Why Fitness Instructors are Like Peasants

If you sign up to a gym this January, spare a thought for the personal trainers lurking around reception, they’re really just peasants, despite the nice pecs, at least according to some recent research by Geraint Harvey as summarised in this Thinking Allowed podcast.

Harvey offers an interesting perspective on the injustice which exists in the way gyms employ free-lance gym instructors – many instructors are not employed directly by the gym, but end up doing lots of free labour for the gym because it is in their interests as this enables them to maintain and expand their client based.

Gym instructors are generally well-qualified professionals who have at least a level 3 qualification and in many cases as sports science degree, so they have a lot of expert knowledge in their field, they also.

Despite this level of professionalism, many gym instructors are employed under very precarious conditions because although they are often based at one particular gym, they are not necessarily employed by that gym, and according to the sample in Harvey’s research the instructors actually have to pay a monthly rent ranging between £350-£450 a month, to use the gym’s facilities for personal training.

Given that the average fee is £20-30, this means that the average gym instructor has to instruct at least 10 clients before they break even, but the problem here is that the work i unreliable as it is seasonal – in January it’s easy to pick up work, but not so much in December, ‘when everyone’s out partying’, according to one respondent.

The really twisted thing about this relationship between the gym and the self-employed fitness instructors is that instructors ended up performing a customer service role (to a high standard) for the gym in order to get these clients the; they also engaged in a considerable amount of emotional labour for free – encouraging gym-goers and making them feel good about themselves in order to try and win clients; on top of this they also did a lot of basic physical labour such as cleaning equipment, and the gym benefited by being associated with the fruits of their ‘aesthetic labour’ – the instructors basically looked good and thus made the gym look good – and all of this at no cost to the gym.

NB – Most of the gym instructors didn’t see this additional free-labour as exploitative – one gym instructor actually did 30 hours additional labour, ‘touting’ for business, in addition to the hours spent doing the personal training, but didn’t begrudge this.

Harvey uses a new concept ‘neo-villainy’ (in the title of his article) to describe a parallel between the working conditions of medieval serfdom and the conditions under which the gym instructors had to work – the parallel is basically one of bondage -the serf was tied to the land, had to do physical work for landlord and yet if there was a poor crop they ended up with nothing; in a similar way the fitness instructors above are tied to the gym, have to engage in free labour for the gym, and yet if they get no clients as a result, they receive nothing.


This is an interesting study which highlights the hidden injustice which many face in this industry.

It’s thoroughly depressing that this kind of exploitative relationship goes on when this is such a massive industry and in such high-demand. One also wonders whether the hourly rates for personal trainers might be a bit more reasonable if gyms actually paid these people for their labour!

I just wonder how many fitness instructors it applies to – how many are stuck in this exploitative situation compared to those that go it alone and try to earn money via YouTube channels etc, or just through home-visits.

Relevance to A Level Sociology?

This could be used to illustrate yet another down side of neoliberalism, or just to depress the hell out of anyone thinking of doing a sports science degree…

Related Links 

The podcast summarises aspects of Geraint Harvey’s (and others) article ‘Neo-Villeiny and the Service Sector: The Case of Hyper Flexible and Precarious Work in Fitness Centres‘, Work, Employment and Society.




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