Over nearly a decade of teaching fitness, I got used to a certain conversation. An especially enthusiastic student, still glistening with sweat, would gush, “You so obviously live for this. Quit your day job and just go for it — we’ll all help you get training clients!” It is true that leading a room of busy New Yorkers, who made time to exercise with me, genuinely lit me up in a way that kept me teaching well after I was a grad student in need of a “side hustle.” I’d always politely say thank you, assure them that I also loved academia, and never articulate the gnawing questions that would surely kill the sweaty afterglow: Seriously? What happens if I get injured? When I get old? Do you know how little instructors, and trainers too, for that matter, are paid?
These well-meaning students weren’t drunk on endorphins. Given the high price they paid for membership and training, and the picture of happy, toned affluence I projected in my hundred-dollar leggings (payment for teaching a class in an upscale boutique), while both correcting their form and calling out advice about life “out there,” it was entirely reasonable to assume that “fitpro” was a secure, well-compensated professional path. Yet as a recent New York Times article about the labor conditions of personal trainers — at the very club where I taught — makes clear, there is a huge gap between the working conditions of fitness professionals and the well-appointed spaces in which many work.
In some ways, it is no surprise that workers who cater to the wealthy, suffer from economic insecurity. But unlike the gardeners, stylists, and chefs, who have long comprised Manhattan’s service industry, fitness professionals have in the 21st century evolved to assume roles, and the attendant prestige, afforded to therapists, spiritual gurus, DJs, and fashion icons, making this disparity feel more striking and even unjust. Twenty years ago, few people, no matter how much they loved their Step or Spinning instructor, would imagine abandoning a tenure-track job to be a personal trainer or instructor as a rational choice, in terms of economics or cultural esteem. In fact, when I first took a fitness certification exam in the mid-1990s, my Ivy League classmates laughed at my unlikely desire to be an aerobics instructor. (Joke was on me — I figured the test would be easy, didn’t study, and failed!)
Since then, the role of fitness — and the fitness professional — in American life has been completely transformed, but our political economy has kept all but a handful of “superstars” part of the precariat, even as their influence, and the industry their labor enables, have boomed. Here I turn to the case of the group fitness instructor to understand how this uneven shift has transpired.
It certainly wasn’t always this way. “You don’t want to be an aerobics instructor forever, do you?” Condescending and incredulous, the Rolling Stone journalist played by John Travolta asks this question of Jessie (Jamie Lee Curtis), his costar and L.A. fitness queen in the 1985 film Perfect. Jessie’s celebrity in the superficial, slightly louche, SoCal workout scene is portrayed as both what makes her so appealing, and as evidence of her damaged psyche and misguided priorities. Over three decades later, this question and its context hint at an under-explored but ubiquitous figure in the fitness culture that has exploded in the United States in the intervening years: the fitness instructor.
Defying categorization as athlete, educator, or entertainer, the growing ranks of instructors who today lead spin, barre, Crossfit, and yoga (to name a few) have long struggled for professional recognition, or at least to escape the derision Jessie and her real-life contemporaries often endured in the 1980s. By the Nineties, the yoga craze invested group fitness with spiritual and philosophical gravitas, and the post-9/11 wellness boom elevated the visibility and public esteem of instructors to new heights; “fitness guru” and “celebrity trainer” became commonplaces. When the 2008 financial crisis made personal training prohibitively expensive for many, group fitness in particular soared in popularity. And yet. The particular pressures of the job — performing “your best self” in the studio and online — and of our political economy — unstable, flexible labor with few protections — hit fitpros especially hard.
Not Gym Class
Group fitness has a long American history, but it was in the 1970s, when health professionals promoted the benefits of aerobic exercise for all that a new generation of enthusiasts began developing classes from hula-hooping to hatha yoga. These innovators often sought to foster an inclusiveness they felt sports and dance lacked. In 1969, Chicago dancer named Judi Sheppard Missett noticed her young students were discouraged by complex routines and that their mothers usually sat timidly to the side; she then created the easy-to-follow, all-ages Jazzercise. Elisabeth Halfpapp recalled that in 1971, when the ladies-only “Lotte Berk Brownstone” where she later taught first invited women “to exercise and feel comfortable,” they were prohibited from the New York City marathon only blocks away. Across the country in 1974, self-described “former fattie” Richard Simmons opened The Anatomy Asylum to welcome people of all sizes to be physically active. Similar aspirations motivated physical education teacher Fred DeVito to leave his stable career in the mid-1980s to join Halfpapp at Lotte Berk; “[P.E.] caters to athletes and top performers, and … The fat and uncoordinated kids are the last ones picked… I could see how intimidated they are to walk into the room.” The mood extended beyond these workout rooms; in 1981, Gloria Steinem praised the “casual togetherness” of the post-exercise class locker room, where naked female bodies felt uniquely liberated from judgment or objectification. And as many women I interviewed attest, Jane Fonda “made it ok — even sexy — to exercise in public.”
