Chen Jifang hits the gym for at least two hours every day and has the physique to prove it. At nearly 70, she is being held up as a shining example as China orders its vast population to get fit and lose the bulge.
The grandmother from Shanghai has become a minor celebrity in in the past few months after her newfound and unlikely love for working out made national headlines.
After becoming a gym regular in December 2018, Chen lost 14kg in three months, and now sports the kind of flat stomach and toned muscles that people decades younger aspire to.
She has also built up a fan base on social media, clocking up 410,000 followers on TikTok with her impressive exercise routines and encouraging others to follow her example.
A post on the video-sharing app of the pensioner doing a rapid set of lung-busting squats and lunges has been viewed more than 1 million times.
“I will work out as long as I’m still alive,” Chen, who turned 68 this year, said at a gym in a Shanghai suburb.
Chinese state media have reported Chen’s story with gusto, because it fits the government’s drive to encourage people of all ages to get fitter.
That message has been amplified this year by the assertion that being fit is one way to help beat COVID-19, which emerged in Wuhan late last year.
The Xinmin Evening News labeled Chen “hardcore grandma” and Xinhua news agency called her “heavy-lifting granny.” She has also been featured on television.
For Chen, who worked for a food company before retiring, pumping iron has come late in life.
She started going to the gym following a chance meeting with a personal trainer, and was propelled into action by worries about her deteriorating health and weight gain.
She has shed the flab and says that last year she was given a clear bill of health by doctors, having previously had problems with a fatty liver, high blood pressure and cataracts.
Chen, who has a grandson aged 14, recalled the shocked looks she received the first time she walked into a gym.
“They found it very strange, they don’t usually see people at such an old age who care about their health so much,” she said.
Under the watchful eye of a personal trainer, and barely pausing for breath, Chen plows through a series of exercises using weight machines, free weights and other dynamic movements designed to burn fat and gain muscle.
Despite her active lifestyle, Chen has no athletic background and said that she barely got out of bed when her daughter was very young because her body was so weak from giving birth.
“If your muscles are strong and powerful, it will protect your bones if you fall, because the elderly are most afraid of falling,” she said. “In fact, I also fell once and fell terribly, hurting my forehead, hips, knees and toes.”
“They saw an old lady with white hair lying on the ground and passersby started calling an ambulance,” she said.
“I said: ‘Don’t,’ and I got up. I said that I had been exercising, so I’m fine,” she added.
On a typical warm fall evening, so-called “dancing aunties” pack Shanghai’s parks and public spaces. For many women of middle age and older, square dancing is the only form of exercise they do.
“No matter how hard you square dance, you can’t reach my current condition,” said Chen, flexing her biceps for the camera.
“At our age it is not how much money you have, who you are, or how good your children are,” she added. “You just want a medical record as short as possible.”
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