Physical Activity in China

I was recently given the opportunity to travel to China for the inauguration of the American Cultural Center for Sport at Tianjin Sport University in Tianjin China. Having never been to China, I tried to learn about and make as many observations pertaining to physical activity, sport, health and well being as I could.

East Meets West, and not in a good way.
I asked if obesity is a public health issue in China, and the answer was “yes it is a growing problem.” This response surprised me. I have observed but one overweight/obese Chinese person in 8 days in three of the biggest cities in China (Shanghai, Tianjin & Beijing).

The reason why obesity is on the rise in China I was told is due to lifestyle changes associated with economic development (i.e. more people can afford cars & scooters, and therefore engage in less active transport like walking or biking) and the introduction of Western fast food, which I captured in an “East meets West” photo. The current US population is 312 million, and according the CDC more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) are obese. The current Chinese population is 1.35 billion, and I found an article that stated obesity rates in China are soaring and more than 25% of Chinese adults are overweight or obese. This data and my observations while here in China are not congruent, so I’ll have to do some investigating and learning on the nature of this discrepancy.

What I did observe is active Chinese across the lifespan.

Tai Chi in the Temple of Heaven park at 7am
Public parks are used by older Chinese for many forms of physical activity, including walking, ballroom dance, tai chi, and many others.  The outdoor circuit training stations equipment is really interesting and I haven’t seen anything like it in the US. The machines don’t provide any resistance, but are great for range of motion and keeping

An outdoor elliptical in a Chinese park.
all body parts loose and working.  To that end, I saw many older Chinese using various park fixtures to stretch, massage or promote circulation, like the two women pictured here.

Physical activity seems more playful, joyful and integrated into daily life for older Chinese. The park is a public place they go for spiritual, social and physical health. I saw nearly all the groups I watched, laugh and smile and genuinely interact with one another. I did not see ONE cell phone.

2 Chinese women stretching and massaging their legs
One game that I tried with some women, is Chinese Hacky Sack. I didn’t know what is was called, but with a quick use of The Google

Jianzi in the park
I discovered The Chinese Hacky Sack is called Jianzi. It is a special shuttlecock sport played with a colorful feathered article with a spring-loaded base that is kicked by feet with the goal of keeping it in the air for as long as possible. It was really fun, easier than hacky sack, and I worked up a sweat in 2-3 minutes.

The physical activities I saw appeared to be free and most had a peer leader/coach. Below right you can see a woman instructing another woman on how to do Taiji Rouliqiu move. This physical activity is a modern kind of internal martial art originating from China which follows the principles of Taijiquan in its philosophy and in the motion. The students I saw ranged in age, but most appeared to be middle age or older. Lesson: it is never too old to be physically active or learn a new physical skill. It left me wondering what children and adolescents do for physical activity and if they engage in the same forms.

Peer Taiji Rouliqiu Coaching in the Park
If you know the name of the physical activity this man is doing, please let me know. It looked very challenging but meditative, as the object he is spinning around on the rope makes a pleasant humming type noise. Thanks in advance!

I don't know what this is called but it looks fun!

In the US when I drive past parks, I rarely see ANYONE using them, let alone groups of older adults!  With an aging US population, growing obesity rates, and unused green space, it seems to me market and opportunity exist for someone to seize.

2 thoughts on “Physical Activity in China

  1. Ha, these pictures make me miss China. Dr. LaVoi, I don’t know whether you have a chance to visit residential quarters, in the newly built residential quarters, the city requires the developer to build mass sport equipments. in front of the building I live in China is the public activity area in my residential quarters. Many people, usually seniors, begin to exercise as early as 4 30 am. In morning, they have various exercise activities, such as dancing, taijiquan (you mentioned before.) At night, neighbors use this area to make some social events, like social dancing, singing. Ha~ A lot of fun!

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