BEIJING (AP) — Several days a week, Wu Ruiyao hits the gym, where she sweats on a treadmill, tones her abs in a group exercise or stretches under the guidance of a personal trainer.
The 90-minute workout is routine to Wu, a 36-year-old ad sales representative. But the surroundings — a four-story fitness club catering to different fitness levels and needs — would have been unimaginable just a decade ago.
“When I thought of a gym in the 1990s, it would be bare with dumbbells and maybe running machines in a room,” said Wu, a small woman with big, smiling eyes.
“My mom thought doing house chores was working out, but that’s not a truly aerobic sport.”
Their lives transformed by breakneck economic growth, many Chinese are embracing creature comforts which would once have been denounced by their communist bosses as bourgeois indulgences.
Fitness is largely an urban, middle-class craze. Most Chinese still rely on farming for a living, and hard, physical exercise is not their idea of recreation, nor was it for urban Chinese just escaping Mao-era poverty 20 years ago.
Now they are free to shape and pamper their bodies, and fitness clubs are moving in.
“Once the people have more time and more money, they will think of fitness,” said Gu Haoning, who monitors the health and fitness industry for the government’s General Administration of Sports. “It would be impossible if they are still trying to eke out a living and don’t have extra money for fitness.”
The national fanfare surrounding the Beijing Olympics is adding to the momentum.
A generation ago, most people exercised in parks and side streets. In the 1980s, Jane Fonda’s aerobics videos began circulating. Now, in a country long shadowed by famine, food has become plentiful and there are even signs of an obesity problem.
Matt Lewis is a pioneer in Beijing’s fitness market. The New Zealander came to Beijing in 1997 to manage an elite country club and immediately saw opportunities in bringing fitness to the emerging middle class.
Gyms back then were “either very, very expensive, or very, very cheap,” he said, but with an initial investment of $500,000, Evolution Fitness opened in 2001 as one of the first private gyms in Beijing.
The gym on most work nights heaves with young Chinese professionals spinning on bikes, making waves in the pool or striking a triangle pose in yoga classes. It is making money, said the 37-year-old Lewis, the managing director, though he wouldn’t say how much.
With China’s economy having grown at double digits in recent years, urban Chinese have extra money to spend. Investment in sports and other recreational equipment leaped 8.5 percent in the first seven months this year compared with the same period last year, to $1.5 billion, according to government figures.
Wu, the ad sales executive, said stress from work and hours spent in Beijing’s clogged traffic drove her to sign up this year at the Alexander City Club, an airy gym in an up-market apartment complex in the business district.
“I feel energetic and buoyant after working out,” Wu said. “Otherwise I would be dragging my tired body home.”
Wu, who is single, makes about $30,000 a year. She paid $1,150 for two years of membership and $70 an hour for personal trainers.
“It is money well-spent,” Wu said. “As you get older, you realize health is important, and having a private trainer is more effective and timesaving.”
Her mother, back in southwestern Yunnan province, would have never gone for it. “Raising two children, my mother never had the time, and there was no money or gym either,” she said.
“Those who were born in the 1960s and 1970s have been working so hard. They have been pursuing success at any cost,” said Yin Yan, the former editor-in-chief for the fashion magazine Elle in China and founder of the Yogiyoga Center yoga studio in Beijing in 2003.
“Now they have it — money or social status — thanks to China’s economic development, but they also find their health worsened and their lives in a mess.”
The newly stressed can visit spas for full-body rubs, foot massages and aromatherapy. They range from hotel chains to mom-and-pop operations.
One sensation is the mega-bathing center. Though descended from bathhouses that operated before homes had water heaters, many have more in common with Las Vegas. Oriental Hawaii and Oriental Venice bathhouses in Beijing employ hundreds and are twice the size of an average Wal-Mart Supercenter.
The one-stop pampering offers foot rubs, massages, pingpong, food, easy chairs and overnight stays.
Chinese families come there to spend time together, businessmen woo clients over a foot-soaking, and young people come to idle away a night.
“Whenever I am tired or drowsy, I go there to lie down,” said Sun Desheng, 45, a businessman in the garment industry. “I like the ambiance created through background sound and lighting, and the services are great. I will relax and sometimes fall asleep.”
Demand is so high that the Beijing Adult Massage Occupational Technical Training School, which opened in 1998 to train the blind as masseurs, has since had to admit sighted students. The school has trained more than 20,000 massage therapists, President Zhang Haiyan said.
Zhang estimates Beijing, with a population of 17 million, has at least 50,000 to 60,000 massage therapists, yet “Employers are calling for more students than we have.”
Big cities like Beijing are far from saturated with gyms and spas while smaller cities are untapped, meaning the industry is sure to keep growing.
“Chinese people want to live forever, while Americans want to enjoy themselves, but it’s all about being healthy,” said Gu, the health official. “It’s the kind of spending that comes from the heart of the people.”