Get fit for free in Beijing

Head to the park for a free workout

You don't have to drop a ton of cash in the gym to get fit, just head to the park to get your muscles moving.

Waltzing in the park

park dance

Almost every afternoon, Jiao Jinwu comes to Ritan Park to dance. ‘If you like to dance, you’ll like coming here,’ says Jiao with a smile.

You can find the rank-and-file dance troupe every morning from 9-11am, then again in the afternoon from 3.30-5pm, twirling about under the trees with a boom box blaring out traditional folk music.

Spearheaded by teacher Gao Shan, a 70-year-old retired train conductor, you’ll be dancing like a pro in no time.

‘Do you know Austrian waltz? This is what I’m teaching,’ says Gao Shan, while shouting instructions to his students, some of whom are waltzing alone, trying to follow the steps.

‘One, two, three, turn, turn; now, look east!’ he directs. ‘Where’s east?’ shouts one dancer. ‘Look towards that tree!'

Since he retired a few years ago, Gao Shan started these volunteer classes in Ritan to keep busy. ‘Anyone can come!’ he shouts with enthusiasm. Don’t worry if you have two left feet, Gao Shan and his friends will sort you out.

Sprinting with a view

For the runners in town, Heyrunning! instructor Stephy Chung oversees an informal running group at Jingshan Park.

Depending on pollution levels at 6am, they meet every Tuesday and Thursday at 7am at the East Gate of Jingshan Park. Chung calls the club Twinkle Toes Tuesdays and Thunder Thigh Thursdays ‘because we like to stay light on our feet’.

There are no warm-ups, so when you meet up with the group, they hit the steps of Jingshan straight away, going up to the top and back five times – or more if you’re up for it. Some people warm-up by putting in a run before the meet-up, or a bike ride from where they live to the park.

‘I love this workout because you get your heart working. It takes about two minutes to get up to the top if you’re hustling, and it’s about 300-plus stairs on the way up from one of the sides we take.

'You feel the burn in your thighs. By the end of it you’re done by around 8am or 8.30am, fully charged, and still have the whole day ahead of you. And, if you run to the park, you’ve put in that extra kilometre for distance,’ says Chung.

This is definitely the most hardcore of the outdoor fitness groups we’ve encountered. So what makes the runners lace up their twinkle toes at the crack of dawn?

‘I think the most interesting part of the stair part is the top where you get to see the best view of Beijing – overlooking the Forbidden City, and on the other side, straight towards the Drum and Bell [towers]. To the east, you can see the CCTV [tower], and to the west, you see Beihai Park and the mountains on a clear day. Also, the limber old people and their morning exercises are always an impressive sight.’

We’re not sure we have the drive such an early morning of exercise requires, but to those who do, we salute you. To join, email chungruns@

Rock climbing


From March to November, Zhang Qi’s rock climbing business in Ritan Park, Dian Shi, which translates as ‘touch stone’, has kept people ft since launching several years ago.

The two metallic ‘rock’ walls at the south side of the park are a popular spot, both for beginners looking to (literally) climb new heights or seasoned pros who want to get some practice in. There’s also a choice of heights: 15m and 8m.

Prices vary. There’s annual membership for 1,800RMB, or day passes are available for 70RMB. If you just fancy trying it out, total novices are welcome and a one-time climb costs just 30RMB. Shoe rental is also available.

Hacky sack

use this-hacky

Not too far from Dian Shi climbing wall in Ritan Park is a small courtyard where groups of hacky sack enthusiasts – young and old – gather to play, trying to keep the feather-topped toy from falling on the ground.

There are seasoned players in the park, some of whom have been coming for more than a decade. You’ll spot them in no time as the others address them as ‘shifu’ (master) and they’re balancing the hacky sack with their head and toes while doing dance tricks to show off that flair.

Younger players, such as Kevin Hou, 35, come to Ritan Park after work to break a sweat. (Practice sessions run throughout the day, but you’ll find more people after work at 5pm.)

Again, anyone’s welcome to join this friendly bunch of fit strangers, and you’ll be sure to work muscles you never knew existed – as well as learn a new skill.

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