Expensive Exercise: We Investigate the $30+ Fitness Class Phenomenon

Woman After Exercise Class
Victoria's Secret

You're in a room. It's nearly pitch black, aside from some candles and/or dimly tinted mood lighting. The music is on point. Everyone around you is impeccably dressed. And they all, like you, made a reservation to be in this room. A few years ago, if you were asked to name the setting we just described, you would have a said the hottest new restaurant or lounge, and that would have been the end of it. Today, there's another equally viable option to throw into the mix: boutique fitness class. The current workout scene is a far cry from the scenario you would have described not even 10 years ago (re: baggy T-shirts and old gym shoes pounding the treadmill in a massive, television-filled gym). At some point during the past decade, exercise went from a $40 monthly membership that gained you access to a cardio, strength-training, and group fitness class–filled facility to a $40-per-class experience. The average price of a barre class at Physique 57 is $38. Yoga at Exhale in NYC will cost you around $42. A ride with SoulCycle is $36. In short, being fit can very easily translate into being broke. How did it get so expensive to get a sweat session in? We've asked ourselves that question many times. So, we decided to investigate.

Scroll through to find out what's behind the $30-plus fitness class phenomenon.

The Environment

Yoga Studio
YAS Fit Centers

The environment, the energy, the experience—working out at your local barre studio isn't at all the same as working out at your local gym. It just feels different. There’s no turnstile to walk through, no fighting for the machine you want. Instead, you check in by name and get settled into your reserved spot, hassle free. And, as you've probably noticed, they’re all dark. Unlike group fitness classes in gyms, premium fitness classes are almost all done in pitch darkness. That may not be the best reason to pay $30 for a single yoga session, but it certainly does add to the appeal for the vast majority of the population, who doesn’t want to feel judged for falling out of a headstand. Not to mention, the classes are small; it’s a more intimate and friendly setting—similar to private or personalized training sessions that afford you more person-to-person attention. This sort of environment fosters a sense of community.

The Studio, the Equipment, and the Instructor

Pilates Studio

What else goes into the fitness class price tag? The studio, the equipment, and the instructors—usually in that order. Let’s break it down. Real estate is expensive. Real estate in the trendy, affluent neighborhoods that frequent this type of workout experience is really expensive. When you’re a large corporation like LA Fitness or Gold's Gym, high real estate costs are built into your budget. When you’re an independent, privately owned company with only a handful of studios, you take those high overhead costs very seriously.

And for spin, rowing, pilates, and any other kind of studio that requires a lot of hardware, that equipment doesn’t come cheap. Pilates reformer machines cost about $7000 apiece. A dozen of those will add up.

Finally, the instructors. With a $30-plus price tag per class, you expect to get the best of the best. Which is why companies like SoulCycle and OrangeTheory Fitness spend a lot of money recruiting the cream of the crop. At SoulCycle, that means lengthy auditions (yes, auditions), followed by eight weeks of classroom training and two weeks of community rides. While the companies are pretty tight-lipped about the exact wages for their instructors, most studios pay between $55 and $150 per class, which is higher than the going rate at most gyms. That's not even counting pay raises for experience. And if they're well-liked, bonuses for sold-out classes can raise that number too.

The Workout

Cardio Exercise Class

This seems obvious. Yes, you’re paying for the workout (duh), but the theory behind the pricy boutique workouts is that you work harder in a class you know you’re paying a good amount of money for.

You’re less likely to cancel on a workout you shelled out a decent amount of hard-earned cash for than one you can miss without consequences. That alone is enough to justify the premium for some people.

And if you thought variety was the spice of life, apparently you were wrong. The other point often cited for high prices is that people are willing to pay more for focused workouts, ones specifically targeted to their goals. (We’re still a little fuzzy on how paying more gets you less, but more on that in the final, paramount point below.)

The Luxury

Spin Class
Well and Good

The bottom line is fitness has become a luxury commodity. You can carry a handbag from Target or can you carry a Céline purse—both will proficiently tote your lipsticks and credit cards, but there’s a reason you spend thousands of dollars on a luxury handbag, (and it’s not because it does a better job of holding your belongings). That’s not to say that you do or don't get a better workout at SoulCycle than you do at 24-Hour Fitness, but you’re paying for something entirely different. In today’s world where athleisure is shown at fashion week, designer sneaker collaborations sell out in seconds, and $10-a-pop juice bars are on every corner, fitness is no longer a mundane activity—it’s a luxury. Elite fitness studios bank on our tendencies to equate price with value, and as it turns out, we do (at the least enough of us do). It turns out the higher rates aren’t a deterrent—they’re part of the draw.

The prices; the small, reservation-only classes; the trendy, branded apparel—it all goes back to exclusivity, to luxury. The demand for luxury is everywhere, particularly in major metropolitan areas, and yes, even when it comes to working out. Once upon a time, no one dreamed of the $5 cup of coffee, but here we are sipping cold brew and pour-over without thinking twice. Even beer’s gone fancy. When you’re living in a world where a Hermès Birkin bag appreciates value faster than gold, you can’t deny the value of luxury. And so the honest answer to the question of Why did working out get so expensive? ends up being that people will pay for it. It’s as simple as supply and demand. If people weren’t paying $35 to pedal on a stationary bike for 45 minutes, these boutique fitness studios simply wouldn’t exist.

Alternatives to Pricey Exercise Classes

Can you sweat for less? Yes, you can! There are several budget-friendly options instead of paying for expensive single-pass classes. Trying out alternatives will also help you decide if paying more for the perks of a boutique fitness class are worth it.

General Gym Membership

Many of today’s larger gym chains have come to realize that clients want more than a place to exercise, they also want a nice experience. You may be surprised that many have added perks like yoga rooms or studios with soft lighting, personal training and spas. Larger gym chains have also added group classes that you could previously only get at a specialty studio, such as barre classes, Pilates or spin. Although prices vary by location, many of these gyms have specials where they offer reduced initiation fees — and you can expect to pay much less per month than the smaller boutique fitness classes.

As these larger gyms also have more members, you will need to plan ahead and make sure you get signed up for the group classes before they fill up. Talk to the staff for tips on getting into the classes you want.

At-Home Workouts

For those that don’t enjoy working out with a crowd, you may enjoy creating your own home gym. There is an initial cost of buying the equipment, however the investment will soon pay off as you will save on the class fees. In addition, you can exercise whenever you want...and wear whatever you want! General gym equipment such as mats, dumbbells, Bosu balls and resistance bands are a small investment, however equipment like stationary bikes, treadmills and pilates equipment are more expensive. Look for used equipment that people are selling to save money. You can also ditch the expensive equipment and take your workout outside. Running, walking and hiking outside is a great way to get exercise and a healthy dose of Vitamin D.

Stream Home Workouts

As an alternative to attending class in-person, many studios offer live streaming of their classes for a reduced rate.  For example, that $42 yoga class at Exhale in NYC is only $10 to live-stream it at home. You can also find those that offer all their classes online, so you can watch and workout at home whenever it is convenient. There are several online classes to consider that are free or affordable, such as Daily Burn and Beachbody on Demand.

Buy in Bulk

If you have your heart set on your specialty boutique class, you can often save money by buying a class pass or membership versus just buying a one-time class pass.  For example, the Exhale yoga class in NYC offers a 5-class pack for $200 which brings it down to $40 per class instead of $42. If you buy the 20 class pack, you save even more as it averages $37.50 per class. Still pricey, but less than the single class.

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