The Economics of Exercise

SAN DIEGO (Sept. 3, 2009) Fred Fusilier, lead ...

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On Friday, I mentioned an article in the New York Times that kind of rubbed me the wrong way.  The article, “Full-Service Gyms Feel a Bit Flabby”, takes a look at the current state of the gym, which (as the argument goes) is losing members faster than it can sign new ones up because it is no longer seen as a place where people gather, socialize, and enjoy a sense of community.  People these days are apparently too plugged in to want to interact with others when they stop by the gym for their sweat session, and as a result, gyms are hurting.

At least I think that’s how the argument goes.  It’s kind of hard to tell in this article.  Here’s what I gleaned: people want to exercise solo, which is bad for gyms; but gyms also don’t want to put the effort into motivating people, so people quit; maybe fancy gyms are having a hard time competing with gyms that charge less per month but don’t offer classes?; except that one thing people are doing much more now is taking pay-as-you-go classes at gyms rather than committing to monthly membership fees; people stop going to the gym and start pursuing other work-out methods because they don’t see the results they want; people need to demand what they want from gyms.  Are you confused too?

What really jumps out at me here, though, is the financial aspect of it all.  First, it should be noted that the New York Times (and the Style section especially, which is where this article appears) really caters to an upper-middle-class/upper-class reader.  In my opinion, this often means that their lifestyle-oriented pieces in particular can be hard to relate to, and sometimes hard to swallow.  I’m not trying to knock the NYT, just trying to situate it in the proper context.  This kind of makes me wonder if the article is about all gyms, or just high-end gyms (or what the author refers to as “kitchen-sink gyms”).  It’s hard to tell.  It also kind of explains what seems to me to be the take-away from the article: to see results, you will have to pay money, whether it’s for a personal trainer, classes that keep you from plateauing, or some kind of group training program.

It’s not that I’m surprised by the fact that money is present in some form throughout this article.  After all, the fitness industry is just that: an industry.  As such, it relies on revenue.  But reading this article, one gets the impression that if you don’t have a pretty significant amount of money at your disposal, you’re probably not going to get very far.  Especially if you’re just going to the gym and turning on your ipod for an hour every day.

I would love to have a chance to try out some of the classes mentioned in the article, but on my budget I couldn’t dream of making them a regular part of my routine.  The primary reason I don’t do yoga at a studio is cost; unless I’ve gotten a deal at a studio through Groupon, I’m sticking to Yoga Download.  Just to give you an idea, here are some of the prices of the classes mentioned in the article:

  • Core Fusion at Exhale Spa: $35 ($25 for students)
  • YogaWorks doesn’t seem to list rates on their website, you have to get in touch with a Yoga Advisor if you’re a new student
  • Equinox also directs you to get in touch with a gym rep instead of giving you pricing info right off the bat
  • Pace For Success (which looks awesome) offers a variety of classes and pricing options.  A single interval training class is $20, the 6-week program is $108.  They also have training programs for various distances, with the most expensive being a 14-week marathon training program for $630.00 (this is the rate for two sessions a week)
  • OrangeTheory classes range from $14 to $20 per session (as stated in the article)

Like I said, I would relish the chance to add classes like this (or even a gym membership) into my routine, but at those prices it isn’t happening any time soon.  Does that mean, though, that I should find a nice plateau somewhere and set up camp?  Here’s the thing: I think the fitness industry wants me to believe that yes, that’s the alternative.  Spend money on products (in this case classes) in order to get the results you want.  If you don’t spend the money, you don’t get results.  Of course this all suggests that if you’re not in a position to afford fancy fitness, then you’re out of luck.  That, in turn, opens up a whole can of worms about health and wellness in our country and its relationship to income levels and available economic resources, which I’m not going to get in to here.  Suffice it to say, though, that I don’t like the idea of there being an economic barrier to health, fitness, and overall wellness.

I don’t believe that you have to spend a ton of money to lose weight, or tone up, or train for a marathon, and I think that that’s a message that should be repeated at every opportunity.  I think you can do it (and avoid plateaus) just by being smart about working out: educate yourself about what your body needs, switch things up every few weeks, throw a class in here and there by all means if you want to try something different, and do things that you enjoy so that you’ll stay motivated.

What’s your opinion?  Do you belong to a gym, and if so, do you take advantage of all it has to offer, or do you just do your work out and leave?  How do you feel about the price of fitness classes where you live?  In your experience, has the amount of money you’ve put toward working out or training affected the results you’ve seen?



