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

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 will cost you $37. 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.

YAS Fit Centers

The Environment

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

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

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. Similarly, 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.)

Well and Good

The Luxury

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.

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