Convenient fitness at the combini


Photo : Ramasamy Chidambaram
Photo : Ramasamy Chidambaram

A gym as near as a 7-Eleven, offering circuit training in the time it takes to buy and eat your bento may sound too convenient to be true. But "combini fitness" is all the rage. The right mini gym may be the answer to getting into quick shape, shaping curves or fitting workouts into a busy schedule.

With 64 percent of those polled saying they go to the combini (konbini), or convenience store, mostly for food at least twice a week (17 percent daily) it's no surprise combini-fitness gyms are popular - if not essential. Often no bigger than a Family Mart and nearly as ubiquitous, they offer quick circuit-training workouts without showers and other frills. Many cater only to women, with monthly fees that are half that of normal gyms (around 5,000 yen). In recent years, they've multiplied.

Since 2003, B-Line and J-Circuit have spawned 115 and 82 women's-only clubs, respectively. Newcomer Quick Shape sports 17 coed outlets and even mega chain Renaissance is testing the waters with six Body Q't gyms for ladies. Curves Japan, an offshoot of the company that kick started the U.S. circuit-training craze, boasts 300 new clubs here in the past two years. In fact, 300 of the 500 new gyms in 2006 are combini-fitness gyms, says Tomoko Iwai, vice president of Club Business Japan.

"There is no specific definition for convenience-fitness," explains Iwai, whose company publishes magazines on fitness and the industry. "The term 'combini fitness' was first used by one company offering small gyms with relaxation machines, but recently it has been used for circuit-training gyms. If you define it this way, there are more than 800 of these gyms in Japan as of July 2007."

The popular draw of combini-fitness gyms is twofold: Until recently, Japan's traditional gym model mandated a swimming pool, making gyms costly ventures exclusive to big cities. "So, there were no fitness facilities in small towns," Iwai says. "This is one reason that circuit gyms are well received by people in small towns." Strategies used by companies such as Curves also motivate franchisers to open new outlets. "This is another reason these types of clubs are increasing so rapidly in Japan," she adds. But some non-gym shops are more about convenience than fitness.

Franchises such as Fast First, V-Balance and DailyFit serve up McDonald's-like fast "fitness," drawing on Japan's penchant for the high-tech, working late over working out and the allure of a quick fix. Just 10 minutes a day on a coin-operated vibration exercise machine (see last month's "no pain, no gain - really?") is all they claim is needed - and all they offer - to make you fit and trim. Research shows, however, that the overall concept co-opted by circuit-training combini - mini workouts instead of traditionally longer ones - is not without merit.

Circuit training is a distant cousin of interval training, broadly defined as bursts of intense unsustainable workouts followed by brief rests or low-level exertion. Based on research by cardiologist and "maker of Olympic champions" Woldemar Gerschler in the 1930s, interval training originally employed repeated sprints followed by 90 seconds of rest (or when the heart rate returns to 120 bpm) to increase cardiovascular fitness. Once the stuff of elite-athlete programs, it now has many mainstream forms.

In principle, circuit training uses a group of 6 to 10 strength exercises performed in a set number of timed back-to-back reps with a brief rest between each set. Reps are usually no longer than one to a few minutes, and rest periods no longer than a few seconds to a minute. The number of circuits and types of exercise vary and can be tailored to individual fitness levels and goals. Most combini circuit-training gyms have a set program for small-group workouts. Ideally, maintaining an aerobic pulse rate while doing anaerobic exercises for each muscle group improves strength as well as stamina.

A big draw for some is that many circuit-training gyms claim to deliver such benefits in workouts that take just minutes out of a busy schedule. Quick Shape, for example, promises that two circuits on 11 machines plus stretching take 30 minutes. Body Q't and J-Circuit also tout half-hour workouts. Do such programs work? That likely depends on a number of factors, not least of which is whether they include aerobic exercise. Some combini-fitness gyms boast slow no-sweat workouts and most prescribe a set pace. But a 2006 study at Canada's McMaster University does show brief high-intensity aerobic interval training can work surprisingly well.

In the study, one group did four to six 30-second reps of all-out cycling with four-minute rests between each for a total of two and a half hours over a period of two weeks. While another group cycled at mid capacity for 90 to 120 minutes straight totaling 10.5 hours. Comparing molecular and cellular changes in the subjects' muscles showed little difference between the gains of each group, despite one having trained more than four times longer than the other. The subjects were 16 physically active men but other studies show promise for the less active and for weight loss.

A similar study of eight moderately active women at the University of Guelph in Canada showed interval training helped subjects burn more fat. One key may be increased metabolism during rest intervals as well as subsequent spurts of exercise. A University of Tokyo study shows those with time for a 20-minute break in the middle of an hour-long workout stand to burn more fat by simply sitting for a spell: " - repeated bouts of exercise cause enhanced fat metabolism compared with a single bout of prolonged exercise." The three studies were published separately in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

Circuit training is an ideal aerobic and resistance workout, writes Richard Weil, an exercise physiologist and author who offers online advice for WebMD. Similarly, interval training, such as alternating between sprints and walks, evokes anaerobic metabolism and can help runners build speed. But he advises that those looking to lose weight should bear in mind that while such exercise can burn more calories than regular workouts, unless calorie intake is also curbed, weight loss is unlikely.

Be it loosing weight or otherwise keeping fit, however, wisely shopping combini-fitness gyms might be the ticket to more workouts in any busy schedule. To get started, check out these Japanese sites. For women-only circuit-training gyms: Body Q't, Curves Japan, B-Line and J-Circuit For info on Quick Shape's coed gyms see: Learn more about Club Business Japan at:

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