19 January 2009

China takes to the gym

Amid the global economic crisis, many Chinese are happy to pay for what in recent years has become an essential way to relax and socialise, as well as get in shape.

Aged 35, single and stressed from her hectic job running a restaurant, Qi Quanli is one of China’s ambitious class of newly rich who are helping to power the nation’s booming fitness industry.

“In the past, I often suffered from insomnia. But now I feel much better. My weight is good too. No more fat,” Qi said with a smile after a sweat-drenched workout recently in one of Beijing’s most chic and modern gyms.

Qi spends close to 1 000 dollars a year on her gym membership, a huge sum for many in China considering the average annual salary for urban residents is about 2 000 dollars.

But even amid the global economic crisis, Qi and many others who earn far more than the average are happy to pay for what in recent years has become an essential way to relax and socialise, as well as get in shape.

Worth it
“I feel it’s worth it for people to pay one fifth or one tenth of their income on getting fit,” she said.

“It gives people good health, it gives people happiness and we can make more friends.” It is this attitude that has seen China’s fitness industry become in little more than a decade a multi-billion-dollar extravaganza of high-tech equipment and pulsating workout rooms backed by lifestyle magazines, health products and celebrity endorsements.

Outside of luxury hotels, there were very few modern fitness centres in Beijing or other big Chinese cities in the late 1990s, according to Evolution Fitness managing director Matt Lewis.

Now there are 200-300 catering for the mass market in Beijing alone, said Lewis, a New Zealander who helped set up Evolution Fitness in 2001, and now has two centres in the Chinese capital.

Rapid expansion
“It’s really expanded quite quickly,” Lewis said. “The majority going to them are local Beijing people, middle and upper class white collar workers.” Lewis attributed the rise in the popularity of fitness centres to a general increase in wealth, and people wanting to get in shape after being locked away in office jobs, but also to other factors making the industry trendy.

He pointed out that a decade ago in what was a more soberly communist China, there were virtually no mass market sports and lifestyle magazines or health products that sold the concept of being slim, strong and cool.

Now they are flourishing.

“Those sorts of things have created a lot of awareness,” he said.

The cool factor
Adding to the cool factor, celebrities such as basketball hero Yao Ming and movie star Jackie Chan endorse the Beijing outlet of global chain California Fitness that Qi attends.

California Fitness has opened two centres in China in recent years, and is eyeing the world’s most populous nation as its biggest potential source of growth, seeing it as more insulated from the global economic turmoil.

“China is going to be the big market in the future for us,” said chain vice president Kelvin Goh.

Goh also said the industry in general would likely be cushioned from the global crisis as people sought refuge from stress by working out, citing his firm’s experience during the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s.

“Most people thought at that time that people would spend less money on fitness. It wasn’t true. Back then, more people came to work out than during the normal times. Just to de-stress,” he said.

Strength to strength
Official data also appears to back assertions that China’s fitness industry will grow from strength to strength despite the economic crisis.

The results of a first-ever national survey released by the General Administration of Sport last month showed 28.2 percent of the population, or 340 million people, exercised regularly and that number was on the rise.

But, crucially for the fitness industry, just 18 percent of those people exercised at a sports facility, leaving plenty of room for growth.

“I hope to see more and more private gyms and fitness centres, because governments cannot provide enough places to meet the demand,” Sheng Zhiguo, head of community sport with the administration, told AFP.

(Sapa-AFP, January 2009)

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