This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians. The author is not a licensed medical professional.
In America, health seekers pound out solo gym time, mindlessly hefting on weight machines or clocking miles on the “dreadmill.” We treat daily fitness like a sprint with workouts like high-intensity interval training—and are sure to track it with wearable tech. But in those lonely reps and the go-big mentality, we can lose the play (remember when fitness meant kickball during phys-ed class?), companionship and lifelong habits that many Chinese capture with street-corner square dancing and hacky sack games in the park. Sure, China’s population struggles with the twin Achilles heels of smoking and pollution, and chronic diseases like tuberculosis that create a cap in Chinese life expectancy, but they’re also getting a lot right in their efforts to remain healthy.
Here’s what we can learn from the Chinese about fitness.
When trainers or your mental drill sergeant push you to give 110 percent, you may be doing more harm than good. The growth of CrossFit and similar regimes in the U.S. has caused concerns about the number of injuries limping out of the boxes. Many Chinese build strength a different way: with Tai Chi, Kung Fu and other martial arts.
Tai chi, a martial art valued for its defensive practices and health benefits, creates lithe strength, physical flexibility, and balance through fluid, repetitive movements. (Not to mention the mental health value of this moving meditation). Think it’s easy? Try dropping into a squat for several minutes while you appear to effortlessly move the chi (life force energy) with your hands. The practice may not burn a thousand calories an hour like a spin class, but it builds flexibility, which can help prevent injuries and balance problems in the long run.
Donning noise-canceling headphones and zoning out for solitary workouts may be a U.S. standard, but the Chinese emphasize the power of (1.4 billion) people. In China, fitness is communal. Public squares and sometimes even street corners become studios for ballroom dancing or square dancing—there are no clogs here, the “square” refers to the locale—where women do synchronized routines, sometimes with props like in drill team, sometimes in Zumba-esque sessions to the latest pop music hits. No one seems to care they’re dancing next to rush hour traffic in one of the most populous countries in the world; they’re truly dancing like no one is watching. These groups make fitness social, with the participants holding each other accountable and keeping to a schedule—qualities that have been shown to bust boredom and help people stick with a fitness routine.
Playing hacky sack is a workout? To the Chinese, yes. In Jianzi, a national sport, players aim to keep a weighted shuttlecock—like in Badminton but with grander feathers—off the ground with their bodies (any part except their hands). They scramble, sprint and contort for the perfect pass, enough of an effort to get players breathing hard and using muscles many of us have long forgotten. And they’re enjoying themselves. Fumbled passes send them laughing and chiding the errant player into the next round. Experts say picking a fitness routine you enjoy, or even several of them for variety, helps you stick with anregimem. We’ve all seen it: gyms are flush in January with New Years resolution makers, then wastelands by spring. Avoid that pitfall by finding something you like—even if it isn’t the latest fitness craze.
We Americans love our gear—I write as I check my heart rate on my watch—but sometimes that devotion becomes an obstacle. Not having the right tracker, shoes or clothes can become an excuse for ditching a workout. Before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the city installed a 4,000-strong fleet of calisthenics machines in public parks across the city. Today, Beijing residents build workouts into their daily routines, stopping off on their walks to work or during lunch for light resistance training on the primary-colored machines. I spotted numerous women doing leg presses in pencil skirts and heels, and men setting down their briefcases to do a few pullups. The locals don’t wait for the right outfit or prioritize joining the hottest gym, they just get moving.
Based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Ashley M. Biggers is a freelance writer with a taste for travel and fitness. When she isn’t writing, she’s running with her dog (and attempting not to trip over him).