South China Morning Post
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Kelly Yang says a heavy academic workload is no excuse for our children not to exercise. It’s up to parents to lead the way to fitness
Two teenagers who hadn’t seen each other in almost a year because one is in boarding school recently bumped into each other at my office. They hugged each other, talking a mile a minute, in the way that teenagers do. “We should hang out!” one said. “Totally!” the other replied. I waited for them to make plans to go to the beach or on a hike. Instead, one excitedly asked, “You want to do lunch sometime?”
I’m sorry, but when did “doing lunch” become a thing for the young? When I was a child, hanging out meant hanging out – as in outside, preferably with a bike, ball or frisbee. If someone asked me to do lunch, I would have looked them in the eye and said: “Do I look like my mum to you?”
But times have changed and, apparently, kids now do lunch. The latest study released by the University of Hong Kong shows that our children are far less fit than their peers on the mainland and around the world. More than a quarter are overweight or obese. Our boys’ heart and lung fitness levels are worse than those of boys in Europe. Our girls’ flexibility was below average, too.
Many blame academic pressure, but I disagree. While it’s true that the pressure is probably more intense today than it was 10 years ago, academic learning and exercise are not mutually exclusive. It’s entirely possible to prioritise academics while still getting enough exercise.
Children simply don’t want to. Every Sunday morning, I ask my five-year-old son whether he wants to go hiking with me and the answer is always the same: no way! A 2013 study done in Britain revealed children today would rather read, do chores and even homework than play outside. As a result, they spend half as much time outdoors as their parents did.
This is a tragedy, not just because exercising is fun and stress-relieving but also because not exercising can literally kill us. We, as parents, need to stop treating exercise as an optional activity, something to do when there’s nothing good on TV. We need to start treating it with the life-saving respect it deserves. In doing so, we probably need to make a few other changes too – like not letting our domestic helpers carry our children’s school bags, taking away our kids’ gaming consoles, and hitting the parks at the weekend instead of the malls. We should probably “do lunch” less ourselves.
As a city, it also means we need to prioritise the health of our environment. A few times recently, the pollution has been so bad that I’ve had to say to my kids, “Come on, let’s go home for some fresh air”. This is funny when you say it to people in the US or the UK; it’s not so funny when it affects your life. The government needs to step up its efforts to reduce pollution, if not for environmental reasons, then for purely economic ones: obesity, diabetes and heart problems are expensive.
And so, every Sunday, no matter how much my son protests, I drag him out hiking with me. He can complain all he wants; his whines and objections are no match for a mother’s love.
Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.