Shaping a Profession
“I just fell into it,” is a phrase even leading instructors of the 1980s and early 1990s use to describe how they started teaching, often due to deferred dance or athletic ambitions. Nonetheless, the 1980s were a turning point in professionalizing the growing field. Major universities remade exercise-related departments, distinguishing them from dusty physical education departments. Tamilee Webb, also known as “Ms. Buns of Steel” for her infomercials, graduated in 1984 from Chico State’s M.A. program. Had she been born a decade earlier, she imagined: “I would have ended up a gym teacher!” Outside the academy, the International Dance Exercise Association (1982) and the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (1983) established conventions, certifications, and standards for the far-flung instructors catering to the 22 million Americans participating in aerobics alone by 1986.
Such formal education was hardly a requirement for success. By 1984, Missett — who identified as a dancer, not a business or exercise science expert — had turned Jazzercise into the country’s second-largest franchise business. Studio owner Molly Fox became a celebrated teacher educator, but remembered the early days as “a real blank slate — there was no authority, no go-to. We’d walk into the Strand, find a book about core work, and say, hey, ‘let’s do a workshop on that… I’d read something in the Science or Sports section and bring it into class.” Surprised to be honored among Crain’s Business “40 Under 40” in 1991, Fox acknowledged that what she had was hustle: she manned a buzzing front desk, orchestrated a byzantine index-card booking system, and hired actors to slide class schedules “like Chinese food menus” under doors in “an exercise in… figuring it out as you go along.”
New bonafides and packed classes didn’t necessarily equal prestige. Instructor Patricia Moreno recalls that in the early 1990s, already with sponsorships, magazine features, and aerobics championships under her belt, a question could hang over family gatherings: “When are you going to get a real job?” But you went to college was another refrain university-educated instructors heard. Dance training could help establish legitimacy. Exercise made Lotte Berk rich and famous, but she long rejected as lowbrow, the label “keep-fit girl.” Halfpapp credits her professional dance training with distinguishing her. “All women were doing in those days was Jane Fonda,” she remembered of 1983 Los Angeles, “[Our method] was different,” focused “on alignment and orthopedic health.” Were her parents proud? Yes, “because [they] saw the relationship between dance and Lotte Berk; this was not just going into a gym and seeing the same steps over and over again. I’ve always been a teacher, not just an instructor.”
The Yoga Effect
Much ink has been spilled over popularizers, who bastardize yogic spirituality in pursuit of thinner thighs. Yet yoga has also shaped fitness culture, investing exercise with a newly expressive language that elevated the cultural esteem of fitness and its providers in the minds of many Americans. When Yoga Journal featured Jane Fonda in 1994, editor Rick Fields commented, “the mainstream has discovered the benefits of yoga.” Indeed, “fusion” formats explicitly uniting yoga and fitness proliferated on gym schedules for the first time in the Nineties, though many instructors were longtime yogis. Missett had been practicing since the 1960s, but didn’t consider it marketable to Jazzercisers until decades later. Fox had sought creative inspiration at Jivamukti Yoga before “gym yoga” existed and became the first instructor to teach yoga at the IDEA convention. By 2000, this union was as institutionalized as possible in a decentralized field: Yoga Journal organized a San Diego conference at the annual World Fitness Convention and the New York Times reported even fitness devotées were embracing a “new American yoga” that was not just “aerobics with chanting.”
The spiritual and holistic language of yoga, imbued with a heavy dose of the era’s self-esteem talk touted from morning shows to middle schools, invested the once unapologetically corporeal fitness world with new gravitas. The experience of getting “something more” out of physical exercise — and revering the guru who channels that “something” — was hardly new, but a growing cultural familiarity with yoga enabled instructors to articulate the importance of their work in ways that made their services more attractive and voices more authoritative.
