It is early in the morning in one of Mumbai's glitziest gyms in the Bandra suburbs and the place is packed full of beautiful people honing their physiques.
Techno music thumps out of loudspeakers and Lycra-clad enthusiasts seem to be high on endorphins.
There are people stretching, jogging, pumping iron and cross-training everywhere.
A casual observer may think Mumbaikars are fitness-crazy and pumping iron is a national pastime.
But they are wrong. Fitness and gyms are relatively new phenomena to the nation traditionally associated with yoga and meditation.
Today's rising obesity levels and sedentary lifestyles have caused soaring demand for places to work out from people living hectic lives.
So much so that foreign and domestic players alike are looking to expand their businesses as recession-hit Europeans cut back on gym memberships to save money.
Fitness First, a UK chain of gyms, is aggressively looking to get on the India treadmill to grow its business. It plans to open several gyms across the country.
"The demographics of the country are very ripe for a quality fitness centre and the consumption trends of expenditure demonstrate a strong inclinations towards lifestyle products and services," says Rakhi Anand, the marketing manager for Fitness First India.
Other chains, too, say the average urban Indian professional is increasingly becoming health conscious and feeling the need to embark on a fitness regime.
"The fitness industry in India has evolved rapidly over the past few years with consumers getting more aware, knowledgeable and conscious of the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle.
"Today, increasing numbers of Indians are resorting to healthy, lean diets and engaging in regular exercise as a part of their daily routine to maintain a healthy lifestyle," says Thomas Guss, the general manager of the JW Marriott Mumbai.
Currently India's overall fitness market is estimated to be worth about US$700 million (Dh2.57 billion), according to a PriceWaterhouseCoopers-Ficci report, with fitness services and slimming centres accounting for almost two thirds of the value.
The fitness segment is the fastest-growing sector in the overall health market, the report said.
But the gym sector is relatively small despite the fact that there are gyms cropping up across Mumbai and in other metro cities.
It is still very much a fragmented industry with health clubs, gyms and trainers all operating independently, which gives the chain operators the chance for rich pickings. Industry analysts say the sector is very much at the growth stage.
"The fitness services industry is in a growth stage in India," says Pragya Singh, the associate director for retail at Technopak Advisors, a management consulting firm.
"IHRSA, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, is the trade association serving the health and fitness club industry, estimated India's membership penetration for 2009 at a paltry 0.4 per cent, compared to 3.7 per cent for Asia Pacific and 16 per cent for the US, which means India still remains grossly underpenetrated," Ms Singh adds.
Increased fitness awareness aside, there are other growth drivers.
Traditionally, Indians have not exercised much beyond a morning walk, and about a decade ago fitness was more about being slim or building muscles.
"This has changed in the last 10 years. The market is driven by rising incomes and aspirations, higher awareness of fitness with changing lifestyles, increasing preference to look good, higher incidence of lifestyle diseases," says Ms Singh.
Indians are keen to socialise at every opportunity - another key opportunity for gyms.
"Fitness centres are also increasingly looked upon as a socialising and networking places and a lifestyle statement, leading to their popularity," notes Ms Singh.
The international chains are all present in big cities, where 60 per cent of organised gym space is. But it is highly likely foreign and overseas chains alike will be exploring a move to smaller cities. The US chain Gold's Gym said recently it was planning to invest millions of dollars into expansion in India's smaller cities.
Setting up a gym is more of a marathon than a sprint in India, and there are challenges aplenty for the likes of Fitness First.
Finding suitable properties is difficult in a country where there is a huge demand for new property and prices are rocketing.
"There is tremendous demand for quality fitness centres in India, but the high occupancy costs and infrastructure make growth very slow and in some markets very difficult," Mr Anand says.
Finding the right staff in a country that is new on fitness can also be tricky.
"We have to spend a significant time on every new employee to learn fitness, and to adapt to a lifestyle of health and fitness.
"This becomes the most difficult phase for every new employee who is high on enthusiasm but low on skill when they start with us," says Mr Anand.
"Similarly there is a very low availability of trained and certified fitness professionals in the country as there are very few vocational training institutes that provide quality training for individuals to become fitness professionals,' she adds.
With anyemerging industry, getting business standards on an even keel can take time.
"In the service industry, achieving standardisation across different outlets is challenging and even more so where human intervention is high, as in the case of fitness centres.
"Players are increasingly looking at the franchising route to achieve scale quickly - but this results in brands loosing control and may erode their brand equity if fitness services are poorly delivered," Ms Singh says.
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