Nepali Times
Clubbing it in Kathmandu


Not long ago Kathmandulays led such physically active lives that they didn\'t need to work out. They bicycled or walked to work; food was not loaded with unnecessary carbohydrates; beer consumption was negligible. There are many parts of Nepal that are still like that, but Kathmandu has moved into the sedentary, stressful and less-than-healthy lifestyle more familiar to the fast-paced cities in East Asia. No wonder then that health clubs have sprouted all over the Valley, catering not just to the rich, famous and over-weight, but increasingly also to the middle-class Nepali professional.

The fitness fad of the Kathmandu yuppie represents a growing health consciousness. Quite a change for Kathmandu\'s youthful middle class for whom an evening stroll down New Road was enough exercise till some years ago. Increasingly, they are to be found at squash courts, on treadmills, or in swimming pools and Jacuzzis. "Here we help our clients become and stay physically, socially, spiritually, and mentally healthy", says Dr T.M. Amatya, owner of Hardic Fitness Centre in Patan, who specialised in exercise medicine from the All-India Institute of Medicine Sciences in New Delhi. However, Dr Amatya is sceptical about how other fitness centres are run in Kathmandu, and believes there may be some compromising on quality. "The business of health care has slow returns, but here people are not willing to wait for profits," he says.

Like in any other business, there are fly-by-nights who are in it for the quick buck. And it is fairly easy to spot them, from the kind of investments they have made in gym equipment, whether they pay attention to details like cleanliness and hygiene. One easy way to check out a genuine gym is to take a peep into the loo-if it looks like one at a government office, find some other place.

There is also a line separating functional health care centres in the puritan form and leisure clubs-although many erroneously seem to want to be both. A gymnasium (with cardio facilities), a decent swimming pool, a Jacuzzi and sauna are must-haves tor a proper fitness centre. There are also those who define themselves as leisure clubs and have tennis and squash courts, snooker and pool tables, a lounge and also a bar or two for rehydration therapy with a selection of draft beers.

As in other Asian cities local five-star hotels are trying to woo the membership of local residents besides hotel guests to their fitness centres. The Clark Hatch Fitness Centre in the Radisson is the newest, with a gymnasium, a swimming pool, gender segregated Jacuzzi and sauna.

The Clark Hatch is a well-known health service chain and the biggest in the Asia Pacific region, although the one at the Radisson may not have the same space as similar centres elsewhere. Sanjeev Soreng of Clark Hatch, explains the fine art of fitness management: "There is a lack of professionalism in most of the so-called health clubs in Kathmandu. People are least bothered about results. They go to the gym for months and still remain and look the same. But here we are result oriented and have specific programmes designed for members according to their health status."

This sort of individual attention does seem to yield results as Jai Shah discovered after only five months: "I\'ve already lost 12 kg. The centre is very well maintained, very clean, and very professional."
If the five star establishments are too upscale and beyond the reach of the motorcycle crowd, there are the more moderately priced ones for them, such as Hotel Shahanshah International, Kundalini, International Club, The Club Bhatbhateni, Hardic Fitness Centre and Verge Inn Leisure Club. Not all of these are fitness centres in the true sense, and lean more towards weekend leisure for family.

Leisure club memberships are also held as a mark of social status and they provide the opportunity to mix business with exercise. Club Bhatbhateni is one such place where members feel at ease among peers and go about swimming, lifting weights, playing tennis, squash, or just socialising with the rest of the members. This is one place where membership seems to be limited due to its overwhelming popularity among Kathmandu\'s urban professionals. Kapil Tamot, a regular at The Club says, "Health is an important part of my life, but it\'s more to do with the environment and the atmosphere of this place that makes me come here."

Then there is the third type of club that caters to the local fitness market and also has rooms for guests and tourists. Hotel Shahanshah International and Verge Inn Leisure Club fit in this category. "We are more than a health club," says Verge Inn\'s Subodh Pradhan, "We are a leisure club where members can come and not just exercise or play sports, they can come and relax."

Hotel Shahanshah has two indoor tennis courts, one heated indoor swimming pool and an outdoor one, a bowling alley, squash courts and all the rest of the usual infrastructure. Shahanshah is fast gaining popularity among Kathmandu expatriates as well as Nepalis, which manager Kiti Sarkar attributes to a need for a place to relax and work out. "Going out every day is a problem nowadays and a club is a place where you come and relax and no one will say anything. The culture is here and people have started taking this concept seriously," she says.

The Valley\'s upmarket expats tend to frequent the fitness centres in the other five-star hotels like the Soaltee, Yak and Yeti, or the Annapurna. Unless they are members of the exclusive American Club at Phora Durbar, or the International Club in Sanepa, that is.

Dr Amatya says, "Nepalis don\'t become health conscious until they get bed-ridden." He may be right, but things are certainly changing with all this fitness craze. One could even say that it is a trend. However, with about 400 members each, the total number of club goers and fitness club regulars in Kathmandu is still a very small proportion of the city\'s population. For it to grow, perhaps, the membership fees need to be more affordable and the quality of the facilities upgraded.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)