How Do You Say 'Gym Rat' in Chinese?

Yang Lei’s tight black T-shirt shows off his admirably bulging biceps. The chiseled 29-year-old is the head personal trainer at the Beijing Hujialou branch of Impulse Fitness, one of China’s top three fitness chains. A floor of weight machines and a lap pool—the latter surrounded by white marble columns—occupy the basement level of an upscale new residential complex. In recent years, as Chinese fitness chains have sought ways to transform working out from a niche interest to a mainstream pursuit in the world’s most populous country, it’s become increasingly common for gym franchises to strike deals with residential developers. “More people are starting to put health on their list of top priorities,” says Yang.

When Yang was born in 1984, commercial gyms were all but unheard of in China. The first domestic and international fitness chains began to make slow inroads in the 1990s. By the time Yang graduated from high school in the early 2000s, it seemed a logical choice to enroll at Tianjin Physical Education University to study for a new profession in China: becoming a full-time personal trainer. In wealthy cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, it’s now a fairly lucrative gig. Trainers typically charge between $35 and $200 an hour—fees that they split with club management. Of course, hustling also is part of the job. As Yang puts it, “A coach is not only a coach, but a salesperson.”

Finding clients has become much easier in China’s leading metropolises as more young professionals hit the gym. Lawrence Fang, a 31-year-old journalist in Beijing, goes to the gym three times a week, alternating yoga and weightlifting, and says his aims are “health and trying to look good.” He Ping, a 35-year-old engineer, works out with a personal trainer in Beijing for 250 renminbi ($40) an hour because “a good instructor will help me form good habits.” And a petite 32-year-old reporter, who declined to give her name, says she started hitting the gym regularly a few years ago after her foreign boyfriend teased her for “only getting exercise in bed.” All three said the most important factor in choosing a gym was convenience—ideally a location next to their home or office.

Shaun Rein, managing director at China Market Research Group in Shanghai, says that worries about pollution and myriad food-safety scandals, especially in the past year, have spurred a new focus on health in urban China. “Chinese consumers are looking to improve their quality of life, in part by improving diet and exercise,” he says. That’s welcome news in a country with the world’s highest diabetes rate—11.6 percent of Chinese adults, or 114 million people. As rapid urbanization has led to more sedentary lifestyles and more meat and dairy consumption, China’s people increasingly face health challenges associated with diet and lifestyle, including obesity, heart disease, and high blood pressure. There’s a large potential market for the country’s fledgling fitness industry.

Theo Hendricks, chief executive of Sports & Leisure Group, a consultancy based in the Netherlands, believes that “China could become the biggest fitness market in the world within the next 20 years.” According to his calculations, if only 4 percent of Chinese people join gyms, the country will need to build 30,000 new clubs over the next two decades. (Currently, less than 1 percent of the population of mainland China hold gym memberships, while about 15 percent of Americans do.)

China’s nascent fitness industry is modest but growing quickly. In 2004, China was home to 1,434 commercial gyms generating $582.1 million in annual revenue, according to a May 2013 industry report from IBISWorld, a business intelligence firm based in Australia. Over the next eight years, the fitness industry grew more than sixfold. By 2012, China had 5,749 gyms generating $3.69 billion in annual revenue. IBISWorld projects China’s fitness industry will be worth $6.83 billion by 2018—and that it will employ nearly a quarter of a million workers.

Currently, no single fitness chain dominates the market. The leading industry players are Wellness Group (3.8 percent market share), Impulse Total Fitness Group (3.3 percent), Powerhouse Gym China (2.1 percent), and CSI-Bally Total Fitness (1.2 percent), according to IBISWorld. Twenty percent of the industry’s total revenue comes from Beijing and 18 percent from Shanghai. Seventy percent of China’s gym-goers are between the ages of 19 and 40.

Until recently, Chinese gyms tended to be low-end or high-end—barebones facilities with barbells and no ventilation for soldiers and police officers to pump iron; or fancy social clubs for China’s nouveau riche to see and be seen. Now Yang, the personal trainer, believes future gym expansion will be driven by China’s growing middle-class concerned about growing waistlines. “In the past, people just wanted to show their status at the gym,” he says. “But today there’s a better understanding of the health and beauty benefits.” Wisely, he doesn’t promise overnight miracles. “Training only accounts for 30 percent of body type.” For the rest, blame your diet and your genes.

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