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?



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