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Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

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Why Fitness Classes Are Making You Go Broke

Fitness has become a luxury item.

A few months ago, Sarah realized she was going broke. Between AKT for cardio dance, Exhale for yoga, and SLT for, well, strengthening, lengthening, and toning, she figured out she was spending $550 a month on boutique fitness classes alone.

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"When you break it down," the New York native says, "it's $35, give or take, per class, and then you have to go four times a week to really see results." On top of that, there was the cost of transportation to classes outside of her neighborhood: a MetroCard, but also, unavoidably, some cabs. That’s when she realized she was really spending closer to $700 each month on her workout habit.

Fitness has become a luxury item. There are leggings that cost in the three figures, (organic! soy-free! superfood-packed!) smoothies creeping up into the $20 range, and, of course, Ubers to take home after a grueling 45 minutes of boxing. But at the center of it all are the classes.

Think of the girl at a $2,400 week-long yoga retreat in Tulum who casually mentions she goes to Barry's Bootcamp every day and spends around $12,000 a year on exercise classes. Or the front row regular at SoulCycle who the instructor shouts out for doing a triple—that's three back-to-back classes, totaling over $100 on one single day of spinning. With studios keeping credit cards on file and offering seemingly endless scheduling options, it’s easy to buy class packages (and bottles of water and cute tanks) and never pause to think about how it’s all adding up.

Photo: Getty Images

Sarah, who asked that her name be changed so her friends and colleagues don’t realize how much she spends on exercise, works in publishing and lives within walking distance of her job in midtown Manhattan with a roommate. In other words, she’s not exactly a mom with a Primates of Park Avenue-worthy lifestyle budget or a minor celebrity trying to look good for the paparazzi. "It prompted me to reassess my financial situation," she says of crunching the numbers on her fitness routine. "I think people are overindulging in exercise and not really realizing how much they're spending."

She rejoined Equinox (perhaps New York's priciest gym chain, which charges $225 a month for an all-access pass, plus a $400 initiation fee) after seeing a friend who got in shape by working out there with moves she learned at the free training session that came with her membership. Sarah's not quitting boutique fitness entirely, though. She’ll still go once a week ("Instead of dinner with friends, we'll do a workout class"), but she is mourning her previous lifestyle. "I hate having to get there 15 minutes early and being squished in with a million people," she says of reentering gym world. "You don't have as much room or a class full of fashion editors in there."

"People are overindulging in exercise and not really realizing how much they're spending."

There are services like ClassPass and FitReserve that allow users to sample the boutique fitness experience at a deep discount, but some brands, like AKT, only offer classes at off-peak hours, and others, like SoulCycle, don't offer classes period. David Barton Gym, known for its nightclub aesthetic, has partnered with indoor cycling chain Cyc so that its members can go to boutique classes at a cheaper rate. The bottom line, says David Barton president Kevin Kavanaugh, is that "you don't have to mortgage the house to get fit, but you do need to be motivated and encouraged."

It’s a point that Michael Fishman, who has advised consumer health businesses for the past 25 years, echoes: "Fitness can be had by anybody for free. The money really is about experience." Gyms have "a lot of lone rangers and people who want to be left alone." But the new boutique boom is the exact opposite. Fishman says it draws upon the appeal that practices like yoga have banked on for years, "a spiritual and tribal aspect, people gathering around a methodology."

"Athlete, Legend, Warrior, Renegade, Rockstar" is the SoulCycle motto that’s usually rendered in large letters in its studios and emblazoned on tops. Fishman has gone to SoulCycle and calls it a "fitness and dance club experience." He points out that its choices of location—Soho, Beverly Hills—are "affluent neighborhoods where luxury is purchased. There are people with money in those locations, but also people who will spend an inordinate amount beyond what they should for the ancillary benefit: the in-crowd." Just ask anyone who has looked over and gotten a minor thrill from seeing David Beckham or Karlie Kloss on the bike next to them.

Photo: Getty Images

AKT founder Anna Kaiser points out that her classes never have more than 15 people in them for "the personalization of private training, but the energy of a group." She doesn't think classes will surpass the $40 limit in the next five years, but she "also didn’t think I'd ever be paying $4.50 for coffee."

