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Working it Out: New Trends in Fitness in China

by Ida Knox

January 9, 2017

New trends in fitness in China

Chinese businesspeople are finding new ways to be fit

Doing business in China can be a fraught affair. Overly lavish banquets and too much baijiu have long been a part of the process, and combined with the high-stress culture of today’s China, business executives and workers alike can be easily led down the path to ill-health.

A study published last year in BioMed Research International found that cases of gout—also known as the ‘disease of kings’ due to its association with a rich diet—are generally high in China, but tellingly concentrated in the south, where the economic boom is concentrated. Jiang Zuiyi, a 55-year-old government official in Shenzhen, told The Diplomat in April that he developed the painful condition around the time he moved to Shenzhen from the countryside. In his view, business banquets were among the culprits, along with lack of sleep.

But the good news is that a new generation of Chinese work warriors are rebelling against the over-indulged status quo.

“Your bosses always ask you to drink a lot to show your attitude towards the company,” says Zhang Lan, who works in real estate in Shanghai. “I don’t like [this] drinking culture.”

And just as these bad habits are coming into question, new approaches to health and wellness are coming into vogue—particularly among the young, hip and urban. Rising with this trend is a multibillion-dollar fitness and food industry. Fitness apps are being downloaded by the tens of millions, and gyms are popping up almost everywhere you look in major cities. According to Ibis World market research, the gym, health and fitness clubs industry in China is set to generate “$5.81 billion in 2016, with annualized growth of 11.8% from 2011 to 2016.” And that does not include sales of health food, which seems to be a craze all its own.

At its heart, all this represents a fundamental generational change in attitude, one linked to the emergence of broad prosperity.

“Growth [in this industry] will continue for sure, because of the middle class and millennials,” says Thibaud Andre, a research associate with Daxue Consulting.

Fitness Fashion

The traditional Chinese approach to fitness is slow and steady, as evidenced in the apparently languid movements of tai chi. Elderly practitioners of these ancient arts can still be seen everywhere in Chinese cities, particularly in the morning.

But younger people do not seem so interested in continuing that particular tradition which may have to do with the newly frenetic pace of life in 21st century China.

“Young people live and work under increasing amounts of stress,” says Guo Yaxuan, a Jilin-based fitness instructor. “Those born in the 1990s have less job stability, many of them are not getting married.”

He says that this crop of stressed-out workers are drawn to gyms, especially as they work their way up the ladder. With China’s 385 million millennials now edging towards 30, gym memberships, exercise classes, jogging, sports teams, and marathons—all very Western sports concepts—have taken off in the Chinese fitness world. Running in particular has become hugely popular.

“Running is often seen as a means to balance the lifestyles of office workers,” says Noora Ronkainen, a postdoctoral researcher at Jiao Tong University’s Exercise, Health and Technology Center. “The more-modern companies seem to have increasing support for this in the form of running groups.”

China, she says, is morphing from a culture where peaceful walking in the park ruled supreme to a place where marathons and “10k’s” (10-km running competitions) are taking over, and it is not happening quietly, despite the relatively solo nature of the sport.

“Running seems very social and even though many do some running alone they make sure it is known in their social media groups,” Ronkainen says.

This social media connection is key, due to the fact it is largely millennials who are joining the running craze.

“On Weibo, ‘#fitness’ is huge in China, over 100,000 people have used it,” says Andre. “It’s trendy to post a picture while in the gym.”

That gym trendiness has also caused the options to multiply to the point where there seems to be something in the gym line for almost everybody.

“Anyone can choose from yoga, Crossfit, HIIT classes, etc,” says Vidal Narvious, who owns a Golden Gloves Gym in Shanghai.

For Narvious, the need for stress relief and the need to socialize go hand-in-(boxing)-glove.

“There really isn’t a better feeling than hitting a pad or heavy bag when you are stressed,” he says. “And as a side effect, you are meeting new people.”

Gym and Juice

The newfound popularity of modern fitness in China has brought with it a multibillion-dollar opportunity.

According to a Xinhua news report, “the total number of gym attendees across 70 major Chinese cities has increased by four to five million each year since 2011.”

Prices of memberships at these gyms range from RMB 2,000 to 15,000 a year in Shanghai. It is a hefty price in a city where the average monthly salary is around RMB 6,000, but then again it is not average people buying them—customers are comparatively wealthy and members of the growing middle class.

The buying power of this group has attracted a huge amount of private investment, and given the social media aspect pointed out by Andre, a lot of it is going into apps and tech.

“Apps can provide a full line of services, from individual coaching of performance to incentives,” says Andre.

Venture capital firms GGV Capital and Morningside Ventures are leading a $32 million Series C funding round in the Chinese fitness tracking app Keep, which has 30 million users. Codoon, a close competitor that tracks movement and sleep, has more than $91 million in funding.

The government has also expressed the desire to get in on the action. Liu Qing, the deputy secretary-general of the Chinese Association of Sports Industry, told Xinhua News Agency that the fitness industry will become a “pillar in the national economy” when China’s GDP per capita reaches $8,000—and according to the World Bank, it was $7,924 in 2015.

“The government wants to put money into fitness and sports in general,” says Andre. “Investment [by] the government in fitness will focus on all levels.”

Data from Daxue Consulting puts the current annual output value of China’s fitness and leisure industry at about $150-200 billion, accounting for about 0.15%-0.20% of domestic GDP, and growth in the sector shows no sign of slowing.

The opportunities also extend to food and beverage. Sales of ‘health food’ in China are around RMB 200 billion annually, according to the China Health Care Association. Forbes and Mintel, meanwhile, have reported that “nearly nine in ten Chinese consumers now drink plant-based concoctions, be it soybean drinks, juices or grain drinks.”

Diet and health supplements are also seeing a hike in popularity. Data from market research firm Euromonitor International notes that in 2013, sales of protein powder reached nearly RMB 392 million, up from RMB 275 million in 2012.

But healthy lifestyles might negatively impact one particular beverage industry: baijiu, the grain-based alcohol drunk across China that has a kick like a mule. The World Alcoholic Beverage Alliance’s 2016 Development Report of the Global Alcohol Industry notes that sales revenues slipped 3% from RMB 528 billion to RMB 512 billion.

Not all alcohol is treated equally in the health industry, however. Red wine is often considered to have health benefits, and Chinese consumers drank 1.86 billion bottles of it in 2013, becoming the world’s biggest market for the beverage.

Leading From the Top

But does the burgeoning growth of the health industry mean that China’s stressed-out office workers are having an easier time of it? Not necessarily.

“According to some market surveys, it stops at a desire to work out,” says Yaxuan, the fitness instructor. “People often tend to come up with excuses, or would rather grab a drink and hang out with friends after work.”

But ironically, Chinese companies that push their employees to drink and banquet are now also beginning to push them to be healthy. Zhang Lan, who complained about work-related boozing, has found that fitness may be taking a seat alongside the usual feasting.

“[We do] hiking or some team building activities at least once a year,” says Zhang.

This fall, her entire company went to hike around a lake in Zhejiang province not far from Shanghai. At first she was decidedly unexcited about the prospect of spending the weekend with her co-workers, especially because it is was compulsory in addition to being unpaid. In the end, however, she says she had a pretty good time, and she’s unequivocal about which she prefers.

“Definitely the hiking,” she says with a laugh. “At least it’s good for the health!”

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