Is there anything wrong with “luxury gyms”?

studio-yoga_lLast week our Facebook page lit up with a discussion of luxury gyms in response to an article that appeared on Vox. The article in question, “The case against luxury gyms like SoulCycle,” took issue with luxury gyms because “the rich are getting fitter while the poor are falling behind.” Exercise inequality — of access, of opportunity, of expectation — is an important social issue that we have written about before.

We’ve talked about the exercise gender gap and we have also talked about the expense of maintaining an active lifestyle: exercise equipment, gyms, studios, and so forth. There’s all sorts of privilege associated with even having the option of taking up traditional fitness activities.

The article draws attention to two trends in American fitness:

On the one hand, new cycling, spinning, yoga, barre, and CrossFit facilities are popping up in cities all over the US, and now make up about 35 percent of the US exercise market, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). The fitness industry overall generated $25.8 billion in revenue in 2015, up from $20.3 billion in 2010. Much of that growth is coming from these newer boutique facilities: membership at studios like Flywheel and SoulCycle exploded by 70 percent. There’s a big segment of the population hungry for new health and fitness options.

However, poor people get about half as much exercise as the rich. The latest fitness “trends” are available to the population segment who, arguably, need them the least. The emergence of “boutique” outlets, the article argues, further entrenches exercise inequality. These establishments make activity less accessible rather than more accessible:

“We privatize physical activity,” Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, told me, “instead of investing in good public spaces where everyone can run safely or community centers with free yoga.”

The article notes further that these types of studios tend to specialize. Yoga here. Spin there. And they fulfill a social need as well, encouraging a sense of belonging to a community or “a tribe” of like-minded folks who are equally passionate about spinning. Or yoga. Or pilates. Or aerial gymnastics (if that’s what it’s called). Etc.

The article goes on to say:

But let’s be clear: A defining characteristic of the tribe using these workout spaces is affluence. It’s people with a good deal of disposable income — and an interest in fitness — who can pay to use these facilities. According to Vogue, they’ve even been relegated to the sphere of status symbol. “It’s become very much a brand in itself, the kind of sport and exercise you do,” Candice Fragis, senior buyer at Net-a-Sporter, told the magazine. Another spinning enthusiast said, “It’s like the only acceptable lifestyle brag.”

The Facebook discussion generated an expected range of opinion on the central claim, which I take to be that these gyms perpetuate exercise inequality and are for that reason making a net negative rather than positive contribution to our society. Not all inequality is unjust, but if the inequality arises from oppressive social conditions, then we should regard it as suspect. Of course, some wondered whether simply having such options necessarily negates other more accessible options.

The fact is, as this niche market grows, public funding for community programs, public spaces where people can get out and be active (like bike paths, walking and running trails, public pools, exercise parks) in a safe environment, are becoming less of a priority.

It’s natural to wonder whether luxury studios mitigate against affordable or free options. As a Canadian, I’ve seen this type of question comes up a lot in discussions of “two-tier” health systems and “two-tier” education. Though we do have some privatized options and services, the Canadian sensibility on these things–which I’ve embraced all my life–is to make them available to all.  The thinking is that if we start making better services available to those who can afford them, the public system will decline. And that decline can have not just class-implications, but also race and disability implications.

Of course, gyms and studios have never been part of a public system in the same sense as health and education, but there is something of the same attitude lurking in the background when we question the impact of luxury gyms on more affordable options.

A couple of people in the comment thread on FB noted that it’s possible to get active without ever joining a gym. But some pointed out that they do in fact need a gym. There are all sorts of reasons it might be a good option: lack of space to workout at home, or the need for instruction and guidance, or the added motivation of going somewhere to work out are all possible reasons that joining a gym or studio might be a good option. Not everyone has the wherewithal to stick to a plan all on their own.

