fitness market in China

The sports and fitness market in China: China’s fitness appetite is growing as fitness becomes the new lifestyle

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The sports and fitness market in China has seen exponential growth, from about 500 gyms in 2001 to approximately 49,860 fitness clubs by the end of 2019 in mainland China. According to a report released by the National Bureau of statistics, almost 400 million people have actively taken part in exercises regularly in 2019 signaling a huge potential for foreign and local fitness companies to target the China market.

This surge in exercising, gyms and fitness clubs coincides with growing athleisure market in China and usage of fitness apps, fitness influencers coupled with the growing health awareness in China.

The increase of China’s fitness population

While the 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 increased popularity of exercising throughout the country. This has led to health awareness and exercising as an essential trend that is being embraced by everyone in China. Based on a report published by the Ibis World market research, the fitness industry has experienced a 4.4% annualized growth for the last five years. The fitness industry in China is estimated to generate around $7.1 billion US annually.

China boasted a fitness population of 68.12 million gym-goers, which accounted for 4.9% of the whole population. This indicates a huge business opportunity for foreign and local brands. While traditional gyms in China are slowly falling out of favour with Chinese consumers the statistics still indicate a strong upward trajectory of fitness studios in China. According to a report published by Qingcheng Tech Company which provides gym operating services showed that the numbers of gym establishments was still growing at a rate of 31.13% in 2018. There were almost 98,000 gyms across China and the numbers are expected to keep growing.

Conventional gyms are slowly being replaced in China

Traditional brick-and-mortar gyms in China are increasingly struggling to make ends meet. At the same time, China’s fitness industry is becoming more digital with new-retail stores and offline apps, and more flexible by allowing consumers to attend classes they want without annual membership fees. As conventional gyms in China will slowly be replaced, gyms and various exercises offered online and offline with the help of technology will take its place.

The fitness industry in China is experiencing changes and is being redefined with technology. Traditional gyms in China have predominantly operated on maintaining heavy assets business model which allows them to operate in one city as their headquarters and its neighboring cities as expansion.

However, the process is slow and expensive. Additionally, traditional gyms tend to have poor customer service as most trainers double as salesmen dependent on commission. Rather than 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 digitized their services, propelling them to faster growth and expansion across China.

number of gyms in China July 2020

Data source: 2019-2020 China Health and Fitness Market White Paper, Deloitte, the information on the number of national gym is as of 1st July 2020.

The age distribution of the fitness population in China

The fitness trend has risen to extreme popularity because of the internet, particularly among the younger generation.

Riding on the trend health and wellness in China, rising incomes, fitness KOLs have begun to play an increasingly important role in influencing millennials and gen Z towards a healthy lifestyle with sports and fitness at the heart of the healthy lifestyle movement.

 Age distribution of fitness population in China

Data source:  Baidu Data; Age distribution of fitness population in China

Data from Baidu shows that millennials are the key target market for the sports and fitness market in China. Despite a steady growth of the fitness industry in China, millennials disposable income was also distributed among other innovative health products such as supplements and vitamins, wearables, beverages, dry fruits, organic foods, protein powders, diets and most importantly necessary lifestyle change triggered by Covid 19. Stressed and overworked Chinese millennials looking to spend on themselves are spearheading a tech-influenced sports and fitness market in China.

According to a report from a Beijing based consultancy the entire 68 million fitness population of China were using online platforms to support their sporty lifestyles. This mainly comprised of Chinese millennials in the top tier cities, leaving abundant untapped opportunities in lower tier cities.

Some of the main reasons why millennials have been transitioning into a healthy lifestyle were to lose weight, shape their bodies, and to relieve themselves from the stressful and hectic lives.

top reasons why Chinese exercised, 2018 survey in the fitness market in China

Data source:  2018 China Fitness Industry Data report, top reasons why Chinese exercised, 2018 survey

Fitness KOLs impact on young Chinese

Fitness influencers in China have created a wave of fitness followers and positively orchestrated a lifestyle change by sharing their personal stories and before and after photos. They have been the critical and key component in creating a positive shift in mindset with regards to body positivity, body image, especially in a society that often shames young women for not boasting a slim body.

Chinese fitness influencers create personal connection with fans

In an interview with ParkLu, Sammi G a popular fitness influencer on Weibo, shared her story about how she had felt over consumed in the stressful 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 stressful work life she had decided to go back to her workout routine, healthy and balanced lifestyle.

As she started to recover people around her noticed the change and her positive attitude. This is when she decided that people needed to know her story. Today, Sammi G boasts 297K followers on Instagram and 28K followers on Weibo. She regularly posts a mix of lifestyle shots, workout equipment and sharing her secrets to a toned body.

Another popular influencer Su Yulie, is the much more than the average Chinese influencer, he 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. Like that of Sammi G he shared his personal story of a transition from finance to an adventurous, spiritual and healthy lifestyle with his followers to connect and gain popularity. Coincidentally, right after Su, had made the transition to an influencer the Chinese government launched a plan to increase the national spending on sports in order to promote sports and fitness in China and address health and awareness in the country.

Trending workout regimes in an increasingly active country

These are some popular fitness trends in China that foreign and local brands must keep an eye for. The sports and fitness in China is directly related with other industries such as the sportswear market, wearables, supplements and vitamins, healthy eating and influencers and KOL’s are paving the path to the market share that companies need in order to grow in a highly competitive market which is still in a nascent stage and the boom has only just begun.

Compared to western markets, the fitness penetration rate of 4.9% is very low, much lower than the USA’s 20%, significantly carving out a huge market opportunity.

