As rapid cultural shifts take place in China, the country’s aging population is becoming less likely to engage in physical activity, finds a new study that followed more than 60,000 adults in China across two decades of their lives.
The study did not examine physical activity in isolation, but instead analyzed changing levels of physical activity in the context of the effects of both age and China’s modernization.
[Photo: Dr. Shu Wen Ng]
The research paper, “Age, period and cohort effects on adult physical activity levels from 1991 to 2011 in China,” was published online April 19 in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.
Co-author Dr. Shu Wen Ng is a research associate professor of nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Dr. Ng and her co-author used data collected by the China Health and Nutrition Survey over a 20-year period to find trends in physical activity levels among Chinese adults.
“China’s rapidly aging population, combined with sweeping economic and environmental changes, make it especially important to understand how demographics relate to physical activity at work and at home,” Dr. Ng said. “To address the country’s shifting economic and environmental factors, our models account for individual, household and community-level measures of education, asset and technology ownership, and urbanization.”
The researchers used a novel approach that assessed individual differences in work-related and domestic physical activity over time (age effect) as well as population-wide differences in physical activity over time (period effect). They also assessed differences in the experienced period effect across individuals of varying ages (cohort effect).
“We expected to see the overall reduction in physical activity at work and at home over time, especially among women,” Dr. Ng said. “That has been documented before. What was interesting was learning that these changes were driven not just by aging, but also a combination of period and cohort effects. Those in younger cohorts are now starting with even lower baseline activity levels than older generations did. As physical activity levels will only continue to drop from this already relatively low point, this will result in a less and less active adult population in China as time goes by.”
This trend has developed simultaneously with the modernization and urbanization of China. The study found that owning vehicles, televisions and/or computers, being overweight or obese, and receiving higher education were all indicators that a given adult would be less likely to engage in physical activity at work or at home. Adults who owned bicycles, had larger families and/or held non-professional jobs, on the other hand, were more likely to participate in physical activity. Overall, the data show that levels of active leisure and active transportation remain low.
These findings highlight the importance of a focused response to the lack of physical activity among adults in China. The private sector, including employers, as well as nongovernmental organizations, will need to work in unison to promote active lifestyles across all domains of daily life and throughout the entire life cycle.
“Encouraging active lifestyles from a young age is particularly important,” Dr. Ng said, “because it sets individuals on an improved trajectory of physical activity behavior.”
Without meaningful change, research predicts that the financial burdens of health concerns caused by lack of physical activity will become enormous in the future, both for individuals and for China as a whole.