China joins the fat-fighters' club

People’s waistlines are expanding as fast as the economy as fast food and lack of exercise hit nation’s health

Clifford Coonan
Friday 09 August 2013 18:43
Patients attend a weight-loss clinic in the city of Tianjin.
Patients attend a weight-loss clinic in the city of Tianjin.

Longer working hours, more fast-food chains and less exercise, it’s hardly a surprise that the effects of China’s rapidly burgeoning economy are being matched by rapidly bulging waistlines, particularly among young professionals.

As China’s economy continues to grow, people benefit from improved standards of living and general levels of wealth. But financial gain is leaving the Chinese with more than just deeper pockets, according to a nationwide survey.

The study of more than 43,000 adults found that more than 11 per cent of people aged 20 to 39 are obese, an increase of two percentage points since the last survey in 2010. And more than half of these young people say their lives are too busy to allow time for them to exercise regularly.

“We are still analysing the reasons, but it couldn’t be more obvious that the lack of exercise played a negative role,” Tian Ye, director of the China Institute of Sports Science, told the China Daily newspaper.

The average weight gain of the group was 1.92kg, higher than the figures for the two other age groups surveyed – those aged between 40 and 59 and those older than 60. In general, the Chinese tend to be fairly trim, and the traditional diet stresses a balance, mixing meat and vegetables and a carbohydrate – generally rice in the south and noodles in the north, as well as the usual offering of fruit as a dessert.

However, fast-food outlets have sprung up all over China’s cities, and McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and KFC are bulging at the seams. Little wonder that you now see more obesity on the streets than before, especially among children.

Part of this is the “Little Emperor” factor, where the single male child born under the one-child policy is spoiled by his relatives and fed too many sweets and too much fast food.

The number of overweight young Chinese has soared as Western-style fast-food culture has become more prevalent (AFP/Getty)

The General Administration of Sport survey of 10 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities also found that 34.4 per cent of Chinese between 20 and 69 are overweight. The rise in obesity is most noticeable among young males and middle-aged females in urban areas, a classic scenario in fast-developing economies.

“Statistically, the fitness level of this group dropped in line with the decline of their sports involvement. It proved the importance of sports exercise for keeping fit and healthy,” Tian said.

Wang Li, a 28-year-old stockbroker, said there appeared to be more obese people about than before. “It is because the food we eat contains much more fat and oil and people don’t exercise. For example, after lunch, I have to go back to work right away. After work, I feel tired and I don’t want to move. Basically, I am either sitting or lying down the whole day.”

It is a familiar scenario. There is a nationwide trend of people giving up exercise due to the pressure of studies and work, and there are calls for the government to do more to raise awareness of public fitness.

“The excuse of ‘no time’ means the public hasn’t realised the importance of sports activities for a better life,” said Xing Wenhua, a professor at Beijing Sport University and mass fitness promoter.

“More education and promotion should be done to underscore that doing exercise is not only a way to keep fit, but also releases pressure and negative emotions, which I believe is more important for young people.”

On the positive side, there has been an increase in the demand for public sports facilities in recent years, especially since the Olympics in 2008.

More than 38 per cent of those surveyed have been exercising at public sports venues, including community and municipal sports facilities, an increase from 2007. Still, 9.6 per cent of regular exercisers claimed the development of public sports facilities failed to meet people’s demand.

Kang Lingshuang, 33, who works at an international school, believes that people are eating more meat and junk food. “Especially the children, they are much fatter than before because parents always want to give them whatever they want. If they say they want to go to McDonald’s, they take them there. At school, they always have to study. At some middle schools or high schools, teachers got rid of PE classes and changed to maths or English or Chinese, so they are not getting any exercise,” she said.

“However, at the same time, more and more young people my age are more focused on how they look and both young women and men want to lose weight because in China being thin is beautiful these days.”

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