Ever wonder why Korean celebrities are so slim?
They exist in a semi-starved and overexerted state.
For everyone else, here are some realistic Korean exercise and health tips.
Let’s get started!
I was a chubby kid thanks to a traditional grandma and some unfortunate genes. I gain weight by looking at food. I’ll also eat anything you put in front of me.
This led to major weight fluctuations in my early 20s.
When I went from California to South Korea, I lost 20 pounds in the first few months. After a brief rebound thanks to the discovery of Korean convenience stores and late night delivery, I’ve kept it off.
I was also a personal trainer briefly in college and have been working out consistently for 20 years. Now, my weight is stable, even while being a cyber gypsy.
I eat whatever I want. I don’t live off protein shakes and chicken breast.
This article contains things I’ve learned not only in Korea, but also while slow traveling to 60 countries.
Here are some Korean exercise and health tips you might find helpful.
This information is for educational purposes. Consult a physician before beginning an exercise regimen or diet.
1. Don’t start a pace you can’t keep
When I first started working out in my teens, I did the same extreme exercises every day. My body didn’t have a chance to recover and I couldn’t get out of bed for a few days.
I decided to study physiology and kinesiology to become a personal trainer.
The numerous benefits of building lean muscle included:
- Reducing risk of injury
- Decreasing body fat
- Burning more calories while resting
- Improving bone density
- Improving blood glucose control and insulin sensitivity
- Increasing strength
- Increasing mobility and balance
- Boosting energy and the way you feel
- Creating a leaner and tighter physique
My favorite thing to learn was that “1lb of muscle will burn (within 24 hours) an extra 10-50 extra calories in comparison to fat tissue”, meaning I could eat more and maintain the same weight.
There’s no need to train like a body builder, but just do enough to maintain your activity level and quality of life as you age.
I’ve tried P90x, crossfit, and boot camp. They’re great to get you motivated while socializing, but are too strenuous for non-pro athletes to follow long-term. Most people who do these look great in summer, then balloon in winter, if they don’t injure themselves in the process.
Over time I created a workout plan for myself that’s sustainable.
The bottom line is, if you work out every muscle group once a week and rest properly, you’re doing great.
Here’s the program I’ve stuck with for a few decades now. You can call it the “Four Day Fix” if that helps.
Back and biceps
- Rows: 3 sets of 10
- Pull downs: 3 sets of 10
- Curls: 3 sets of 10
Chest and triceps
- Inclined bench press: 3 sets of 10
- Flat bench press: 3 sets of 10
- Triceps extensions: 3 sets of 10
- Leg press: 3 sets of 10
- Hamstring curls: 3 sets of 10
- Leg extensions: 3 sets of 10
- Calf raises: 3 sets of 10
Shoulders and core
- Shrugs: 3 sets of 10
- Rear delt flys: 3 sets of 10
- Delt flys: 3 sets of 10
- Crunches: 3 sets of 10
- Lower back extensions or pelvic tilt if you have back problems: 3 sets of 10
Saturday & Sunday
Whatever you want
I rest every 4th week or when I’m not feeling it.
Workouts should be fun and flexible. I do this program at home or at a park when I don’t want to go to a gym. I also change the exercises frequently and switch from free weight to machines to body weight. I sometimes combine days using super sets.
As long as the muscles get worked, you’re golden.
My partner and I incorporate this workout plan in our lives. I do more exercises and reps now, but you can start out with one set per exercise in the beginning and work your way up.
I do whatever I want for cardio including muy thai, jogging, grappling, hiking, elliptical, swimming, etc.
I also throw in some yoga, plyometrics, and pilates to mix things up.
Focus on form over weight. Everything should be motionless except the lever you are working. For example, when doing curls, only the forearm should move. The elbows should remain fixed with good posture and eyes forward.
Go slow and flex at the top of every movement.
The weight should be enough to barely squeeze out 8-12 reps while not jerking around.
Listen to your body, if something hurts, stop.
If you’re tired, take the day off and pick it up when you’re ready. You also might not be getting enough protein, but that’s a matter for a dietician.
2. Add variety to your diet
They say weight is lost in the kitchen.
Lentil dishes from the middle east, cabbage from eastern Europe, tofu from east Asia, there are so many ways to add delicious and healthy meals to your diet.
