New source of anxiety for Chinese millennials -- health report
By Zhou Minxi

In my thirties, I'm keeping an eye on my cholesterol. In the past few years, as the list of things to watch on my annual health report got longer, I've learned the lingo one would expect to hear in conversations with seniors.

It is the time of year when professionals in China receive their yearly health checkup, and have their lifestyles, dieting and exercise - or the lack of them - scrutinized. Last week, the doctor performing my ultrasound scan raised a new alarm about my health. "It will be in the report," she said, declining to tell me more.

Unsettled, I spent the rest of the day scouring the Internet for information, and soon realized that I was not alone. "Twenty-somethings are too scared to read their health reports" was a trending topic on Chinese internet, after a reported eight in ten millennials said in a recent survey that they do not want to find out what is in their health reports.

"If I don't know, I'm fine," a netizen wrote in a comment that was widely quoted. This Schrodinger's approach to health may as well be avoidance, especially when someone is aware of their unhealthy habits.

"If you always stay up late, what do you expect?" A young man said in the street survey.

"I don't feel very healthy because I eat a lot of sweet food," another said, while holding a tall cup of bubble milk tea. Others cited playing with smartphone late at night and not getting enough sleep as causes for concerns.

These concerns did not come from nowhere. Stories about office workers in their 20s and 30s diagnosed with cancer and dying suddenly have circulated widely on social media, serving as a sobering reminder for others that their own health is not risk-proof. And prevalent poor work-life balance is giving young professionals more reasons to be stressed. 

Office workers are sleep-deprived and stressed. /VCG Photo

Office workers are sleep-deprived and stressed. /VCG Photo

A report last year shows that a whopping 97 percent of white-collar workers in Shanghai found abnormal results in health checkup, up from 94 percent in 2013. Overweight (36.9 percent) and fatty liver (33.7 percent) were the most common ailments, while thyroid nodule was the fastest growing.

Another Beijing-based report in 2018 indicated that chronic illnesses often associated with elderly people, such as high-blood pressure, diabetes and coronary heart disease, are becoming more common in young people. Meanwhile, cancer diagnoses in people aged from 20 to 39 rose 80 percent from 2000 to 2013, according to data from China's National Central Cancer Registry.

Healthcare experts believe that poor diets and the sedentary lifestyle are to blame for young office workers' health problems.

Young people in China are afraid to find out what's in their health reports. /VCG Photo

Young people in China are afraid to find out what's in their health reports. /VCG Photo

"The white-collar group tends to have busy work days and many social commitments, and they eat a lot of takeout food. Meat intake is high in their diets and eating out regularly leads to excessive intake of oil and salt," said Dr. Fan Zhuping from Renji Hospital in Shanghai.

With more dining choices and greater consumption power, young Chinese are consuming substantially greater amounts meat and dairy products, as their diets shift toward the Western style.

"The biggest problem from a health point of view is the quality of the diet, the frying, the oil, the lack of vegetables being replaced by refined carbohydrates and increased animal protein. It's the reason why Chinese non-communicable diseases are growing very rapidly," said Dr. Barry Popkin, a leading researcher in nutrition and obesity at the University of North Carolina.

Young people are particularly affected due to a sedentary nature, a result of the use of technology, experts say. Reducing obesity in students was one of the goals in the National Nutrition Plan issued by the Chinese government in 2017 to promote dietary health in the country before 2030.

"The key is to control your mouth and move your legs," Fan said. "Sitting in the office all day long and not doing enough exercise, obesity and blood lipid abnormalities will find you."

Dietary changes in China are rapid and substantial. /VCG Photo

Dietary changes in China are rapid and substantial. /VCG Photo

Driven by growing awareness, China's fitness industry has exploded into a multi-billion-dollar business in recent years. New gyms and fitness clubs have sprouted in major cities, offering a variety of classes at all budgets. Each year, the number of gym-goers in 70 Chinese cities has increased by four to five million, according to Xinhua News Agency. Jogging and yoga, among other new fitness trends, have also taken off across the country.

Keep, China's top fitness app, reported that it had reached 100 million users in China in August 2017, compared to 23 million in the U.S. and 20 million in Europe. According to the company's report, 77 percent of its users are under the age of 35.

Some industry insiders have noted that young people are living under increasing amounts of stress from work and life.

"There are more and more young people joining us. That's because they are facing so much social pressure. In here, they can relax," said a director at Supermonkey, a popular self-service gym chain.

An increasing number of young Chinese work out regularly at the gym. /VCG Photo

An increasing number of young Chinese work out regularly at the gym. /VCG Photo

Parallel to the fitness frenzy is the rising popularity of health foods and supplements, a territory increasingly occupied by millennial consumers.

The Chinese market for dietary and health supplements in 2018 was the second largest in the world after the U.S. It is projected to reach 40 billion U.S. dollars by 2023 and overtake the U.S. as the largest supplement market.

On e-commerce platforms, imported supplements are among the most sought-after products by Chinese consumers, accounting for more than one third of all imported goods sold online in 2018. E-commerce giant Alibaba reported that more than half of the supplement buyers on its platforms were under the age of 30.

But some experts have cautioned against relying on supplements, as commercial advertising can feed into the popular anxiety and mislead some consumers into believing that taking supplements will offset any damages from an unhealthy lifestyle.

The breakneck pace of life in urban China is driving millennials to overhaul the indoorsy lifestyle traditionally associated with white-collar jobs. As living standards rise, more people are beginning to realize that health and well-being is life's ultimate luxury.