Health and wellness

New gym model for China: HIIT for retirees, no mirrors and no loud music – it’s a Danish import

  • Loop Fitness is encouraging China’s retirees to get moving with its 24-minute circuits based on high-intensity interval training
  • The company has had to adjust its modest business model to be attractive in the Chinese market
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2018, 2:32pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2018, 8:15pm

Thousands of fitness centres have popped up in China over the past decade – particularly after the Chinese government implemented the National Fitness Plan in 2016. The ambitious plan hopes to incorporate regular physical exercise into the weekly routine of over one billion citizens by 2020.

The plan was music to the ears of one fitness chain in Denmark. For Loop Fitness, entering the Chinese market was a long journey that began by chance.  

The China fitness club where music matters as much as muscles

While visiting family in his home country of Denmark in 2013, Guangzhou-based jewellery trader and sports fanatic Thomas Sylvest stumbled upon an ad for a fitness chain that offered circuit training. The Loop Fitness offer read, “Unlimited hours, one-month trial membership for one Danish Krone” – roughly HK$1.20. Sylvest was going to be in Denmark for one month and decided to sign up.

The concept developed by Loop Fitness is based on HIIT (high-intensity interval training), which ensures an efficient workout of the whole body in as short a time as possible. One circuit at Loop Fitness uses 16 pieces of fitness equipment set up in a circle.

The machines and exercises have been carefully chosen to ensure optimal results and the circuit offers a combination of cardio and strength training. A bell rings every 45 seconds – indicating it’s time to move on to the next exercise. Members are encouraged to complete two rounds for the best results. This takes exactly 24 minutes.

“When I walked into the local Loop fitness centre, something struck me immediately,” says Sylvest. Not only was this a concept he had never seen before, but there was also something noticeable about the clientele. It didn’t merely consist of pumped up 25-year-olds flexing their biceps while wearing the newest fitness gear. This was clearly a place for everyone – all ages, all sizes and all walks of life.

Sylvest’s entrepreneurial mind started to race. “This must be something for China,” he thought. He wasted no time before contacting the company’s CEO Brian Schneider. Little did they know that it would take five long years of negotiations, legal work, permission seeking, rubber stamping and location hunting before Loop Fitness could open its first branch in China. The Guangzhou flagship outlet opened on October 21.

A post shared by LOOP Fitness (@loopfitness) on Sep 27, 2018 at 11:18pm PDT

On top of the bureaucratic hurdles, a feasibility study showed that adapting the existing Danish business model to the Chinese market would be a challenge.

At its 100 centres in Denmark, Loop fitness deliberately avoids loud music and there is not a single mirror in sight. “The chain’s main goal is for members to feel welcome and to provide a relaxed atmosphere,” says CEO Brian Schneider. Each centre features a coffee corner where members can get their heart rate down after their workout while chatting to other members over a cup of coffee. It is vital for the company to stay true to its simple roots – an approach that could not be further from the general fitness model in China.

I’m 75 years old, but since I joined Loop I feel like a young girl again. I feel a lot more relaxed and I insist on going to Loop almost everyday.
Huang Guolin

Chinese fitness centres encourage gym-goers to share their workouts and results on social media – a win-win situation which satisfies both the consumers’ need to broadcast themselves and the gym’s need for brand awareness.

The secret behind Loop’s low membership fees in Denmark lies mainly in low operating costs. All centres are run on a franchise basis and there is usually just one member of staff at each centre. The person covers the roles of receptionist, instructor and cleaner. After-hours workouts are not a problem, as all 100 Danish centres are equipped with a lockbox that allows members to train anytime between 5am and 10pm.

It was impossible for the company to keep membership fees in China at the Danish level. For starters, rent in Guangzhou is roughly three times higher than in most Danish cities, says Sylvest.

Why you get better results from group exercise than going it alone

Secondly, the one-staff model would not work in China. “To be frank, the Chinese have money, but quite understandably they expect a higher service level,” says Sylvest. The centre in Guangzhou therefore boasts 11 personal trainers (a service that is included in the membership fee), four receptionists and two cleaners. In less than two months, it has attracted 500 members and hopes to more than double this when it launches a marketing campaign in early 2019.

The company’s feasibility study also showed that fitness centres in China mostly cater for people in their 20s and 30s, also known as the post-80s generation. The chain found a gap in the Chinese market – not only for a new circuit concept, but also for the older demographic.

A post shared by LOOP Fitness (@loopfitness) on Jul 28, 2018 at 3:31am PDT

“We were met with some scepticism by the over-50s in China” says Sylvest. Their most common concern and excuse for not signing up was a lack of time to exercise – especially for the retirees who look after their grandchildren everyday. “But then we told them, ‘Give us 24 minutes of your time – and, by the way, you can bring your grandchildren because our centre features a circuit for 8 to 14-year-old kids’,” he recalls.

Huang Guolin trains with her daughter several times a week, finding the monthly free of RMB 388 a fair price – especially since “that includes training and coffee and tea”.

“I’m 75 years old, but since I joined Loop I feel like a young girl again. I feel a lot more relaxed and I insist on going to Loop almost everyday. The other day I heard the coach say that I’m the oldest member here,” she says.

Deng Yingjun and his wife work out several times a week. “I like the concept and I feel it’s efficient. It only takes 24 minutes to do a full body workout and I particularly enjoy the coaching by the personal trainers,” he says.

Initially, Loop fitness hired Danish racing driver Tom Kristensen to endorse the brand. Kristensen is a well-known and hugely popular sports personality in Denmark, but after some concern that members couldn’t relate to him, Loop China’s  face to the outside world became Danish badminton star Viktor Axelsen.

Not only is he a world champion in badminton, a hugely popular sport in Asia, he is also a fluent Mandarin speaker. Axelsen’s jersey hangs at the entrance of Loop Fitness in Guangzhou and members can win items that are sponsored and signed by Axelsen.

It is still early days for Loop Fitness China, but the plan is to open 500 to 1,000 new centres across the country over the next few years. The chain believes in its unique idea, which is similar but still different from CrossFit and other circuit fitness concepts. 

A certain level of adaptation is required for the modest business model to thrive in the Chinese market, but Loop Fitness is determined to keep it simple and stay true to its original, modest concept. No mirrors will be going up on the walls at Loop Fitness China any time soon.