  1. I saw this article om another blog this weekend–so I’ve read it twice now. My opinion hasn’t changed since I first read it: it’s crap. Yes, crap.

    Who goes to the gym to socialize (or meet a pretty girl as the author suggests)? When I’m there, I’m there for one reason–to work my butt off. I need to work my butt off and then get out of there because I never have enough hours in the day to get everything done. But according to the author, the fact that I have my iPod cranked up is ruining the industry. Makes no sense if you ask me.

    There will always be gyms and there will always be people at gyms, regardless of how much (or how little) socializing goes on.

    1. Yeah, I had those thoughts while reading the article too, Chris. I can’t think of a time when people went to the gym to socialize or connect with each other. Exercising at a gym has, in my lifetime anyway, always been a pretty solitary pursuit.

      That was one of the things that confused me most about the article from a writing perspective–with arguments like that, I had a hard time seeing where the author was going.

  2. I just started doing CrossFit. At $10/class, it is a cost that I can live with. Anything more than $10/class isn’t worth it for me (no matter how much I love the yoga at the yoga studio 30 minutes from my house). I am lucky because I have access to gym equipment 24/7 at my fire station.

    If I didn’t have access to it, I wouldn’t be paying for a gym. I know I would limit myself with how much I run but everything else is so expensive!

  3. I work out at the neighborhood YMCA which I guess is not counted as a gym since it’s probably not-for-profit and gives back to the community. The Y actually at one point had signs up telling people to keep their voices down when socializing with other members. Except for a few individuals who get a big charge out of seeing their friends there, most others seem intent on getting their workout in, myself included. That article makes no sense at all to me either!

  4. I stopped spending money for exercise years ago. Now for the first time, I’m considering it again for yoga sessions. But I’ll never again join a gym–I just was never really comfortable working out in that environment, besides, it simply bores me silly. And I dislike buying fashionable work-out clothes to fit in on principle. Proper shoes and bras are a different matter…

    I’m lucky enough to live close to a beach, so walking there daily is my usual ‘exercise.’ Or I have a tennis match, where all rules are broken, at a public tennis court. Works for me, but everyone approaches ‘fitness’ differently…

  5. I talk for a living (professor), so the last thing I want to do at a gym is more talking. I am lucky to have free access to the pretty well-equipped gym at my university, but I still just want to accomplish my mission and go home. No ipod though—I guess I am the dead last middle-aged middle-class woman not to have one. So I found this article puzzling from every angle; Emilie’s comments about the intersection of capitalism and fitness seem exactly right.

  6. “Spend money on products (in this case classes) in order to get the results you want. If you don’t spend the money, you don’t get results. Of course this all suggests that if you’re not in a position to afford fancy fitness, then you’re out of luck.”

    I find this philosophy prevalent around the blogosphere too, to be honest. Sometimes I feel like part of the reason I wasn’t losing weight for a stretch last year (and why others were successful at maintaining their healthy weight) was because I didn’t take my Garmin out with me for every walk/jog, didn’t fuel post-workout with a green smoothie with chia seeds made in my Vita-Mix (I don’t have a Vita-Mix), etc. etc.

    I would second-guess myself and my commitment to health constantly; maybe if I spent/”invested” more in my fitness I’d be successful? Or, the converse of that: I’m not successful because I’m not investing enough $$ in getting healthy. The real problem was my coping mechanisms, more than anything else; I went through a number of huge life changes simultaneously and had trouble dealing with them, so I turned to food. My weight gain had nothing to do with my lack of membership to PureYoga or Equinox.

    Getting back to the article for a second, the truth is you don’t need fancy crap or an expensive gym membership to be healthy, just some motivation, dedication and a pair of sneakers. One possible positive take-away from the article is that maybe the uptick in group class membership means that people are finding exercise they actually enjoy, instead of slogging away on the dreadmill/elliptical because they feel like they should. I definitely don’t see a downside in that.

  7. First of all, I think it should be obvious that the reason gyms are losing members is the same reason that a number of entertainment/luxury/disposable income industry type business are losing money: the economy is still pretty terrible, and people are cutting out extras. It has nothing to do with whether people are socializing at the gym or not.

    That said, I do belong to a gym. My ceilings are too low to work out with a dvd at home, and it’s way too cold in Vermont for outdoor exercise this time of year (and I don’t own skis or snowshoes). My gym is $50 a month, which I can afford, and the fact that I’m paying for it motivates me to go (as opposed to college and law school, where I had full unfettered access to really nice facilities and never ever went). My favorite thing about my gym is that it’s always at least half empty and nobody tries to talk to me.

