he cost-of-living crisis is making me fatter. My £35 monthly ClassPass fee used to get me into four or five of the capital’s best exercise classes each month. I’d supplement that with at-home yoga and the occasional run. It did the job; it kept me trim(ish) and sane. I now pay £40 and rarely make this stretch to more than two monthly workouts. I can’t solely blame inflation for my upwardly mobile dress size, but it certainly hasn’t helped.
A YouGov poll has found that 10 percent of the population — more than five million people — have had to cancel or are thinking about cancelling their gym membership due to financial pressures. It’s worse in London with a survey by London Sport showing that a third say the crisis has impacted their ability to be active. It gets grimmer still for ethnic minorities as 57 per cent say they are struggling to stay fit.
With soaring inflation and rocketing rents, few of us have the disposable income for gym memberships
Young Londoners (18-34) too are bearing the brunt with 50 per cent unable to afford to workout. With soaring inflation, rocketing rents and pay stagnation, few of us find ourselves with the disposable income for things like gym memberships. The consequences are far graver than the illusive toned arms I long for; physical inactivity is responsible for one in six premature deaths. But, putting the ongoing financial hellscape to one side, access to a decent gym in London has felt like a luxury for some time. The capital is awash with boujie boutiques, some charging as much as £6,000 per month. Others in the mid-range bracket cost anywhere between £100 to £300.
Expertise and hi-tech equipment don’t come cheap but fitness has become a social signifier rather than an essential part of being alive. There are high street chains offering memberships for as low as £15 but I have always found these depressing; the sorts of places where you find yourself working out five floors below ground in a bunker that has never seen daylight.
These affordable gyms can be a lifeline — personally, I find them intimidating. I’m not imagining it. Last year, the nattily-titled Gym-timidation Report found that six in 10 women had been harassed at a gym. Sport London found that 52 per cent of women using leisure centres said they had been the subject of “sexual jokes” and “sexually inappropriate language”.
Of course, running is free but it doesn’t provide the variety that a gym workout or class does, plus it’s so much harder to drag yourself out for a jog in the wind and rain. As the nights draw in, it becomes unsafe for women. Another barrier to fitness — our swimming pools are also closing at an alarming rate. While most areas in the UK have a shortage of one pool, London has a shortage of 31, according to Swim England. It’s all compounded by new-build developments which appear to put “providing affordable fitness facilities” at the bottom of priorities and are instead renting spaces to pricey boutiques. Several have been accused of banning affordable housing tenants from using the facilities.
If you are able to splurge a couple of hundred a month for a membership then what awaits? Often, packed classes, rammed changing rooms and a bun fight for the equipment. Alex Pellew, co-founder of health and fitness workspace UNTIL, says: “Access to top health and wellness services is currently controlled by a handful of large incumbents. These businesses tend to have very high operating costs, meaning they need to be volume and margin-driven to be viable. This creates a poor experience for consumers.” UNTIL co-founder Vishal Amin adds: “In the London market, you’ve got big brands who not only do not vet effectively the practitioners that work in their environment, but they also don’t pay the practitioners a fair share of what they’re generating.”
Amin gave the example of a personal trainer for which a gym charges a customer £100 an hour for, yet the PT will receive just £20 of that. The capital’s health and wellness industry, they say, is broken.
The Government has a responsibility too. Huw Edwards, chief executive of UK Active, says: “Health inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis so it’s more important than ever that the Government supports the fitness and leisure sector to recover and grow in order for it to play its fullest role in our communities.” But how?
“By encouraging the development of more fitness facilities through levers for growth such as VAT relief and incentivising people to be active. This support will reduce any financial burden being placed unnecessarily on consumers and will allow fitness and leisure facilities to continue growing and providing affordable options for everyone.” Fitness as a luxury? It doesn’t have to be.