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China faces youth fitness crisis

China faces youth fitness crisis
January 23, 2013

Despite its increasingly formidable performance in many Olympic sports, China is experiencing a serious decline in fitness and physical activity among its young people.

With parents placing an emphasis on academic success, the economic superpower has seen the fitness of its young people decline.

Sun Yunxiao, Deputy Director of China Youth and Children Research Center in Beijing explains "our economic power has grown while our people's physiques have not only failed to improve, but have deteriorated. That's unacceptable.

"This is something that worries the nation."

The Government has urged schools, especially K-12, to improve their physical education following an outcry casued by a series of events late last year.

Two Chinese college students collapsed and died when they were testing for an annual, mandatory 1,000-metre run in late November. Another two runners in their early 20s died in 5,000-metre and 10,000-metre races during a sporting event in the southern city of Guangzhou. The sudden deaths were considered accidental, but the spate of them was enough to trigger a nationwide retrospection on its physical education.

Several Chinese universities canceled their men's 5,000-metre and women's 3,000-metre events from their end of year sport meets, for reasons including fear of liability, lack of interest and scheduling conflicts.

Sun says "this is a dangerous sign.

"Physical education is important in that it helps youth to develop social skills and to build a healthy character. But we are at a historic low in our neglect."

Sun attributes the decline to an obsession with academic testing scores in China's highly competitive environment for further education admissions, as well as a proliferation of indoor entertainment options like video games and surfing the Internet.

Though air quality in many Chinese cities has deteriorated in recent years, physical educators have discounted air pollution as a major deterrent for outdoor activities.

Sun said an overwhelming majority of Chinese young students cited their academic performance as their parents' top priority, with a chunk of the population saying it was the only thing that mattered to parents.

The results are clear from the annual fitness tests that Chinese university students are required to take. Education Ministry data show that in 2010, male college students ran 1,000 metres 14 to 15 seconds slower on average than male students who ran a decade earlier. Female students slowed by about 12 seconds in running 800 metres.

Students also fared worse in other physical tests, jumping shorter distances and completing fewer sit-ups.

Meanwhile, obesity rates among Chinese college students have gone up. In 2010, 13.3% of urban male students were obese, compared to 8.7% a decade earlier. Still, that compares with rates in the United States of 19.6% for males aged 12-19, and 33.2% for males aged 20-39 for the same period.

The dismal state of fitness in the younger generation prompted a well-known and hawkish military officer, Major General Luo Yuan, to bemoan the prospects for China's future in a recent editorial in the state-run Global Times newspaper.

General Yuan thundred "femininity is on the rise, and masculinity is on the decline.

"With such a lack of character and determination and such physical weakness, how can they shoulder the heavy responsibility?"

Wang Fangchuan, a sports professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, sees the disregard of health as the "mark of a society in pursuit of academic achievements."

The national goal of earning Olympic gold medals separates sports from ordinary schools, because promising young athletes and resources are siphoned off to special sports schools nationwide.

Popular blogger Li Chengpeng wrote last summer, when China's Olympic athletes in London won 38 gold medals, second only to the United States "we have this strange phenomenon. Outside, we are showing off muscles, but at home we are panting.

"Outside, the red flags are flying. At home, the red lights are going up."

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