A middle school in eastern China has instituted a weight-loss program for students returning to campus after spending months at home due to COVID-19, but experts say the well-intentioned initiative could do physical and psychological harm.
According to a report Thursday by China News Service, Huai’an Shuguang Bilingual School in Jiangsu province is aiming to improve students’ physical fitness by making them run for at least 100 minutes each day, after school administrators determined that many of the children had gained weight while under home isolation.
“I realized that the students were probably very well-fed and well-rested while staying at home, so many of them became fat and weak,” Zhu Yongqian, the school’s vice principal, told CNS.
At least one person affected appears to be enthusiastic about the initiative. “I think our principal really cares about us,” Ji Yutong, a student at the school, told domestic outlet The Cover. “He makes the entire class run with those of us who are a bit plump so we don’t feel inferior.”
In the absence of exercise and a normal routine, gaining weight during an extended period of home isolation is only natural, says Mi Jie, a cardiovascular disease expert at the National Center for Children’s Health in Beijing.
“Weight management is necessary,” Mi told Sixth Tone. “In China, the obesity rates of school-age children have increased dramatically in recent years.”
A 2019 survey found that one in five Chinese children over the age of 7 was overweight or even obese in 2014, a 15% increase from 1985. The 2014 figure of around 20% was comparable to the current childhood obesity rate in the U.S.
According to a 2018 UNICEF report co-authored by Mi, over 28% of school-age children in China — 49 million kids — may be overweight or obese by 2030.
A screenshot shows Zhu Yongqian, the vice principal of Huai’an Shuguang Bilingual School, running with students in Huai’an, Jiangsu province, May 6, 2020. From Weibo
However, running for 100 minutes a day might not be the best get-in-shape medicine for all students.
“Too much exercise for those who are overweight could injure their joints,” Mi said. “Moreover, obesity tends to be accompanied by conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, so intense physical activity could lead to low blood sugar or even cardiac arrest.”
According to Mi, low body weight doesn’t equate to physical fitness. “Children are still growing and developing,” she said. “It’s possible that the extra kilograms they put on are from muscle or bone.”
Other experts suggest that too much emphasis on being thin may contribute to a pervasive social stigma against those who are overweight.
“People associate being fat with negative qualities like laziness or stupidity, and that’s hurting children’s feelings,” Yu Wenle, a mental health counselor at a middle school in Xiamen, told Sixth Tone. “If schools try to point (students) toward a specific aesthetic, it might drive them to pay too much attention to their physical appearance, which could affect their self-esteem.”
Teenagers are especially susceptible to body image issues, especially in the current culture that regards slenderness as an ideal, says He Lingfeng, a psychologist at Shanghai University of Sport.
“Adolescence is a critical period for developing one’s identity, so teens really care about what others think of them,” He told Sixth Tone. “One critical remark could make them lose confidence completely. As a result, they might develop a fear of public speaking, and miss out on other opportunities down the road.”
While He supports the idea of children getting more exercise at school, losing weight shouldn’t be the focus, he says.
“The school’s intentions were good, but helping students be fit should be the only goal,” he said. “Labeling students based on their body weight is discrimination.”
Editor: David Paulk.
(Header image: Students do morning exercises at a school in Kunming, Yunnan province, Dec. 4, 2018. People Visual)