In 2014 Jay Maddock, a professor of public health at Texas A&M University in the US, was on a research trip to China when one aspect of local culture caught his attention. “I took a walk to a park near my hotel in the city of Nanchang and noticed hundreds of elderly people exercising together,” he says.
Intrigued, Maddock decided to gather data about elderly park use across eight parks in Nanchang. “We found that more than 50% of users are older adults,” he says. “In the US no study has ever found more than 15%.”
It’s a picture replicated across China: rather than solo runners or cyclists, the most common demographic in parks are large groups of pensioners. Early every morning crowds of elderly people flock to public parks for their daily exercise routine, including dancing, Qiqong or even light gymnastics. Many take advantage of exercise equipment like ellipticals and pulldown machines aimed at light cardio workouts and gentle strength training. These colourful exercise machines can resemble children’s playgrounds, but are targeted at seniors.
As governments around the world seek to keep ageing populations healthy for longer than ever before, ‘senior playgrounds’ are being introduced outside China. Cities including London, Berlin and Toronto all have dedicated senior playgrounds. Yet building these facilities is just one aspect of creating a culture in which pensioners feel confident exercising.