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Sweatin’ with the oldies

By 27 June 2009 One Comment

The early morning scene in a Chinese public park is part Lollapalooza, part Jazzercise convention and part Karate Kid, with just a tinge of One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest thrown in the mix. While youth might rock and roll, rave or hip-hop the Shanghai night away, it’s the seniors who rule the dawn.

On a typical early morning in Zhongshan Park in the Changning District of Shanghai, no fewer than 17 separate physical activities share the not-so-peaceful willow tree-lined walkways and grassy enclosures. From badminton to ballroom dancing, tai chi to table tennis, and hackysacking to handboning, Chinese elders in recent years have taken the government’s physical fitness call-to-arms to heart.

In 2001, the Chinese government hatched a campaign called “Quan Min Jian Shen Yundong,” or “The Whole Nation Needs To Do Exercise” in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. “Promoting Mass Sports and Fitness Exercises among Elderly People” was among the primary goals in a White Paper the Chinese government issued on its ever-increasing aging population in 2006.

“For every five to six people in Shanghai, one is over 60,” said Gu Anyi, 67, an organizer with the Shanghai Elderly Sports Association.

As the percentage of elderly increases all over China, the government and seniors’ sports associations like Gu’s are working together to make sure that aging doesn’t mean ailing.

A primary feature of the Chinese government’s fitness campaign has been to install easy-to-use, low-impact exercise equipment in public spaces throughout the country. In Shanghai, 78 neighborhood centers have been equipped with cheerful yellow and blue stationary bikes, treadmills, and other Nautilus-inspired devices, according to the Shanghai Municipal Government’s Web site.  Similar outdoor community gyms have sprouted up all over the country.

The low-tech exercise equipment is especially senior-friendly. “They can’t move quickly or do a lot of heavy lifting,” said Gu. “So these machines help them avoid injury.”

While spending the morning in the park kibitzing with friends while you line dance to Rascal Flats might seem like enough of a payoff on its own, many seniors’ participation is very strategic.  They are well aware of improved health from their exercise investment. “I don’t want to be a burden on my family,” said 92-year-old Hu Zi Heng, to explain why he hasn’t missed a morning at the park in 30-plus years.

Others emphasize their pocketbooks. “It costs a lot of money to see a doctor,” said hackysacking grandma, Shu Kaijun, “I want to save that money.”

Gu stresses this pushups not pills approach to geriatric care. “Sports are good for the physical and mental health,” said Gu. “That’s why we’re trying to provide an environment where the elderly can exercise and take part in community activities.”

But Gu is quick to point out that the benefits of the mornings in the park aren’t just for the seniors’ physical health. “In the fifties and sixties, older people were living with their children so they got social interaction at home,” said Gu. “Now it’s different – they need to come out to socialize.”

With today’s rising incomes, crowding under one roof is no longer financially necessary for growing numbers of Chinese.  As a result, family traditions have changed and the Chinese elderly, like their neighbors in the West, are finding themselves in luxurious, if lonely, new digs.

But while seniors’ social isolation might have increased with wealth, so has retired women’s free time. “Before you saw mainly men in the park in the mornings because the women were at home doing the housework,” said Qin Hafang, a 68-year-old traditional dance teacher, “but now they can hire someone to do the housework.”
Apart from the classes, cycles, kites and courts, you have another, rather….shall we say, eccentric group who while away their morning minutes slapping trees, granite posts or their own liver-spotted limbs.

“I do this for good circulation,” shared Hu Ziheng, while his calloused palms vigorously smacked at his calves on a shaded park bench in the Zhongshan Park.

Aren’t they embarrassed?

“It might feel weird at first,” said Gu. “But then they find it’s very common in the park.”

Gu added with a smile that the slapping activities all happening very early in the morning so it’s mainly only other seniors around.

Americans should take note of the Chinese seniors’ passion for exercise. According to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, only 32 percent of American senior citizens exercise on a daily basis. One of the main challenges for senior physical fitness is increasing that percentage, said C. Jessie Jones, co-director of the Center for Successful Aging at California State University, Fullerton, in an e-mail.

Aside from a few tai chi and dancing teachers in Chinese parks, there is a suspicious absence of one the staples of American physical fitness in the midst of all these elevated heart rates: the personal trainer. “There are a few coaches [who] work with seniors, but most of them just try out many different activities and then find the one that’s best for them.” Gu said.

In the US, however, the medicalization of exercise has impeded many American seniors’ physical fitness, said Jones. “We have made older adults in the US [who] think they need permission from their physician to exercise, and they need to go to a fitness center with a specialist,” said Jones. “That is our cultural way.”

So what is Gu’s advice for seniors in the US?

“Find an exercise you like, stick with it….and don’t be shy!”

One Comment »

  • Tami Nowicki said:


    I am an English teacher living and working in China. I just read this article about the elderly and their exercise habits, and I really like this article and video.

    I graduated from UT in 2001. I hope you guys get to come back to China next summer. There’s alot to see here!

    Interesting work!!


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