How China’s fitness appetite grows as exercising becomes the new lifestyle

The sports and fitness market in China has seen exponential growth, from about 500 gyms in 2001 to approximately 50,288 fitness clubs by the end of 2020. According to the General Administration of Sport of China, 67.5% of people aged above 7 participated in fitness at least once a week in 2022, an increase of 18.5% compared to the rate in 2014. This trend is also expected to accelerate among youngsters after the double reduction policy. The increase is signaling a huge potential for foreign and local fitness companies to target the Chinese market.

This surge in exercising, gyms, and fitness clubs coincide with the growing athleisure market in China and the usage of fitness apps and fitness influencers, which have led to a growing health awareness in China.

The increase in China’s fitness population

While sports and fitness enthusiasts are predominantly based in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the advent of fitness apps has played a key role in the increased popularity of exercising throughout the nation. This has encouraged health awareness and exercising to become an essential trend, which has been burgeoning among people in China. The market size of the fitness industry in China reached USD 55 billion (RMB 377 billion) in 2021, with a CAGR of 4.4% from 2015 to 2020. In 2021, China boasted a fitness population of 70.29 million gym-goers, which accounted for 5.02% of the entire population.

Conventional gyms are slowly being replaced by digital-focused gyms in China

In 2022, this opportunity seemed to be caught by digital-focus gyms with a business model of retail stores and online apps, rather than the traditional brick-and-mortar gyms that provide long-term memberships. The flexibility of the new model is an important driver. can attend the gym and classes whenever they want without annual membership fees, while traditional gyms require an up-front fixed fee regardless of attendance. Therefore, conventional gyms in China are slowly being replaced by those that offer online and offline options with the help of technology.

On the other hand, traditional gyms in China predominantly operate through business models that require heavy asset maintenance, which allows them to operate in one city as their headquarters and its neighboring cities for expansion.

Read more about China’s fitness and wellness market

However, the process is slow and costly. Traditional gyms in China also tend to have poorer customer service as most personal trainers double as salesmen dependent on commission. Instead of having monthly memberships or flexible pay-per-class options, gyms sold one to five years of membership at once. In contrast, new-model gyms like LeFit have differentiated themselves by using a light-asset model, franchising and digitizing their services, propelling them to faster growth and expansion across China.

Data source: China Health and Fitness Market White Paper by Deloitte. Designed by Daxue Consulting, number of gyms as of 1st July 2020.

Demographic of China’s fitness population

The fitness trend has risen to extreme popularity because of the internet, particularly among the younger generation. Riding on the trend of health and wellness aligned with rising incomes, fitness KOLs are emerging and playing an increasingly crucial role in influencing millennials and gen Z towards a healthy lifestyle.

Data source:  Baidu Data, designed by Daxue Consulting, the age distribution of the China’s fitness population

Millennials are the key target group of the sports and fitness market in China. Despite this steady growth, millennials’ disposable income was also distributed among other innovative health products such as supplements and vitaminswearables, beverages, dry fruits, organic foods, protein powders, other dietary supplements, and most importantly, the necessary lifestyle changes triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The 68 million fitness population in China were using online platforms to support their sporty lifestyles and leaving abundant untapped opportunities in lower-tier cities. Some of the top reasons for the transition to a healthier lifestyle among Chinese people include losing weight, shaping their bodies, and relieving themselves from stressful and hectic lives.

Source: Chinese Sports White Paper by WEARFIT. designed by Daxue Consulting, the top reasons why Chinese people exercised in 2021

Fitness KOLs are influencing the youngsters in China

On the other hand, fitness influencers in China have created a wave of fitness followers and positively orchestrated a lifestyle change by sharing their fitness stories. They are also creating a positive shift in mindset regarding body image, especially in criticizing the stereotype that young women should have slim bodies.

