Rewind over 20 years to when Candy Tang (唐雅君) started in the fitness business. There weren't many gyms and the bodybuilders who used them were often viewed as freaks. For women, there were few dance studios and the music was traditional. Most exercise, if it happened at all, took place in parks at an early hour or in the evening.
Fast forward to today. Exercise has shaped up into big business and working out is seen as the norm rather than the preserve of muscle-bound steroid abusers. From the dance studio Tang began in 1982 she has formed the Alexander Group, which now has 33 clubs in Taiwan and China, with 280,000 members and 1,900 employees. Over 1,600 classes are offered each week. Alexander Group had revenues of NT$3 billion last year and aims at 30 percent to 40 percent annual growth.
Tang rattled off a list of reasons why fitness is such a big business. "It's a global movement and it's not difficult to see why gyms have become popular. First, they were seen locally as being trendy but this attitude has changed and now everyone sees the benefits, from housewives to young men. Students are a `new power' in our business."
The gym is no longer a place where men simply lift weights, Tang said. "We provide something for everyone. In the mornings we now get the older guys and women who used to go to the parks or up the mountain to exercise. Housewives come in later and office workers come in at lunchtime or in the evening. Students come in after college."
Half of Alexander Group's members are women. There is body pump and step aerobics, spinning (bicycling nowhere, to the beat of techno music and flashing lights), Pilates (physical and mental conditioning) and many other tailored programs catering to the fat, fit and in-between.
Gyms offer spas, beauty treatments, personal trainers and weight-management consultants. There are clubs geared toward executives, families and the elderly. Jacuzzis, massages, facials and more have become the norm at many of the larger gyms. Juice bars and cafes provide a space to socialize. Wireless Internet access attracts techies and there are shops to buy the latest line of leotards or high-tech sportswear.
"It's all about lifestyle," Tang said. "More people think about their body and their health because they have an idea about the kind of life they want. Membership of a gym is like a lifestyle card."
A Chinese-language paper reported earlier this week that around 600,000 people regularly work out and this number is growing. Behind the figures is a change in lifestyle. The more we eat and the less we exercise, the worse we look and feel. Yet we want to look good and live well. Gyms bridge the gap between what we are and who we want to be.
California Fitness is one of the biggest gym operators worldwide and has been operating for over 20 years in the US, where there has been "straight growth" in the market each year, according to Steve Clinefelter, the president of California Fitness in Hong Kong. In an e-mail interview he said, "The Taiwan health club market has matured significantly over the past five years."
"Furthermore, the vast majority of the general public has been indoctrinated with an enormous amount of media information about the multitude of positive benefits that result from regular exercise. This all contributes to a rapid maturing of the health club market."