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Monday, February 16, 2015, 09:19

Big firms muscle in on booming fitness sector

By Wang Zhuoqiong
Big firms muscle in on booming fitness sector
A man exercises at a gym in Beijing. China's ongoing battle with pollution has also encouraged more people to stay indoors to exercise, with many gyms installing air purifiers to lure consumers. (Provided to China Daily)

Even when she was in her 20s, Tiffany Tang says she never felt so full of energy and healthy.

Since starting to jog with her family and friends over the past two years ago, she has slept better and her muscles have become tighter.

"I get up really early in the morning, and sleep early at night," says Tang, now 36, who used to be a night owl.

She runs three times a week on average at the Olympic Park in Beijing, twice covering 8-15 kilometers, and once between 25 and 30 km.

When the air quality is poor, she stays in the gym to work on her muscle tone.

Exercising has also brought her a new circle of friends, she says, meeting fellow runners via instant messaging platform WeChat and the microblog Weibo, where knowledge and information on how to run properly are exchanged.

Last year Tang completed the Beijing marathon, and her medal is now a prized possession.

"Exercising has become a hobby. Sometimes keeping it going is grueling. But I feel worse if I don't run," she says.

Tang is among a new wave of Chinese who have been actively participating in sport and exercise since 2008 - Olympic year, and a peak for people taking a more active lifestyle.

According to recent research by the Mintel Group Ltd, more than seven out of 10 people in China say they are now eating a healthier diet and exercising more.

The study shows that 56 per cent of participants said they thought good health was the key to achieving personal goals. Thirty-nine percent said it helped their financial situation, and 21 percent felt they had a better social life because of it.

The appetite for a healthier lifestyle has also seen a surge in the number of people joining gyms and sports clubs.

Adam Zhang, founder of the Key-solution sports consultancy, says: "Gym chains have been aggressively opening more outlets and they are really positive about the market's potential."

The gym sector had seen a slump in interest, after too many opened, often badly run, following the euphoria of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Many closed, but Zhang says quality has been vastly improved, and the market is growing steadily again.

"As it has warmed up again these chains having been grabbing the opportunity to grow."

The sector has also benefited from strong government support for the health and sports industry aimed at promoting better personal health.

China's ongoing battle with pollution has also encouraged more people to stay indoors to exercise, with many gyms installing air purifiers to lure consumers.

Cao Yan, chief executive officer of PowerHouse Gym, based in Tianjin, says the company opened three new sites last year, in Beijing, Tianjin and Kunming.

With more than 20 gyms, the chain claims to have full membership and further expansion is expected, says Yan, who is greatly encouraged by the fact that venture capitalists are also starting to realize the health market's potential.

As well as its gyms, PowerHouse offers its members personal training at home, managed by a booking system which is fully online.

Sportswear producers, too, have been keeping a close eye on the growing market.

Sabrina Cheung from Adidas AG says it has seen a rise in demand for sports apparel of all types, especially running gear, helped by a surge in the number of running events being organized.

In 2015 alone, there are more than 50 marathons planned by the national sports authorities in China, not to mention countless five-kilometer runs and fun runs. "This trend is really encouraging. We are excited to see more people get involved in sports. As a leading sports brand we want to foster a sports culture in China and encourage more people to participate in various sports activities," says Cheung.

As consumers across China become more passionate about sports, they are also increasingly looking for products which help maximize their performance, according to Cheung.

Adidas sold 1.1 million pairs of its Boost running shoes and trainers, for instance, last year and targets 2.9 million pairs this year. "In fact, the response to Boost has been so positive we've decided to roll out more Boost footwear in other categories too," she says.

The revival of the sports market has also been good news for China's domestic sports brands, some of whom have struggled over the past two years just to keep afloat.

First-half profits at Anta Sports Products Ltd, for instance, rose to 177 million yuan ($28.5 million) and Peak Sport Products Co Ltd has just revealed a 31 million yuan profit increase for the same period.

In the wake of the Beijing Olympics, some high-profile domestic sports brands first saw a surge in sales, with 2008 revenues at both Anta and Li-Ning Co Ltd, the two largest manufacturers, gaining more than 50 percent.

The results encouraged Li-Ning, Anta and smaller rivals Peak and 361 Degrees International Ltd to open a total of more than 9,000 stores across the country between 2008 and 2011 - an average of eight per day.

But over-expansion and poor branding soon ate into their margins, and in 2012, the industry entered a slump period. Some listed brands suffered from sharp declines and their whole year net profits dropped, with Li-Ning reporting a net loss of 2 billion yuan.

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