However, 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, playing various sports.

Yoga is booming in first tier cities

Yoga is booming in China and many Chinese women have incorporated yoga into their lifestyle for several reasons. It is an appealing prospect to Chinese millennials because yoga brings to them the benefits of toned, flexible, bodies on the outside while simultaneously benefiting their cardiovascular health, inner peace, improved vitality and body ache prevention.

All the attributes of yoga are mixed with a social element where the users share the same platform that helps them connect with people who have similar ideologies, passion for fitness and wellbeing. Whether these classes are conducted online or offline there is a connection between all the people involved which creates a sense of community through the sharing of stories, tips, hangouts and forging of new friendships.

Lastly, fitness has increasingly become intertwined with fashion. Wearing sweatshirts, yoga pants is increasingly becoming the “new sexy” and users want to feel good about themselves by fitting into clothes they could not think of before and share their ecstatic emotions on social media platforms.

Learn more about the blossoming Yoga market in China

CrossFit: Chinese millennials embrace a lifestyle change

While most consumers would go to a gym, 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 them to strengthen their body and athletic ability.

CrossFit has been gaining momentum in the sports and fitness market in China. It appeals to Chinese millennials as the strength and conditioning program consists of a combination of aerobic exercise, calisthenics, which is also body weight exercises coupled with Olympic style weightlifting. This creative form of exercise is adding more joy and diversity to the process of exercising, as described by a 35-year-old graphic designer from top tier city in China.

Another 27-year-old finance employee based in Beijing also mentioned he enjoys the diversity CrossFit has brought into his traditional working out routine.

Most Chinese millennials agree that a traditional exercise routine makes their muscles stiff at some point whereas the CrossFit routine 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 good sign of growth in a niche market where the number of facilities was zero until 2013, which is when the first CrossFit center opened in Shanghai. 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.

O2O and digital gyms

Covid-19 paved the way for in-home workout regimes which has accelerated the use of fitness equipment sales in China. At present, 5 million treadmills, 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 next two to three years.

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

Technology has been the key to the online fitness market. The most used training app in China is Keep. A social fitness app that provides consumers with exercise monitoring and guidance, sports equipment sales and nutritional diet advising coupled with the Instagram like social media experience. These offerings have seen Keep amassing  over 40 million monthly active users by 2019.

SuperMonkey is another app that has been growing in popularity among Chinese millennials, with its convenient WeChat mini program feature all of the exercise routines can be handled and operated within WeChat. Initially starting out my 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 like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Second and third tier cities present a tremendous opportunity for new companies to step in and garner market share in an industry which is in its nascent stage.

Martial arts satisfies a high-end and high-rigor demand consumer group

Deeply rooted in Chinese culture, Chinese martial arts like Taiqi, Wushu, and Kungfu have been consistently popular. However, this generation of fitness goers has welcomed western martial arts like boxing, and other Asian arts like Karate and Taekwondo. Today in China there is an estimated 80 million boxing athletes in China. The sport has become so popular that many gyms have a boxing ring, and offer private and group lessons at an additional cost. Additionally, specialized boxing gyms are popping up around cities. These gyms charge premium membership fees of up to 800 RMB per class and target young white collar workers.

Learn more about the martial arts market in China

The most popular sports in China

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

Table tennis and badminton are seen traditionally as national sports of the country. In China you can see table tennis equipment in local parks, neighborhoods and university campuses. The game is also a matter of national pride as 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 gained major popularity in China after the Chinese super league became a premier location for star football players to see out their twilight years. A huge influx of investments in football clubs, establishment of football academies such as the Ajax football academy and Bayern football school signaled a new era in China and President Xi Jinping’s dream to see China as a major powerhouse in world football. It also helps that the country’s leader is a football fan and yearns to see a successful Chinese national football team. China was ambitious in setting a goal to construct 70,000 football fields by the end of 2020, and 600,000 by 2025, while Covid-19 may have slowed that down, it is only a matter of time that 50 million Chinese people will play football regularly of which 30 million are students.

Youth players from the R&F and Ajax partner football academy train in Guangzhou.

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 a common sight in China. Neighborhoods, university campuses, residential complexes and even shopping malls have all accommodated basketball courts and 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 in China than European football leagues.

The sports industry is growing in China and viewership deals, branded sportswear, sporting facilities and serious career planning for China’s youth talent to become professionals are all attributing to making the sports industry in China worth up to $470 billion by 2025.

A Credit Suisse study estimated that the sports and fitness market in China will be worth $470.3 billion by 2025.

Data source: Credit Suisse; Statista; Figures are in $US billions. A Credit Suisse study estimated that the sports industry in China will be worth $470.3 billion by 2025.

Key takeaways

The sports and fitness industry in China is still in its infancy. This signals a huge market space and potential for the likes of healthy food brands, sportswear, equipment, sports science education and fitness clubs. While top tier city residents are already well-educated about this ongoing trend, lower tier cities present the best opportunities for companies to establish their presence

Influencers and KOL’s have become the bridge between companies and consumers. It is important to leverage the reach of influencers to promote products and services. Live streaming in China has already become an extremely popular and successful way of selling products and services and companies need to realize the importance it has that enables them to connect with their consumers.

Chinese people and the Chinese government take the development of sports as a matter of national pride and success. The money being invested in infrastructure and talent signals a series of serious goals along with raising health and awareness for fitness in the country. The demand for high quality products and services is increasing; therefore, brands can invest their time, money and strategies for the long haul in China. The world’s largest sports and fitness industry growth trajectory has just begun.


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