Let Hong Kong children enjoy the benefits of sport and exercise

Kelly Yang says parents must not deny their children the exercise that not only brings health benefits but also teaches vital lessons

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 January, 2014, 11:54pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 January, 2014, 3:19am

The fact that so many Hong Kong children can't swim or ride a bike is alarming and sad. It shows the skewed values of many parents and will affect our city in ways that, I fear, will be disastrous.

According to the latest international study, Hong Kong children are less fit than their Western counterparts. Worldwide, today's youth are 15 per cent less fit than children 30 years ago, but here in Asia, the decline in fitness is twice as severe.

Separate surveys by Hong Kong's Baptist University found that 20 per cent of secondary students here did not know how to ride a bike and 47 per cent did not know how to swim. One reason, put forth by Professor Lobo Louie Hung-tak, was that many parents think sport is too dangerous. As a result, some schools have even cancelled swimming lessons to avoid receiving complaints from parents.

It is my experience that when it comes to illogical reasons to forgo sports, fear of injury is just the tip of the iceberg. For every parent who is afraid their child will get hurt, there's another who is afraid that if their child plays an outdoor sport, his or her skin will go dark. I know a child whose mother made him switch from tennis, which he loved, to squash so he could be indoors. "I don't care how many matches he wins, I cannot have him looking so brown," she reasoned.

One of my students, an avid swimmer, told me her mother forced her to quit because she didn't want her to get "too bulky" from swimming. Another student worries that if she exercises, she'll eat more and, thus, gain weight.

Add to these irrational fears the intense schedules of most children, jam-packed with academic extracurricular activities, and it's easy to see why so many are skipping exercise entirely.

Over the holiday, my cousin from Tianjin spent a week with me. He was shocked to see my children going to football training four times a week. In comparison, his four-year-old son does no sports and rarely even goes to the park. He said his son exercises by playing Wii games!

The long-term ramifications of eschewing exercise are tremendous. Regular exercise in childhood leads to regular exercise in adulthood. Children who exercise for 60 minutes every day are less likely to develop diabetes, obesity, heart problems and bone problems when they are older.

That so many Hong Kong children are spending every weekend indoors, hunched over a computer or playing video games, is paving the way for long-term chronic problems.

While sport should not be more important than academics in secondary schools, it also shouldn't be neglected. Sport teaches important lessons that cannot be learned through textbooks, like teamwork, sportsmanship and discipline.

That's why every weekend or holiday, my husband and I take our kids to a field, pool, BMX bike park, mountain or track - because, ultimately, no classroom is more inspiring or educational than the classroom of nature.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. kelly@kellyyang.com