Beijing students failing in health, fitness: Survey

When Song Jingxia, an English teacher at Beijing Guangqumen Middle School, learned during the National People's Congress that an average Japanese teenager is more physically fit than a Chinese teen, she wasn't surprised.

"Emotionally, it's hard to accept, but I believe it is the reality. Chinese students are getting much less physical activity than children in Japan," Song said on Tuesday after a news conference announcing the results of the 2013 Beijing students physical fitness survey.

The survey shows a decline in the overall health and fitness of Chinese teenagers and demonstrates the need for more effective measures to help students develop healthy lifestyles, educators and legislators said.

Song's concerns were reflected in the survey, which was undertaken last year by the Beijing Municipal Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Its conclusions are worrying: Among 1.3 million Beijing primary and secondary school students polled, 21.46 per cent of them were obese, while 62.96 per cent suffered from poor eyesight.

The blood volume of 17-year-olds - an overall measure of vitality - dropped by 150 ml for males and 48 ml for females, compared with results in 2012.

Meanwhile, some chronic diseases have started to hamper the health of teenagers. Among 401 junior and senior high school students, 45.1 per cent of respondents were diagnosed with fatty livers and 30.7 per cent were found with hypertension.

The results mirrored public concern that the emphasis on academic excellence in China's basic education, which is heavily oriented to the all-important gaokao - the national college entrance exam - has forced many schools to replace physical education with extra tutoring and exams and cancel extracurricular sports activities around major tests.

Including a physical education test as part of the gaokao might encourage more schools to boost the time and quality of sports participation on campus while encouraging parents to replace various tutoring programs with physical exercises, a member of the Beijing CPPCC committee suggested.

"As the baton of our entire education system, gaokao plays a pivotal role. It has a huge impact on curriculum and education planning, so we should really think about the possibility of adding sports testing to it," said Li Ran, vice-president of the committee's education, culture, health and sports commission.

Song supported Li on the positive influence that including fitness in the gaokao might have but predicted that the reform won't happen quickly.

"Which physical activities to test, how to relate students' sports performance with scores in the exam and how much weight should be given to a sports test are all issues yet to be considered," Song said.

Besides academic pressure, a lack of sports facilities and physical education faculty on campuses has been an obstacle for students.

Only 13.41 per cent of the 1,148 primary and secondary schools in Beijing were equipped with a full-length 400 meter running track by 2013, and 1,000 more physical education teachers were needed, according to the survey.

Governments and local education authorities should provide funding to cover fees for students to use commercial fitness centers around their schools and to purchase exercise services, one report about the survey suggested.

Li also urged the country's legislature to revise the education law, legally guaranteeing the time and content of mandatory on-campus exercise for students.

Du Hong, deputy director of the department of disease prevention and control under the city's health and family planning commission, pointed out that unhealthy diets are also a cause of the declining fitness of students.

"Students don't consume enough cereals, potatoes, vegetables, fruits and dairy products, while they take in too much oil and salt," she said.

In order to curb the threat, the city has launched a five-year programme to help teachers, students and parents eat better, Du said.

On Tuesday, the city's health and family planning commission issued a dietary guide for students, which informs students and their parents what and how much they should eat every day, and how much they should exercise to balance out the calories they take in from different snacks.

Zhang Long, an official with the city's education commission, said as part of the programme the city's authorities will train staff workers in school canteens to offer a healthier diet to students.