According to a study that focused on physical activity in the UK, most people were less active during pandemic lockdowns (this won’t strike most readers as a revelation). The study revealed that an overwhelming majority worked out less regardless of their gender or socioeconomic status. The decrease was most significant among those people who had been the most active before the pandemic and among people under the age of about 40.
To get people moving again, or even just to fight boredom during lockdowns, a formerly little-known singer and actor from Taiwan has become a social media phenomenon recently.
Meet Liu Genghong. The 49 year-old’s career in the entertainment business has been “uneventful” by his own admission. His performance in a number of TV reality shows such as Super Diet King in 2013 did not particularly add to his stardom either.
Like many celebrities, Liu has forayed into e-commerce livestreaming. Not many are natural-born salespeople though. According to Feigua data statistics, Liu and his wife brought in just Rmb7.2 million worth of gross merchandise (GMV) in nine online sessions between December and February. For comparison, Zheng Jianpeng and his wife, a popular celebrity couple, were able to rack in Rmb320 million ($48.40 million) in GMV over the course of 18 livestreams in a couple of months last year.
With the lukewarm response, Liu decided to cut his losses and pivot to another type of increasingly popular livestreaming: fitness.
In mid-February, Liu started his first workout session on Douyin. He amassed nearly 250,000 views and almost 8,000 followers almost instantly. By his fifth livestream, the number of viewers exceeded one million for the first time.
Liu’s popularity really took off during the recent Covid outbreak in Shanghai, which saw millions of people cooped up at home and unable to exercise outdoors.
His workout livestreaming sessions have since become so popular that they have broken Douyin’s livestreaming record for this year with the cumulative number of viewers surpassing 74 million, says ThePaper.cn. The number of Liu’s followers on Douyin went from five million to 33 million in just 10 weeks. On other social media platforms, many posted videos of themselves following Liu’s workouts using the hashtag #LiuGengHongGirl and #LiuGengHongBoy.
Liu’s fitness content has struck a chord with many because his programmes are easy to follow at home. Most of the movements are body weight exercises (meaning they can be done without weights and dumb-bells), or a mix of kickboxing and aerobics.
It helps that Liu, who has a background as a motivational coach, is very engaging on screen (“Yeah, very good, you’re doing well!” he enthusiastically encourages). Sometimes fans mused that it feels like they are watching a reality TV show, since Liu’s 66 year-old mother-in-law occasionally makes cameos, along with his children.
Even Liu’s wife – Wang Wanfei – who has been mocked in the past for appearing wooden and disinterested on their e-commerce shows, also comes ‘alive’ in the fitness videos. Her comical expressions during the workouts (where she’s evidently tired after trying to keep up with her husband’s aerobic moves) have become viral memes, with fans saying that they give the livestream a “joyous atmosphere”.
Liu’s success, however, is hardly accidental. Sensing an opportunity in fitness content, Douyin, the short video platform owned by Bytedance, has been using its powerful algorithm to prioritise videos that relate to fitness and exercise since the Covid outbreak began, introducing campaigns like “Douyin Gym” to drive user awareness. Its rival Kuaishou also launched a similar initiative called “Gym in the Living Room”.
To that end, the number of fitness videos on the short video platform in 2021 went up by 134%, while followers of such content also shot up 208% compared with the previous year.
Liu’s breakout moment comes at a time when the country has become increasingly health conscious.
China’s fitness population is expected to grow to 416 million in 2026 from 303 million in 2021. The online fitness market also far exceeds the offline. According to consulting firm Daxue Consulting, only 68 million people in China had gym memberships in 2021 while the number of subscribers to online fitness content was 138 million. The gap is expected to further widen in the future.
Still, how do influencers like Liu capitalise on their internet fame? For a start, loyal fans can send virtual gifts to influencers like Liu that they follow. Reportedly Liu is now making some Rmb240,000 a day simply converting these virtual gifts back into cash.
Then, of course, Liu could further monetise his new fanbase by making a comeback in e-commerce.
In the past, other fitness influencers have plugged products like exercise equipment and apparel on their social media. German fitness model Pamela Reif is, for example, also a brand ambassador for Puma.
Some even joke that Liu can pose a challenge to Li Jiaqi, the erstwhile most popular e-commerce host. “Li Jiaqi empties our wallet, Liu Genghong empties our body,” one netizen mused.
Observers say platforms like Douyin need more and more fitness ‘content creators’ with an appeal akin that of Liu to continue to drive the industry. “Regardless of whether the ‘Liu Genghong phenomenon’ will be short-lived or not, the national fitness wave in China is definitely a long-term trend. To undertake this trend, online products and services must truly focus on user needs and help achieve a better user experience,” Huang Haidong, an expert from China’s online fitness platform Keep told Xinhua.
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