Working out to add life to one's days, not days to one's life

A fitness center that caters to all ages is more than just a place to improve physical stamina.
Ti Gong

Elderly people forge new friendships while building up their physical strength.

Wang Rongjiang

The gym rat surnamed Fang does weight training. 

Staying fit is not an exclusive concept at a community fitness center in the Yinhang neighborhood of Yangpu District. Its activities run the gamut from children and young adults to senior citizens and the disabled. 

Established last May, the two-story center is the first of its kind in Shanghai, or maybe even in China. It houses a healthy lifestyle area for the elderly, a rehabilitation room for the disabled, an outdoor playground for children and a gym for the general public. 

According to the staff, the center has about 400 registered elderly members and around 250 registered handicapped members. 

Supported by the neighborhood and operated by Shangti Health Technology and Lefit, the center incorporates charity with business. 

Unlike the typical gym designed in an industrial style and stuffed with exercise machines, the Yinhang community fitness center is bright, warm and friendly. An artificial magnolia tree stands in the center of the hall, with 16 armchairs grouped around the tree to create an enticing area for socializing. 

It’s 9:30 in the morning. Chen Meifang, 82, is riding an exercise bike, along with her two workout partners, Tao Guifen and Ding Jiabao, both in their 60s. All are residents of the neighborhood. 

“Since its establishment in May last year, I have been coming here every day except when I am away from home,” Chen says. “I arrive at 9am and leave at 11am. After lunch at home, I sometimes come back in the afternoon. I feel very happy when I am in the fitness center.” 

As an elderly woman living alone, Chen regards the center as both a health club and a social outing. 

“This place is indispensable in my life,” she says. “I didn’t use to be an outgoing, chatty person, but I am willing to pour out my thoughts to the people here who have become my family members.” 

Wang Rongjiang

Chen Meifang, 82, takes taichi class along with other exercisers.

Tao, 63, tells me she hurriedly prepares breakfast for her family so she can come to the gym early in the morning. 

“For me, going to the center is like going to work,” she says. “Doing physical exercise here has become my daily routine.” 

Wearing a T-shirt, Tao is drenched in sweat after riding an exercise bike for one hour. She admits that the main purpose of working out is to lose weight.

“I am still young,” she tells me repeatedly. “From July to November last year, I lost 5.5 kilograms. However, I regained the weight during Spring Festival. I am one of those people who gain weight by drinking water or breathing air. Never mind. I just start all over again.” 

The fitness center boasts many retired women like Tao, who spent most of their lives doing housework. 

“I moved to the neighborhood in 2015,” says Ding, 65. “I was unfamiliar with the area, and didn’t go out much. In the daytime, I stayed at home alone and felt very lonely. I turned on the TV when I woke up. The voices created the illusion that there were other people in the house talking to me. Gradually, I began to suffer from mild hypochondria.” 

But now, Ding is a totally changed person. She no longer needs TV for company. At the center, there are plenty of people available for a chatting. She no longer takes medication and has come out of her shell. 

“In the beginning, I thought the center was a place only for young people,” she says. “But the friendly staff here welcomed me and offered me advice on exercising.” 

Wang Rongjiang

Elderly fitness center members take time to chitchat in the lounge.

Before and after work-outs, elderly members get their blood pressure taken. The staff offer exercise tips according to the results of the test. They also observe the facial expressions of senior citizens, which give a broader picture of their health status. 

Hsu Yu-hsuan, 26, is the manager of the Yinhang center. She’s a professional fitness instructor who did post-graduate work in sports management at the Shanghai University of Sport. 

Hsu keeps a log of Chen’s blood pressure, which was sometimes unstable. She recommended that Chen do aerobics and whole-body vibration work. Chen’s doctor has confirmed that her health has improved. 

“This job gives me a sense of accomplishment because my advice is helpful for the grannies and grandpas,” says Hsu, who hails from Taiwan. 

Exercise machines, manufactured by Shangti Health Technology, include gear specially designed for older people. For example, the interval of speed changes on the treadmill is longer, and the exercise bike comes equipped with a backrest. 

Hsu says she explains the effects of workouts to the elderly in simple terms they can understand. Strength training, she tells them, will make it easier to hold grandchildren or carry shopping bags. 

Classes such as taichi, yoga, aerobic dance and Chinese folk dance are available to the members as well. 

Sound pricey? On the contrary, the monthly membership fee for the elderly is as low as 99 yuan (US$14.8). 

“That’s 3.3 yuan a day,” Chen points out. “Not even enough to buy dabing (flat bread) or youtiao (fried dough stick). At little cost, we become healthier and happier.” 

Wang Rongjiang

People with disabilities work out in the rehabilitation area.

In the rehabilitation area, about 10 people are doing physical exercises. The area is free of charge for disabled people who live in the neighborhood. 

As I enter the room, some of the exercisers are gathered together discussing with anticipation the next day’s group outing to the ancient watertown of Zhaojialou.

“Eating, sleeping and exercising. These are three most important things in my life right now,” says Xian Zhentai, 72, whose cerebral palsy limits the mobility of his left arm and leg. 

“I arrive at 8 in the morning and always one of the first people here. After months of hard work, I no longer need a wheelchair and can walk by myself.” 

According to Xian, the nearby community hospital also offers rehabilitation services, but they cost money and there are fewer exercise machines available. 

“I want to live longer, so I keep exercising,” Xian explains. 

For the elderly and disabled, muscle tone might not be as well-developed as younger members, but their willpower is often stronger. 

“I don’t want to die in bed,” says a 68-year-old man surnamed Zhang. “I’d rather die on the treadmill.”

He pays 199 yuan a month for admission to the extensive gym on the second floor. It amazes me to learn that this man, who has cancer, runs 7 kilometers a day on a treadmill. His main purpose of working out is to boost his immune system and maintain a positive mindset. 

“I regret there was too much social intercourse when I was young,” Zhang tells me. “An unhealthy lifestyle probably resulted in my cancer. Don’t overwork your body when you are young.” 

Another older gym rat surnamed Fang works out in the second-floor gym, surrounded by younger people. He wears safety work gloves rather than workout gloves when doing weight training. 

“I am able to lift 60 kilograms on the bench press,” says Fang. “I exercise regularly because I don’t want to grow old too quickly.” 

After changing his clothes and shoes, Fang jitterbugs with a partner in a room on the first floor. He tells me he will return to the fitness center after lunch to play some table tennis.

Wang Rongjiang

The cancer patient surnamed Zhang, 68, runs 7 kilometers a day on a treadmill.

Special Reports