Chinese fitness influencers on social media

In an interview with Sammi G, a popular fitness influencer on Weibo, who shared her story about how overwhelmed she felt in the advertising industry. She explained how she was unhealthy, lost her body shape, and suffered from gastrointestinal pain and insomnia, which ultimately led to depression. After taking a break from her bustling work life, she decided to go back to her workout routine, and live a healthy and balanced lifestyle

Sammi G also decided to share her fitness story to inspire others. Today, the fitness influencer has over 297 thousand followers on Instagram and 28 thousand followers on Weibo. She regularly posts a mix of lifestyle shots and workout equipment and shares her tips and advice on how to achieve a toned physique.

Source: Sammi G’s official Instagram, Sammi G promoting yoga wearing Sweaty Betty

Another popular influencer, Su Yulie, is seen as the “ideal poster child”, defining a millennial Chinese consumer who wishes to lead an exploratory and spiritual life. Su’s story is like that of a fantasy. Similar to Sammi G, where he shared his personal story of transiting from corporate work life to an adventurous, spiritual, and healthy lifestyle.

Source: Sina Weibo, Su Yulie’s Weibo post

In 2022, singer and actor Will Liu appeared to be the most popular search on Baidu and Douyin (Chinese version of Tiktok). Liu and his wife danced to famous songs through Douyin livestreaming during the Shanghai lockdown. Their dance movements are fun but intense after following for a long period, thus, appear to be a new approach to exercising. This hot wave has increased the frequency and penetration rate of fitness among netizens, with over 14 million users joining per stream.

Source: Liu’s Douyin. Livestream of Liu and his wife doing dancing exercises

Trending workout regimes in an increasingly active country

In 2020, China’s fitness penetration rate is 5.02%, although relatively insignificant compared to the US of 20%, however, demonstrating a huge market opportunity.

China’s fitness industry output in terms of revenue has been growing rapidly. Chinese consumers also tend to engage in a host of fitness activities such as yoga, outdoor exercises, and sports.

Yoga is booming in first-tier cities

Yoga has become a ubiquitous activity in China, especially amongst young females. Some of the main reasons for this include building a body shape while simultaneously benefiting their cardiovascular health, inner peace, improving vitality, and body ache prevention.

The attributes of yoga are also mixed with a social element. Users who have similar ideologies, passion for fitness, and well-being can be brought together. As a result, yoga classes create a sense of community through sharing stories, tips, hangouts and forging of new friendships.

Learn more about the yoga market in China

CrossFit: Chinese millennials embrace a lifestyle change

While most consumers would go to a gym or yoga studio, or actively take part in outdoor sports, a growing number of Chinese people have begun choosing a novel form of exercising that helps strengthen their body and athletic ability.

CrossFit has been gaining momentum in the sports and fitness market in China. It appealed to millennials as the strength and conditioning program consists of a combination of aerobic exercise and calisthenics. In other words, it is a bodyweight exercise coupled with Olympic-style weightlifting. This form is adding more joy and diversity to the process of exercising, as described by a 35-year-old graphic designer from a top-tier city in China.

Another 27-year-old corporate employee based in Beijing also mentioned that the enjoyment of diversity CrossFit has mixed with his traditional working out routine. Most Chinese millennials agree that a traditional exercise routine makes their muscles stiff at some point, whereas CrossFit helps them maintain a high level of agility and athletic ability.

In 2018, there were 160 certified facilities in China, according to the official CrossFit website. This is a positive sign of growth in a niche market where the number of facilities was zero just in 2013. There is tremendous scope for this form of exercise and business as more and more Chinese millennials look for diverse and creative ways to enjoy their workout whilst still maintaining a strong, agile, and athletic body.

Why are at-home workout regimes and digital gyms booming in China?

The Covid-19 pandemic has paved a new way for at-home workout regimes, which accelerated the use of fitness equipment sales in China. At present, 5 million treadmills and exercise bikes for home use are sold every year and the fitness equipment industry insiders predict that the trajectory will continue to double in the following two to three years.

