Working out in Beijing

Working out in Beijing

Ousley, Kathryn C

Upon my return to China in 2002, after two years in the United States, I was pleasantly surprised by the explosion of Western-style health clubs in Beijing. Back in 1995, during my first trip to China, it was nearly impossible to find an adequate gym-I frequently resorted to jogging and exercising with locals in Beijing parks. When I returned in 1999, I found that gym options had improved and that there were even two advanced athletic facilities in Beijing-the China World Hotel Fitness Center and the Swissotel Fitness Center. As a former collegiate varsity athlete and a hardcore sports and fitness enthusiast, I decided to evaluate Beijing’s new health club offerings based on my previous athletic experience in the United States and China. My goal was not only to find out where to get a good workout, but also to get a general sense of the current state of Beijing’s fitness industry.

Of the more than two dozen Western gyms in Beijing, I researched the eight facilities most recommended by my peers: China Sports Industry Co., Ltd. (CSI)-Bally Total Fitness, China World Hotel Fitness Center, Clark Hatch Fitness Center China Ltd., Evolution Fitness Center Co. Ltd., Kerry Sports Center, PowerLand Fitness, Pulse Health Club, and The Spa (see Table). I spent a week at each club, attending classes, speaking with clientele, interviewing staff, and taking a fitness evaluation test. I analyzed the gyms in six areas: competition within the industry, facilities and equipment, gym culture, personal trainers, exercise class instructors, and staff background and certification.

Industry competition

Beijing’s fitness industry is developing rapidly, with established facilities and new entrants working together to make the average consumer aware of the importance of exercise. Because Western fitness methods are still fairly new in China, competing gyms-sometimes inadvertently-help each other out through marketing efforts that educate potential Chinese customers about the benefits of health club offerings. As Evolution Fitness’s General Manager Matt Lewis explains, the proliferation of international-style gyms enlarges the industry’s market niche. And given the size and population of the city, the market is still underserved.

Competing health clubs target the same market segment: white-collar workers who can afford a health club membership. David Du, owner of PowerLand Fitness, claims that it is easier to recruit foreigners than local Chinese to join the gym because foreigners are generally more educated about health and fitness. Yet 90 percent of his current members are Chinese. In my eight-gym sample, between 10 and 40 percent of members were foreigners, with an average of about 15 percent.

Four of the gyms that I surveyed are independent gyms and four are hotel fitness centers. I immediately noticed a clear difference between the membership-driven independent gyms, which focused on customer fitness, and the elite hotel gyms, which tended to concentrate on customer service.

Nonhotel gyms are aggressively pursuing nearby residents through advertising. I was recruited to join The Spa by a team of advertising professionals working in a popular mall next door to the facility. Many of the newest gyms advertise on large subway station billboards. And Du of PowerLand, the only completely Chinese-owned gym that I visited, was planning on recruiting customers by releasing an on-screen commercial at the Christmas Day premiere of Zhang Yimou’s latest movie. Although Bally Total Fitness has launched a comparatively high-profile multimedia advertising campaign, Tomer Rothschild, chief representative and director of Rally’s business development for China, claims that membership growth is mainly a result of word of mouth-90 percent of members join because of existing member referrals. And despite all of the advertising, most gym managers realize that members choose a gym based on its proximity to their home or work, though price is also a factor.

Equipment and facilities

The eight clubs I visited met their managers’ goal of providing equipment and facilities comparable to the highest international standard; some were three stories, covered 6,000 square meters, and had state-of-the-art equipment. The gyms I visited offer similar equipment to gyms in the United States. All facilities have sufficient free and Nautilus-type weights. Dumbbells are plentiful-the Beijing gyms are stocked with just as many dust-collecting 80-pound dumbbells as US gyms. The gyms also offer typical aerobic equipment: treadmills, stairsteppers, stationary bicycles, elliptical machines, and rowing machines.

Another draw for local customers are swimming pools, which six of the eight gyms I visited offer: The Spa, Evolution, Kerry Sports, Pulse, China World, and Clark Hatch. Almost all of the athletic facilities provide extras such as a steam room, sauna, and whirlpool. For an additional fee, some gyms offer more extensive facilities. The Kerry Center boasts tennis, squash, basketball, and badminton courts, as well as table tennis and a billiard room, while China World has racquetball courts and a golf club.

When I asked Ben Thorns, manager of Kerry Sports, what customers find most appealing about gym facilities, he responded that men are attracted to nice weight-lifting facilities, while women are drawn to impressive locker rooms. If this is true, then Bally Total Fitness will soon be overflowing with men, and women will congregate in the breathtaking locker room at China World. Bally scores points for the sheer amount of equipment and size and layout of its weight room; China World dazzles with a locker room with marble floors, flattering lighting and mirrors, artwork, cylindrical sinks, and personal dressing areas that are stocked with more toiletries than a typical American’s medicine cabinet.