In her view, it’s all about priorities. "You could lease a car or go really deep into a transformation program and change your life," she says. "I’ll see clients that pay $450 for a T-shirt, but have an issue with $37 for an intimate experience with another human being. It always shocks me when someone shows me a $3,500 dress and then tries to bargain out of a class. Most of these people wouldn’t think twice about a $40 blowout." Plus, she adds, going to a boutique fitness class costs about half (or less) of what seeing a personal trainer does.

"You could lease a car or go really deep into a transformation program and change your life."

Dana Thomas, the author of Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, grew up on Philadelphia's Main Line. "For me, it goes back to there were people who went to the local swim club, then the country club, then the really exclusive country club with the mahogany library and ballroom," she says. "Cavemen used to decorate furs with bits of bone. They couldn't even speak and they were trying to show off their value."

Making our status and wealth known to others is something deeply embedded within us. Thomas, who lives in Paris, is sympathetic to the idea of fitness as luxury: "Years ago, I was a member of the Ritz Hotel spa because the dollar was so strong. What seemed like a lot of money was relatively reasonable, probably around $2000 a year." She could work out, have a steam, take a shower, and meet a friend for drinks at the Hemingway Bar, plus "sometimes you'd see Madonna playing squash or Jennifer Aniston on the LifeCycle."

The Ritz has since closed, but according to Thomas, when the hotel reopens (with, among other amenities, the world's first Chanel spa), membership may cost upwards of 15,000 to 20,000 euros, not including an annual fee. She won’t be signing up.

Photo: Getty Images

"I met an American socialite, around 40 years old, who buys couture, flies on a private jet," Thomas continues. "She said, ‘My whole wardrobe is either gym and yoga clothes or couture.’" Which brings up another point: The height of opulence, especially in warm, fit cities like Miami and LA, is being rich enough not to work so you can spend all of your time perfecting your body, which has become the ultimate luxury item itself.

"In the past, a perfect body was a status symbol, but it was achieved privately—you just hired a personal trainer and starved yourself," says Jenny, who works in tech and spends around $850 each month on fitness. "But now there’s a whole culture surrounding the process of achieving a great body, social media platforms to broadcast that process, and communities that have developed from it. I feel like this is Hannah Bronfman’s whole thing. If I had a surplus of free time and money, I would work out constantly and eat only the finest organic fruits and veggies and grass-fed beef."

"In the past, a perfect body was a status symbol, but it was achieved privately—you just hired a personal trainer and starved yourself."

One of the appeals of exercise, beyond making you look and feel good, is how quantifiable it is, says Jenny: "For high achieving people, it’s one of the few chances you get in adulthood to measure yourself against a fixed, objective line that mirrors the grading system in school. A lot of professional success can be really subjective, but being like, ‘I ran six miles yesterday and seven miles today!’ gives you the same sense of accomplishment as getting a 4.0 GPA."

Jenny asked that her name be changed partly because she recently bought a package of personal training sessions at Equinox (on top of the boutique classes she already attends) and is keeping it a secret from her boyfriend "so he wouldn't judge me for spending my money frivolously. It is by far the most indulgent part of my budget."

SoulCycle founder Elizabeth Cutler recently told Racked that "when people pay for something, there’s a certain commitment and a certain energy that they bring to it, and that elevates the whole [concept]. That’s where you start to feel the commitment." As far as discounts? "We have never needed to do it and people value what they pay for." That same sentence could have been uttered by a company like Goyard or Hermès.

Photo: Getty Images

"I’m always deeply suspicious of anything that’s discounted, and by the same token, always drawn in by anything with a fixed high price," says Jenny. "I go to expensive fitness classes for the same reasons I’ll have an iPhone forever, no matter how high the price gets. There’s something really psychologically powerful that happens when you witness other people practically begging to pay high prices for something."

Which is one of the reasons why the "A Tribe Called Sweat" hoodies at Brooklyn's Y7 Yoga are always sold out or a new company like Shadowbox opens with a line of logo tanks at the ready—clients can show off their loyalty (at juice bars, on Instagram) and prove that they belong. It’s the grown-up version of going to the merch table at a concert, a way of telling everyone about an experience you paid a lot to have. While broadcasting your salary is still taboo, boutique fitness is an almost stealth way to display one’s conspicuous consumption.

Then, of course, there's the fact that fitness classes are a healthy purchase, which makes it all too easy to justify spending money on them. In this way, they are the perfect product, and maybe that’s why Sarah had such a hard time downgrading. "After all," she says, "It's doing something good for yourself."


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