An informal daily meal plan I follow is:
- Tofu (soy sauce, green onions, toasted sesame oil and red pepper flakes)
- Beef stew
- Thai curry
- Lentils (any seasoning, but cumin and turmeric go great with some garlic and ginger)
- Kimchi Jjim (surprisingly easy to make, just fry up some kimchi and pork in toasted sesame oil and add a little doenjang or miso and a drop of honey)
- Beef rendang (I just use sauce packets)
- Cabbage and pork
- Tom Kha
- Miyeokguk (Dried seaweed, toasted sesame oil, soy sauce and beef or clams)
- Indian curry
- Doenjang stew
- Hayashi rice
- Japanese curry (S&B packet)
- Pasta (buy a jar of nice imported sauce from Italy and add tomatoes if you don’t have time to make your own, noodles should be dull colored)
- Miso pork and mushrooms
If I crave a pizza, I’ll eat a pizza, or anything else for that matter. Then I’ll get back on this rotation.
I focus on simple, hearty, one pot dishes that take minimal effort and result in maximum flavor and nutrients. You can also meal prep these by making a huge amount once a week and freezing the leftovers. These dishes are so satiating that I don’t usually crave anything.
I focus on low to zero calorie spices like cumin, garlic, ginger, pepper, oregano (there are hundreds to choose from) and use minimal oil, salt, and butter.
I order anything too complicated or tricky for me to make when I go out to eat.
Also, if I get a little too crazy with lunch, I’ll steam some vegetables or tofu for dinner to balance things out.
3. Use better ingredients
A chef is only as good as their ingredients.
Factory-farmed produce and over-processed goods will downgrade the quality of a dish. Using fresh ingredients from a farmer’s market will elevate any recipe.
A trick I learned in Turkey is, the uglier the vegetable, the better it tastes.
Get ingredients from the EU, (they have strong regulations and people don’t tolerate low quality there) and use them sparingly if you’re on a budget. Cheap ingredients contain fewer nutrients because they cut corners and use additives to save cost.
French butter, Greek or Italian olive oil, Kikkoman soy sauce, etc. while a few dollars more will make a huge difference. You can use less too and achieve a better result.
This may come across as snobby, but adding a tiny bit of French butter is better than a cup of the cheaper stuff.
4. Sugar madness
The gradual sweetening of food is global trend, especially after the pandemic. This is true even in Korea. High fructose corn syrup will sabotage any attempts at weigh management.
I use honey when I want something sweet. You can get a jar of real honey at a local farmer’s market.
5. Replace soda
You can switch to diet soda, then sparkling. If you really hate the taste of plain water, you can add honey or brown sugar in syrup form. I also recommend lemon, lime or your favorite fruit.
You can always drink soda on a special occasion.
6. Replace alcohol
This tip is definitely not from Korea.
I’ve been fortunate enough to go scotch tasting in Scotland, try Pisco in Peru, Rakia all over the Balkans, Sake in Japan, Makgeolli in Korea, and craft beer in Belgium. Booze was a big reason I traveled.
Things changed when I lived for a month in Marrakesh, Morocco. They didn’t have my brands and everything was expensive. I decided to detox for a month.
I took a cooking class where we made some traditional Moroccan Mint Tea with 40 different herbs. It was the best beverage I’d ever tried.
On Friday nights instead of relaxing with a scotch, I’d drink a local tea to unwind. I woke up feeling energized and everything including my joints, anxiety, mental faculties improved.
This created a feedback loop and made me more active and positive.
Get creative with hundreds of tea varieties, kava, hot baths, meditation, puzzles, and sparkling water to help you unwind instead.
You can always drink on special occasions.
7. Dessert is a special occasion
I’ve found that for most of the world, dessert isn’t a daily thing. I only have sweets a few times a week, but I make them count.
Instead of picking up candy bars at the grocery store every day, save the money up for a really good fresh baked dessert every few days.
Yes, I have a weakness for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Root Beer Floats. It’s my culture after all. But, I just buy a jar of unsweetened peanut butter and high cacao chocolate from the EU and make my own. It’s so much better. There’s no way to make root beer floats healthier so I only have them once in a while.
Dried persimmons and rice cakes from Korea, Lokum from Turkey, mochi from Japan, baklava from Greece and Turkey made from honey, nuts, and high-quality flour are some great options too.
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