February 2017

Is exercise the new elitism?: The cost factor

At the start of any new year, there is often pressure from all sorts of corners of life to exercise, to be healthier, to drink less. But, are we just hiding behind a new form of snobbery and looking down upon those less active?What comes to your mind when you read this title? What does it mean to you? It’s interesting how ‘elitism’ can be interpreted so widely. I was invited to attend a panel discussion recently that discussed this question as part of a series of ’37 things you need to know about modern Britain’. I left thinking that this is such a big topic, so I have decided to create a mini series exploring this question.

When I first came across this question, “Is exercise the new elitism?”, I immediately thought no. Now more than ever, there is the possibility to experience fitness classes for free across London. Race organisers, like Run Through, manage and organise some of the cheapest races across all distances in London. Brands, from budget to high end, across the fashion industry are tapping into the fitness fashion world. This makes it in many ways much easier to purchase more affordable activewear. The activewear industry was globally estimated to be worth a whopping £6.4 billion in 2015… imagine what it is worth now, two years later!

But then I realised something. I keep focusing on London. Fitness isn’t, and shouldn’t be a London-centric thing. It is global. It is for all. It’s too easy to get caught in the London bubble.

At the talk I attended, one of the panellists mentioned how money is often cited as a barrier to exercise by some people. A member of the audience also made an interesting point how nuanced details can also create barriers. For example, Park Run is a free weekly run that takes place across the world. On the face of it, a free running club sounds inclusive economically, socially and every other level. But then you have to consider details like the fact you need a barcode to attend these sessions if you want to receive a time. In order to have a barcode, you need access to a printer. If you can’t afford a printer, then you won’t receive a Park Run time. Already you can see a barrier has been formed from enabling someone from taking part in a weekly free running session. Just think about that…

I can also understand how sport and exercise is expensive in a more obvious way. Fitness studios that teach a more specific exercise can be expensive. Taking London for example, charging £20 per class has become the norm. If you want a monthly membership at that studio, then you are looking at a cost of more than £70 a month, which doesn’t necessarily allow for unlimited attendance of classes per month – now that depends on which type of membership you choose. Ah-hah! That’s the catch!

I want to touch briefly on triathlons, as this is one sport where the mere cost factor is a huge barrier for a significant portion of people. Entry fees for races, like the Half IronMan, can be well over £250, and with all the basic equipment you need, you will need at least £1500 for race day alone. Take a minute (or two) to absorb that. You can see why it is very much perceived as a white man-finance guy-kind of sport and that really bugs me. I want to see more women participating in triathlons. I want to see a real cultural mix of ethnicities in the participants’ list. Doing a triathlon (more specifically a Half IronMan), is well on my to-do list and when I do one, I will be showing you how to do it on a budget.

And then we have Crossfit. A sport that sells itself as a ‘sport for all’. That is true in many ways – the Crossfit Games allows anyone to enter. But, the cost of training at a Crossfit gym, (called a Crossfit box) is expensive. In the UK, it is hard to find a box that has a monthly membership of less than £120. In New York, it is very easy to find Crossfit boxes with a monthly membership of $230. Arguably, the specialist nature of Crossfit training and the smaller number in classes are partially what drives the higher cost of a Crossfit box membership. Plus, these places actually rely on people attending classes, unlike your standard gym. Yes, you read that correctly.

It might sound strange, but gyms often chain you into a yearly membership with high joining fees-it doesn’t matter for them whether you turn up to the gym or not as your monthly payments means a steady income for them. Whereas with Crossfit boxes and other specialised-exercise studios, your presence actually matters because they rely on teaching small classes. This enables them to provide more personal training services as they focus on telling you what you are doing and how to improve it. So, I can see why Crossfit is expensive, but it is a real shame about the financial barrier. Removing it would help it to become one of the most inclusive sports around.

Imagine how you could have the real potential to be the next Richard Froning or Sara Sigmundsdottir. For many, it’s not a question of justifying the expense, but rather a question of whether you are able to afford it.

To a certain degree, I’ve justified the cost for specific-exercise studios above, but in truth, in many ways I think that specific-exercise studios elevate the membership costs unnecessarily. There was a time when we needed the rise of the fancy fitness studio. Yet now, the fitness studio has been replaced with the fitness boutique, where the focus is more on the all-round experience of being in the boutique, than actually working out. Yes, yes, yes we all love having a shower post-workout that leaves us invigorated, clean and smelling lush, but do fitness studios really need to go heavy on spending on perfumes, shower gels and shampoos? I’m not saying to buy that generic shower gel cum shampoo shtuff that gives your arms more of a workout in combing out the knots. A good quality product will do, just not one from the luxe section of Selfridges, if it means having to pass on those costs to the gym-goers.

Another point I want to make is the term ‘fitness boutique’. More and more fitness boutiques are opening across London, which is a healthy sign that our love for working out is still going strong. Yet by labelling themselves as ’boutiques’, they are either using it as a term to encourage only people of a certain fitness level or financial status to enter. Think about it. When you see a fashion boutique, there is already the presumption from the term, that it’s pricing is going to be high. As a result, certain people may not go in because they will presume they can’t afford it. Apply this to the fitness boutiques, and you will probably see mostly either us fitness bloggers or well-off fitness enthusiasts rather than a real array of people.

Writing this has left me wanting some gyms and fitness studios to strip back and dig deep to the rawness of the original gyms, where the smell of sweat lingers in the areas you worked out in (and you’re too involved in your workout to notice). Where what you are paying for is the actual workout and the workout gives you bang for its buck. In many ways, Crossfit boxes and boxing gyms really harness this.

Going back to running, taking part in races can prove to be an expensive habit. Virgin Sport, for example, recently took over from Vitality, for a series of races across the country. The Vitality Half Marathon race entry was previously around £35 but this year, Virgin has increased the price to £48. Yes, they are turning it into a day out for all, as a festival, but if you are more interested in the race itself, then the entry price isn’t truly justified. It has truly been hipster-ised. I used to think obstacle course race entry fees were expensive, but compared to normal races, the prices are justified. Luckily, there are ways of either reducing your entry fee or securing free entry, which I explored on The Fit Londoner here.

After writing this, I’m left sitting on the fence. I won’t deny that I do love a lot of fitness studios, and many do give people a really good workout. I can’t help thinking that in reality, the cost of attending classes has become more expensive than before, leaving many people behind. Certain sports are undeniably (and in some cases, justifiably) expensive, but the financial barrier can prevent many from trying them. In some ways, this price hike has led to exercise becoming elitist, but things are being done to reduce this elitism.

There are ways of entering good quality, free races of all distances. I will continue to strive to find you the best fitness locations where your sweat is really from your workout (and not because the studio is warm). And finally, there are always free fitness events and classes. Next time round, I’ll be looking at another factor in whether exercise is the new elitism on The Fit Londoner. Stay tuned.

How much do you think money is a barrier for people across the UK, or whichever country you are in? Do you think the availability of workouts freely online and social media helps in reducing the cost factor being a problem? Let’s get the ball rolling and start a discussion on The Fit Londoner.