That's an expense many Chinese are willing to swallow these days, along with large helpings of deep-fried pork balls and buckets of KFC. More than 70 million Chinese are classified by the government health ministry as overweight, owing to the fast food and fast living that is playing havoc with upwardly mobile mainlanders' waistlines. "In the past, everyone was so poor," says Zhao Min, 28, a Shenzhen dentist who practices combined yoga/ballet three times a week. "People didn't have the time or money to spend on themselves, but at least they were healthier because they ate simple things and exercised because their work was strenuous. Today, some people may be wealthier, but they're also getting fatter and living more stressed-out lives."
According to the State Sports General Administration, China already is the world's largest sports and leisure market with 400 million consumers of sports-related services or products. "In the 1980s, it was trendy for young couples to own a TV set or a refrigerator," says Loni Wang, founder of four Shenzhen fitness clubs and vice chairwoman of China's national Fitness Club Committee, a government group that oversees the development of the sports and leisure industry. "For this new generation, trendy means not only having nice clothes but looking good and being healthy."
You'll get no argument from Zhou Yuanyuan as she scrambles up one of the steeper reaches of the Great Wall on the outskirts of Beijing during a recent weekend. Decked out in $80 hiking boots and combat fatigues, Zhou and her boyfriend, co-owners of a real estate company, have turned to physically challenging day trips to stay fit. "Our business has been good, but our stress levels are high," says Zhou, 23. "We've been eating too much and gaining weight. We find we must exercise—otherwise we just can't perform at work." The government is contributing to the cause. In the past two years, it has spent $30 million installing exercise equipment, such as chin-up bars and jogging paths, in 1,100 city parks throughout China.
The private sector is investing far more, by building chrome-plated gymnasiums like the The Total Fitness Club in Guangzhou. With two branches in Shanghai already, the swanky chain opened here in December as the first upmarket gym in the thriving capital of southern Guangdong province. "Traditionally, Cantonese would rather spend $600 on dining out than a health club membership," says general Manager Kevin Ng. But in its first six months, membership at the club shot past 1,300; Ng plans to open three more Guangzhou branches over the next two years. "Fitness centers are going to be like karaoke bars," says Hong Kong businessman Kenny Wong, who recently opened a Beijing "academy" to provide professional certification for aerobic instructors. "In every major Chinese city, on every corner, you'll see one."
Bally Total Fitness, a publicly traded U.S. firm with $1 billion in annual sales and 430 clubs in North America, is also looking to ride the boom. The company recently opened a vast 4,500-sq-m complex on Beijing's prestigious Changan Avenue—the first of up to 100 clubs Bally plans to build in China over the next four years through a joint venture with China Sports Industries. Lack of competition is one reason Bally is wading in, says chief operating officer Paul Toback. The corpulent U.S. has 18,000 health clubs. China has fewer than 20 freestanding fitness centers catering to the middle class. "We were also very encouraged to see how many large Western companies had made entries in China," says Toback, "chief among them McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut." To get rich is glorious, but getting fat is just gross. Let one hundred blisters bloom.