I used to think that Chinese people were healthier than Americans, mostly from observing the social lives of Beijingers. Every night, you can see locals dancing en masse, singing along to classic tunes, and chatting while walking (often backwards). This fits in with a well-known Chinese proverb: 饭后百步走，活到九十九 (“take 100 steps after eating, live to be 99”).
However, the data doesn’t reflect this casual observation. Only 6 percent of Chinese between the ages of 20 and 39 get at least 90 minutes a week of moderate exercise. In the US, the proportion is 26 percent among ages 19 to 44.
Chinese youth also exercise less than their elders. Ten percent of people aged 50 to 69 engage in regular exercise compared to 6 percent among their children and grandchildren. In the US, only 14 percent of people aged 65 to 74 got enough exercise.
Exercise rates tend to be better among Chinese primary students and teens thanks to school activities, but quickly tail off after middle school. Among Hong Kong teens, 64 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls meet the recommended 60 minutes of daily after-school exercise. These rates are higher than in the US, with 46 and 30 percent respectively.
So why does activity drop off so quickly for Chinese kids after middle school? One theory attributes it to the incredible amount of studying. Grade 4 to 8 students in Shanghai and Hangzhou spend an average of 150 to 160 minutes doing homework on weekdays and more than 200 minutes on weekends. By comparison, 9- to 11-year-olds in the UK do only 30 minutes of homework per day, increasing to 90-150 minutes in high school. Chinese children also consume, on average, over 60 minutes of screen time per day.
A China Daily article from 2010 quotes Deputy Director of the China Youth and Children Research Center Sun Yunxiao: “The emphasis is on test scores, not physical well-being. Pupils are being assigned too much homework, leaving no time for exercise.”
What provides better long-term health, a good education or good exercise habits? Many studies show that higher education improves long-term health, but others say that exercise is crucial to lowering lifetime risks of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other illnesses.
There is no strong evidence to suggest that more homework equals more lifetime success. In fact, many experts feel quite the opposite. The American Academy of Pediatrics released a report in 2006 stressing that “the most valuable and useful character traits that will prepare children for success arise not from extracurricular or academic commitments, but from a firm grounding in parental love, role modeling, and guidance.”
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Dr.Richard Saint Cyr is a family doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital, and the director of clinical marketing and communications. He runs the blog www.myhealthbeijing.com.
photo from jon argos (FLICKR)
This article originally appeared on p25 of the beijingkids February 2014 issue.
Check out the PDF version online at Issuu.com