Taiwanese seniors like exercising at 4 am. But why?

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Oğuz Solak reporting from Taipei.

Hsiao Hsueh-tao (87), leaves her home every morning at 5:30 to go to Daan Forest Park in central Taipei, the capital of Taiwan and she does aerobics with her group for 90 minutes, unless it rains. She has been doing this since she retired 27 years ago.

Hsiao Hsueh-tao, 87, leaves her home every morning at 5:30 to go to the park and do aerobics. Photo credit: Oğuz Solak

Some of the elderly exercise at parks early in the morning, sometimes as early as 3 am in Taiwan and China, as exercising is a part of the culture and it is believed to be healthier to work out early in the morning, a habit with historical roots.

Most adults in Taiwan exercise sufficiently, while there is a bigger share of the population who don’t exercise enough in Western countries such as the US and the UK, where dawn is usually seen as time to sleep.

“You can see people exercising not only here at Daan Forest Park, but also at all the parks around,” Hsiao says. She says the earlier you exercise, the healthier it is, as the air is cleaner. She asks, “Can you tell I am 87 years old?”

Taiwan and China have one of the highest rates of sufficient physical activity for adults, with 85.9% exercising sufficiently, while 40.0% of adults in the US and 35.9% of adults in the UK don’t exercise enough, according to the Global Health Report released by the Lancet in 2018.

Taiwan is located in the subtropics, and in subtropical areas, there is a habit of getting up at 4 or 5 am and making use of that time of the day, because even 7 in the morning is too hot, according to Professor David Holm, who teaches ethnology at National Chengchi University in Taipei. In some parts of Southern China, people go to work earlier than other places, then take a siesta-like rest for a couple of hours, while in Western countries dawn is more commonly considered as sleeping time.

“In Chinese culture, there is a very ancient tendency for people to rise early. Typically, at the Imperial Court, audiences with the emperor took place at dawn” says Professor Holm. There is a cultural analogy here. “The beginning of the day symbolizes new beginnings, health and energy. The end of the day, with the sunset and the western area, symbolizes decline and death.”

People traditionally like going out early to do Tai Chi because the air quality is better, according to Lin Yu-yueh, a nurse and trainer for the elderly. Some seniors can’t sleep a lot, while some of them think it’s more comfortable early in the morning than any other time of the day. At 9 a.m., there are way more people and cars on the street than at 4 a.m., Lin says.

Yu An-chen (39), says her father, who is in his early sixties, regularly leaves home after 5 am to play tennis or badminton. He has been doing this since he was young “to take care of his body” Yu says.

Cindy Peterson (65), from Michigan, USA exercises regularly in the morning, although it isn’t as early as some Taiwanese seniors. “I think that I am a decently early riser if I am up by 6:30 or 7:00 am. I can’t quite imagine getting up at 4 or 5 am just so that I can go out every day and exercise. I am very impressed by that” Peterson says.

Hsiao thinks exercising increases her quality of life. “Although I am so old, I can easily move around. Days are more enjoyable. If you sit at home all day, you start to feel pain” Hsiao says. “I want to move around and get some fresh air.  There is nothing to do at home except for watch TV all day.”

Not everyone finds the idea of getting up early to exercise enjoyable though. “I don’t have the habit of getting up early now” Yu says, as she likes her morning sleep. “I feel like maybe I won’t be able to do it (in the future), either.”

People in Michigan are not likely to embrace this kind of a routine either, according to Peterson. She believes women in her community are more likely to go to the gym after working on their appearance and putting on some makeup, therefore they need more time in the morning. “You know them (the people at the gym) by name. You don’t want to go out at 6 o’clock in the morning and you look like you just rolled out of bed.”

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