Two videos caught wide attention online recently. One shows a class of first-year junior middle school students in Yichang City of Hubei Province demonstrating their pitiable physical fitness condition in a pull-up test. To meet the eligibility criteria, seventh-graders should be able to do four pull-ups, eighth-graders five, and ninth-graders six. Yet of the total of 20 students in the class, only two did more than two, one did one, and the rest none!
A PE teacher told reporters that the class was not alone, as out of the entire first grade, only seven reached the passing level and none got full marks. “The students are getting increasingly worse in the events requiring flexibility, nimbleness and skills,” sighed the teacher.
The other video shows a class of kindergarten children in Japan performing their amazing physical force and skills. The boys and girls aged 6 or 7 from a kindergarten in Kyushu took turns doing cartwheels, performing somersaults, doing backbends, jumping over a box 20 centimeters taller than their height, and then walking on their hands.
If you take the poor performance of the students in Yichang as an individual case, you are wrong. Actually this is a nationwide phenomenon. According to a China Youth News report on Dec. 12, 2016, in a physical fitness test conducted in a prestigious high school in Shanghai, less than a third of the participating boys reached the standard for the pull-up test. Quite a few could not complete a single move. Worst of all, many did not even want to try.
The 2014 China National Constitution Monitoring Report (released every five years) revealed an alarming picture: over the past 20 years, there was a steady decline in the muscle strength of the upper limbs and backs of middle school students. Ironically, the standard for adolescent fitness has been repeatedly lowered over the past 30 years. By the National Physical Fitness Standard released in 1989, a senior middle school student was required to do 10 pull-ups to reach the standard, yet only a handful of the students can meet that standard today.
The generally deteriorating physical constitution of adolescents and youth is beyond my understanding. In my 20s and 30s, I could do over 20 pull-ups with ease, though I did not regularly exercise then. Currently, in my mid-60s, I can do 100 push-ups in two groups, outperforming many young people, thanks to my regularly working out at a gym.
Needless to say, the chief cause for the serious decline in adolescent health is the general negligence of physical education for young people by parents as well as by society as a whole.
It sounds like a paradox that the younger generations are degenerating in constitution though they are getting taller as a result of the fast-improving living standards. A closer look at their daily lives will tell us why. To some degree, they are too well-fed, exercise too little and focus on studies too much.
Confronted with the cut-throat competition in education and employment, most Chinese parents are forced to make achieving academic excellence the top priority in rearing their children. The well-known slogan “Losing to nobody at the starting line” reflects the parents’ anxieties. Chinese parents know better than their counterparts in other countries that education may change their destiny and that for kids from the middle- and lower-classes of society, success in school is the surest way to climb up the social ladder.
Chinese parents have every reason to attach great importance to education, but they should recognize and define education once again. Education encompasses far more than grades and degrees. Without physical and mental health, neither a career nor fortune in the future is available. There have been too many sad stories about the younger population’s declining health and premature deaths. It’s estimated that about 600,000 people die from overwork nationwide every year, and most of them are young people.
The government, which has valued the importance of citizens’ health, should take more effective measures to curb the decline of adolescent health and to improve national health. Physical education in schools must be further strengthened and curriculum must include more sports events. Incentive mechanisms must be set up to encourage wider participation in sports.
(The author is an English tutor and freelance writer)