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Member Spotlight: Olive Branch Fitness and Nutrition Consultant Alan Leung

The fitness industry in China is growing, and changing attitudes towards health and fitness are shaping its development. Olive Branch founder and fitness and nutrition consultant Alan Leung discusses the challenges facing the fitness industry in China today, ideal body types, and perceptions of overall health.

Q: What are the main challenges facing the fitness industry in China today?

[AL]: One of the main concerns that I have noticed is the lack of awareness regarding what constitutes good health in the general public. This is apparent in the way people eat and how inactive they are. It’s particularly challenging overcoming certain stigmas of fitness when talking about the society as a whole (see my ‘Fitness Stigmas in China’ blog for more info). I think it can be argued that sports and exercise has never seemed much of a priority for Chinese people in general. This starts at a young age, when study is prioritised above all else, which leaves little time for exercise. This is probably influenced by the fierce competition that is inevitable in a country with a large population. Whatever the reason, the facts is that many more hours are spent studying and working hard rather than leisure activities like sports and/or exercise. Not only that, due to the rapid economic developments in China in the last 30 years, people’s lifestyle habits have changed drastically, especially in urban areas that follow a Western modernization model, especially people’s diets. As in the West, Chinese people are eating much more fast food and processed food than before, which is causing profound changes for the worse in the quality of people’s diets in the population as a whole. But despite the degradation of people’s metabolism and health in recent years, there is little awareness that this is because of the increased consumption of processed food in China.

Q: Who is the average client that seeks out personal training in China?

[AL]: Successful, independent women who want to look and feel their best. Those that are doing well not only in their careers, but also in their homes, have the commitment and follow-through to train hard. Typically, they can afford the expertise of a personal trainer, as they have the disposable income to train smart and efficiently as opposed to wasting time in the big box gyms and not knowing if what they are doing is truly effective.

Q: What are some of the most common misconceptions about health and fitness that you encounter as a personal trainer?

[AL]: Where do I begin? Women afraid of doing strength training because they don’t want big, bulky muscles. People afraid of developing too much muscle because if they ever stop, muscles will turn into fat. Having to do low intensity, steady-state exercise to improve cardio. Training cardio itself is a misconception as cardio is short for cardiovascular, which just refers to the heart. But you can’t just target the heart for training and even if you can, that doesn’t imply you are fit. There are hundreds of biochemical processes that take place from the heart to the end points, which are the muscles that are actually doing the work and needs the increase of blood flow to function. All these processes need to be enhanced when we talk about being ‘fit’. This is called global metabolic conditioning; or just ‘conditioning’ for short. What people mean when the want to train cardio, is to enhance their metabolic conditioning.

Q: How is maintaining overall health perceived in China? Are these attitudes changing?

[AL]: Health has always been a priority for the Chinese. The need for balance in their lives is prevalent in the culture. Now that people’s health is deteriorating with the advent of urbanization and modernity, it is up to the fitness industry and responsible media outlets to bring awareness and education on how to adapt to this new and changing landscape to maintain wellbeing. I believe that once the public’s education and knowledge catches up with the latest science on health, the attitudes on health and fitness will ramp up quickly to match that. It is my intention to assist in that process with my blogging and speaking in events.

[AL]: It would seem that the ideal body shape is changing with the times like a lot of other things here in China. In the past, I think it was not only acceptable, but preferable for the men to be a bit on the chubby side. It has a cuter, softer look, that girls find endearing. The trend seems to be shifting now to bigger muscles, six-pack abs, and very fit and toned physique that you would expect on the cover of a fitness magazine. As for women, the ideal body shape has always been on the skinny side. However, there is more and more emphasis now on body shape and looking ‘toned’ rather than just tall and skinny.

Q: How do these perceptions of health affect the fitness industry here?

[AL]: Well, it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s good because more and more people are starting to pay attention to fitness and healthy eating; so the demand for fitness services goes up as people’s expectations of their bodies rise. More people want to train and learn, and the industry grows and expands to fill in that gap. There comes a point, however, when these expectations become unrealistic, which influences perceptions about constitutes a healthy, fit body. Pictures on fitness magazine covers that feature super muscular guys or girls are likely to be photoshopped. When people see these kind of images day after day, their brains begin to get hard-wired in believing that this is the norm and that their current body shape is sub-par. No matter how fit you are, you cannot compare with the body of a fitness model in a photoshopped magazine photograph. This leads to insecurity issues across people in society as a whole. Generally speaking, it’s good that people want to look fitter, but like in other areas in the world, there is a risk that people start to develop more imbalanced views about body image because of unrepresentative images in the media.

Alan Leung is a certified professional in both PICP strength & conditioning and Pn1 Precision Nutrition and has founded Olive Branch, a private fitness & nutrition consulting firm that emphasises safe and effective exercise in combination with proper nutrition and lifestyle coaching. For more information contact Alan at alanleung@olivebranch.life