It's difficult to avoid a twinge of envy at the sight of lean, Lycra-clad people pacing on running machines or hefting weights in one of the many pristine, gleaming fitness centres which have been mushrooming across Hong Kong. However, a career in this world of thudding music, hard-bodied clients and state-of-the-art equipment is not so much glamorous as tough, exacting and professional, according to California Fitness Centers' regional director of fitness, Rocky Chow.
"In this career, you need to know what you're getting into," he says. "You need the personality for it, as it's a people industry. You can't hide behind books or computers - it's a hands-on job. If you are not comfortable working with strangers, can't communicate with people and are not good at dealing with complications, it would make you very uncomfortable."
Mr Chow joined the profession nine years ago in Australia, where, after taking a two-year sports diploma and a two-year sports management degree in Canberra, he became a part-time instructor. Soon after that, having qualified as a personal trainer, he was made responsible for membership sales, personal training and fitness programmes, in addition to training duties.
"We see a lot of people who find working in fitness difficult. If you want to be successful, you need to love it from the heart"
Moving back to Hong Kong in 1999, he joined global fitness firm California Fitness Centers as a full-time floor instructor and personal trainer before swiftly moving up the career ladder to branch fitness manager and then country fitness manager. His most recent promotion was to the position of regional director of fitness, responsible for 13 clubs in Thailand, Singapore, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
One step at a time
Entry into California Fitness Centers and most other gyms is at the level of fitness professional. Even at this stage, a basic knowledge of fitness and safety is essential. Mr Chow recommends that, in order to be certified to instruct members to exercise safely and effectively on the "workout floor", new-starters go through a fitness foundation course run by either California Fitness Centers or one of the other fitness associations in Hong Kong.
"The next step would be getting a certificate as a personal trainer," he notes. "Then, after getting about two years' experience, the next promotion is to senior personal trainer." Later stages include opportunities to become the assistant fitness manager of a club, which involves a large element of staff training and team management and, eventually, the chance to be promoted to club fitness manager.
Mr Chow advises fitness professionals eager to rise to management level to follow in his footsteps. However, having a management background or some management knowledge is a great asset. "Obviously, as a trainer you can only get to a certain level. In this part of the world, 55 is pretty much the maximum age [at which you can work]," he says. "So it's a good idea to have a management background, as your career scope is larger. To my understanding, the Chinese University offers sports science training, plus there are sports management correspondence courses available with universities in England."
Practise what you preach
On the other hand, although personal training is evidently a young person's career, Mr Chow does not recommend it as a job for graduates with no work experience. "Unless they are looking for a career in fitness, fresh school graduates normally don't really know what they want and what it takes to be successful in the industry. Most of them find out the hard way and can't cope," he comments. "A good age would be around 24 or 25, when the person is a bit more mature and would be a better fit."
"We see a lot of people who find working in fitness difficult," he adds. "If you want to be successful, you need to love it from the heart. It's really hard to preach about something that you don't believe in. My advice to people who are interested in joining this industry is to love exercise and treat this job as their career."
Mr Chow believes that, unlike Hong Kong where "people know that exercise is important for them and their health, not just a social fad", some people in China views fitness as a fashion, rather than a lifestyle. "In some cases in mainland China, being a gym member provides social status."
He sees plenty of opportunities for personal trainers who already have some experience. However, courses are also now available on the mainland, offered by many training associations which have set up shop there. "Everyone's going to mainland China!" he laughs. "There's definitely a market there and people want to open up fitness centres and hire new trainers. With the size of the population in China, there's huge upside."