In a spin

Fitness clubs and spas are nothing new to Guangzhou, but the current wave of participants is. Since the Sars outbreak last winter, denizens have been flocking to health clubs like Total Fitness Club, in Dongshan, and New Life Health Centre, in Tianhe, to get into shape. While many members take part in aerobics, boxing, weightlifting and running, the real fitness activity of choice these days is spinning.

An import from the United States, spinning made its way to China about three years ago and has recently become popular in cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou. The sport is akin to aerobics; only it takes place on a stationary bike. These sleek machines are fully adjustable and fitted with toe straps like a regular racing bike.

Groups of about 50 bikers pump, climb, stretch and sway to the commands of an instructor. A compendium of emotionally charged music plays throughout a 45-minute session as bikers peddle away the calories.

'Some people just like the atmosphere because it's fun and has lots of music,' said Jason Luo, head instructor at Total Fitness. According to Mr Luo, there are no real spinning classes being held in Guangzhou. Technically, Guangzhou's health clubs are holding 'tempo bike' classes, he says.

'Spinning is more intense than tempo biking,' said Mr Luo, who explained that in the beginners' class, the average heart rate is 160 beats per minute while the intermediate class pushes most participants to 180 beats per minute. Advanced classes have not yet opened. Spinning and tempo biking are activities that concentrate on cardiovascular exercise and fat burning.

But spinning and tempo biking are not for everyone. 'It's a pretty intense activity, so if you have a heart problem it's not advised,' said Mr Luo.

In Guangzhou, most participants are between 20 and 30 years old. While spinning and tempo bike classes are suited to the young, the number of male and female participants is about the same.

'It's not like aerobics where you feel silly jumping around with a bunch of women,' said Winning Hao, 32, who works for Sino-Trans. 'Tempo biking is more exciting because of the music and everybody does it together. Also you don't need to be that strong to do it. It's really for anybody.'

Like aerobics, each instructor has his or her own style. Most choose their own music, which affects the intensity of the workout.

The class attracts a variety of participants, including models and actresses who want to keep slim. 'It's a great way to relax and I can also keep my legs in good shape,' said Zhong Wen, an actress from Meizhou, who frequents Total Fitness Club.

But for some people, spinning and tempo bike classes are akin to a religious experience. They offer an outlet for participants to get inspired, as well as get into shape. During each session, bikers often follow the instructor with shouts, and wave their hands around.

'Most people are shy and unwilling to yell and wave their hands in public, but here you can,' said Mr Hao. 'You can even close your eyes and just relax.'

Spinning and tempo biking have attracted a faithful following. Classes are now held seven days a week, three or four times a day. Some participants show up every day, straight after work.

Despite the threat of diseases like Sars, the spinning and tempo biking fad in Guangzhou shows that people are not only interested in getting in shape - but also doing so as part of a group.

'Most people are just plain lazy,' said Mr Luo. 'They won't do something unless they are doing it with others.'