Is your fitness obsession driving you into debt?

For some people exercise is a luxury lifestyle they can’t do without — but they also can’t afford

Dynamic Pilates at Heartcore, £27

Dynamic Pilates at Heartcore, £27

If you want to work out in a walnut-floored boutique studio with an exclusive handful of classmates dripping in Lululemon finery, you must be prepared to pay for the privilege. And it seems that we are. Our fitness expenditure is spiralling, not just in terms of the amount paid for bespoke classes and personal trainers, but on the high-end clothing we wear to them, the £200 running shoes and the entry fees for ever more glamorous endurance challenges.

Where once a designer handbag was an expression of status, now it is your choice of workout and where you do it. So when Prince Harry is spotted heading to the £8,000-a-year KX Gym in Chelsea, London, those who live to work out, rather than work out to live, don’t bat an eyelid. They know how expensive a luxury gym habit can be.

Charlotte Quesnel, a 38-year-old database manager from London, says she made the switch from a regular gym — where the monthly direct debit from her account was £60 — to a boutique studio last year. “It took some serious rebudgeting as it costs me about five times more than I was previously paying, but it’s become part of my lifestyle rather than something I fit in when I have time,” she says.

Quesnel is part of a tribe that puts fitness outlay before all else. Its members prioritise the pursuit of wellness and all it promises — perfect posture, even-keeled emotions and a hoisted butt — even when it puts pressure on their bank balances. I know people who once moaned about their monthly direct debit to a gym, but who now reel off a fitness agenda so extravagant it would rival the training programme of an elite athlete. There are twice-weekly visits to a Pilates teacher, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or boxing sessions at a bespoke gym, runs (often with a trainer), yoga classes and sports massage with a physiotherapist to iron out the inevitable aching muscles.

Fine if they can afford it, but many can’t. Sue Hayward, a personal finance and consumer expert, says that overspending on fitness is common and an increasing contributor to personal debt. “A lot of people are spending too much,” she says.

Among them is Caroline (not her real name) from Guildford whose gym spending escalated to the point where her bank withdrew her debit card. “I went to a gym where I paid £12 a session for classes and was going almost every day,” she says. “As they were HIIT-style strength classes, I needed yoga to help my flexibility and that was £15 a time. Before I knew it I was racking up almost £400 a month and was way overdrawn.”

Hayward says that it’s far easier to justify spending a large chunk of your monthly salary on a barre class or bespoke boxing session than a shopping spree. A report by Virgin Active last month revealed that half of Londoners see their workout spending as an investment in their health rather than a cost. It underlines just how far some people’s mindsets — and their spending habits — have shifted. “Our perspective on exercise has changed,” Hayward says. “It’s easy to get hooked on the appeal of luxury fitness trends and to convince yourself they are worth paying for. People feel virtuous about doing anything fitness-related and convince themselves that spending huge amounts of money on it is worthwhile.”

According to the Global Wellness Institute (GWI), a non-profit research company, the worldwide wellness market is worth $372 trillion, but is expected to grow a further 17 per cent by the end of 2020. It is an industry with a growth trajectory “that appears unstoppable”, GWI’s senior researchers said, making it “one of the world’s fastest-growing, most resilient markets”. There’s certainly no sign of an imminent downturn in fortune.

David Minton, the managing director of the market-research company Leisure DB, who has been tracking UK consumer fitness habits for more than three decades, predicts that we are entering a “golden age of fitness” and that “several milestones are likely to be hit” this year, including a peak in spending.

Collectively, we spend £4.7 billion on gym memberships in the UK, a rise of 6.3 per cent since 2016. That figure is likely to exceed £5 billion this year and doesn’t include the luxury add-ons that are eating into our surplus cash.

“Without doubt, there is a sector of the population that is spending more and more on fitness,” Minton says. “A growing number of people are ditching their £40 to £60 direct debt to a gym chain and spending quadruple that amount — or more — on tailored sessions at boutique gyms.”

A decade ago it was unthinkable to have more than one gym payment a month. Yet Minton says we have reached the point where paying up to £30 for a single class is normal and some think nothing of sweating their way through double and occasionally triple workouts on the same day.

It’s not just the healthy, wealthy silver army who are paying a premium to preserve their bodies. In January the fitness brand Myprotein surveyed 2,800 UK adults aged 18 to 65 and found that the debt-ridden millennial generation spend the most on fitness, averaging £155 monthly on an array of gym sessions and kit.

Even students, long considered the group least likely to squander cash on healthy pursuits, are cutting back on alcohol and spending up to four times more on fitness than they were a decade ago, according to a recent survey conducted by the student letting app SPCE. “The number and range of people prepared to pay £20 or £30 just to get sweaty for an hour is incredible,” Minton says. “There are now around 600 boutique gyms in London alone and most are thriving. The demand and willingness to pay is there.”

Not that overspending is confined to weekly workouts — the cost of entering events also hits the bank balance. Thousands take part in events such as the Colour Run, in which you pay £28 to run 5km while being splashed with paint, while others will part with five-figure sums to participate in global tests of stamina such as the North Pole Marathon or the Antarctic Ice Marathon.

For those who want to push themselves farther, signing up for Iron Man triathlons can cost anything from £5,000 to £12,000 by the time you factor in race entry, training plans, pool subscription and the kit required for the disciplines. Meanwhile, the cost for entry to the Marathon des Sables — the notoriously gruelling stomp across the Sahara desert, billed the “toughest footrace on earth” — is £4,250 this year. That does include flights, but not the hundreds more you will need to spend on “mandatory” desert-friendly running gear to endure the six days and 156 miles in searing heat. I know people who would spend less on a car, yet have done it not once, but three or four times.

Where will it end? Minton says there will inevitably be a tipping point. “Our gym spending has consistently risen year on year,” he says. “Most people can’t sustain a thrice-weekly boutique gym habit indefinitely.” On the average budget something has to give if high levels of gym debt is to be avoided. Yet Quesnel speaks for many in saying she has no intention of cutting back. “It is super-expensive for me,” she says, “but just for the benefits and positive change to my lifestyle I think it’s worth spending that much on it.”

How fitness debt stacks up

Pair of Nike VaporMax Flynit 2 £169.95

Yoga class at Triyoga £17

Barry’s Bootcamp class £20

Psycle London spinning class £20

Weekly deep fascial release massage session at Twenty Two Training £100

Barre Class at Frame £14

AquaFit session at Bulgari Spa £125

Barrecore ballet-inspired class £28

Month’s membership of Third Space £142-£185 (plus £50 joining fee)

Month’s membership of Equinox £210 (plus £400 initiation fee)

Personal training £60-£250 an hour

GPS fitness tracker £200

Entry to London Triathlon Olympic Plus event £135.70

Wattbike smart cycle £2,250

Work out for nothing

More than 1.6 million people take part in these events held at more than 520 locations around the UK (and overseas if you fancy some Parkrun touring).

Sweaty Betty
The women’s gym clothing store offers free in-store classes from yoga to barre. You need to be quick to grab a place.

Our Parks
This initiative provides free 60-minute classes at a range of parks across Greater London. Select from circuit training, abs workout, Box Fit, bootcamp, etc.

Offset the cost of those expensive leggings by booking a free run club or yoga class.

Good Gym
Go on a “mission run” to help a community cause (eg a run to collect an elderly person’s shopping or clear litter from a park).

Tennis For Free
Free 90-minute sessions (followed by half an hour of “open” play) delivered by tennis coaches at venues around the UK.

Source: The Times