Fiending for Fitness

On a morning dog walk this weekend I noticed at least four new boutique fitness centers in my neighborhood. Shanghai used to only have a couple major chain gyms, but now it seems everyone wants to cash in on a trend we saw emerging about a year ago. Health and wellness, especially physical activity, has taken the country by storm. As China continues to grapple with expanding waistlines and poor nutritional understanding, the other end of the spectrum is growing by leaps and bounds. In fact, 76% of urban Chinese now say they participate in sports or other physical activities compared to about 56% in the United States. The number attending gyms alone has increased by 4 to 5 million people annually since 2011.

Driving this change in activity levels is a desire for improving overall well being. That means it’s not just the physical infrastructure, but also all the other bells and whistles associated with a healthy lifestyle, that stand to benefit from this fitness frenzy. Where this is most apparent is in what consumers eat and drink.

According to the China Health Care Association, annual health food sales in China are at around RMB200 billion (US$31 billion). This includes organic foods, where China has grown to become one of the top four organic markets worldwide. As we reported a few weeks ago, dietary and nutritional supplements are also on the rise. Nearly half of all urban consumers purchase some form of nutritional supplement, contributing to the RMB100 billion (US$15 billion) market. In the drink sector, Forbes reports nearly 90% of Chinese consumers now drink some form of plant-based beverage – juices, soybeans, or grains. In Shanghai, for example, the HeyJuice brand of fresh juice stores have grown exponentially. They have even received investment from Chinese megastar Angelababy.

Where, then, can foreign food and beverage brands best leverage fitness trends for big wins in China? It’s critical to look at what consumers are paying attention to.

  • First are labels. Rather than reading lengthy, confusing nutritional tables, Chinese consumers gravitate towards symbols and concise claims.
  • Next, Chinese consumers care most about the additives, preservatives, provenance, and sugar content of products. Providing clear information on these health claims can go a long way in building consumer trust.
  • Lastly, men view nutrition differently than women. Men care more about additives and preservatives, as well as genetically-modified content. Women, on the other hand, focus on fat content, sugars, and sodium.

The fitness craze is receiving a big push from the central Government as well through its Healthy China 2030 Plan. Fitness industry leaders also want to have half a billion Chinese up and active by 2025. Combined, this means healthy lifestyles are less likely to be just a passing fad, and more a sign of a modernizing China.