How new brands are reshaping the fitness industry - and our bodies

Topics Fitness | health | Startups

A group class at a Cult centre
Unless you are Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who needs to work out at 5am every day in his “Iron Paradise”, a movable gym with 40,000 pounds of equipment will not follow you around. Pardon my accusatory tone but can we please stop saying “If I were a celebrity and had millions of dollars to look a certain way, I would”? And stick to less intelligence-defying excuses such as “I can’t work out with other people in the room”, or even “Gyms have too many mirrors”?

As for those who “prefer to be this way'', the corporate world is in bad shape. About 63 per cent of the 60,000 working professionals between the age of 21 and 60, who wellness app HealthifyMe recently surveyed in 20 cities, scored a BMI (Body Mass Index) of over 25. Anything between 18.5 and 24.9 is considered healthy. Despite “running” being their “preferred activity”, their average step count was below my mother’s daily 6,000. Their daily protein intake was abysmally low too (about as much as the nutritional value of a samosa).

There are precisely three gyms and three bars in the commercial complex near my house in Gurugram. Every evening I take the stairs up to the second floor and walk right into a dilemma. To my left is Green House, a bar that comes up with new excuses every day to offer Happy Hours. To my right is Cult, a health club that offers a new workout every day to sweat out the previous night’s toxins. You should call ahead to reserve a table at the popular bar but I would recommend you book a class at Cult at least a day in advance. If you are among their 300,000 active customers, you will know that their gyms have no unplanned walk-ins, no machines and certainly no mirrors. That’s one excuse out of the way.

Cult was a standalone gym, first launched in 2015 by Rishabh Telang, a mixed martial arts enthusiast and former basketball player in Bengaluru. He is now responsible for developing workout formats at, a Bengaluru-based wellness startup that acquired his gym within a year and turned it into a successful chain. Started in 2016 by Myntra’s co-founder and former chief operating officer, Mukesh Bansal, and the former chief business officer of Flipkart, Ankit Nagori, recently closed their Series D funding at $120 million.

Deep pockets have enabled Cult to grow from one centre in Bengaluru to a staggering 210 across 14 cities in the last three years, along with five centres in Dubai. Bengaluru alone has 108. Two of the 14 Cult centres in Gurugram are within a kilometre of my house. I bump into more people at 7am classes at Cult these days than at alcohol-fuelled social frenzies at 11pm.

Naresh Krishnaswamy, the head of growth and marketing at, says that till about a few years ago, the penetration of health clubs in the country was less than 0.2 per cent. Cult has grown really fast, but not by starting a revolution.

The company took the decades-old group classes format, added new, systematically scalable workout routines, hired specialised trainers to deliver them and marketed it all through a very sophisticated app. “A functional workout is scientifically proven to be more effective than isometric strength training, but nobody presented it to the consumer this way,” says Krishnaswamy.

“Most gyms I had been to either haphazardly managed classes or were the same every time,” says Saurabh Das, a Cult regular. Most other gym-goers I spoke to at Cult had never attended a group session before. Cult has certainly made group workouts mainstream.

A one-on-one session at BoxFit
Boxing, yoga, dance fitness, HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and crossfit are usual, but Cult also runs more complex formats, such as HRX (a strength-based workout taken from actor Hrithik Roshan’s regime) and Prowl (a mix of dance, martial arts and animal-inspired moves formulated by another actor, Tiger Shroff). All workouts are standardised at 50 minutes and start on time. The trainers, their assistants and centre managers are well-spoken, courteous and friendly, but they will not let you enter a session if you are more than five minutes late.

The workouts can be painful in many ways but are never boring. A major pull for newbies. Krishnaswamy says that 60 per cent of the active users at Cult are people who are new to exercising or have not held a gym membership in a long time.

“People often don’t know what to do at the gym or what is an effective workout-to-rest ratio. Cult sessions target the body holistically,” says Telang. While new movements are periodically added to challenge the body, some are also removed based on user feedback recorded after every class. Your next trainer could be a power lifter, a boxer, a martial artiste or a professional yoga, dance and fitness instructor. So for as little as Rs 2,000 a month (on a six month membership), you can book a class on the app to train like Roshan or Shroff.

A personal training session at Anytime Fitness
Like any other health startup, the integration of technology is a key differentiator for Cult. Every centre has a biometric attendance system and a free-to-use BMI machine. You can book classes at least four days in advance, watch video snippets of the classes ahead, order “healthy meals” and also try DIY workouts at home.