Others commented that time is another precious factor in living an active lifestyle. Someone whose financial situation forces them to work two jobs or longer hours in one job, to live further from their workplace and therefore to give more time to their daily commute, to live in an area where it is not as safe or where there simply are no gyms (whether they can afford them or not) within walking distance–may not have the time to incorporate activity into their lives on a regular basis. Time is a privilege.

Luxury gyms are elitist and exclusive. There is no getting around that. But so many of the activities we associate with an “active lifestyle” are available only to a privileged few. The equipment, the training opportunities, the events themselves come with a hefty price tag. It’s simply false to think that an “active lifestyle” is not more available to the affluent.

For my part, I think there are good reasons to continue supporting more accessible gyms and public spaces. One of the reasons I continue to maintain my membership at the Y is that I like that they offer subsidized memberships to people who can’t afford the regular price.  I’ve been impressed with the fitness park in Fort Lauderdale, a public park on the beach with a number of workout “stations.” It’s free (though the parking is not) and easy to find. But of course, located on prime beach front, it’s in a very high end neighborhood with pretty much no affordable housing within walking distance.

Despite my ideals and my support of the Y, I do maintain a class-pass at a hot yoga studio and I pay for one-on-one personal training as well. While I wouldn’t call either a “luxury gym,” I can’t deny that these are privileges not available to all who might benefit from them.

The real issue is, how can we make adequate opportunities more available, while still recognizing that some people’s life circumstances make finding time for physical activity low on their list of priorities because of more basic needs not being met. The social and political issues associated with the privilege of even being able to lead a “balanced” life that includes leisure figure large in this conversation.

The authors end their article with a great question: “It’s time to start asking what else we need to invest in to spread exercise opportunities more equally. As the rich get fitter, what are we doing for the rest of society?”

It’s an important conversation and we’ve just scratched the surface of it here. What do you think about luxury gyms, affordable and accessible fitness opportunities, and exercise inequality?



10 thoughts on “Is there anything wrong with “luxury gyms”?

  1. I think the fitness industry is looking to expand market share at both ends of the spectrum. Ive noticed a few brands of gyms that tout $10 & $20 a month memberships here in London. In addition to the Y these are located near apartment complexes and discount grocery stores.
    When it comes to class, I’d rather work out in a gym that markets to working class or middle class folks. I found hot yoga studios to be too bougie for me. I have a class chip on my shoulder. So I’m relieved to know that the rich continue to chase elite things and stay out of my sweaty space.

  2. It would seem that fewer folks paying full-price at facilities (like Ys) that offer reduced cost membership to those in need would reduce their ability to offer those reduced cost options.

  3. Great discussion. I don’t feel bad about maintaining my membership at the Y for the reason you mentioned — because even when I don’t go, I’m subsidizing the programs there. But I also have a membership at a pricier club and attend barre classes because I have the expendable income and time to do so, which I recognize as a privilege. I think the answer is a happy medium: Publicly funded parks and rec centers, low-cost gyms (there are plenty here for $10-20/month), and pricier options for those who can afford it.

  4. This is an important issue to consider. I think there will always be luxury versions of everything but, at the same time, we need to make sure there are affordable versions of relevant things. I think having affordable gyms would be a great way to keep people healthy.

  5. I was just discussing this with my husband last week, as we realised that we do spend quite a lot of money on exercise. We both maintain a gym membership (although I won’t renew mine since I’m definitely not going enough to make it worth the money), he plays squash and I play badminton (sets each of us back around 10 euros, i.e. roughly 10 US dollars each time), and then I also swim. My swimming is actually very cheap because I train with the local lifesaving club so I pay a 45 euros membership fee per year and that’s it. Lastly we both run and hike, so there’s more equipment cost there. Fortunately we can afford it but it’s so easy to see how someone else couldn’t!

