While no shortage of viral fitness-related social media posts has emerged from China in recent years, many have been deemed by outside observers as a “worrying” to a downright ridiculous take on body image. From comparing waist size to an A4 piece of paper to seeing how many coins will balance on the collarbone, going to great lengths to achieve or show off a thin figure has been a common stereotype for Chinese women. But there’s good news: the newest generation of health and fitness influencers have very different ideas on exercise and wellbeing that they’re spreading to a wealth of eager followers.
Fitness has been a rising focus for the KOL community in China thanks, in part, to a nationwide push for healthier lifestyles. The country is in the midst of a five-year fitness plan outlined by the government that would, if successful, see the nation spending 1.5 trillion yuan ($225 billion) on sports and fitness by 2020, with about half a million people participating in fitness by that same year. This bid, combined with a search for solutions to environmental and food safety concerns, has resulted in an explosion of gyms, juice bars, healthy eateries, and, of course, fitness KOLs, especially in China’s first and second-tier cities.
Increasingly, millennials with rising incomes are spending big bucks on gym memberships and healthy lifestyles, and they’re sharing their experiences online, not only on WeChat and Weibo, but on Xiaohongshu and social fitness apps like Keep, which boasted more than 100 million users by August of last year. For women, yoga and running are among the activities rising in popularity, but Cross Fit and High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) are also trending. In all of it, new role models are emerging, ones that promote a balanced, healthy lifestyle, toned bodies, and community.
Fitness culture in China is arguably still a ways off from being completely in sync with Western ideals of body positivity, yet there are more examples of female health and fitness influencers sharing their personal journeys of coping with body image in a society that often shames young women for not having a slim figure. Signs of a potential slight shift in mindset around beauty ideals were even apparent during China’s Produce 101 female idol reality show, where one top contestant, Wang Ju, didn’t fit the bai shou mei or “white, thin and beautiful” gold standard for women in China, according to The New York Times.
So what does the fitness revolution in China look like from an influencer’s perspective? Below, we get to the heart of what makes Chinese health and fitness influencers tick.
It starts with a change in lifestyle
Sammi G got into the influencer game after being “overconsumed” by a stressful career in the advertising industry. “I was unhealthy: I lost my shape and suffered from gastrointestinal pain,” she told PARKLU. “I also suffered from insomnia for almost two years, so I felt unhappy and depressed. After going through all of that, I decided to take a break from my busy work and social schedule. I picked up my regular workout routines and committed to a healthy diet.”
After two years, Sammi felt like she finally managed the more balanced lifestyle she was striving for and she noticed that people around her were starting to take note of her change. “I realized I should share my positive energy and vibes to the people who appreciate fitness and lifestyle all over the world, so I started to tell my stories online.”
Now, Sammi boasts more than 71K followers on Instagram @sammiglx and 28K on Weibo @sammiglx. Her posts are a mix of lifestyle shots, workout equipment and sharing secrets to a toned figure with functional training activities for the core and lower body, like F45 (45-minute functional training classes), weightlifting, cardio, and HIIT.
Popular fitness duo Giselle and Weiya also got their start after recognizing their unhealthy relationship with beauty and losing weight. “Like a lot of Asian girls, we wanted to be ‘super skinny’ and tried almost all ways to achieve this, including a super strict diet (almost nothing) and supplements,” Weiya told PARKLU. “Giselle started to get a quite serious binge eating disorder in college in Canada. In fighting with it, she realized how to accept who she is and make peace with herself.”
When the women graduated from university, they moved back to Beijing and got in on the gym craze right away, opening their own on the side in 2017. Giselle’s first social media post, “48kg to 65kg: My Personal Story” gained 100k views in one night.
“We realized how much we can do to help other girls, and decided to quit our jobs and become full-time gym owners and health and fitness influencers,” Weiya explained. “Our positioning is to share our personal stories about mistakes we made, our change in mindset, and how we now live a healthy lifestyle.”
Giselle and Weiya Fit4life social media account now boast 2.8 million fans over Weibo @fit4life, WeChat @fit4life, fitness app Keep, and Little Red Book @fit4life, and have since opened a second gym in June.
