Congress may have passed a bill increasing minimum wage to $7.25 per hour last month, but hourly workers at health clubs still don't make enough money to earn a living, some in the industry say.

Employees in almost any industry complain that they are not paid enough, but wages for entry-level workers at health clubs are about 10 percent to 15 percent lower than in similar industries, according to Mike Chaet, president and CEO of Club Marketing International, a fitness club consulting company in Helena, MT. To avoid lagging behind other industries and to retain employees, clubs must adjust their prices and programs to cover the cost of keeping good employees, he says, adding that club owners must treat their employees as fitness professionals rather than temporary, hourly workers.

Personal trainers typically earn more than minimum wage, but some say they still don't make enough. A personal trainer earning $30,000 in Fairfield County, CT, earns less than a manager at Burger King and can barely afford a studio apartment in a low-income neighborhood, says Dan Gaita, a personal trainer for 14 years. The low wages defy the trend that personal training has consistently ranked as one of the most profitable non-dues profit centers in clubs. Personal trainers often keep only 30 percent to 40 percent of the hourly rate that clients pay, Gaita says.

“The only way a trainer can make a living in this industry is if they are in business for themselves,” says Gaita, an IDEA master trainer with a bachelor's degree in psychology and a master's degree in organizational leadership.

However, wages have increased enough that some people are now making a career in the fitness industry.

“It used to be that a health club was a part-time, dead-end-street job, and today with the number of clubs and the added sophistication, people can spend their whole lives in the club business working their way up,” Chaet says.

Gaita has taken his future into his own hands by opening Private Studio Personal Training in Bethel, CT. Qualified trainers can rent the 2,800-square-foot studio for $20 a session, charge their clients an hourly rate and keep the rest of the profits.

“If you go to the large chain clubs, most of the trainers there are training as a second job, and that's not good,” says Gaita, who also runs Personal Trainer Listing Service, an online service that matches clubs and potential clients with trainers. “This is a very honorable, noble profession that serves the greater good of mankind, and people working in it should be compensated as such.”

From 2004 to 2006, wages for personal trainers increased by 50 cents an hour to $26.50, according to IDEA Health and Fitness Association's 2006 salary survey of 532 fitness professionals. However, when inflation is factored in, wages actually slipped from 2004's survey numbers, says the association for personal trainers and group exercise instructors.

A 2005 salary survey from the American Council on Exercise (ACE) showed higher hourly rates for trainers than IDEA's survey showed. Full-time personal trainers made $38 per hour ($39,000 per year), part-time trainers made $32 per hour ($23,000 per year) and consulting/contract trainers made $33 per hour ($24,000 per year). The 2006 Salary and Compensation Survey from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) shows that personal trainers at for-profit clubs increased their hourly pay from $20 an hour in 2004 to $23.50 an hour in 2006. The variation in salaries in each survey may stem from the type of clubs those surveyed work in and the area of the country in which they live, since the sample surveyed was different in each study.

Full-time trainers who give tours, help with maintenance and sell memberships earn a salary in the mid-$20,000 range at the two Elevations Health Clubs in Scotrun, PA, and Marshalls Creek, PA, just two hours from Philadelphia and 90 minutes from New York, says Rob Bishop, general manager. Part-time trainers earn between $8 and $20 an hour.

At 600Plus GymSpa in Edinburg, TX, personal trainers earn $17 per session to $28 per session depending on their certifications, says Adam Landa, general manager of the 30,000-square-foot, family-oriented facility.

Evan Smith, the manager of personal training at Alexander's Health Club in Canonsburg, PA, would like to see a change in the way personal trainers are compensated. Rather than paying trainers an hourly rate only when they're working with a client, clubs should award them a stipend or a small salary per week or per month, he says. Currently, Smith earns 55 percent of his club's hourly personal training rate and a salary for working as a manager, but that wasn't always the case during his decade-long career as a personal trainer.

“If trainers aren't working, they're not getting paid, and I have a problem with that,” he says. “I think that clubs forget the fact that trainers do work at home or in their off time, and when they're at the facilities, they're talking with members, doing customer service and making phone calls. Personal trainers bring an added value to the overall membership and to retaining clients.”

Personal trainers aren't alone in their salary complaints. The salaries and wages for personal training directors, group exercise coordinators, group fitness instructors and specialty instructors have outpaced inflation (see table on page 42), but median hourly wages dropped $3.50 an hour for yoga and Pilates instructors to $25 per hour and fell $2.25 for fitness instructors to $15.75 per hour, according to the IDEA survey.

IHRSA's 2006 compensation survey tells a different story. That survey shows that Pilates instructors at for-profit clubs increased their hourly rates from $26 per hour in 2004 to $30 per hour in 2006. Yoga instructors saw an even bigger increase, going from $25 per hour in 2004 to $30 per hour in 2006.

On the management side, full-time general managers make an average of $49,000 per year, or $19 per hour,according to the 2005 ACE survey. The 2006 IHRSA survey shows that general managers at for-profit clubs averaged $66,899 per year in 2006, an increase from $57,200 in 2004. (No hourly rate was offered in the IHRSA survey.)