    The gym discussion you mentioned actually brought to my mind another issue though, which is swimming pools – a discussion very close to my heart as a lifeguard and swimmer ;). I don’t know about Canada, but here in Germany we have a problem in that a lot of our public swimming pools are from the 70s and are rapidly ageing, so they need to be completely refurbished, which can be very costly (sometimes it’s actually cheaper to build a new one). A lot of the time the municipalities, which are usually the owners of those swimming pools, can’t afford the refurbishment/new pool, so they end up closing down. So the landscape of “normal” public pools, which is what most kids rely on to learn how to swim, is slowly but surely thinning out. At the same time, private “fun pools” (with loads of slides, whirlpools, saunas, etc. but often without one single pool you could possibly do laps in) are springing up everywhere. They’re extremely expensive so if you’re a poor family you could never afford to go to one – even for a middle-class family this would be a very pricy adventure!

    Another issue – fortunately not that extended yet – is privatisation. Hamburg has privatised all of its pools, which are now owned almost exclusively by one single company, and they charge extortionate prices as they’re not subsidised like public pools normally are (for comparison, where I currently live I pay 3.40 euros to go swimming, whereas in Hamburg I’d regularly cough up 7.00 euros for jus one session in a comparative-quality pool).

    The result? Many kids don’t have an opportunity to learn how to swim. They do normally get swimming lessons at school, but often they’re not enough for them to actually learn properly – and anyway, where would you have those lessons if the local pool has closed down? So they sometimes end up not even having that.

    It’s essentially a similar discussion to the one about luxury gyms and plays into the one about accessible public opportunities for exercise, but with a little twist. It gets me really worked up as knowing how to swim can mean the difference between life and death for a kid that falls into the water, and it’s such a basic skill that everyone should be allowed to learn.

  6. This is interesting because I don’t think of Crossfit as a luxury gym. I used to go to a gym affiliated with a hospital which had subsidized rates and of course discounts for their employees. And it was expensive, for me because I’m an average middle-class person not employed there. Now I go to Crossfit which costs less and has far less in the way of equipment, available hours, amenities (as in, we don’t have showers) and members, but better coaches and a strong community. It’s made a huge difference in the quality of fitness and in the quality of my life as well. I have met a lot of women through Crossfit who inspire me in a way that was not happening at the other gym. I think if women (and everyone) can find any way that they can stay happily moving, it’s a good thing.

  7. Ok: I work for a municipality: Focus on understanding how your tax dollars support the construction and maintenance of your municipal fitness facilities, parks, bike lanes and pedestrian pathways. Phone 311 for any Canadian municipality to suggest concrete improvements to municipal facilities. Sometimes it’s tiring to hear taxpayers complain they pay too much tax. Look what your tax dollars gives you.

    Luxury spas and facilities, if it’s for those who can pay, fine. Just don’t put them in non-profit /govn’t funded space. That’s all I ask. Otherwise it’s severe misuse of tax dollars.

    As for needing a gym….there is a point, a person can’t have free access to a gym in indoor public space forever. But it’s always necessary to offer super low rates for space use for over an hr. or more.

    As for free use of parks, pathways…part of this problem could be reduced if people thought through very carefully the location of their home….close to a lot of amenities. In fact, citizens needs to participate whenever municipality is planning a new community/facilities….get out there and give your input at the open houses in your community.

    I only partially agree with the low income argument. I grew up in a large, poor family. The other part is looking at your entire lifestyle and slowly make micro changes that cost no money but require building in 15-30 min. of walking, jogging, or stretching, whatever you like, etc.

    I just learned today of a woman at work, in her mid-50’s and all her 5 children have grown up and live somewhere else. She drives her car to a cheaper parking lot and walks 15 min. daily to work, including in winter which we’ve had several days of -26 degree C cold this month alone. She has a clerical job.

  8. I pay for a membership at an exclusive gym. It has regular yoga classes and is near my house. I try to practice alone, but I like a group.
    I do not love the atmosphere at this studio, but I go for the convenience. It is expensive. I am willing and able to pay for the option of variety and number of daily classes.

    I volunteer teach yoga at the YMCA. I also sit on the board of directors for our city’s YMCA. It is an excellent not for profit charitable organization and I am proud to support it with my time.

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