Along with treadmills and exercise bikes, other training equipment like dumbbell sets, cross trainers, yoga mats, and exercise balls have been popular items sold on e-commerce websites, enabling Chinese fitness enthusiasts to continue their workouts from home.

Fitness-related application is another booming market in China. The market size reached USD 58 billion (RMB 400 billion) in 2021, with a penetration rate of 45.5% for fitness people. China’s top 10 fitness apps ranked by the number of users are dominating over 75% of total users.

The most used training app in China is Keep. The app provides consumers with exercise monitoring, guidance, sports equipment sales, and nutritional diet advising coupled with an Instagram-like social media platform. These offerings have seen Keep amassing over 34.4 million monthly active users in 2021. 

Followed by Boohee Health, similar to Keep, which monitors the well-being and lifestyles of individuals, was established in 2008 and experienced explosive growth in sales by 200% between 2019 and 2020 amid the pandemic. The app also sells various light meals, such as ‘low-fat chicken sausage’, which had monthly sales of over 100,000 in 2018. It became the early adaptor of the “light meal” market. Currently, it continuously faces intensive competition as traditional food brands, fitness brands, and even fast food franchises have joined the light meal market. Therefore, the brand is expecting to face stronger competition than before.

SuperMonkey is another app that has been growing in popularity among Chinese millennials, with its convenient WeChat mini-program featuring guides on exercise routines. Initially starting by operating unmanned training rooms, they have since changed their business model to providing group training sessions and private lessons. As of 2019, SuperMonkey had expanded to over 70 gyms in tier-one cities. Second and third-tier cities present a tremendous opportunity for new companies to step in and garner market share in the industry at its nascent stage.

The market size of digital gyms and their applications is increasing as they partially solve the pain points of Chinese people. 30.6% of people chose to not partake in fitness activities due to time pressure, and 10.8% due to the lack of gyms available. However, digital gyms neither require commuting nor infrastructure.

Source: General Administration of Sport of China, designed by Daxue Consulting, reasons for Chinese people not exercising.

Most popular sports in China

Sports have always been a part of the Chinese lifestyle. With growing disposable incomes, self-splurging, and a growing sports and fitness industry, the wealthy middle class has been carving out time from their hectic lives for activities such as running, table tennis, basketball, and football.

Source: White Paper on Chinese Sports by WEARFIT. designed by Daxue Consulting, the most popular sports in China in 2021

Table tennis and badminton are seen traditionally as national sports in the country. The basic infrastructures and equipment are well established in the community such as local parks, neighborhoods, and university campuses. The game is also a matter of national pride as the Chinese national team won Olympic medals at the 2012 London games and completed a total sweep of all medals at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games.

The growing scope of football and basketball in China

Football is welcomed by a large number of citizens and the capital of China. A huge influx of money is invested in football clubs, establishing football academies such as the Ajax football academy and Bayern football school. China is also ambitious in setting a goal of constructing 70,000 football fields by the end of 2020, and 600,000 by 2025, although the Covid-19 pandemic has slightly slowed down its development.

Data source: The Sun; Youth players from the R&F and Ajax partner football academy train in Guangzhou.

Learn more about the football market in China

Basketball courts are another common sight in China. Neighborhoods, university campuses, residential complexes, and even shopping malls have all accommodated basketball courts. According to Forbes, 18% of athletically engaged Chinese people play basketball. Bloomberg’s research also showed that the NBA is around six times more popular than European football leagues in China.

Key takeaways from the sports and fitness market in China

  • The sports and fitness industry in China is still at its infant stage, however, it has shown mass potential market space.
  • Conventional gyms in China are gradually being replaced by digital-focus gyms, with a business model of retail stores and online apps.
  • Live streaming in China is become an increasingly popular and successful approach to promoting fitness, especially among younger generations
  • Online fitness application is another booming market with a size of USD 58 billion (RMB 400 billion) in 2021.
  • Engaging in sports are gradually becoming a lifestyle of Chinese people as the awareness of healthy living is raising.

Learn more about the youth sports market in China