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    Beijing to Residents: Get Off the Couch

    City opens gyms to help increasingly overweight citizens shed pounds.

    As China’s athletes descend on Rio de Janeiro to compete for Olympic gold, the government of Beijing is coming up with creative ways to get those at home to exercise — namely, by organizing a “National Fitness Day” on Aug. 8 and opening up school gyms to the public.

    Beijing residents will enjoy free or heavily subsidized membership to athletic facilities in their residential communities, according to a mid-July amendment to the city’s fitness regulations, a group of rules that govern physical education activities and resources. The new measure means many public schools will have to open up their sports facilities to nearby residents.

    The policy change comes as obesity and related health conditions like heart disease and diabetes have risen sharply in China, following growing disposable incomes and availability of sugary and fatty foods. Some 15.6 percent of students attending Beijing primary and secondary schools were considered obese last year, according to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a 5.6 percent increase from five years ago, and national figures show similar numbers.

    Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Sixth Tone by e-mail that a shift among Chinese consumers to eating more processed foods and edible oils has contributed to the obesity epidemic. But, he said, “First and foremost was the huge decline in physical activity.”

    The number of gym memberships in China has increased by 4 to 5 million yearly since 2011, but despite China’s fitness industry growing as quickly as its waistlines in recent years, working out remains a luxury to many Beijing residents. Monthly gym memberships can start at 300 yuan ($45), while individual fitness classes cost between 75 and 150 yuan each. For context, the average monthly salary in Beijing is about 6,500 yuan.

    Many young people find the cost of exercise off-putting, or would simply prefer to spend money on more gratifying pursuits such as shopping or eating. “I would rather spend that money on a dinner with friends than a yoga class,” said Jiang Meiyi, 26, a salesperson at a Beijing department store.

    Moreover, many private gyms are concentrated in Beijing’s city center, leaving residents living on the periphery feeling neglected. “When you are done with a day’s work, you just want to go home, not to the gym,” said Xu Wei, 27, who works at a mobile hardware company. He told Sixth Tone that he spent 800 yuan to buy a three-month gym membership but decided not to renew recently because it was too far from his home in a suburb outside Beijing’s Fifth Ring Road.

    Beijing’s new rules would target such areas with a scarcity of fitness facilities and coordinate with local school officials to determine operating hours, costs, and safety regulations. Many elementary and middle schools already have a track and a gym and are located next to large residential communities. Opening school facilities to nearby residents may give a greater portion of the city’s residents access to athletic facilities, Sun Jinqiu, a representative from the Beijing Sports Federation, told Sixth Tone.

    However, some residents worry about the quality of sports facilities at public schools.

    “What if too many people go?” Zhang Zhiwei, a retired 65-year-old whose apartment complex is next to an elementary school with an outdoor track, told Sixth Tone. “It’s not going to be like a private gym, I’m sure!”

    The July amendment is not the first measure undertaken by the Beijing government to curb obesity in the city. In 2010, local officials issued 600,000 tape measures to children in public schools so they could take them home and measure their family members’ waists as a way to encourage weight loss. Another guideline established in June of this year placed the responsibility for adolescents maintaining a healthy weight on public school teachers.

    A recent notice from the Beijing Social Sports Management Center asks communities to “implement, develop, and upgrade urban dance fitness programs,” referring to the public group dances popular among middle-aged and elderly Chinese women.

    But experts caution that opening up public physical education facilities is only one component for achieving a healthier populace. The University of Washington’s Maria Ng, the principal researcher behind a study into obesity in China, told Sixth Tone that changes in genetics and the environment also contribute to the problem. “Because the cause of obesity is so complex, it is challenging to find a single intervention with guaranteed effectiveness,” she said.

    (Header image: An elderly man exercises at a park in Beijing on Sept. 26, 2014. Wang Zhao/AFP/VCG)