  8. For me, I like to go do my workout and not talk to anyone. I talk throughout the day at work, so when I workout I just want to focus on that. I like wearing my headphones to block out the noise around mainly the music my gym has going which irritates me.

    I do not go to any of the classes, although I’ve been tempted; however, I am just not a class person. I want to get home when I go to the gym, so I go get it done and leave.

    It does irritate me when people are talking loudly on the cell phone next to me while on the bike….that’s all I’ll say on that. 😉

  9. This article confused the hell out of me. Apparently, I’m supposed to go to a gym, sweat, and get all gross so that I can meet cute guys at the juice bar later (hopefully after a shower?).

    The gym I attend in real lie (the one without the juice bar) is expensive ($60/month) but has classes included, etc. People don’t talk there. They work out. Talking is strongly discouraged. The gym even has a no cell-phone policy except in the lobby, and no real areas to socialize. Everyone’s too busy, I dunno, working out.

    So I feel like I’m taking advantage of everything the gym has to offer (treadmills, ellipticals, weight equipment, classes, climbing wall), and I feel like it’s worth it. But it isn’t a social time for anyone there.

  10. I don’t have a gym membership, but I kind of wish I did. I don’t necessarily want to “socialize” in reference to hanging out with people at the juice bar or whatever, but I think it would be good for me to attend group classes since I telecommute and spend all day by myself. At least having the opportunity to be around other people, even if I’m not spending the time chatting helps to make me feel connected to the world.

    But the prices are rather prohibitive. Yes, I could afford it, but when I did have a gym membership it felt like it was too far to drive (Las Vegas is so spread out). And when the classes I want to attend are not at times that work out for me, it just doesn’t make sense. If I was going to the gym to just run on a treadmill alone, then I don’t need to pay a gym membership for that and I can go run on my own.

  11. I actually related to this article a lot! I live in NYC (outerborough) and I quit NYSC, which was costing me $80 for only one location, and joined the PlanetFitness that opened around the corner. It is $20 and only has one kind of treadmill, one type of bike, elliptical, etc., no classes, no towels, no personal trainers! Just the bare bones. But I needed a gym I wouldn’t feel guilty about not going to often, and $20 was good for me.

    The funny thing is, I think NYSC is feeling the pressure. I recently got a mailer offer to come back to them for their passport membership, which allows me to use every single location in the city, for 40 bucks! I would totally consider that if I wasn’t so in love with paying nearly nothing.

    When I joined NYSC, they were completely rigid in their pricing. When I cancelled, two years into my membership, they asked me what price would make me stay. I said twenty bucks, and you could see the defeat in the salesguy’s face. They know they can’t compete with PlanetFitness. There are tons of similar types of gyms like that popping up (not really in NYC but in the suburbs, so I hear!) and I think they are an amazing option for people who want a gym option for bad weather or weight training, etc. in addition to other workouts they might do (for me, it’s team swimming).

  12. i don’t get it. the article. here’s my experienceL at the end of last year i cancelled my membership at an inner city, high priced boutique style gym. it was small (had about 900 members, most of whom rarely went) and focussed on suits. i cancelled because my formerly good deal kept going up as they too were losing members, so raised the prices, thereby losing more members…make sense to anyone??? anyway, in that particular gym’s context, the entire layout was designed for pt’s and clients, that’s where they made money.
    in regards to the people who went – about three people spoke to me in 2 years. everyone ignored everyone else. in such a small place where you’d often see the exact same people at certain times of day it was weird and off-putting so in some sense while i’m not looking to chat when i go to a gym i would like to be acknowledged i guess in some way.

    lastly, we are in a culture that equates anything of value with a price. and this industry is one that makes people think you must spend money to do x – i mean you don’t need to spend a dime to workout (yes, even running due to the barefoot movement!) or lose weight but there’s this constant bombardment of the opposite. i now buy yoga dvds, running gear and weights for at home. it’s working out for me. i hope the women’s gym works out for you.

  13. I’m at NYSC, and like the commenter above, they asked me what price would keep me, but they actually met mine! (30 bucks) I actually see a fair amount of socialization in my gym, but it happens in a weird place: the weight floor. The location I go to has a lot of men who do amateur bodybuilding competitions in the hope of going pro, and I hear a lot of sort of dudely chitchat about both fitness, and also just small talk.

    I think about this a lot, given that I find straight men kind of a foreign country. I wonder if it’s just this location? If I’d find it at any other NYSC? I don’t really participate, but once, a scarily huge guy offered me some tips on my form, so I obviously don’t think it’s bad.

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