Health and wellness

The China fitness club making workouts as exciting as a concert, with music at the centre of every class and instructors like DJs

Fitness as entertainment is the goal at Space Cycle, where spinning, yoga and barre classes are taught by instructors trained by top Hollywood fitness instructors including Simone de la Rue, JJ Dancer and Barry Ennis

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 June, 2018, 3:18pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 June, 2018, 11:48am

In a dark, tiered room resembling a cinema, with a large screen on which stars and planets are whizzing by, I am on a stationary bike – and I am flying.

I’m not really flying, of course, but it’s easy to get that feeling with the universe whizzing by and purple pinpricks of light skipping across the floor. A young and enthusiastic instructor yells encouragement as he skips across the front of the room, clapping his hands above his head in time with the music.

The music is loud and all-encompassing, a relentless mix of upbeat pop from Beyoncé, the Black Eyed Peas and Fall Out Boy.

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That music is at the centre of things at Space Cycle, a relative newcomer to China’s burgeoning boutique group fitness studio market, is no great surprise, given it’s the brainchild of former music industry executive Matthew Allison – who is on a mission to make exercise an experience in entertainment.

“When we go for a run, it’s almost hard to imagine doing that now without a playlist – we would feel almost naked. It’s hard to imagine that we would feel inspired if we didn’t have that playlist,” Allison explains.

“[Often] when we take group classes, music is so far pushed to the background, it’s seen as background music. But it’s such an essential aspect to that class – whether that music is inspiring and whether that can be managed in a bigger way, as part of the ethos.”

That is certainly the ethos at Space Cycle. “Music is the secret sauce and we use it to create a vibrant social community and an entertainment-driven, multilayered fitness experience.”

Before opening its flagship locations in Beijing and Shanghai in 2016, Space Cycle invited some of Hollywood’s top celebrity trainers to train its instructors. They included cardio dance queen Simone de la Rue (whose clients include Taylor Swift and Reese Witherspoon), hip hop cardio expert JJ Dancer (Jessica Alba, Beyoncé, Kanye West), and indoor cycling and yoga trainer Barry Ennis (Dakota Fanning, Vanessa Hudgens).

Currently, Space Cycle has six studios in Beijing, Shanghai and Taiwan. It plans to have 10 more under development or in operation by 2019, and up to 50 locations in the next five years. Investors seem convinced of the brand’s viability – in January, the company announced a 100 million yuan (US$15.6 million) second round of funding. (The funding was led by a charity entrepreneurship fund that is part of the Alibaba Group, owner of the Post.)

China’s huge population of city-dwelling millennials – those aged 18 to 35 – is driving growth in the health and fitness industry. Gym and health-club revenue has nearly doubled in the past five years, and the industry is set to generate more than US$6.9 billion this year, according to research firm IBIS World.

As these young consumers see their disposable incomes rise along with their health awareness, they are shifting focus from traditional fitness options to more tailor-made, entertaining and social experiences.

“We want to be a lifestyle in fitness, not just a boutique fitness centre,” Allison says.

The idea of Space Cycle, Allison explains, is to offer indoor cycling, yoga and barre classes with instructors who curate music, lighting effects and even scents that are diffused throughout the exercise room.

Classes are sold in packages, with a single drop-in session priced at 258 yuan and an 80-pass card dropping the per-session price to 130 yuan. The company also recently introduced an annual unlimited membership pass costing 22,000 yuan.

[Classes] have to be very inspiring and feel like you’ve done something different [rather than] just going to the gym
Matthew Allison

These prices put Space Cycle at the more expensive end of group exercise classes in Shanghai and Beijing. But in these cities, where the cost of living is already high and rising fast, they would still be considered affordable by large numbers of the upper-middle class.

“It’s priced at a level that’s reasonable for people in these cities with a middle-class lifestyle,” Allison says. “We’re certainly not priced in a luxury bracket. We’re talking about a model that’s evolving at a very fast pace in first-, second- and third-tier cities.”

Key to success in a country being inundated with fitness and wellness offerings is the inclusion of events and social elements.

“We really see our teachers as part teacher and part DJ. We are training them in a very different way and we are developing a curriculum in a really different format,” Allison explains. He adds that he set out to ensure Space Cycle classes gave participants “the same degree of excitement as you would [have] when you go to a concert”.

Allison says that, in the lead-up to Bruno Mars’ recent Shanghai show, Space Cycle added Bruno Mars-themed classes to the schedule, including a concert warm-up class before the show. Members who were going to the show came in first to get pumped up – and work out – before heading off together to attend the concert.

The company wants people’s motivation to join a class to be a social one, Allison says. That way members are inspired to bring their friends and to choose a workout over going to a movie or having afternoon tea.

“[Classes have] got to be something that are taught in a way that’s very challenging and the functional benefits are there, but they also have to be very inspiring and feel like you’ve done something different [rather than] just going to the gym.”

Alice Cui, 30, is a Beijing-based Space Cycle regular who attends yoga, indoor cycling and barre classes five times a week on average. She finds it a great stress release from her work in the finance industry.

Though not a newcomer to group exercise classes, Cui says that with Space Cycle she has found a community as much as a place to work out.

“The trainers are so professional, but it’s more than that,” she says. “You can really feel the love and care and energy, and that’s what keeps me motivated.”

The three categories of Space Cycle spinning classes

1. Basics

This introductory class takes newcomers through bike set-up, safety tips and cues, and provides an overview of the moves done on the bike. Students then ride with the music and follow a mix of upper body work, hill cycling and drills.

2. Signature

Geared for seasoned riders, this session includes an upper body sequence with hand weights to tone arms and shoulders, and stretches in between bursts of interval training.

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3. Bliss

This meditation-in-motion session helps you connect with your inner self while maintaining constant movement and breath control to relieve stress and develop mental clarity.