China's fitness buffs big on tiny gyms that are always open

The mini gyms are filled with fitness equipment such as multi-functional weight machines, dumbbells and treadmills, as well as a coaching system. PHOTO: CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

SHANGHAI (CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Growing interest in fitness in China has led to the rise of a new phenomenon - mini gyms that are affordable and open around the clock.

Shaped like shipping containers, these 24-hour gyms have been mushrooming all over China in the past year.

One operator, ParkBox, currently runs gyms in three sizes: 8 sq m, 18 sq m and 28 sq m, which accommodate up to two, four and five people, respectively.

The mini gyms are filled with fitness equipment such as multi-functional weight machines, dumbbells and treadmills. They also come with intelligent coaching systems that provide training programmes for users as well as determine if they are working out correctly.

"Although small, these gyms are very convenient and practical. Every facility is equipped with a treadmill, a set of dumbbells and an intelligent coaching system," said Mr Huang Xiaolei, co-founder and chief executive of ParkBox.

ParkBox, which was first launched in the Zhangjiang area in Shanghai's Pudong New Area at the end of 2016, now operates 50 mini gyms across Shanghai and Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, and has nearly 200,000 registered users.

According to the company, each user visits these gyms an average of six times per month.

Users can reserve a spot in the gym at any time of the day simply by making a booking using the ParkBox app or WeChat. Every hour in the gym costs just 10 yuan (S$2) during peak hours. Those working out in the facility before 10am and after 10pm pay just 5 yuan per hour.

Mr Huang pointed out that conventional gyms usually require about two years to break even. In contrast, ParkBox was able to do so after six to eight months because of the lower costs associated with rental and hiring coaches.

The emergence of these mini gyms comes at a time when traditional gyms are struggling to stay afloat.

Mr Chen Xinzhuo, the product director of a Wuhan-based mini gym brand XimoPanda, said that the company's research has found that 80 per cent of traditional gyms in Shanghai and Shenzhen are either unprofitable or fighting to make ends meet because of increasing costs and competition.

XimoPanda opened its first 24-hour mini gym in Wuhan, Hubei province - it measures 300 sq m and is equipped with about 40 sets of equipment - in October. Admission to the gym is just 3 yuan per hour and it is able to accommodate more than 40 people at a time. Mr Chen said that the company is looking to open more than 100 of such facilities by the end of 2018.

Besides cost savings and round-the-clock access, these mini gyms also offer consumers a welcomed reprieve from one of the biggest drawbacks of conventional fitness facilities - the hard selling of membership packages.

"I had bad experiences at traditional gyms where fitness coaches are more like salesmen," said interior designer Li Yi, 23, from Wuhan. "Besides, the annual membership fees often range from 3,000 to 4,000 yuan, which is so much higher than these mini gyms. By working out at XimoPanda gyms, I can save about 2,000 yuan a year while getting the same quality and quantity of fitness."

Mr Wang Feng, the founder of Sunpig fitness, an Internet-based gym brand which has 150 facilities in 60 Chinese cities, said traditional facilities are now at the crossroads as people have become more reluctant to purchase annual memberships.

"An annual gym membership usually costs thousands of yuan. Spending a three-digit amount every month on a card that provides access to gyms is a much less riskier decision to take," said Mr Wang, who expects that such gyms would become a black horse in China's burgeoning fitness market.

He pointed out that the introduction of state-of-the-art technology also boosted operational efficiency and allowed users to conveniently access their workout data through an app. This has in turn reduced labour costs by two-thirds, allowing the brand to expand at a much faster pace than traditional gyms.

Mr Wang added that Sunpig is aiming to become the domestic market leader by opening 300 gyms annually over the next three years.

While smaller gyms like these and their conventional counterparts currently account for 1 and 64 per cent of the market, respectively, this ratio is expected to change dramatically over the next few years.

According to a report from Shanghai-based consulting firm Meritco Services, Internet-based innovative gyms will command a 38 per cent market share by 2021, with traditional facilities narrowing their share to 34 per cent.

Mini gyms are also well-positioned to ride the wave of rising interest in fitness in China. Mr Chen pointed out that Keep, a Chinese mobile fitness app, presently has more than 100 million users, indicating that there is huge market potential for mini gyms.

A report on sports consumption jointly published in September by Nielsen and JD forecast that China's sports industry will hit 5 trillion yuan by 2025, accounting for 2 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product. The report also showed that Chinese spent 194.9 billion yuan on sports-related goods online in 2016, double the amount in 2014, and expenditure is expected to grow even further.

In addition, despite the central government's push to promote sports in the country, only 34 per cent of Chinese exercise regularly, compared to the 70 per cent in the United States, indicating that there is still much room for growth for businesses dealing in fitness-related products and services.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.