Celebrating elevation of fitness as lifestyle

Zac Lowell
Based on what I've observed, the trend toward fitness will likely carry on as Shanghai follows its current path of development ...
Zac Lowell

Last week marked National Fitness Day (August 8), and Shanghai celebrated with a plethora of sport and exercise-themed activities across the city. According to an article published in Shanghai Daily, many community fitness centers, stadiums and other facilities opened free to visitors on the day, which also saw fresh vows from sports authorities for further improvements to the city’s public athletic infrastructure.

As we quoted one local official, downtown residents have less than half the fitness space per capita as people in Beijing, while many of Shanghai’s fitness centers and arenas “are not meeting demand.”

I found such remarks interesting, for a number of reasons. In my own observations, the uptake of fitness and sport has been one of the great unsung changes witnessed in Shanghai over the past decade. The construction of more public sport and fitness spaces has contributed to this trend, of course, and the local government definitely deserves credit for its work in this regard.

But there is more to the story than statistics and per-capita figures might imply. As I see it, sports and exercise have become more popular because they increasingly make sense in relation to other aspects of people’s lives.

If promoting public health through exercise and activity is a goal for Shanghai, it may make sense to focus more broadly on lifestyle aspects which support fitness.

When I first arrived in the city, “working out” meant engaging in a limited number of physical activities with Chinese characteristics — for instance, tai chi, square dancing, morning aerobics, backwards walking, and rubbing your back against a tree were all popular ways to keep bodies moving, mostly among the elderly.

I found such gentle, community-oriented activities to be an interesting and refreshing change from the hormone-fueled, beach-body-obsessed gym culture of the West. Of course, team sports like football and basketball were always popular with university-age crowds, but after graduation it seemed that many young professionals had to hang up their high-tops and cleats as the pressures of adulthood mounted.

I rarely met anyone in these early days who seemed “serious” about fitness as a lifestyle. Joggers and recreational cyclists were also rarely seen on local streets, which still lacked many of the cycling lanes and running paths which exist today. There were a few private gyms in town at the time, but their prices generally reflected the demands of a small, elite clientele.

Organizers of athletic events, including the Shanghai Marathon, had to give away tickets just to get people interested. Outside of a relatively tiny subculture of fitness buffs, the impression I got was that exercising in Shanghai was either about 1) fun-and-games with friends during one’s youth, or 2) a means to stave off health problems and potentially costly doctor’s visits in one’s twilight years.

Fast forward a decade and we can see that students are still playing ball, the elderly are still square dancing; but they aren’t the only ones keeping active these days. Day and night, people can be seen jogging in my neighborhood near Hongqiao Road, which is also popular with Lycra-clad cyclists on carbon frames given its many unbroken straightaways.

Promoting public health

The number of private gyms has exploded, as have their members, who often queue during peak hours just to use treadmills, weight benches or other pieces of gym equipment. Similarly, tickets for the Shanghai Marathon are now some of the hottest in town, as are those for many other contests and competitions.

Although data is hard to come by, observation would suggest that many of those who are new to the fitness trend are young adults and middle-aged people. Marketers might define this group as part of China’s emerging middle class, a growing demographic which now has more time and money to focus on personal interests, and wellbeing, than it did even a few years ago. Indeed, the individual gains in wealth and leisure time that have come with increased prosperity and development have arguably been as important to encouraging exercise as the creation of new facilities. If people are stressed about money, working long hours of overtime, feeling insecure, commuting long distances, or burdened by errands, it stands to reason that they will have less energy for fitness.

Indeed, lack of time and an abundance of pressure have often been cited as reasons why many young people do not, according to many experts, get enough exercise. Efforts to promote public health through exercise and activity should take a holistic approach and look at lifestyles more generally. Based on what I’ve observed, the trend toward fitness will likely carry on as Shanghai follows its current path of development — provided, of course, that this development continues to bring general improvements in quality of life.

This will require the coordination of efforts between sports authorities and officials involved in planning, urban design and workplace management, among others. Sports officials should, by all means, continue to build and improve the city’s fitness infrastructure, but the fruits of such labor can be increased by urban upgrades and human-centered initiatives that make everyone’s life better and easier.

Zac Lowell used to work as a copy editor at Shanghai Daily. He now studies in Germany.

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