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Age just a number? Chinese elderly dance, play ping-pong and do callisthenics in parks

On a summer morning at Ritan Park in the heart of Beijing, an 80-year-old man, who has lost most of his front teeth, is pushing his own wheelchair and going from one equipment to another at the open gym, stretching himself and doing light exercises.

Another group of elderly people is playing with a diabolo, half of the ping-pong tables are taken over by grey-haired men and women, and multiple groups of people – mostly elderly women – are dancing in different parts of the park.

At one of the groups near the main gate, as the song changes to an upbeat one, a spectacled woman wearing a loose brown top and her grey hair tied into a bun, steps in and starts dancing with a man, who was till now dancing with someone else.

“I come here every day to dance, be it Saturday or Sunday. If I don’t come here, I will sleep at my house and I don’t feel good. Most of these people are like me,” said 73-year-old Hu Yulin, as she hummed and moved to the music, while watching her friends continued to dance.

Ms. Hu’s husband passed away three years ago and she lives alone, as her only daughter lives in the U.S. She wakes up at 6 a.m. every day and after having a breakfast, mostly of eggs and milk, she reaches the park by 9 a.m. and dances till 11 a.m. with her friends – she has been doing this for about 12 years now.

Across parks of Beijing, groups of elderly people can be seen ‘square dancing’, exercising, or playing different types of games. These groups need not only a space for physical activity, but also much-needed social interaction.

“Leisurely Physical Activity (LPA) such as dancing or exercising of elderly is going up across China. On the other hand, Work Related Physical activity (WPA) is going down,” said Lili Xie, a Professor at Center for Population and Development Studies in the Chinese government-run Renmin University.

Ms. Xie’s observations are based on data from China Longitudinal Ageing Social Survey (CLASS), a survey done by the Renmin University, in which over 13,000 people from 23 provinces took part in 2020.

By the end of 2023, the population of people above 65 years of age in China was 15.4% of the total population and China is projected to be “super-aged” (population of people above 65 years would move up more than 20% of population) by 2050, she said. According to the UN, the number of people above 65 years of age in China by 2050 will be close to 400 million – more than the current entire population of the U.S.

Physical inactivity among adults is increasing globally and in 2022, 31% of adults worldwide – about 1.8 billion people – did not meet the recommended levels of physical activity, according to a study published last month by researchers from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and others. If the trend continues, levels of inactivity are projected to further rise to 35% by 2030.

Dr. Regina Guthold, a scientist working with the WHO and one of the authors of study, told The Hindu, “Elderly people in China are more physically active than their counterparts in most parts of the world, except for countries in Oceania and Sub-Saharan Africa, as per the study. But there is no separate ranking of countries based on physical activity of people above 60 years of age.”

Over the years, the overall physical activity has fallen in China and it is expected to fall further by 2030, if the trend continues, according to the study. But the overall physical activity in China is better than many countries such as the U.S. and Canada, but worse than others, including Finland, Denmark, the U.K., and several African countries.

The WHO’s definition of “physical activity” is inclusive and considers leisurely, work-related and other forms of physical activity. “In most countries, men are more active than women, but interestingly in China, women are more physically active,” Ms. Guthold said.

According to a 2023 study done by Ms. Xie and others at Renmin University, physical activities, social interactions and cognitive activities can help older adults to maintain cognitive health. The study with a sample size around 9,800 elderly, also found that while light and moderate physical activities were beneficial, vigorous physical activity negatively impacted cognition.

Not just dancing

At Ritan Park, a big speaker on a tricycle continued to play slow music and about 20 couples, including Ms. Hu, moved to a song, with some holding their partner’s hands and others with hands around their waists.

“I have known many of them for years and we talk about our families, sons, daughters, cheap vegetables and other things,” she laughed, deepening the wrinkles on her face.

The feeling of friendship was evident in other groups too.

A little away from Ms. Hu’s group, Zhu Guo Quiang takes off his t-shirt. Wearing a pair of black shorts and sunglasses, he effortlessly does multiple 360 degree spins on a pull up bar – Mr. Zhu is 70 years old.

