Health and Fitness Lessons from China

I just completed my 4th trip to China.

Many things have changed since my 1st trip to China in 1993, and many things have changed since my 3rd trip in 2008.   But, many things have also stayed the same.

I was there the past couple of weeks primarily to observe Chinese Health and Fitness trends, look for ideas to improve my own business, improve my Mandarin, and make some connections.

I found a few things startling, and a few things startlingly ordinary.

China is, at the moment, a very dynamic country with one foot steeped in 5000 years of amazingly rich Eastern culture and history,  and the other foot smashing a soccer ball through the back of a Western net.   Within a short walk in any major city you’ll see both a top end Mercedes as well as an aged and bronzed bike courier trucking along with a decades-old 3 wheel bicycle cart loaded up with hundreds of pounds goods or materials.

And every imaginable combination in between, though a distinct and upwardly mobile middle class is evident.

 Stunningly gorgeous skyskrapers and perplexing poor concrete cubbies (where some locals  still live in somewhat spartan circumstances) can both be found within many of the same city blocks.   I can’t imagine sociologists or anthropologists making any sense of it, or historians getting it right, but that’s not my job!

What I do know is Fitness. 

And the current state of the Chinese Fitness Industry is Primarily Western.   There are big box clubs with and without water (think Lifetime, LA Fitness, Bally’s etc).  There are small box  clubs like Fitness 19, Snap, and Anytime with fewer frills, but every bit as convenient to localized neighborhood residents.  There are spin classes, step classes, yoga, and personal training from top to bottom.

At the moment, Fitness is Fashionable in the far East!  With your headphones on, the look, feel, and vibe in most facilities was nearly identical to what you’d expect in any major American city fitness facility.

But there were a few things that were distinctly different. 

Geriatric leadership

One thing the Chinese have always been good at is geriatric movement.  It’s cultural, social, and quite common for seniors to gather in local parks and courtyards for some top of the morning calisthenics.   Some seniors simply walk, some mostly just wave and shake their arms around, while yet others pursue very strict and disciplined Tai Chi.  In all cases they’ve got a distinct cultural health head start on the west with this practice.  Nothing like it exists in the US today

Nutritional Trends

While once highly commendable, China’s nutritional habits have, on average, degraded over the past two decades.  A society that was once almost completely reliant on a healthy diet of mostly rice and vegetables, with small meat supplementation has been largely converted to very little rice, large portions of meat, and fewer vegetables.  And what comes with large portions of meat is, of course, large amounts of saturated animal fat.  Combined with traditional stir fry preparation oils,  some diets are now disproportionately high in fat content.

On the upside, very little dairy exists in China today.  You’ll find almost no cheese, no cream dishes, and very little milk in general.  I personally dropped a few pounds on the trip, I believe, in large part due to the elimination of dairy from my diet!

Tofu and soy milk provide a cleaner version of protein and calcium, respectively, and are almost universally consumed.

Unfortunately, Starbucks, KFC, Pizza Hut, and McDonalds have become prevalent and, in my humble opinion, annoying street corner icons throughout Beijing and Shanghai.

While typical Chinese tables might still be somewhat healthier than the typical American table, one of the few products we’ve successfully managed to  export to China is, quite sadly,  the worst of our unhealthy foods.   I’m sure BWW would do fabulously well there!

Starbucks has been nothing short of brilliant in market penetration and dominance.  Not only have they been successful in converting a lot of young people into coffee drinkers, they’ve also been successful in keeping them in the store with what turned out to be rare free wi-fi service.  I made this trip without my laptop, relying entirely on my iPhone for communications and network.  As it turns out, even the 4 and 5 star hotels I stayed in ONLY had wi-fi in the lobby areas.  It was quite rare to find wi-fi, especially in public places where it would be handy, like train stations and shopping malls.

So, free wi-fi at Starbucks has made it a destination venue for thousands of teens and young professionals.   When I arrived in Tianjin (a 45 minute bullet train ride from Beijing) late one night I walked for miles and miles to find an open restaurant, but passed 3 or 4 bustling Starbucks in the process, all  full of folks with laptops and smart phones.

There’s still an abundance of the best green tea on earth in China, and a lot of people still drink it, but the younger generations are drinking coffee.    From a health perspective, this is a bit sad as the benefits of drinking green tea are abundant and well documented. 

Perfect for Two Wheeled Fans

The American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai recently reported that there were 93 metropolitan cities in China with a population of over 5 million.  In the US, there is just one: New York City.   93 metros as large or larger than the big apple!  And with more and more rural Chinese flocking to the cities each year, most Chinese are therefore urban dweller.  

Hence getting around is primarily a city thing. 

While pubic transportation infrastructure is world class, if you dislike going underground to get from here to there, or your dislike wedging into frequently crowded buses, or dislike sweating it out on in the back seat of a taxi, your best bet for navigating Chinese cities is still two wheeled transportation.

And for this, the Chinese have a fitness-related leg up on the US.   As is well-recognized and documented, cycling not only reduces your carbon footprint but it improves your health and fitness in the process! 

While initially intimidating to the Western observer, cycling in China is efficient and quite safe if you follow a few rules.   I won’t go into those rules here (they are indeed unique), but bike lanes exist on virtually every street.  The lanes are, however,  also often also shared with mopeds, motorized bikes, carts, pedestrians, and a few parked or standing vehicles.  No one wears helmets.   Withstanding all of that, I  rented a bike while in Beijing and found it to be a convenient and highly rewarding experience as a tourist.

Urban chivalry Lives on! 

While you might have respect for any cyclist pedaling for two, I give the head turners award to the girls actually getting a ride.  Quite common in China, and nothing short of charmingly romantic is the guy riding along with his sweetheart sideswung-mounted on his rear wheel back carrier.

Lots of cyclists tote a passengers on their rear carrier, but you’d better  be a pretty good rider to allow for your passenger to work on a crossword puzzle while giving her a lift!

If you like this posting, follow me on twitter … Get_Fit_MN #ChinaFit.  I’ll be conducting a hosted twitter chat on the topic THIS SATURDAY, the 11th  at 11:00 AM CDT.


6 Responses

  1. Hey Randy, I live in Hugo. Any idea of where I might find Tai Chi here?

  2. Interesting. How do I get started with tai chi?

  3. Sorry Michelle, I do not. But a web search on ‘Minneapolis Tai Chi’ found several on the north side of town.

  4. I have also noticed that the fast food chains even deliver. Every chain has its own bikes that have the logo on it. I often see them biking around in the morning. It’s surprising the obesity rate isn’t more than it is, because you can only imagine what fast food delivery in the US would create.

  5. Very interesting and fun reading!

  6. Randy, now that you’ve been to China a number of times, did you get a chance to do anything really interesting beyond the normal tourist spots (e.g. Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, People’s Square, The Bund, etc.)? Would you ever consider booking a travel “experience” like on ?

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