Getting fit in Asia? First, grab your phone

Asians are increasingly turning to apps, not gyms, to help with their fitness schemes.

Story highlights

  • Densely-populated and often polluted Asian cities push people to be more mindful of their health
  • Asians are more likely than their western counterparts to spend time in front of a screen

(CNN)Conventional wisdom when it comes to work outs typically entails peeling yourself away from a screen. In Asia, however, it might mean more face-time with a phone or a computer, not less.

Through a combination of demanding urban lifestyles and a digitally savvy population, more and more people in Asia are using apps to work out, rather than heading to a physical gym.
    From Jaha, which bills itself as a Tinder for fitness (you swipe right or left on profiles to find a work out buddy) to apps like KFit, Class Cruiser and Guavapass, which uses a phone's geolocation technology to help you squeeze into a nearby class at the last minute, the number of fitness apps in Asia has surged in the last year.

    Stress-rich, time-poor lives

    Jaha, a Tinder-like app for fitness, hooks people up who share similar exercise habits.
    Sonalie Figueiras, founder of Green Queen, a site that tracks the ins-and-outs of the wellness scene in Hong Kong says that although North America may set health and fitness trends, densely-populated Asian cities pick up new ideas at an astonishing rate.
    "In the US, you've had this sort of wellness and health scene for years now with Whole Foods and the yoga movement, paleo and crossfit," Figueiras says.
    "In Hong Kong for instance, all of that 10 years is compressed into one and a half years. It's just been an astronomical shift here. Anywhere that you have a concentration of Type-A, highly educated, very well traveled people you get this focus on self-improvement."
    The often polluted environment in developing countries can also help push people to be more mindful of their health.
    "You need to counteract the environment," Figueras says. "You're not in Napa Valley where you have perfect air to breathe in. It's an antidote to a polluted, high-intensity life."

    Fewer physical locations

    Users post body transformation photos on phone app Healthy Selfie  charting their work out and diet progress.
    But as for why a significant part of the fitness revolution is taking place online rather than off, that has to do with the relative immaturity of the wellness industry in Asia.
    Colin Grant, CEO of Pure Group, which runs gyms and yoga studios across Asia, says the brick and mortar business is not as built up in the region.
    "The fitness penetration is higher than US and more driven by clubs and locations for people to go and work out. There are fewer locations in Asia, and where there are fewer locations it could drive people to online services and platforms," Grant says.
    "To build a gym is $4 or $5 million," he says. "If you want to open 10 of those then you need the infrastructure and people."

    Intensely connected lives

    Then there's the way Asians are attached to their phones.
    A report put together by Kleiner Perkins internet analyst Mary Meeker showed that four of the top five countries that spend the most time looking at screens were in Asia (Indonesia, Philippines, China, Brazil, and Vietnam).
    A Nielsen study noted that Asians were more likely to own multiple devices, particularly in Malaysia where close to half (47%) own more than one mobile phone. Hong Kong (31%), and Singapore and China (29%) also saw a lot of second device ownership.
    Joe Li, founder of Healthy Selfie, an Instagram-like app which allows people to chart their body transformations by snapping selfies, says the trend is noticeable from walking around cities.
    "When you go on the (metro) you do see people constantly on their phones. People in Asia seem to love consuming content on their mobile more than anything."
    Live-streaming yoga class site Yoogaia appeals to the time-poor.
    It's something Mikko Petaja, founder of Yoogaia, picked up on as well.
    The Helsinki-based startup, which provides live-streamed yoga and Pilates classes, launched a Hong Kong studio last year.
    "People work a lot and it's a demanding lifestyle," he says. Petaja's platform allows people to take classes from the comfort of their home if studio times don't match their schedule.
    "The trying out of new things, especially on mobile, is something quite big that people living in Southeast Asia are very used to. The use of mobile devices is amazing. In Europe, we are a bit more traditional in that sense."
    Pure Yoga's new online platform will stream yoga videos for people to use from the home, on the road, or wherever they may be.
    Even Pure Group, a stalwart of the brick-and-mortar yoga industry, has plans to go digital. It is launching an online site called My Pure Yoga later this year, which will stream free and paid-for work out videos.
    Rather than view these online apps and services as something that will take away business, Pure's Grant thinks it is something that will help drive people into the company's clubs.
    "They are complementary. A lot of these platforms and devices will grow the entire industry," Grant says.