BEIJING • Fitness fever is heating up in China, with demographic and cultural shifts underwriting a growing trend towards more exercise.
There are today over 415 million millennials - those born in the 1980s and 1990s - in the country, more than the entire working populations of the United States and Western Europe combined.
Having grown up with social media, Chinese millennials put a greater premium on looking good, and a good physique is now associated with virtues such as perseverance and self-discipline.
The world's biggest middle class is also becoming more aware of the need to stay healthy.
"There is a cultural trend towards sexy six-pack figures, and there is middle-class anxiety about the costs of ill health and peer pressure to look better," market analyst Julian Chow told China Daily. "You want to prove you can afford to hit a gym to stay active."
Chinese consumers are also more willing to pay for gym memberships and brand-name sporting apparel. And demand for fitness in China has become one of the top 10 drivers of the consumer market alongside leisure and food, according to a research note from Euromonitor International.
While China's sportswear market is still behind that of the US, it is growing at an annual rate of 11 per cent, compared with the 2.5 per cent growth in the US.
Gym memberships in China have doubled since 2008 to hit 6.6 million last year, according to the China Business Research Academy. Running has also become a popular pastime, with more than 100 marathons held last year; there were 51 in 2014. And the number of yoga practitioners is estimated to have grown from four million in 2009 to more than 10 million today.
But the easy gains have already been made; China's fitness market is becoming overcrowded. There are more than 37,000 gyms, according to a White Paper released by Beijing last month. In 2001, there were only about 300 gyms.
More international chains are muscling in for a piece of the pie. They include US franchise Anytime Fitness, which said in June it aims to open as many as 500 gyms in China in the coming years.
"China's fitness market, including gyms and programme developers, needs consolidation after the fast growth," New Zealand fitness firm Les Mills' chief executive Philip Mills told China Daily. "In the long run, we're confident the market size is really going to expand to a significant size."
Lim Yan Liang