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Chinese workers unite -- to exercise again

By Bo Gu, NBC News

BEIJING – I always hated mass exercises. I had to do them every school day for 15 years.

It seemed worse when I was in middle school, between the ages of 13 to 18. Every school day after our “morning study session” the loudspeaker blared the ear-piercing “Athletes March.”

That was the signal for all the students to run out to the soccer field, in all kinds of weather. Wearing the same uniforms, we gathered in long lines and did the exact same dance moves together for five minutes before returning to our classes.

Bo Gu/ NBC News

People gathered in Beijing’s Celestial Palace Aug. 10 for the re-launch of mandatory group exercises for state workers.

The mass exercises, coordinated by radio broadcasts, were first introduced under Mao in 1951. They continued for decades, but were suspended in 2007 so that Beijing Sports Radio could spend more time covering preparations for the 2008 Olympics.

But as China continues to develop and modernize, there are now growing concerns that the population is becoming sedentary and unhealthy.

So the mass exercises are making a comeback.

Collective exercise is ‘more lively’
If a plan put forward by the Beijing Federation of Trade Unions is adopted, it will be compulsory for all state-owned enterprises to do on-the-job calisthenics twice a day in Beijing by 2011. In addition, 70 percent of civil servants and at least 60 percent of all employees in Beijing will be expected to practice the daily exercises, according to China Daily.

Yu Junsheng, vice-chairman of the Beijing Federation of Trade Unions, explained the goal of the mass exercise movement to China Daily.

"Any exercise done by an individual can be tedious and boring. To do exercise with other people makes the atmosphere more lively and employees can take the opportunity to talk to each other,” said Yu."Through collective activity, people feel more relaxed and have greater efficiency at work. That's why we want to resume the fitness activity."

So now every day at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., Radio Exercise Set No. 8 will be broadcast on “Beijing Sports Radio.”

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‘Great leader Chairman Mao taught us’
The resurgence of the exercises brings me back to my youth. As a teenager I hated two things: following orders and being exactly the same as others. The mass exercises are a perfect combination of the two. I was overjoyed at the last year of my college time when we finally were not forced to do it anymore.

The twice-a-day outdoor mass calisthenics weren't the whole story. We had to do eye-exercises once a day too. The eye exercise could be done while students were sitting on their seats. We were told to rub facial acupuncture points around our eyes for a few minutes.

The eye exercises always started with loud music from the loudspeakers that began with a very enthusiastic female voice: “Great leader Chairman Mao taught us, let’s protect our eyesight for the sake of revolution by doing eye exercises…”

While rubbing cheeks might not be scientifically proven to help eye vision, outdoor activities twice a day may not a bad idea for you. The problem is nobody took it seriously.

My girlfriends and I ran to the soccer field every day, jumping and waving when teachers passed by. Once they were gone, we stopped to chat and check out cute boys from other classes. None of us ever showed any interest in doing exercises together. Now I doubt people would be any more passionate ten years later.

Early this week we went to film the launch ceremony at the Celestial Temple in Beijing for the return of the group exercises.

The event showcased about 3,000 people, including government officials and celebrities. Everyone was so blissful and told us it would be a great thing for citizens to improve their health.

As I heard the officials saying they hoped to mobilize 4 million workers to do the exercises together, I couldn’t help thinking: China is probably the only country in the world that could get so many people to march and dance at the same time.

Oh wait, there’s another place that would well beat China – North Korea. Its Arirang Festival features thousands of young students doing synchronized gymnastic movements in Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium daily from August 1 until early October.

Not sure China can beat that.