With oxygen-emitting bars flanking treadmills and other gym equipment, Oxygym is a new-concept fitness centre that is fast gaining in popularity in Beijing.

Outfitted with air purification systems, Oxygym has made a business opportunity out of the notorious air pollution problem in the Chinese capital. Founded in 2010, the chain now has five outlets in Beijing.

Its founder Vincent Li, a former fitness trainer, says in the past his running routines were often affected by the bad air in the city. “I love exercise. In university, I did morning runs every day, wearing a mask. The mask was black after my run. People didn’t know it was smog then. They just knew it was bad for health.

“I wanted to set up a gym that is different from other gyms. We found out [having clean] air can prompt customers to join.

“Our concept is to turn the gym into a forest. The equipment extends to the outdoors and separates the oxygen from the outside air and pumps it indoors. We aim to boost users’ performance and comfort level by [creating a clean air environment and] increasing the oxygen level. No one in China or overseas has done this before, so we applied for over 30 patents.”

Besides training, I also enjoy relaxing here in the clean air

One of the patents is for the cylindrical bar outfitted with an oxygen-emitting adjustable nozzle. With the bars next to the gym machines, users can turn them on when running on a treadmill or pedalling a bike.

“Before our [invention], all existing oxygen masks had to be worn by users. But such a concept would not work in a gym as people move and sweat when exercising. Our nozzle concept can allow for direct oxygen inhalation without the inconvenience,” says Li.

He says the oxygen-boosting equipment can improve performance by 30 to 50 per cent. “With more oxygen, users can take on more challenging exercises. Using our nozzle equipment is like adding a turbo booster outside the human body which boosts the oxygen intake for each breath you take and in turn [makes the body release more energy].”

A daily user of Oxygym, Johnny Miao, 35, says he feels less tired exercising in an environment with more oxygen.

“I use all the machines here. The oxygen flow from the machines is soft. The air inside the gym also feels fresh. Beijing gyms are expensive, their yearly membership fee costing from 2,000 yuan (US$292) to more than 10,000 yuan. I paid more than 10,000 yuan here. But the price is worth it. I have recommended many of my friends to come, too. Besides training, I also enjoy relaxing here in the clean air.”

With the fierce competition for discerning customers in China’s cutthroat fitness industry, gyms have gone out of their way to come up with special themes to attract customers.

Training centres with art and fine-dining spaces keep popping up in China.

A veteran of the gym industry, Li says commercial gyms did not appear in China until 1999 when pioneer Nirvana Sports opened its first gym in Chaoyang in Beijing.

“The gym industry was given a further boost in 2001 when China successfully bid for the right to host the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Believing that gym going will be even more popular after the Olympics, many investors poured money into the industry, causing it too overheat.

“The advent of Hosa Fitness in 2004 in Beijing dragged down the high-end gym industry as it charges very low fees. Around 2009 to 2010, the price of [some] commercial gyms has dropped to 2,000 yuan a year, an illogical price. The price decreases led to [lower service quality] and customer dissatisfaction. We believe customers are willing to pay more for quality service. The new concept of Oxygym can be promoted to other parts of China and overseas.”

Kenneth Liang, a University of Hong Kong health and training officer and member of the training and education committee of the Physical Fitness Association of Hong Kong, China, says there is a lack of scientific evidence to support oxygen- enhanced gym training.

Using our nozzle equipment is like adding a turbo booster outside the human body

“In 2013, the US Food and Drug Administration said there’s no evidence to support hyperbaric oxygen training to boost performance. It also said that only special athletes like divers need such training. There are only about 20 studies [around the world] on whether hyperbaric oxygen is useful for brain and exercise performance.

“Too much oxygen can cause problems and a condition called hyperoxia. Twenty-one per cent of the air is oxygen. Too much will cause toxicity and affect the central nervous system, causing disorientation.”

Liang says oxygen treatment is good for people with conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“The patients have problematic lungs which [reduce air absorption in the lungs], causing insufficient oxygen levels [in the blood].”

Using the stair climber at Oxygym at the Place in Chaoyang in Beijing, I adjusted the oxygen nozzle to bring it close to my face. The light breeze was a refreshing sensation. A regular treadmill runner at home, I don’t feel the extra oxygen intake makes any difference to my performance. But the air inside the sprawling Oxygym certainly feels clean and fresh. There is also lots of space available for different fitness routines, including yoga, weight training and relaxing.