Nerio Alessandri: ‘We are born to move’

Nerio Alessandri, the founder of Technogym wellness solutions, on why a holistic approach to healthy living is important not only for the individual, but also to communities, governments and economies at large.

Technogym Village is a holistic wellness and research centre situated in Cesena, Italy. Courtesy: Technogym
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There is a copy of Luxury magazine on the table in front of us. Nerio Alessandri points emphatically at the cover. "Wellness is the new luxury," he says. And then, more forcefully, "Health is wealth. Happiness is not to buy another car or another bag or another pair of shoes, but to stay well. This is the real luxury."

As the founder and president of Technogym, the Cesena-based company responsible for creating some of the most advanced and beautifully designed fitness equipment in the world, Alessandri knows a thing or two about wellness. He is, in fact, a global authority on the matter. He has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos about the benefits of a "new wellness economy", written three books on the subject (the latest, Born to Move, was published in November) and has launched the Wellness Foundation, a not-for-profit entity promoting scientific research and education. When Technogym Village, the company's new 150,000-square-metre headquarters – a so-called Wellness Campus built around the principles of health and wellness in the workplace – was inaugurated in 2012, Bill Clinton was a guest of honour, and commented: "A better future is possible, but we need the optimism of a young, creative company like Technogym."

For Alessandri, wellness goes beyond selling exercise equipment – although he does plenty of that, too. A reported 65,000 wellness centres and 100,000 private homes around the world are equipped with Technogym products, while some 35 million people use its creations every day; the company has been selected as the official supplier of the Olympic Games on five occasions and is a favourite of football clubs, Formula One teams and high-level athletes the world over.

But even when Alessandri first started out 30 years ago, producing his first piece of exercise equipment in his garage at the age of 22, his “dream was not to create machines for bodybuilders”, he says, “but to create a culture of wellness”. He is a zealous advocate of healthy living and its far-reaching consequences not only on individuals, but also on companies, communities, governments and economies.

In 2014, the company launched its global Let’s Move for a Better World campaign – reiterating the idea of wellness as a social, rather than purely personal, issue. The campaign encourages people using Technogym equipment in fitness centres around the world to measure their levels of activity, which are converted into units called Moves. In every country, the gym responsible for accruing the highest number of Moves is able to donate a gym, provided by Technogym, to a local school. “So basically people feel like going to a gym is good for them and their health, but also good for the society,” says Alessandri.

In person, Alessandri is passionate and authoritative; not a man, I imagine, to suffer fools gladly. He is fiercely Italian – and proudly so. “Please, don’t forget, wellness was born in Rome 2,000 years ago,” he says with a smile. “Mens sana in corpore sano [A sound mind in a sound body]. The Mediterranean diet started 2,000 years ago; then you had the spa and the gymnasium, which was about activity but also the arts and creativity. All of this contributed to quality of life.”

We meet at the swanky Talise Fitness at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel in Dubai, which is, unsurprisingly, fitted with Technogym products. My questions are delivered via a translator, who passes them on in lilting Italian – but the answers come straight from Alessandri, in accented but perfectly passable English.

First, a definition. What exactly does “wellness” mean?

“A person is born to move; not to eat,” Alessandri says. “Today, people act like they are born to eat – and then move if necessary. This is the paradox and the mistake of humanity. About 1,300 years ago, a person would move 30 kilometres per day. Today, the average is less than 1km. That 29km gap represents a huge issue. Technology, mobiles, cars, automation – everything is designed to reduce movement.”

It is not, he explains, a mere matter of exercise. “Fitness is not enough. Fitness is a purely hedonistic approach, because it is about looking good. Wellness is the holistic approach; it’s about feeling good. There is a huge difference. Wellness is a good attitude, in terms of good nutrition, regular physical activity and a positive mental approach. It’s the balance between the mind, body and spirit.”

This is an issue that is particularly pertinent in this region, he points out. “In the Middle East, obesity and infantile obesity are among the highest in the world. In Qatar, 23 per cent of the population have type 2 diabetes and in the UAE, 18 per cent. It’s totally unsustainable.

“For me, it’s important to get the world moving again. It’s not possible to stay in the car for three hours, in the plane for 10 hours, on the phone and computer for 12 hours – it’s not natural. When children cry, we hand them an iPad to play with. These things will kill humanity if they are used in that way.”

Technology is not, in itself, the enemy, Alessandri is quick to point out. It is just a matter of harnessing technology in a positive way. As such, Technogym is becoming increasingly focused on content – providing personalised lifestyle-management solutions by encouraging users to leverage technology to track progress, manage personal data and analytics and avail themselves of training apps.

But people have to fly and have to drive and have to work – and time is always in short supply. So how, in practical terms, can people achieve wellness? The secret, Alessandri says, is to incorporate it into every facet of your everyday life.

“The Technogym strategy is to encourage ‘Wellness on the Go’. So not only wellness on the weekend or at the gym, but 24 hours per day, seven days a week. Wellness at home, wellness at work, wellness in your free time, wellness outdoors and wellness indoors; wellness every day, everywhere all the time.

“For example, when you are in front of the desk, you can move from passive sitting to active sitting with a Wellness Ball. When you travel, you can take your Wellness Bag – which has resistance bands and other accessories to help you work out. When you are in the park, do some suspension training; when you are reading a book, why not choose something about nutrition? Use your phone to track and measure your movements; adopt a Mediterranean or vegetarian or organic diet; just create balance.

“There are so many different touch points; small things that are not complicated. What’s important is your passion and your motivation; you have to do very little to make a change; but you have to do it all the time.”

sdenman@thenational.ae