Thank God I’d brought an extra pair of running shoes in my gym bag.)  So that I’d be sure not to track in the messy Norwegian weather, a handy booty dispenser sat in front of the velvet rope blocking the red-carpeted pathway into the exercise rooms.  I began to wonder if I’d made a wrong turn and somehow ended up in a Designer Showcase Home rather than a gym.

After changing my shoes, I tiptoed into class and rapidly realized that I wasn’t wearing “the uniform.”  At least seven people sported black leggings with a big white “2XU” on the right thigh and a smaller one on the left calf.  For tops, pink was clearly the color of the day for women.  I know Scandinavians are into conformity, but the stares I got with my non-standard-issue, kaleidoscope tights and flowered top were pretty comical.  Folks gave me a wide berth, as if my “maverick” outfit might indicate mental instability.

X marks the spot
Some manufacturer made a fortune in Norway selling these “X-marks-the-spot” compression leggings, which everyone wears for working out.  I’m told they feature different designs for different types of activities, but one friend notes, “girls like them because they lift your ‘rumpe’ (which means ‘butt’ in Norwegian.)

The teacher soon came in and began a long explanation in Norwegian of class techniques.  Fortunately, I’ve taken versions of this “BODY PUMP™” class three times a week for the last fifteen years, so I wasn’t really worried about not being able to follow along in a foreign language.  But what did surprise me was the number of people in class.  The tiny room was filled to capacity (around 40 people) — more than I’d ever seen during my sessions back home at Bally’s/LA Fitness.  And the age range was huge, from several twenty-somethings to folks way up into their 70s.

That’s one thing I’ve really noticed here:  people of markedly different ages are perfectly comfortable spending recreational time together.  Most bars and restaurants harbor people of all different ages; locales aren’t particularly segregated into “that’s the place where only the young hipsters hang out.”  You’ll see lots of fashion-conscious middle aged and elderly folks drinking at posh clubs, and no one gives them a pitying glance as if the old timers are sadly trying to recapture their youth.  I personally love it and it gives me hope that life isn’t over at 50 — if you live in Europe.

Anyway, back to BODY PUMP™.  As I mentioned, I’ve been doing this for years now, and consequently I’m often the person lifting the heaviest weights in my U.S. class.  But here in Norway, I was a “puny weakling” in comparison to most of my classmates.  Toothpick-sized women hoisted barbells with triple the weight that I can carry.  At least three of the women over 60 did one-armed pushups during the chest track workout.  Rippling muscles and trim, toned bodies at every age testified to fitness as a lifelong habit here, and I’ve clearly got some catching up to do.

The weights are in metrics, and it took me awhile to calculate the correct amount of weight compared to what I was used to back home.

I’ve stuck pretty closely to my usual regimen of three times a week since my first class, and I’ve made some amusing observations since then.  Conformity is definitely king.  Despite each session having a different teacher, the music and motions never vary.  Apparently SATS headquarters requires teachers to follow the exact BODY PUMP™ choreography, which changes only three times a year, so members get the exact same experience in every class in every gym.  I understand branding, and that consistency and repetition are important with weightlifting, but I’m used to different teachers having different styles and switching it up a bit with different BODY PUMP™ tunes and routines to keep things fresh.  Gotta be honest, it gets a bit boring when every class follows the exact same routine and music for four months in a row.

And about the teachers.  From what I can tell, they do a great job explaining important details about how to properly lift the weights and avoid injury.  And they work hard to keep everyone motivated by shouting encouraging things like “Kom on!” (it means the same thing in both languages) and “Bra!” (“Good!” — although sometimes I wonder what would happen if I tossed my Victoria’s Secret at them in response.)  My favorite phrase is: “Fantastisk!” a verbal reward that one of my sweetest instructors flings out liberally over the crowd, like beads at Mardi Gras.

A slow day in class, with only about 30 people in attendance. Still pretty crowded, ain’t it?

Not all the teachers are so thrilled with having an English-speaking student, however.  I have one instructor who scowls and asks me every day after class:  “Do you understand what I’m saying?”  I always respond, “Not much, but I can easily follow along with your motions.”  She typically snaps back: “So when are you going to learn Norwegian?  You’ll get much more out of the class.”  I used to respond by apologizing for my predicament of only a short-term assignment and long work days that didn’t allow time for language classes, but now I just say stuff like:  “I’ve already learned so much from you — I can count to eight now!”  She just loves that.

One last note:  in addition to all the exercise, Norwegians are the healthiest eaters I’ve ever seen.  On my way to and from work aboard the El train in Chicago, I’m used to starving commuters chugging down diet drinks and scarfing up candy bars and bags of chips.  But in Norway, I see folks slurping green smoothies and munching on apples, bananas, and nuts.  I’ve yet to witness anyone eating junk food other than the occasional polse (a hotdog, much leaner and supposedly healthier than our U.S. version, and wrapped in a thin crepe as opposed to a thick bun).  And I’ve not seen a single processed food wrapper in the Trikk streetcar garbage cans.

Some Norwegians complain that the younger generation is getting fat from playing video games and eating McDonalds and Burger King — yep, fast food has invaded Scandinavia, and sadly KFC is what everyone blurts out as soon as I mention that I’m originally from Kentucky.  But here, schools really emphasize exercise, and they’ll spend several days a year taking kids skiing, sailing, skating, and hiking as part of the regular curriculum.  Even my gym offers family exercise plans that include classes and activities for toddlers, grade-schoolers, and teens.  And the classes are packed.  Pretty amazing; I wish the U.S. could follow suit.

Oh well, gotta go — it’s time for another ass-kicking class and probably a lecture on my lack of Norwegian language competency….

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