New definitions of healthy
Women are often inclined to share their workout experiences on social media, and many are not afraid to bare toned abs and strong glutes to their followers. These images are the new markers of success in a millennial generation that increasingly values nutrition and health over consumable goods.
“The focus of Chinese health and fitness KOLs is starting to shift from how to look ‘slim’ to how to look healthy and curvy,” Sammi explains. “This is what I’m trying to convey to my followers.”
“Women surely want to keep a beautiful figure, but at the same time, women are willing to challenge themselves,” she continued. “Self-confidence and public image are some of the biggest motivations towards getting fit.”
Weiya cautions that many women are still motivated primarily by “looking better,” but perspectives are shifting. “Most people still like the “top model” body image—super skinny, pale skin, and long legs,” she said, “but more and more girls now like healthier body figures, with more defined muscles, a curvy figure and a darker skin color.”
It’s more than just health & fitness
While there are plenty of health and fitness influencers in China that focus on primarily gym pictures and expertise in one discipline, others mix it up, creating opportunities for collaboration with not only fitness brands, but travel destinations, fashion labels, restaurants, and more.
Sammi’s content focuses on combining fitness travel and fit fashion. Some days, she’s posting beach images from her hotel in Thailand, others in a stylish crop top at luxury events like Audemars Piguet and Elle China, and yet others post workout in Nike attire or brunching in Shanghai. “It’s most important to me to communicate to my followers the fitness and lifestyle awareness and trends for a new generation of Chinese girls in Shanghai,” she said. “I mix trends from the East and the West.”
Her followers often want to know where she eats healthy food in Shanghai, where to buy bikinis, and what exotic destinations they should travel to.
“I want to combine fitness with travel as I don’t want to give the wrong impression to people that being fit means you need to live in a gym,” she said. “A good life / work / workout balance is the key. It’s all about getting fit in the gym and kitchen, and enjoying the results by dressing sexy, traveling sexy and partying sexy.”
Giselle and Weiya take their fitness coverage a step beyond functional training into activities that their followers can develop a lifetime passion for, like ballet and yoga. Weiya said 70 percent of her fans “know very little about exercise,” but are interested in achieving a well-rounded level of wellness—and the duo responds to fans’ demands with topics like “20 small things to boost your mood in the winter.”
To serve this wider audience, their formats are often similar to influencers in other categories—they make a point to do longer post formats on platforms like WeChat, and post shorter, simpler videos on Xiaohongshu, relaying easy-to-digest fitness knowledge one point at a time. They do plugs for brands outside of apparel, recommending products like electric toothbrushes and slow cookers, and even doing design collaborations.
Bada Chen, a fitness blogger with 22K followers on Weibo @Bada_C彦熹, says that though she has experience with fitness—she was a high jumper when she was a kid and then trained to get in shape to be a model—she defines herself as a lifestyle influencer, sharing a range of content that covers eating, lifestyle, fitness, and even beauty. “After all, I’m not a very professional coach,” she said.
Her posts vary from 8 to 15-minute long vlogs on her weekly fitness and wellness routines, to step-by-step demonstrations of yoga poses with written descriptions. She takes followers with her to the spa for her facials, walks them through her face mask rituals, and invites them in during a meal at home with friends.
Local brands align with health & fitness influencers
Nike and Adidas are among the leading brands in the spotlight of the sportswear craze, but health and fitness influencers are taking time to support smaller indie and domestic brands, catering to the more specific and unique demands of local followers.
Sammi works with Canadian activewear brands Titika sportswear and Aumnie, while also noting several big name brands on her feed. Giselle and Weiya have an annual partnership with Nike, they also support Titika as well as Australia’s Lorna Jane. They were also the first health and fitness influencers that Chinese activewear brand Maia active signed a contract with.
“Our followers are always seeking new brands with good quality and designs,” Weiya said, adding she thinks local brands are paying more attention to health and fitness influencer marketing opportunities and have a higher marketing budget. “Girls don’t want to wear the same outfit as everyone else, especially when the other girl looks better in that outfit. I’m really glad to see more and more local brands are making really good fitness apparel.”