Spotlight China’s fitness revolution
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China’s fitness revolution

Beijing is launching a National Fitness Plan that will attempt to incorporate regular physical exercise into the weekly routine of more than one billion people, and a new workout craze from Australia intends to be part of the program

June 16, 2017 10:01 PM (UTC+8)

Deng Xiaoping, the architect of modern China, changed world history with a raft of economic reforms that were launched with his now famous rallying cry: “To get rich is glorious.”

And China did get richer. And heavier. Almost 100 million people in China are now formally obese and the World Food Program has indicated that 23% of boys and 14% of girls under 20 are overweight or obese. According to medical journal, The Lancet, in 2016 China had the greatest number of obese people in the world.

China being China, the State of course has a grand plan. The 2016 “Healthy China 2030” blueprint spans environment management, the medical industry, food and drug safety and public health services.

Traditionally, China’s public health system, in both primary and community level facilities, were severely under-resourced which meant the health care emphasis was very much on cure not palliative prevention. To exacerbate this, as China’s economy changed, then so did its eating habits. A diet that had, on the whole, been historically balanced, had to contend with the introduction of a plethora of low-cost, high-sugar, high-salt and high-oil meals and snacks.

The Healthy China program intends to tackle these issues head on. There is a commitment to providing universal modern healthcare by 2020 and the State is also introducing health education into school curriculums. It is now promoting a “health as habit” program that intends to bump up life expectancy and bring China’s healthcare to the same standards as high-income North American and Western European economies.

The World Health Organisation has framed all of this as a move by the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, to “put health at the centre of the country’s entire policy-making machinery” and in 2016, China’s State Council ratified a new 2016-2020 National Fitness Plan that ambitiously plans to incorporate regular physical exercise and sports activities into the weekly routine of more than one billion citizens by 2020.

Liu Qing, the deputy secretary-general of the Chinese Association of Sports Industry, told state broadcaster Xinhua that fitness will become a “pillar in the national economy” and if the targets are met, health and fitness expenditure is estimated to reach RMB1.5 trillion (US$ 220 billion).

One player about to enter this burgeoning fitness and health market is global workout craze ZUU. Created by Australian fitness guru Nathan Helberg, it’s comes under the umbrella of the in-vogue workout trend that the fitness industry knows as High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). But, according to Nathan, there is much more to it than that.

ZUU uses a sequence of movements from the animal kingdom (hence the name) and turns them into human exercise sequences. These movements are pushes, pulls, bends, twists, squats, lunges and locomotions with names like the bear crawl, the frog squat and the donkey kick.

It’s a workout that blends martial arts such as wushu and tai chi with the urban street-gymnastic sport parkour but also incorporates other elements, including breakdance moves and boxing training.

It has been used as “on site” elite fitness training, in places where weights and machines aren’t generally accessible, for the likes of the British Royal Marines and Special Air Service, specialist rapid response police squads in Australia, England Rugby and the Australian Football League. But increasingly, ZUU is also being used by clinical phycologists and occupational therapists in hospitals, clinics and special needs schools and this, says Nathan, is because of the unique emphasis that ZUU places on both mobility and inclusiveness

“ZUU is not about just getting a six pack” says the straight-talking but warmly self-deprecating Nathan. “It’s just as much about giving a hug and saying ‘well done’. There is a strong group dynamic to every workout we run that involves interaction between everyone involved. A group could include a world champion, a disabled guy and a person who wants to get fitter. It doesn’t matter. The session will still work and that’s because it is physical but it’s also mental and social.”

Nathan, who stands just 1.7 metres tall, says he started developing the sequence of movements in 2009 because “I wanted to lose 30 kilos and also beat my much bigger and taller brother at wrestling”. He achieved both in a year, he says with a laugh, and did so after studying a plethora of fitness regimes and martial arts and “reading book after book”. He came up with the movement sequence and in doing he realised how neglected a real understanding of movement and mobility is, in all sports.

“Like animals, we are born with mobility,” says Nathan. “Making organics movements should be natural to us… But when I started working with elite athletes I was stunned how much mobility they lacked. And I started to realise, this deficiency is not just a sign of weakness. It actually means you are close to an injury.” A potentially crucial issue in China’s changing medical landscape.

ZUU is opening its first workout space in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen in July and Nathan is confident his program – that has grown from a home-spun workout regime to something akin to a worldwide martial art, complete with six levels of advancement – will valuably fill a void.

With typical humility Nathan points to the fact that he has so far successfully demonstrated the importance of an injury-prevention based fitness program to some of the most demanding military and sports teams in the world and is quietly confident he can do the same in China. Nathan says ZUU touches on so many themes important in today’s China: the need for an escape from a stressful workplace; the search for a sense of belonging; and the desire for fitness, for modernity and for motivation. He also says his workout has direct connections to China’s sporting and cultural heritage.

“ZUU is so much about fluidity of movement, which is similar to so many martial arts. But we also bring a sense of belonging. A culture of mutual respect. These things really matter in China. We are about leadership, helping out the weaker guy. And we are about injury prevention, also important in modern China. Health is essential to any successful society.”

The story of modern China is that under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, between 1979 and 1997, the country’s GDP grew at almost 10 percent a year, roughly three times the world average. More than 170 million people were subsequently lifted out of poverty which allowed that generation to make history by driving the biggest economic transformation the planet has ever seen. The next step could see China become the globe’s healthiest nation. And ZUU fully intends to be a partner in this new mission.

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