I recently read an article about how, despite China’s impressive showing of athletes and medals at the Olympic Games, the average Chinese person doesn’t get a lot of exercise. While the Olympics tend to make Americans more active—at least for the month—it apparently has the opposite effect on people in China, making them more “sedentary.” The article faults China for not emphasizing Phys Ed classes for those without Olympic potential.

When I think about the main point of the article—that Chinese people generally don’t exercise—I can think of many cases where it’s true. My friend and I, at 21, were by far the youngest people at the gym we joined in Shanghai. In Beijing, I would run by many people smoking cigarettes as they walked along the track–hardly counting as a healthy activity. And at times I would get frustrated while pounding on the treadmill, peripherally glancing at the two middle-aged ladies simply inert on the machines next to me, drinking green tea or soymilk, gossiping, and watching TV—as if they weren’t at the gym at all.

But there is one segment of Chinese society that is wildly active, far more active than their peers in the U.S. Perhaps they don’t sign up for a gym, run races, or lift weights like Americans may do; but they hike faster than me, they do yoga more fluidly than me, and they dance better than me. They are the ones who could lead a Phys Ed revolution in China. I’m talking about senior citizens, of course. In China, it is the 70-year-olds who fill up the park at 6 AM to practice tai chi, and jog along the Bund in the late evening. It is the elderly who take long walks around the track, waving their arms in joint-defying circles, and use public outdoor exercise stations. When I climbed Yangmingshan in Taiwan, I was passed by a group of 20 old people who apparently climb it every Saturday. I could barely speak, I was huffing and puffing so much…by contrast, one of them was carrying her dog up the mountain. Oh, how I wished I were that dog!

I cringe a little as I watch 25-year-old women pretend to hike up mountains in leopard-print 5-inch heels as they pose for glamour shots, but if the elderly culture in this country persists, I know that in about 50 years, they’ll be spry old athletes, outrunning the rest of us.

Originally published: Aug 23, 2012 by China Personified (link)