With all the stories from China about dangerous toys, environmental
abuses, crowded and dirty cities and widespread poverty, it's
hard to imagine how the Chinese can live to a ripe old age.
But they do, with spectacular success, boasting of a life
expectancy surprisingly close to that in the United States.
China manages this feat while paying a fraction of the healthcare
cost per capita spent in the United States, too.
How do they do it? Perhaps by stretching, twisting, dancing
or otherwise exercising their way to good health en masse.
U.S. and China, by the numbers
The United States has by far the highest level of health
spending per capita in the world: nearly $6,100 or 15.4 percent
of the GDP, according the World Health Organization. Scandinavian
countries, with their universal healthcare coverage, pay less
than half of this.
Yet the United States has one of the lowest life expectancies
among developed nations, at about 78 years, which is lower
than Cuba's and marginally beats Slovenia, according to
United Nation's figures.
Meanwhile, China spends only $277 per capita, or 4.7 percent
of its GDP, on healthcare expenditures and has on average
a life expectancy of 73 years.
Admittedly five years is a big gap, and spending only 4.7
percent of the GDP on health is small compared to other countries,
which mostly spend between 5–10 percent. But this life
expectancy average absorbs the high infant mortality rate
in rural areas. In cities like Beijing and Shanghai, life
expectancy is around 80 years, according to the Chinese Municipal
Center for Disease Control.
Hong Kong has one of the highest life expectancies in the
world, at over 82 years, followed closely by Chinese-ruled
Macau, at nearly 81 years, according to the U.N.
If you ever visited China, you might find these statistics
unbelievable. Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai are filthy,
with horrible air quality and tap water that needs to be boiled.
Smoke and spit await you at every storefront. You return to
your hotel with grimy hands that turn the sink black.
Is it the Chinese traditional medicine keeping people healthy,
or something much more preventive?
Traveling through three major Chinese cities—Beijing,
the capital; Wuhan, a large, central city near the Three Gorges
Dam; and Guangzhou, a metropolis of over 11 million here in
the south, near Hong Kong—one unifying feature has become
readily apparent: Every morning and every night there are
people, particularly older folks, thousands of them, who gather
publicly to exercise.
As I walk the streets, I see one group practicing tai chi;
another group is wrapped up in some hybrid form of line dancing
and aerobics; circles of four to six people play a Chinese
version of hacky sack; others meet for ballroom dancing.
These cities all have outdoor fitness areas, too, with chin-up
bars and enticing exercise contraptions that are actually
used. There seems to be no end to the number of people and
the number of activities.
Staying limber, staying connected
The United States has its joggers, bikers, skaters and punks
racing away from cops. There's no shortage of exercising
here, particularly since the jogging revolution in the 1970s.
In China's big cities, however, exercising seems more
widespread and woven into the culture. The social interaction
seems to be as important as the calories burned and the joints
lubricated. Most heartening is the number of older people
out and about, fighting the isolation that often comes with
old age in the United States.
Could it be that public exercise, as common as tea drinking
here, helps ward off the cancers, strokes and organ diseases
that surely would come from living in a polluted city? My
sense is that if more Americans got out and just moved, we'd
spend less on treating diseases and bump up our life expectancy
to a level worthy of a civil society.