On the grounds of the Bodyworks weight loss campus in Beijing, 30 tubby men and women sweat profusely, gasping for air as they pound the treadmills in an exercise room.
They represent a shocking new statistic in the world’s most populous country. According to some estimates, one-third of China’s population — about 429 million — are overweight or obese, prime candidates for diabetes and heart disease.
China is growing fatter faster than any developing nation except Mexico, with grave implications for the work force and economic growth in the world’s second-biggest economy.
At the Bodyworks campus, they range in age from seven to 55 and come from across China. Each pays 30,000 yuan (US$4,696) for the six-week program.
For their money, they receive balanced meals and exercise for six hours each day. The regimen includes weight training, running, yoga and football.
“For the first two to three weeks, it was especially hard. I cried on the phone to my parents and told my father, ‘I can’t make it,’” said Zhang Fang, a 28-year-old employee with China Unicom from Shanxi Province. “My mother said: ‘If you don’t continue, you’re finished. You need your health.’”
When Zhang joined the camp, she weighed 150kg, had high blood pressure and had trouble breathing when she walked. She has lost 50kg in one year.
“Now I’m a fat person, but at least I’m not a super-sized fat person,” Zhang said.
Though most Chinese think a chubby child is a healthy child, society can be less tolerant of overweight adults, who complain of not being able to find jobs.
“I want to give people a good impression when I go for interviews,” said Zheng Xiaojie, a 22-year-old university student from Xinjiang, who has lost over 5kg in seven weeks. “People feel more comfortable about thinner people.”
Obesity is most acute in big urban cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, where people enjoy higher incomes, eat richer foods and lead more sedentary lifestyles.
“Urban China got richer. It’s just gone out and bought itself more food and bought itself cars and couches to sit on while watching TV,” said Paul French, co-author of Fat China: How Expanding Waistlines are Changing a Nation.
Mu Ge, the sales manager at Bodyworks, said the most glaring difference between China and other countries “is that the rich people in China are all extremely fat ... in other countries, the wealthy are all very thin and beautiful.”
“In the UK, only the poor people will eat junk food, and will therefore be fat,” Mu said. “In China, it’s the opposite. The more money you have, the fatter you are. It’s almost as if it’s proof that living standards have improved.”
Dressed in an oversized t-shirt that did little to conceal his rotund belly, Liu Chi has lost more than 10kg since he first entered Bodyworks six weeks ago and now weighs in at about 90kg.
To Liu, his progress represents a new lease on life — one he hopes will include a girlfriend and fewer taunts.
“I had an inferiority complex,” said the cherub-faced 20-year-old student from Hebei Province. “People will look at me on the streets and ask: ‘How heavy are you?’”
Ding Zongyi, a professor at the Chinese Medical Doctor Association, who has been studying obesity in China for the past 30 years, said the obesity rate has jumped 158 percent since 1996 to 2006 and is set to rise further.