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Walking back to happiness: student health and well-being in China

Paul Greatrix reports on some of China's more innovative approaches to student health and wellbeing.
This article is more than 3 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

As we’ve noted here before, one of the historical approaches used by some US universities to ensure students engaged in at least some physical exercise was to require students to be able to demonstrate some form of sporting capability in order to graduate.

However, this has dropped off somewhat and a while back we noted here that the University of Chicago was dropping its swimming proficiency test required for graduation along with wider physical education testing. This kind of test is now more likely to be, like that offered by another university, Notre Dame, replaced by courses on “wellness, academic strategies and spirituality”:

The university announced last week that freshmen will soon have to take two graded, one-credit courses on topics like wellness, academic strategies and spirituality instead of having to complete a year of physical education courses – for which there are a range of options – and pass a swim test.

A recent study on the decline in required physical education at US universities noted that we had moved from a position of almost all having it as a graduation requirement down to just 39% insisting on it.

Things are continuing to move in the opposite direction in China though where Tsinghua University was reported to have introduced a 50m swimming requirement:

Students applying to one of China’s most prestigious universities have been told they must learn to swim before they graduate. Tsinghua University, known as the Harvard of the East, has ruled that the nation’s top minds must also prove themselves in the pool. The news made waves on Chinese social media, with some questioning the move in a country struggling with drought.
But the university said swimming was a key survival skill. President of Tsinghua University, Qiu Yong, said the exercise was made compulsory for all students because it also improved physical fitness.

And then another Chinese university introduced fitness tests linked to academic progress: Nankai University wanted its students to ‘get off the internet, get out of the dormitory and get into sports halls’:

It introduced a physical fitness scorecard – based on a test, health check and how much a student exercises – for every undergraduate this year, the report said.
That scorecard is taken into account alongside their academic results, and it also affects eligibility for scholarships.
The university announced the physical fitness policy at the end of last year and said it hoped it would encourage students to do at least one hour of exercise every day to improve their “moral character”.

Most recently the BBC has reported that Zhejiang Gongshang University has launched a project called “trade walk for money” with the idea that the more steps students clock, the bigger discount they get for food purchases in the university canteen:

By reaching 10,000 steps on a given day, students can enjoy 15% off their meals, while racking up 40,000 steps could earn them a wopping 45% discount on that day.
The Chinese messaging app Wechat has the function of monitoring and recording users’ physical movements.
All students need to do to claim their prize is show the activity record on their phones to canteen staff.

All sounds positive but some of the comments quoted by the BBC are perhaps less so:

But not everyone’s cheering the idea. The most popular comment questions whether the steps are realistic.
“40,000 steps, the knees must be on fire,” the user said. Another wrote he suffered from muscle strain after walking 40,000 steps.

The good news is that it’s not just walking that secures the discount though and a canteen manager noted that playing basketball would also enhance step count as recorded on students’ phones. Will we see cheating though? The report also noted that last year, Guangdong University for Foreign Studies introduced a new assessment involving walking 10,000 steps a day:

But that initiative ended up with students cheating on the numbers, because “10,000 steps a day is too hard”, as the official Xinhua news agency found.

So will the ’trade walk for money’ project work or will it end up another project defeated by cheating? Time (and steps) will tell.

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