Late in 2010, Sarath Kumar, 26, a marketing professional in Bangalore, was keen to change jobs but was making little headway. By chance, one day, Kumar got talking with a senior software executive at the gym they worked out at. The executive put him in touch with the head of human resources at his company and Kumar was hired within weeks. "Becoming fit is just one of the benefits I got from going to the gym," he says. "Workouts were the last thing on my mind when I joined the gym," says Arjun, a 26-year-old engineer with Cognizant Technology Solutions who does not want his second name taken. For him, his south Chennai gym is a venue to mingle with people from a similar social background.
Founder: Joseph Gold
Est.: 1965, Venice, California
Gyms: 900 (worldwide), 78 in 42 cities (India)
Membership: 3 million (worldwide), 65,000 (India)
The golf course is passe. The exclusive club is so yesterday. The ambitious young professional has found a new hangout to make friends and influence people, share corporate gossip, and learn about new job openings or upcoming contracts: the upmarket gym. "A lot of networking happens here," says G. Ramachandran, Director, Gold's Gym, an international gym chain which entered India in 2002 and currently has 78 centres across 42 Indian cities. "It has fad value. It is a place for fun and interaction."
Other gyms in the same bracket include the homegrown Talwalkars Better Value Fitness, which started way back in 1932, and today has 102 centres in more than 50 cities, and Fitness First, another global chain which will open its sixth centre in India in October, but has more than 550 gyms worldwide. The steep annual fee of around Rs 45,000 that these gyms charge ensures a fair degree of homogeneity among their clientele: only those with a fair bit of disposable income sign up. Like Ritika Singh, 27, who moved from a local gym to Fitness First in Saket, a plush locality in the capital. "In the gym that I used to go to earlier, the crowd was mixed. Here I have the South Delhi Crowd, which is very sophisticated. This is a nice place to hang out," says Singh, whose family imports and sells high-end interior decorations.
| Fitness First|
Founder: Mike Balfour and Christopher Pearce
Est.: 1992, Bournemouth, UK
Gyms: 550 (worldwide), 6th centre opens in India in Oct
Membership: 1.5 million (worldwide), 10,000 (India)
The same trend is playing out in Mumbai. At its outlets there, says Althea Shah, Vice President, Marketing, Gold's Gym, several members have formed groups depending on interests. "Apart from meeting at the gym, they also go out together for movies, parties and outings," she says. What helps in such unwind routines after workouts is extended timings that gym chains offer: a full 17 hours running from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The timings are just one of a host of incentives such gyms offer to draw the well-heeled. These are usually located in high-profile malls. They have spas, saunas, swimming pools, squash courts and DVD libraries for members; some also provide free soft drinks with health snacks on sale. "A modern day health club should be a one-pit stop, where one not just works out but also feels rejuvenated with aerobics, relaxes in a day spa, and even finds comfort in the perfect nutrition plan," says Anant Gawande, Chief Financial Officer of Talwalkars, the Mumbai-headquartered chain. Ramachandran adds that customers opt for the extra services when included in an all-you-can-use package.
An evening visit to the gym that Singh, the Delhi businesswoman, is a member at, shows both the recreational and snob value of the new-age gym. It is crowded, the clientele is young and hip - mostly in their 20s or early-30s. Loud music is playing in the vast workout area.
| Talwalkars Better Value Fitness|
Founder: Vishnu Talwalkar
Est.: 1932, Mumbai
Gyms: 102 in more than 50 cities (India)
Membership: 100,000 (India
The fitness instructors - many of whom the manager says have trained overseas - speak only in English, some heavily-accented. Most of the over 30 treadmills in the gym have runners sweating it out with their eyes glued to LCD TVs airing an India-England Test cricket match. In the middle of all this buzz, some have even carried work to the gym - or are continuing workplace conversations as they work up a sweat . Miguel Angel, 28, originally from Spain, who works in New Delhi as a manager of a retail company, spends focused time with his workplace friends at the gym, which he says provides a relaxed setting for such interactions.
The rush of social climbers and careerists to modern gym chains, meanwhile, has regular, diehard exercise buffs peeved. Sneha Menon, a 22-year-old pharmacology student and member of Fitness First gym in Oshiwara, Mumbai, is planning to quit. "Lot of celebrities and models come to these gyms. Many people spent more time talking than working out." Likewise with Ankit Atul Desai, a 28-year-old assistant manager with real estate consultancy firm Knight Frank India, who has shifted to a neighbourhood gym in Dadar to save on travel time and because he is happy with its basic facilities. Still, with more than half of Indians at less than 25 years age and disposable incomes beginning to track aspiration levels, it seems the era of modern-day gyms as the next hip destination for the new generation is here.