He and four of his friends – all of them shirtless – chit chats and laughs as they continue with their exercise. Two people sitting on a bench watching them are in their 80s and one of them can also do about five pull ups on the bar.

“I have been doing this for over 10 years. I enjoy coming here and we talk about fitness, medical things, current affairs and even about international issues such as Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Palestine,” Mr. Zhu said. “My wife sometimes comes here to dance. But I’m not much of a dancer.”

 Zhu Guo Quiang and his friends at the Ritan Park.
| Photo Credit:
Nikhil M. Babu

Another group of around five elderly is playing ‘Dou Kong Zhu’ (diabolo), a game in which an hourglass-shaped top is balanced and spun on a string stretched between the tips of two sticks.

Li Guo Qiang, 73, throws the top about 20 feet up in the air and catches it on the thread. At times, he throws the top and then skips using the string before it comes down and catches the top with the same thread.

“I have been doing this for more than 10 years, but I have been coming here for over 15 years and playing other games. I like coming here. All of them are my friends,” he said.

Why more?

Explaining the reason behind more elderly people taking up leisurely physical activities, Ms. Xie said: “The current cohort of people who are entering the old age are born in the 1950s and 60s are different from the previous cohorts. Their lifestyle and needs are different as they have more money and free time and they want to do more compared to earlier cohorts of elderly people, who were more focused on family and looking after grandchildren.”

Ms. Xie said that compared to 15 years back, she sees more people dancing or exercising in public spaces in Beijing or her hometown in Chengdu.

About ‘square dancing’, she said it started getting popular around 2015 and earlier, elderly used to dance in closed spaces such as community halls or at a festival, but these were not a regular activities. “But ‘square dancing’ is a form of exercise and it happens almost every day,” she added.

But the overall social network of elderly people in China is showing a declining trend, as per CLASS data, Ms. Xie said. “Number of elderly people living alone and ‘empty nest’ older adults are increasing,” she added. “But there is a difference between urban and rural areas. While social networks in cities are shrinking, it is going up in rural areas as per CLASS surveys.”

Urban v. rural divide

The divide doesn’t stop here. Square dancing and idle activities such as watching TV or reading books are also more popular in urban areas.

Similarly, leisurely physical activity is more in urban areas and work-related physical activity is more in rural areas. “For non-agricultural activities, there is a strict retirement age. But there is no retirement age for farmers. Many people in rural areas are working even after turning 60. They do not want to work, but they have no choice,” she said.

Ms. Xie said physical activity for older people is part of different national policies, especially after 2019. “It will be good not only to the individuals, but also to the society as it will reduce the government’s spending on healthcare for the elderly.”

She said China needs more public spaces for older people to exercise and more programmes and volunteering opportunities for them. “Though the government is increasing facilities for physical activities, it not enough as shown by the CLASS data. Also, more awareness and education is needed on why and how to exercise.”

The professor said China is learning many things from Japan, as they have already super-aged. “We are looking at their old age care systems, long-term care systems etc..”

Ms. Guthold said physical activity will help in the long run to reduce non communicable diseases and even if you start physical activity in old age, you still get benefits. With China ageing fast, this has become a necessity, so that the elderly stay healthy as exercising can lead to better cognition and mental health and social interactions can lead to more live satisfaction also reduce risk of depression, Ms. Xie said.

“For a country like China it is a necessity, because if they don’t try to have active, social connected, and happy old people, they are in trouble as the number of elderly people in China is set to be very high,” Ms. Guthold said.

Meanwhile, at Ritan Park, an elderly man and woman got up from their wheelchairs and tried to move their bodies slowly with a group that was dancing.

As Ms. Hu was about to leave, a friend walked up to her and chatted with her in Mandarin. “She said she hasn’t seen me in two days and she missed me. I also miss dancing when I go to visit my daughter in the U.S. These are all my friends,” she said.

(The correspondent was in China at the invitation of the China Public Diplomacy Association)

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