Why do Hongkongers live longer than anyone else? It’s a baffling question given the cramped housing, stressful living and air pollution. Yet, for the past three years, the city has topped an annual list of longevity, for both men and women. I’ve read all manner of theories as to the reason, but none is unique to Hong Kong, so here’s my guess: it’s because residents walk so much.
The latest study by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare put the average life expectancy of Hong Kong women at 87.66 years and 81.7 years for men. Japanese women were second, at 87.26 years, and Spanish women third at 85.84 years. Second and third respectively for men were Switzerland with 81.5 years and Japan at 81.09. There are no corresponding figures from international organisations such as the World Health Organisation, as Hong Kong is not a member state.
When the rankings are released each July, experts in health and lifestyle are called on to explain why Hong Kong fares so well. Among the reasons are low rates of smoking, a seafood diet, the sub-tropical climate and close family ties. The latter, through regular get-togethers for lunch or dinner, is claimed to bring happiness and curtail loneliness – which is obviously not the case for all residents.
Smoking rates in Hong Kong can’t account for the longevity; in 2015, 10.5 per cent of the population were daily smokers; compared to just 5.0 per cent in Sweden, where the life expectancy is 82.55 years. While the climate is neither too hot nor cold, the conditions are not special for the region. Seafood is widely eaten throughout East Asia, so, again, the gap isn’t so easy to fathom. Then there are those less attractive features of our city to factor in, which should surely be viewed as negatives, among them smog, excessive noise, crowds and congestion.
There are two theories that would seem convincing, although, again, Hong Kong is not the only place in the world that has such peculiarities. The city’s relatively small area and compact size means that a hospital and medical help are never far away. Emergency service officials pledge to have an ambulance arrive in no more than 12 minutes after a phone call has been made.
Resilience has also been cited. An estimated 70 per cent of the population over the age of 70 came from the mainland, the majority as economic refugees. Many of those now in their 80s and older also fled the civil war and the Japanese invasion, experiencing severe hardship, including famine and disease. People who have survived such difficulties are bound to be tough in body and spirit. But that was also the lot of many in Asia and Europe during the 1930s and 1940s.
That is where my theory comes in. Private car ownership is low in Hong Kong, which means the vast majority of people have to do a lot of walking. A Stanford University survey of 46 countries and regions published last year found that Hongkongers were the most active, walking a daily average of 6,880 steps. The world average was 4,961.
There are plenty of studies espousing the health benefits of walking, even if only for 30 minutes a day. Some say a brisk stride is best, others contend even an amble is good enough, and a few praise the merits of a steep flight of steps. The advice for those who want to add a few extra years to their life is that, whenever practical, taking the footpath will pay off better than getting into a vehicle. Most Hongkongers walk a lot, but out of necessity, not choice.
Studies say it is a good thing, though: walking prolongs life. It reduces the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, respiratory and heart diseases, and even cancer. Walking is also free. It’s convenient, requiring no special training or equipment, and it can be done at any age. Hongkongers have obviously worked all that out. I’d wager it’s the reason, coupled with proximity to hospitals and a healthy diet, why they live longer.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post