By Yvonne Murray in Beijing

Getting older means slowing down.

Six out of ten older adults in Ireland lead a sedentary lifestyle, according to the campaign group, Get Active Ireland.

And they are not the only ones. 

A major World Health Organization study, published in the Lancet, showed that we are hitting the couch on a global scale, putting over a billion adults at risk of physical and mental health problems.

Despite an explosion in exercise videos, health apps and national get-fit campaigns, high-income Western countries are the least active, the study noted. 

But there’s one country bucking the trend. 

And that’s the world’s most populous nation, China. 

(Pic: Athole McLauchlan)

Only 14% of China’s adults are inactive, compared to 40% of Americans and 36%t in the UK, the study found.

And while we tend to start taking it easy as we age, Chinese people are the opposite. The older they get, the more spritely they become.

(Pic: Athole McLauchlan)

So why are China’s older adults fitter than us?

One theory is that China has increased investment in public park space in recent years. In almost every city park and sometimes in residential compounds, you can find an open air ‘adult playground,’ with (usually bright yellow) metal exercise equipment like elliptical machines, monkey bars and weight-lifting kits. 

It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see a spry old man skipping out of his apartment block to do twenty chin-ups before breakfast.

But it’s only half the story - because studies show the US, for example, still has more park space per capita than China. 

The difference could be explained by the fact that houses are smaller here, which encourages people to spend more time outside.

But there’s also something unique in how Chinese people use their urban spaces.

A frozen canal or a small cement square off a main thoroughfare, can become a vibrant community focal point, where retirees gather to chew the fat, play mah-jong and get their daily exercise.

You’ll see groups of pensioners at sunrise practicing their tai chi, grannies square-dancing to upbeat Chinese folk rock - blasted from a small portable speaker tied to a tree – granddads briskly walking backwards - which is supposed to be great for your qi (energy of life) - and every winter when the lakes and rivers freeze over, elderly amateur skaters take to the ice.

"I’m 81 years old," said Zhao Jianru, a former carpenter, dressed in a blue lycra bodysuit and matching speed-skating helmet, at the Liangma river in northeastern Beijing.

"During the 2008 Beijing Olympics," he said, "I saw a 70-year-old woman on TV who could skate and I thought ‘I can do that too!’"

"I come here every day," he said. "If old people stay at home, they get sick easily. You’ve got to stay busy when you’re old," he added.

His friend, Mr Zhang, a retired engine-driver concurs. 

"Skating is great for our social life," he said. "We old people need to pursue happiness" he added, "we cannot just sit around."

Of course, China’s healthier figures on physical activity don’t make it immune to age-related ailments. Rates of heart disease, diabetes and stroke are on the rise linked to high smoking rates, air pollution and poor diet. 

Concern is growing about soaring healthcare costs as the population ages - a quarter will be above the age of 60 by 2030.

The government hopes the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022, will encourage around 300 million people to take up winter sports.

Among China’s active older adults, Beijing’s skaters are getting ahead of the game. 

And when the ice melts, they’ll go rollerblading instead.