To customize their layout for the Chinese market, designers at Bally and The Spa studied research showing that Asians are more likely to value group activities than Westerners. At the time of my visit, Bally had applied for a retail license to open a coffee shop in the lobby, with the aim of creating the feel of a community meeting place. For the same reason, Bally has three group exercise rooms. Bally and The Spa have also incorporated more showers in their locker rooms than would be required by comparably sized gyms in the United States because research shows that a Chinese woman typically spends 15-20 minutes in the shower as opposed to the average American woman’s 10 minutes.

The other gyms I surveyed cater to members in general instead of Chinese members in particular. Jeffrey Sussman, executive assistant manager of the China World Fitness Center, pinpointed the needs of the club by working out and interacting with guests every day. Du of PowerLand designed his stadium-like aerobic equipment area, located beside floor-to-ceiling windows and facing large-screen televisions, after exercising in Canadian gyms during his extensive travels.

Though management was generally aware of the problem of polluted air in Beijing, few gyms took more than rudimentary steps to eradicate the hazard. I did not notice a difference between the air quality in gyms with professionally filtered air and those that had standard air conditioners.

Gym culture

Though facilities and equipment in the gyms I visited in Beijing are comparable to those in the United States, the expectations and characteristics of patrons are not. Managers agreed that Chinese members have the same fitness goals as expatriates but are less knowledgeable about the gym and its uses. Du of Powerland added that many Chinese are not only discovering Western-style fitness for the first time but are also less likely to ask for help.

Fortunately, the shyness and inexperience of many Chinese members are counteracted by the rising trend in China to spend more on leisure and relaxation, which Rothschild of Bally Total Fitness claims influences members to use personal trainers to pamper themselves. In contrast, Du says that foreign guests generally do not want assistance working out, illustrating the difference between Chinese and Western preferences concerning group activities.

Personal trainers

The majority of the clubs I visited included a fitness evaluation and sample workout with a personal trainer as part of their membership packages. Given the limited workout experience of new Chinese members, most gyms pushed the help of personal trainers to prevent injuries. Almost all facilities offered at least one free session with a personal trainer.

After evaluations by six different personal trainers, however, I was left confused about the state of my body and what exercise regime I should follow to keep in shape. All trainers subjected me to standard tests, including body measurements-height, weight, and body fat, among others-aerobic fitness, resting heart rate, blood pressure, flexibility, and muscular endurance and strength (the Kerry Center’s package does not include a fitness test, and China World offers a high-tech scale/body fat percentage measuring machine). Though these tests seemed reasonable, the manner in which they were executed caused my results to vary from “extremely aerobically fit” one week to “below average” the next; my body fat percentage rose-and fell-14 percent in one week. Although there were some amazing bakeries near the gyms-the Kempinski Hotel bakery was offering 50 percent off baked goods right around the time I finished my workout each day-it is physically impossible to eat that much chocolate cake! Most of the trainers that administered my fitness tests assumed my fitness goals were the same as the average Chinese woman’s. My trainer at Pulse measured my body fat percentage and proclaimed that I was in shape and should be doing maintenance-that it was undesirable for me to bulk up or slim down. he then went on to prescribe a standardized workout, recommending weight machines, aerobic machines, and classes. He laughed with skepticism when I said I enjoy free weights. Andrew Hjelmeland, general manager of The Spa, alluded to this tendency of Chinese trainers to stereotype members and assign the same workouts to everyone without regard for individual goals, experiences, or needs. (One of Hjelmeland’s trainers spent 30 minutes begging me to tell him thesecret of my calves while, only days later, my Pulse trainer confusingly informed me that my calves were too big and that I should jump rope and run long distances to make them smaller.)

My training with Chen Chen, fitness manager at The Spa, was the highlight of my eight weeks of working with personal trainers. After a comprehensive fitness evaluation, Chen took all of my input into consideration while writing a personalized workout plan and subsequently guiding me through the drill. I boxed at his outstretched, red-gloved hands until long after I had the energy to do so-thanks solely to his motivational way of cheering me on. I flashed back to college track practice as I performed up-tempo wind sprints on the treadmill, again with Chen urging me to work harder. I loved it. The day’s workout was quite successful-marked by the fact that I could barely roll out of bed the next morning.

