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.

Paying Youth Athletes for Performance

A colleague forwarded me an e-news from sports-media.org that contained an article titled Cash For Goals in Youth Soccer: Adults Gone Wild. When I give parent education clinics as part of a research-based educational program I helped develop called Parents Learning About Youth Sports (PLAYS), I always include a brief section about paying children for performing.

Why is it brief?

Because the take home message for sport parents is this: NEVER pay your child for scoring goals, winning matches, or accomplishing some performance standard…NEVER. Just don’t do it.

The sports-media.org piece gets at some of reasons why this is not a good practice, but I’d like to elaborate.

Researchers have demonstrated that giving extrinsic rewards (like $$) for an activity that is already inherently fun and enjoyable (like sports), can undermine intrinsic motivation. We want kids to play sports and be physically active because they love it, its fun, they meet friends, learn new skills, enjoy competition and thrive on striving to be the best they can be. If adults offer monetary rewards for scoring goals, the primary focus is on scoring goals and success is defined in terms of scoring goals…not because sport is fun and enjoyable. The classic studies around this phenomena involve collegiate athletes who obtain an athletic scholarship. Many collegiate athletes are good at their sport because they love it, but some play only in hopes of obtaining a full-ride. For some of the very few who actually do obtain an athletic scholarship (and the odds are VERY low according to the NCAA), they often face diminishing intrinsic motivation. They’ve worked so long and hard to get the scholarship, and that is how success was defined, that once they get the scholarship, sport has no meaning and is no longer is enjoyable. I’ve seen this far too often with collegiate athletes in my classes.

When intrinsic motivation doesn’t exist or is undermined by adults, athletes will more likely to experience anxiety, burnout and dropout, and will also experience less enjoyment, satisfaction, well-being and optimal performance, and positive development.

If you want to read on your own about the self-determination theory, and learn about the complexities pertaining to why paying youth athletes is a terrible idea, I encourage you to go here.

What should parents do to foster intrinsic motivation, instead of paying their child-athlete?

Based on the evidence, I suggest a few simple things as a starting point:

  • attend the event and look like you are engaged (i.e., don’t read the paper or talk on your cell phone)
  • cheer only when someone does something good & cheer for everyone’s children, not just your own
  • refrain from yelling instructions or “coaching” from the sidelines
  • offer unconditional care, regardless of the outcome or the performance