A revolution in the making

A hoary poster advertising an upcoming wrestling contest in a traditional 'akhada'

The unorganised, unregulated and unrecognised fitness and wellness industry in India is at a crossroads. As it prepares for the anticipated boom of gyms and wellness centres across the country, it will have to address issues like education & awareness, quality & standardisation, competition & accountability. The market is beckoning and the stakeholders are thrilled with anticipation, but will the industry be able to deliver?

A largely agrarian economy, such as India of yore, had evolved its own distinct socio-cultural and spiritual wisdom to cater to its needs for wellness and fitness. Thus it is that we have concepts enumerated in scriptures and day-to-day practices – such as Ayurveda and yoga respectively – that pre-date modern scientific knowledge of good health and its maintenance.

As India evolved and progressed towards an industrial, and now service-oriented economy, this ancient wisdom remained stagnant and hence outdated. Our changing lifestyles and their new demands outpaced traditional wisdom and brought with it a slew of new symptoms, diagnoses and solutions for unheard-of ailments and illnesses.

Fortunately, the globalisation of business and industry, commerce and tourism, education and mass communication have brought about a re-awakening to the concepts of wellness and fitness on Indian shores. From the world's diverse cultures, we have absorbed greater awareness of good health practices and a better understanding of their values.

This has given rise to an entire ecosystem of consumers, providers and facilitators, which is said to be growing at an exponential rate of 20%, year-on-year. It has also attracted a large number of domestic entrants and international players to cater to this burgeoning demand. There is a visible explosion of information relating to wellness and fitness in daily newspapers, periodicals and even dedicated television channels.

The year 2015 is being bandied as a milestone, where the Indian bite of the global pie will be significant; where the wellness sector alone will be able to generate 3 million jobs. These developments herald of the coming of not only technology and manufacturing, but also education, investment and enterprise... Exciting times indeed!

Fitness in India has always been associated with wrestling, traditional sports and balanced nutrition.

Big Picture

The rising health consciousness and fitness awareness among India's under-40 population, its greatly enhanced buying power (relative to a generation ago) and the consequent demand for health and fitness resources and services is propelling the industry boom. It is a whole new generation that wants to look good and feel good.

This attitude has also provided the stimulus for adjunct sectors – among them health care, media, gaming, hospitality and education – to generate additional revenue streams and generate employment by offering products and services.

Multi-national corporations, the information technology industry and business process outsourcing sectors in particular have already provided the stimulus to the industry by way of meeting in-house fitness training and entertainment needs of its well-travelled employees.

Catering to a similar demand, the hospitality industry is following suit. The recessionary trends notwithstanding, star hotels and international chains have several projects in the pipeline in India.
Even their country cousins now deem it necessary to cater to the requirements – gyms, if not spas – of their demanding customers. These days it would be no surprise if a couple were presented a gym subscription or even fitness equipment at their wedding!

Community housing (apartment complexes) and realty sectors are the largest growth areas, and hold the biggest prospects for expansion. Far from being a phenomenon limited to metropolitan centres, it is spreading like wildfire across the country: each Tier-II and Tier-III city and town is host to half a dozen gyms. Leading fitness chains and gyms are taking the franchise route to India's hinterland... Keeping in mind India's humungous high- and middle-class population, there is space for plenty more.

Small gyms are also sprouting in the privacy of the homes of more and more business heads, sports and movie stars, socialites and fitness freaks that can afford the price and the space. There are now custom-made gyms to meet their specifications and fancy.

Established entities are already diversifying their product and service portfolios. The more ambitious among them have sought and successfully acquired public equity to feed their growth plans. In a market as diverse and unorganised as India, franchising seems to have caught on as a way of scaling up operations and reaching out to a larger clientele.

To give the devil his due, it must be mentioned that rising costs of health care and specialised medical and surgical interventions have also acted as a catalyst for people turning to prevention, rather than pay through their noses for the cure!

In Perspective

But it is time to stop rubbing our hands in glee to see what lies beneath these self-congratulatory figures. A study by the Stanford Research Institute is ever-so-frequently quoted as pegging the global wellness industry market at US$ 2 trillion. Of this the Indian wellness industry is said to account for US$ 9.8 billion, not even 2% of the world's total!

As much as there is a huge business potential waiting to be tapped, there are glaring deficiencies in service. In a largely unorganised sector, unscientific planning and management of gyms is a matter of utmost concern. There are freebies and promises galore, not all of which are honoured. Hygiene is not a given.

The customers end up paying for and endure substandard facilities, poor infrastructure, uneducated staff and ineffective or harmful products and accessories, thereby casting a doubt on the service providers' reliability and the industry's reputation for fair practices.

Training and certification is another grey area, resulting in unscientific conduct of operations, disgruntled or unsatisfied customers and failing businesses. The lack of government regulations and recognition makes it all the more difficult for the operators, providers and facilitators to act in unison.

A survey carried out in 2013 by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) notes that the paucity of skilled and trained personnel is the biggest challenge to the industry's expansion. It projects a requirement of 6,00,000 additional skilled personnel over the next 5 years, and casts doubts over availability.

Growing Up

In an unorganised, unregulated and unrecognised business, investors and gym owners are grappling with competition from unscrupulous operators; shortage of skilled manpower and rising capital and operational costs; investment in brand creation and long payback periods; not to mention the price sensitivity of Indian customers.

The lack of awareness among prospective investors and in the employment market also acts as a hurdle, the Ficci survey reports.

Governments at the Centre and in more than our 29 states and Union territories have adopted a ostrich-like stance! Nobody knows who should deal with issues relating to this industry: the ball has been thrown back and forth between the ministries of health and sports.

In the meantime, the tourism ministry has pounced upon the opportunity to promote business through "exotic" health treatments and practices such as Ayurveda and yoga.

More than two decades after modern fitness concepts made India their home, it would be fallacious to call it a "nascent" industry. It is high time the stakeholders – from gym owners, franchises, equipment and nutrition manufacturers and distributors, trainers and educational institutions, professional associations and the government machinery – come onto a common platform to identify problems and find solutions.

– Dhananjay Sardeshpande


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