In addition to The Spa, trainers at Bally and Evolution also recognized that I enjoy having muscles, although everyone except Chen pushed Nautilus-style machinery over free weights. My Bally trainer took an active interest in my goals and effectively combined my various needs into a workable plan, showing me exercises that targeted the specific muscles I wished to work. And Chris, a Chinese fitness pro that is unfortunately no longer with Evolution, impressed me with his attention to my muscular balance and past fitness history.

Group exercise classes

Group exercise classes have drawn me into gyms, both in the United States and in China. I attended a wide selection of class offerings in my two-month period and found class styles to be as wide-ranging as my fitness evaluation and recommended workout regime. The quality of classes varied greatly, with the more professional classes taught at independent gyms. Quality generally depended on the instructor, however.

The gyms I visited offered standard classes such as aerobics, step aerobics, spinning, and yoga in addition to more specialized classes like gongfu, belly dancing, Latin aerobics, taijiquan, and ba gua zhang. I primarily selected classes I was familiar with, but I also branched out occasionally. I am now certified in four blocking styles of ba gua zhang.

My advice for picking a class would be to wait until five minutes after start time to enter the room in order to survey potential classmates. Generally, classes with mostly foreign participants had an above average difficulty level. But this method was not fool-proof. My ba gua zhang instructor, who was apparently accustomed to Chinese students who are generally smaller than Westerners, was very excited about throwing around his tall foreign guest. Waking up bruised is not as satisfying as waking up sore.

One of my favorite classes was a Bally spinning class complete with loud, thumping techno-music, and a disco ball that lit up the otherwise dim room. The Spa’s Jing Jing also led me through a phenomenal body combat class (similar to kickboxing) and a tough spinning class. The three classes that I took at Evolution were taught solidly, but were not as challenging as the classes at Bally and The Spa.

Staff background and certification

Perhaps the lack of standardization in staff training and certification can account for discrepancies among different gyms’ fitness tests and class styles. Almost all of the managers I spoke with stressed the comprehensive training of their staff. Each gym either taught the instructors internally or required certain credentials upon employment.

Staff recruited to work in top gyms in Beijing generally hold Bachelor’s degrees in Physical Education, but do not necessarily have background in the sports or fitness industries. Personal trainers with applied experience in athletics stood out from their peers. Chen of The Spa has a background in martial arts fighting and track; my knowledgeable trainer from Bally had competed in gymnastics for many years.

Individual gyms chose from among various training programs to certify their staff. The China Bodybuilding Association, China Aerobics Association, Asian Association of Sports and Fitness Professionals, and National Association of Sports Medicine all offer certification.

Until certification is standardized, there will continue to be a shortage of personnel trained to international gym standards, thus creating competition among facilities to recruit the most qualified staff. This predicament has already manifested itself; Bally’s Rothschild said that there is not enough industry talent in Beijing to go around, and as a result, gyms are forced to hire staff from all over China. And once someone is certified, he or she becomes a valuable commodity. Job hopping is common. Thorns from the Kerry Center said that much of his current staff had moved over from China World; the trainer with whom I worked out at China World had formerly worked at The Spa; and PowerLand General Manager Andrew West shifted over from the Hilton Beijing’s gym.

So, which gym is best?

After evaluating Beijing’s fitness industry for eight weeks, I thought it would be easy to pick the best gym, but this was not the case. Like most people who select a gym based on its location, I too would probably pick any of the ones I visited, depending on which one was most conveniently located. If I were living in the Sohu apartment complex on Jianguomenwai, I would work out at Evolution. But if I lived in a mobile home or could weather the traffic across town, I would attend classes and lift weights at Bally, but would want Chen from The Spa as my personal trainer. After working out, I would shower and use the locker room at China World. If I wanted a swim, I would head to the Kerry Center, and if I were injured, I would use the ice whirlpool there as well.

Bulking up

Beijing’s health club industry has changed enormously since 1995, and the city’s fitness industry growth will continue. Many of the gyms I visited for this article were planning to open additional locations in Beijing and other parts of China, though some had just opened up their first site. Bally plans to emulate its US market plan of being the single largest provider-with two locations in Beijing and a goal of opening 50 clubs in China within the next 10 years. PowerLand is planning to open another club in Chaoyang Park in the Central Business District. And Fitness First, a larger version of The Spa, is considering several locations in Beijing.

The pace of construction of new, well-designed, advanced facilities has outstripped the development of talent and standard staff training. Yet, even if, because of a lack of standardized staff training and a lack of consumer knowledge and interest toward gyms, Beijing’s fitness industry is still imperfect, its expansion comes at a crucial time. As the industry matures, it could help counteract growing health and weight problems among urban residents.

Kathryn C. Ousley

is a research assistant at the US-China Business Council. She recently returned from a year-long fellowship at Beijing University.

Copyright U.S.-China Business Council May/Jun 2003

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