A growing number of young people are becoming overweight or even obese as a result of poor diets and sedentary lifestyles, as Wang Keju reports.
Children prepare for weight-loss swimming workout at a boot camp in Zhengzhou, Henan province. (ZHANG TAO / FOR CHINA DAILY)
After four months of self-harm, followed by 12 weeks' therapy and almost a year quarreling with her parents, Hong Yuan arrived in Beijing in May.
She had traveled more than 1,760 kilometers from her home in Chengdu, capital of the southwestern province of Sichuan, to attend a boot camp for young people who are overweight.
At 1.63m tall, the 17-year-old used to weigh 82 kilograms, far heavier than most girls of the same age and height. "Every minute feels like hell when you are fat. I can't do a thing because the thought of losing weight haunts me all the time," said the second year high school student.
Every minute feels like hell when you are fat
Hong Yuan, a 17-year-old girl who used to weigh 82 kilograms
As she spoke, she was running on a treadmill in a gym. Looking pale, covered in sweat and out of breath, she rubbed her stomach constantly to ease her period pain.
Even though her trainer told her three times to take the day off, Hong turned a deaf ear and continued running for another 40 minutes.
"Despite the upcoming college entrance examination, I have left everything behind to lose weight here. I cannot afford to waste a whole day lying in bed," she said, referring to the gaokao, the grueling national college entrance exam. She drank a little hot water and rested for 15 minutes before starting to run again.
About 20 meters away, in another gym at the complex, 33 flabby children and teenagers were lifting barbells to the sound of pounding music as a trainer shouted through a microphone, urging them to carry on.
A new phenomenon
Thirty years ago, overweight or obese young people were rarely seen in China, so weight-loss boot camps didn't exist. However, they have become common in recent years as a result of unhealthy diets and diminishing levels of exercise.
In 2015, there were 15.3 million obese children in China, the highest number in any country, according to a report published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Experts estimate that about one in four Chinese age 7 and older will be obese within 10 years.
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, there were 300 million people age 19 and younger in China last year.
In June, the Report on Childhood Obesity in China, compiled by a number of bodies, including Peking University's School of Public Health, predicted that without intervention the proportion of overweight or obese children ages 7 to 18 will hit 28 percent by 2030.
The report, based on data from nine mainland cities, said the proportion of overweight people within the age group had risen to 12.2 percent in 2014 from 2.1 percent in 1985, while the rate of obesity had soared to 7.3 percent from 0.5 percent.
(Sources: CIA World Factbook, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation)
"Obesity was neither an epidemic nor a public health problem in the 1980s, but now it's a growing and disturbing health crisis nationwide," said Mi Jie, director of the Epidemiology Research Center at the Capital Institute of Pediatrics in Beijing.
"Genetics, diet and exercise habits all play important roles in the accelerating incidence of obesity. With no radical changes in genetics, unbalanced nutrition, rich in fats and sugar, and a lack of physical activity are the main causes."
Last year, Hong gained 15 kg because of a lack of physical activity at school and a sedentary lifestyle at home. "I could lie on the bed for a whole weekend watching Japanese animations and reading comic books on my iPad," she said.
She often felt guilty about not exercising and forced herself to accept a strict diet of boiled eggs, vegetables and low-sugar fruits such as grapefruit and kiwis.
"But diets only lead to anorexia or overeating, both of which are bad for one's health. Unfortunately, I tend toward the latter," she said, reflecting on how the diet backfired and resulted in depression, anxiety and weight gain.
In common with many Chinese people, Hong's parents thought a chubby child was adorable and blessed. They didn't realize her weight was an issue until she started provoking pointless quarrels and began self-harming by cutting herself.
"It's not only a physical problem now, but also a physiological problem," Hong's mother said.
Eventually, the family decided to pay 39,000 yuan (US$5,883) to send Hong to the Renrenpang International Weight Training Camp, which started in May and will end later this month.
At the camp, everyone exercises for five hours a day, six days a week - two-hour workouts morning and afternoon, followed by an hour's training in the evening.
15.3 million, number of obese children in China in 2015
"We initiated fat camp for students in 2013, and 60 signed up. This summer we have more than 200 students from across the country. The youngest is age 9," said Nan Ming, a weight-loss coach.
At 1.65m tall but weighing 80 kg, 9-year-old Bobo (not his real name) has attended the boot camp for the past two years. The difference this year is that his father has joined him. "Like father like son. Neither of us likes doing sports. So I thought, 'Why not lose a year's weight in one month?'" Bobo's father said.
Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Child and Adolescent Health at Peking University, said parents should act as positive role models for their children. "Parents should set an example when it comes to getting their kids out of doors. The children of adults who do not engage in sporting activities are much less likely to undertake any exercise, which will no doubt lead to weight gain or even obesity."
According to Bobo's father, the pressure to excel academically and win places at the best schools and universities is a major contributor to the problem. That's because many children use their leisure time to study for events such as the Aoshu, the Mathematics Olympiad, and other extracurricular classes, or to practice piano and other instruments. As a result, many children are too exhausted to exercise, he said.
(Sources: CIA World Factbook, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation)
"Would parents accept it if being 1 kg over the standard weight resulted in 10 points being deducted from their child's score in the school entrance examination? I don't think so," he added.
To address the problem, the government established the SunnySport project in 2007. It requires primary and middle schools to hold at least one 60-minute group exercise session on days when there are no physical education classes.
However, despite the good intentions, implementation is often poor in rural areas, according to some observers. "Schools in big cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, may have implemented this project well. However, at schools in rural areas, where the equipment is poor and there is little attention from teachers and parents, exam scores are still king," said Hou Jingwen, an English teacher at No. 2 Middle School in Renxian county, which has a population of 370,000, in the northern province of Hebei.
According to a study published by the European Society of Cardiology last year, the proportion of overweight or obese boys in rural China soared to 17.20 percent from 0.03 percent between 1985 and 2014, while the figure for girls jumped to 9.11 percent from 0.12 percent.
"In the past two years, we have seen children from the rural areas of Shaanxi and Henan provinces attend the boot camp. Before, the number was zero," said Nan, the weight-loss coach.
Hong has lost 20 kg, and now weighs 60 kg. In the past three and half months, she has become optimistic and more self-confident. Next month, she will return to Chengdu and restart school.
"I hope that next time I come to Beijing, it will be to start my life at college," she said.
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