No wonder the word is spreading fast. While I have defended the lack of machines at Cult, I have also agreed that most formats challenge your stamina and muscle endurance more than your strength. Excellent for newbies and fitness enthusiasts to shape into their healthier selves, Cult is not for athletes training for a particular discipline, and certainly not for bodybuilding.

Traditional gym-goers and athletes argue that full-body conditioning workouts with free weights can supplement gyms but not replace them completely. It’s the reason cricketing stars Virat Kohli and M S Dhoni launched their Chisel and Sportsfit gyms, respectively. Talwalkars and Gold’s Gym in India have over 100 centres each, and Anytime Fitness has scaled up to 90 franchises in six years.

Vikas Jain, managing director of the Anytime Fitness chain of gyms, argues that group classes cannot align with individual fitness goals. “A personal trainer can catch people at any stage of their fitness journey and help them scale up,” says Jain. The chain is working towards countering another common excuse: accessibility. True to its name, most of their gyms are open 24/7 and others from 4am to midnight. The company’s Asia head, Drew Biks, who was visiting India, tells me that they will soon open one in Antarctica to mark their presence in all seven continents.

Despite their growing numbers, the market for health clubs in India is largely unorganised. A comprehensive analysis of fitness clubs by SMERGERS, an investment banking firm, reported that 72 per cent of the Rs 45,000 crore market in 2014, growing at 16-18 per cent annually, was unorganised.

The startup Fitternity -- an aggregator of local gyms, yoga, zumba, swimming and other classes -- was launched around the same time. “When we started, around 98 per cent of gyms were not online and pricing varied for people depending on their ability to negotiate,” says its co-founder and chief operating officer, Jayam Vora. They have now made 27,000 gyms and health clubs put a standard rate card on the Fitternity app and website, where you can buy a one-day access to any of them or a one-pass access to all of them with no validity starting at Rs 5,500 for 15 sessions. There goes the excuse for not committing long-term. With the negotiated price they charge a growing pool of users, Vora says that the company is generating a revenue of Rs 70 crore.

BoxFit is among the many health clubs in Delhi listed on Fitternity. It was founded by Rahul Kaul, a fitness enthusiast who discovered Muah Thai living in Ecuador and thought of replicating it here. His is a conservative, self-funded approach, opening just two centres in three years. At the Greater Kailash centre, expect to be surrounded by bags swirling under blue or red lighting and people intoxicated by fiery music. “The theatrics are to get you into your zone and make you throw some punches in serious combinations,” says Kaul, who is rostered as one of the 16 trainers, which includes professional boxers and mixed martial arts fighters. There you go: skill-based workout, not boring, at a studio where you can be invisible.

If you are still obsessing about a gym following you around and won’t follow a DIY workout through an app, consider hiring a yoga or fitness instructor on UrbanClap, a services aggregator. They are working on your excuses while formalising a market of freelance trainers. “We are targeting mid-level executives who want to be reasonably fit,” says Mukund Kulasekaran, vice president, health and beauty, UrbanClap. They also offer nutritionists on the house for their users, a number that is tripling every month.

Unless, of course, you want a nutritionist on call every time you log your meals on the HealthifyMe app and wonder why you didn’t meet your zinc and magnesium goals for the day. Senior nutritionist Alpa Momaya, whom I consulted, understands what sort of low-carb, high-fibre meal plan can help me reduce my body fat percentage and increase my muscle mass while eating vegetarian food and without going on a calorie-deficit diet. The app has over 10 million downloads and a network of 500 certified nutritionists and fitness coaches, who consult mostly obese people with lifestyle diseases but also marathon runners.

“Our protein intake is among the lowest in the country. We are not just battling disinformation but also a lack of will,” says its co-founder and chief executive officer, Tushar Vashisht. I know what he means by increasing accountability. My dietician has been nudging me to log what I eat each day so that we can discuss the diet plan she made for me. Monthly consultations start at Rs 1,199, less than what most dietitians charge.

Unless you can carefully black out people posting “wellfies” on Instagram, never count steps or calories, and be completely oblivious to the exploding number of health clubs in your city, you are standing with me at that second floor staircase every evening staring at the same dilemma. For my sake and yours, I hope we are moving in the right direction.

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