Oprah ceded the stage of her “Live Your Best Life” stadium tour to her favorite SoulCycle instructor. Glossy magazines feature actor Gwyneth Paltrow alongside her “celebrity exercise guru”– slash-business partner Tracy Anderson. Reality show Workout New York offered no exercise instruction but served up interpersonal dramas of a group of attractive Manhattan instructors. The conceit of hit podcast was tracking down the enigmatic Richard Simmons.
This cultural visibility of fitness instructor is also borne out by a more quotidian, and thus even more beguiling narrative: corporate employee finds liberation from soul-deadening desk job by parlaying a passion for fitness into a “side hustle” that becomes a “labor of love” career. The emotional payoffs are real: faithful students cancel therapy, miss meetings, and fib to family in order to make class, where they pine for approving nods from their instructor (and even acknowledge the “cult of personality” at work). Notably, this growth is not just among affluent, oft-parodied “boutique” fitness aficionados. The Wall Street Journal reported that consumers of group fitness increasingly perceive the expense akin to a necessity like gas, rather than a luxurious splurge.
The economic payoffs are harder to assess. Impressive female founder narratives abound, but these superstar examples do not necessarily translate into, or reflect, a democratic sensibility. Despite industry growth, most instructors share more with “poverty-stricken adjunct professors” than these successful entrepreneurs. Even the certifications that confer a degree of professional seniority don’t guarantee work for the rank-and-file, as some studios only hire instructors who complete their proprietary training, or seek out teachers based on social media followings or the less tangible “star quality.” (SoulCycle, ironically the whipping girl of the wellness-is-just-a-luxury-item crowd, is a leader in instructor compensation, employing 78% of its teaching force full-time, providing benefits, paid time off, and continuing education). Sonja Herbert, an African-American Pilates instructor, points out the persistent underrepresentation of black women despite professional accolades. Despite the fact that female group fitness exercisers outnumber men 5:1, it’s often men who collect the rent and sell the spandex.
But why, asked a sharp audience member at a recent conference, don’t instructors organize, like hotel workers? Because, my research shows, looking like you’re living your best life — even if you woke up at 4 am in the Bronx to teach a 6:30 am class in TriBeCa on knees that are shot because otherwise you won’t get paid and you have no insurance — is an important part of the job. Indeed, many fitpros feel a responsibility to maintain that fantasy beyond the studio via social media. Interrupting that embodied ideal by pointing out labor conditions rather than panting inspirational exhortations is in itself a considerable professional peril. Less like hotel maids than fashion models — who only recently began organizing — fitness instructors are as successful as the perfect image of leisure and wellbeing they project.
Naming the spaces that sell these experiences as sites of work — not just workouts — risks undermining a project carefully constructed right down to the artificially steamy temperatures and chilled towels. The physical configuration of group fitness work also inhibits solidarity. Like most classroom educators, instructors spend a great deal of time alone in studios with their students. Unlike personal trainers with “floor hours” or a break room in which they spend time together in one location, instructors tend to commute to different gyms and studios, further limiting their contact with each other. (And as the Times article shows, this shared time hardly guarantees better conditions for trainers.) This inopportune spatial situation often holds true even if an instructor has the rare privilege of employment by one company that might provide benefits or coordinate scheduling, since even they often involve travel (uncompensated) to multiple locations.
Interestingly, many studios host charity events to cure cancer and childhood obesity, to end gun violence and advance gay rights. Yet these communities can be strangely silent on the labor issues that affect their valued instructors and trainers most intimately. When I pointed this out to a prominent Los Angeles-based instructor who is a vocal champion of LGBTQ rights, she said, “You know, it’s true. It’s crazy we don’t have that thing the actors and the stagehands have. What is it called again?” A union. ( Some efforts are afoot.) For Americans to value the work that enables their workouts and the people who produce it, a first step might be consciousness-raising: at a seminar I recently led for barre instructors, I asked a simple, but existential question: “What do we call ourselves?” A surprisingly long silence followed. “Fitness instructor,” said the co-founder with a wrinkled nose, “does not get at what we do.”
Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is an Associate Professor of History at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts