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Business trends

Fitness boom in Cambodia and Vietnam attracts Japan Inc muscle

Health-related markets growing at over 50% annually

Japan's Gunze Sports is hard at work in Cambodia, running two gyms in upscale Phnom Penh neighborhoods.

TOKYO -- Bulging waistlines in Cambodia and Vietnam are luring Japanese companies looking to cash in on the growing demand for health-related products and services.

Sports-gear maker Mizuno and its lesser known compatriot, Gunze Sports, have already established footholds, as the two countries see annual growth of over 50% in the health sector, especially as regards fitness.

Gunze operates two gyms in Cambodia, where the health-related market is projected to expand 60% to over $460 million in 2023 compared with 2015, according to U.K. research company Euromonitor.

Virtually unknown outside Japan, Gunze opened its first overseas gym in an upscale Phnom Penh residential district in June 2017 to "get a jump on foreign competition," said Kazuhiro Norihide, vice president of the Cambodian subsidiary.

The company's second Phnom Penh gym opened last June.

But Gunze is not for everybody. While exercise facilities at public parks cost about $1 a day, Gunze membership plans go for between $80 and $90 a month -- a little pricey for anybody but middle- and upper-income earners.

Still, there seems to be plenty of health-conscious customers in the Cambodian capital willing to pay the relatively steep fees, which are on par with Gunze's gyms in Japan.

"I come here every day to refresh myself," said Khouth Nearylyvan, a 56-year-old homemaker. And she really doesn't have many options, as there are currently only a handful of competitors that have facilities similar to Gunze, such as swimming pools and studios.

But more may be on the way. A survey conducted by the government-affiliated Japan External Trade Organization, or JETRO, shows that per capita health-related spending in Cambodia is about $53 per month, topping that of its wealthier Southeast Asian neighbor Indonesia, which stands at around $37.

Vietnam is also seeing more interest in gyms and other health-related services as eating habits change and the signs of obesity emerge. The country now accounts for 30% of all fitness facilities among the six major members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- the biggest of any one member.

California Fitness & Yoga, a local chain of gyms founded by an American, boasts some 100,000 members, mainly in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, while other facilities are springing up around the country.

"I think there is a strong interest in sports as a way to maintain good health," said Eitaro Kojima, a director at JETRO's Overseas Research Department.

The Vietnamese government seems to agree, and is not taking any chances amid growing concern over children not getting proper exercise. The country's school curricula is now under review for the first time in about 40 years with an eye to balancing classroom lectures at elementary schools with more physical education.

Mizuno is taking advantage of the sense of urgency to raise brand awareness in the country through a children's sports program called Hexathlon. The program, which includes sprinting, broad jumping and other activities, is scheduled to kick off at about 15,000 public elementary schools from September.

Mizuno tailored Hexathlon especially for small Vietnamese schools, most of which do not have room for sports grounds.

Both Mizuno and Gunze Sports hope their efforts will pay off in sales of related products and services as the health market in the two countries continue to grow.

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