Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Fat Bucks

“A group of chubby 8- to 18-year-old children trudge around a sweltering track under the watchful gaze of Frank Yu, general manager of Shanghai Dianfeng Sports Management Co., Ltd. While still a student at the Shanghai University of Sport, Yu, along with the help of two classmates, independently generated 30,000 RMB (USD $4,400) of start-up capital to establish Shanghai's first youth fat camp--now held several times each summer. Yu is among a growing number of entrepreneurs entering the market en masse to address China's obesity epidemic--a problem as weighty to this nation as the global financial crisis with impacts as longstanding. As China's diet and lifestyle habits change in sync with its newly achieved wealth, more than a quarter of China's adult population has become overweight or obese. Among developing nations, China's rate of increase in overweight adults is only second to Mexico, says a report published in the July/August edition of the journal Health Affairs. Figures from the Ministry of Education reveal that among 11- to 12-year-old urban children, 8.1 percent are obese and 15 percent are overweight. Numbers of diabetes and heart disease cases have exploded among Chinese of all ages. In October, the government responded to the growing crisis; it has required elementary through high school students to take daily jogs of 1,000 to 2,000 meters and advised members of the general public to walk at least 6,000 steps per day. There have also been increased nutritional awareness campaigns. Today, China has more than 615,000 gyms, offering classes such as spinning, yoga, step, salsa and even pole dancing--anything to entice office workers to sign up for annual memberships that generally run from 2,500 to 20,000 RMB (USD $360 to $2,930) in major cities. Gyms often market memberships by preying on young people's anxieties about finding (or keeping) a match in a competitive dating environment and frame belonging to a health club as a sign of privilege and achievement. Shanghai's recently opened One Wellness, which bills itself as a boutique fitness club, sells ‘a lifestyle rather than a product,’ says David Barr, the club's founder and CEO, an Englishman who has lived in Shanghai for 12 years. The first carbon neutral gym in China, the club--a refurbished 1950s-era building interjected with modern elements-- boasts state-of-the art Technogym machines and chill-out zones equipped with Wifi. On one weekend the strain of live music and smell of barbecue fill the outside terrace. Due to his club's success, Barr plans to open several more locations in 2009. The children from Yu's fat camp have long said good-bye to summer and those torturous walks around a hot track, only to greet chillier jogs at their schools. Whether they have finally outrun obesity is something they--and China's new weight loss capitalists--will keenly watch.”


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