Aging in the East

Morning exercise gets elderly residents of Beijing, China, out to the parks.
Photo: Pamela K. Johnson, August 2013

When Misao Okawa recently blew out her 116th candle, she also nabbed the bragging rights as the oldest person in the world. She, like the previous world’s oldest person, who died last year at 116, is of Japanese descent.

The island of Okinawa, Japan, is home to world’s largest population of healthy older adults. They stay vital by gardening, exercise and eating nutritious meals until they’re only 80 percent full. They also maintain a sense of purpose, a positive outlook and a rich social network.

While I’ve never been to Japan, several trips to Beijing, China—roughly 1,000 miles to the east of it—have shown me that there’s something useful to learn about aging from Chinese culture, as well. My first trip there in early November 2008 was with a large tour group that arrived around 7 that first morning. Straight from the airport, we descended upon a poor Beijing restaurant, which seemed overwhelmed by our group of 30 or 40 hungry souls, and asked us to wait outside while they rushed to shift tables and chairs, while firing up the pots. The delay turned out to be a lucky stroke because the restaurant was located next to a big park.

With little else to do, we wandered into it. Near the entrance a group of people—most of them 50 years old or better— stood in a circle kicking a shuttlecock with wings, which I later learned was a game called jianzi, with its weighted bottom and brightly colored feathers sprouting from the top. The players were as agile as teenagers, using only their feet to bop the game piece to one another, easily keeping it aloft.

Further into the park we found a hive of activity as people danced, flowed between graceful Tai Chi moves, and played instruments together. Men got rowdy as they slammed down Chinese chess pieces; some drew calligraphy symbols on the ground with huge writing implements; and still others gathered under a tree in a group of perhaps a hundred, to sing heartily from a songbook. That’s when I figured out that “morning exercise” wasn’t random; it was all prearranged. Later I learned that the Chinese say: An hour in the morning is worth two in the evening.

The people in the park appeared to be engaged in a vibrant “third act,” as described by actress Jane Fonda, 76, who gave a Ted Talk on Americans’ potential to age in a more dynamic way. “Many people today—philosophers, artists, doctors, scientists—are taking a new look at…the last three decades of life,” Fonda asserted. Instead of the hill metaphor, where people peak at middle age, followed by a slide to the bottom, she suggested that “aging is a staircase—the upward ascensions of the human spirit, bringing us into wisdom, wholeness and authenticity.”

Though I couldn’t spark up a conversation in Mandarin with the people in the park to ask about Fonda’s theory, I suspect her assessment was right in line with what a Guangzhou physician described as their habit of exercising early on in the day to improve health, instill joy and infuse themselves with youthful vigor.

Drawing from his background in Chinese medicine and acupuncture, Reuben Chen, M.D., a physician in Torrance, CA, suggests that “the morning exercises most people participate in China are general stretches and calisthenics based on Tai Chi. They are very general movements designed to slowly warm up the muscles in the body for the day. Chinese people rarely drink morning coffee, but these basic exercises that many do in schools and in work places help people stay focused in the morning, as well as create a sense of camaraderie among co-workers in the same company.”

Some of these traditions have found their way to California as China’s sons and daughters have relocated here, passing them on. You can find morning and/or evening exercises in Portsmouth Square, Sydney G. Walton Square or Washington Square in San Francisco, and at the Alpine Senior Center near Chinatown in Los Angeles, and Almansor Park in Alhambra.

Entrepreneur Jackie Kuang has witnessed “morning exercise” in both Los Angeles and Beijing; she lives close to the Alpine Senior Center, and has parents who still live near Beijing.

“It’s a wonderful practice,” she said. “People get together and bring their boom box; it gives them a sense of community, belonging… Here when people are stressed out, they work a long day and come home and relax by turning on the TV.”

A sense of isolation can be lead to depression, according to Robert Bornstein, co-author of How to Age in Place, and people who feel lonely all the time have a 14 percent higher risk of dying prematurely than those who don’t, according to a Health and Retirement study of more than 2,000 adults who were 55 and older.

“China has less depression for the older folks,” Kuang said. “In the parks…they can talk to peers, process things happening with their kids, or grandkids, and create a sense of connection to the community outside of the house.” It’s easy for seniors to get there as well, as China also has an affordable and extensive subway system.

While Kuang’s mother doesn’t hang out in the mornings, her father does, as do her former in-laws.

“They do tai chi, gentle exercise, walk around the park, stay around and chat with people they like, and then go to the breakfast market and buy soybean milk and pastries,” she said.

As is Okinawa, food plays a vital role in aging in China as well, said Chen. “Chinese people have a habit of putting many different healing herbs and remedies in their food. Most of what people buy in herbal shops or stores are used as spices in their daily meals. Chinese people aren’t opposed to taking medicine, and if it tastes good in their food, they’re even more excited to take it.”

He said the emphasis is on preventative medicine that improves overall health. “If you visit a Chinese person’s home, they frequently cook many interesting dishes with lots of different spices, and they will tell you which food will help which part of the body.  This is very different from Panda Express or Chinese fast food,” Chen said. Sleep, he added is the third corner of the triangle of morning exercise and diet.

Okawa, the 116-year-old, says her diet­, especially her love of the fresh raw fish known as sashimi, added years to her life.

That emphasis on healthy habits is also common in China, Chen said. People often “take an afternoon nap during lunch time for at least 20 minutes,” he said. “ If you walk into a company at lunch time, you’ll see everyone napping at their desks, until the bell rings for people to begin work again.” He asserts that refreshing afternoon slumber sessions increase productivity as workers head to the close of the day.

But a big part of the activity in the park always circles back around to fun. Five years after I first visited China, I won a grand prize in the Beijing International Screenwriting Competition for a short script I wrote, and I got an opportunity to go back and capture the splendor of a Beijing park on the dawn of a new day.

For a few minutes I hopped in and danced with some of the women, doing the steps as best I could. They welcomed me, and we laughed as we bumped around, feeling joyful and invigorating, while contemplating how cool my own retirement might be one day.

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