Performance and Education Pay

Clubs often pay workers based on wage bans, which is the high and the low for that job description in a particular region, Chaet says. Fitness facilities also often have a “performance pool” and award bonuses based on a percentage of profits and the number of hours worked.

“In the past, we ended up with people getting raises just for being around rather than for doing a good job,” Chaet says. “Clubs are now trying to pay for performance whenever possible.”

About 59 percent of the 166 for-profit club owners who responded to the 2006 IHRSA Salary and Compensation Survey award bonuses of at least $1,000 to their employees annually. Most bonuses are awarded for meeting goals and for positive company performance, which may explain why people in club management and sales staff receive most of the bonuses, says Katie Rollauer, senior manager of research for IHRSA.

Raises for personal trainers and group exercise instructors often are not based on cost of living or merit but rather on the level of education or the number of certifications trainers and instructors have earned, says Graham Melstrand, director of operations for ACE. Clubs often have up to three tiers of earnings for personal trainers based on their areas of specialization or the number of certifications they hold that their club owner values.

As trainers become knowledgeable about how to work with specific populations, they can increase their club's revenue and their earnings based on their expertise, Melstrand says. They also increase their level of professionalism and that of the industry.

At 600Plus GymSpa, Landa does not require a bachelor's degree for his personal trainers, but their pay and raises vary depending on the number and type of certifications the trainers have earned. The club has been open about 18 months, but employees in certain positions received raises of 5 percent to 8 percent last year, he says.

About 32 percent of club owners who responded to the 2006 IHRSA survey employ personal trainers with college degrees, Rollauer says. IHRSA also asked the clubs to indicate the minimum level of certification required for all job titles listed under the hourly club-level employee category. The selections not only included a bachelor's degree in physical fitness or a related field but also certain certifications.

The Insurance Issue

Regardless of how much fitness professionals earn, the job outlook for fitness workers is increasing much faster than average for all occupations through 2014, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). However, the majority of fitness employees don't receive benefits such as retirement plans or health insurance due to their part-time or contractual status, according to the BLS.

More than 70 percent of the 2,832 fitness professionals surveyed by ACE in 2005 were paid on an hourly basis. ACE's research found that 2 percent to 7 percent of part-time employees and consultants receive health coverage. Seventy percent of full-time employees receive benefits of some kind.

Although club employees value free use of the club and continuing education opportunities, health insurance is the No. 1 benefit they are looking for when applying for a job, Chaet says. Unfortunately, many fitness club employees are among the 40 million uninsured adults in America, says John Urmston, executive director of Independent Club Operators Association. The association has released a health care package for its members to help the independent club owners find an affordable insurance plan that meets their needs.

When it comes to the level of benefits offered, the fitness industry has room for improvement, Melstrand says. Many personal trainers or group exercise instructors work on a part-time, hourly basis and, therefore, don't earn a salary or receive benefits, he says. Once personal trainers or instructors move into management and become directors, they often become eligible for a salaried position, which often means benefits.

This difference was reflected in the most recent research from IDEA, which found that while 61 percent of personal training directors, 57 percent of fitness/program directors and 50 percent of group exercise coordinators earned benefits, the percentages decreased for non-management positions. About 33 percent of personal trainers, 31 percent of fitness floor staff, 14 percent of group fitness instructors and 13 percent of specialty instructors earned benefits, says Kathie Davis, executive director of IDEA.

Elevations Health Club, which has five full-time and 15 part-time employees at its main club, and three full-time and seven part-time employees at its new club, offers benefits such as medical coverage and a retirement plan to all full-time employees.

Although Bishop would like to offer benefits to all of his employees — regardless of their full-time or part-time status — the cost is prohibitive, he says. Three years ago, the cost of offering health insurance to his health club's employees increased by 40 percent over the span of two years, and the club had to stop offering health coverage altogether. The club has since changed insurance companies to get a better rate and now covers two-thirds of employees' health insurance.

“As the company grew and the staff grew, we knew that we needed to offer benefits if we wanted to hang on to them long term,” Bishop says.

Providing compensation and benefits for employees is costly for fitness facility owners. A 2006 IHRSA report says that the total company cost for compensation and benefits at the for-profit clubs it surveyed was 34 percent of sales. However, as club owners strive to retain the best qualified full-time and part-time employees, that cost may just be the cost of staying in business.

“I think one of the things that we always have to remember in this industry is that our greatest asset is our workers,” Chaet says. “We need to treat them right and take care of them. That will elevate the industry and the quality of the individual club.”

Surveying the Landscape of Fitness Salaries

For-profit Clubs

The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), which conducts a salary and compensation survey every fall, found that salaries for fitness professionals increased across the board from 2004 to 2006 with the exception of aerobics directors, controllers and business managers. Unlike IDEA, which found a decrease in wages for yoga and Pilates instructors, IHRSA reported that the largest increases in pay were for specialty instructors.

Jewish Community Centers

Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) nationwide have awarded raises that exceed the rate of inflation, according to a 2006 survey from the Florence G. Heller-JCC Association Research Center. The association found that the gap between higher paid and lower paid professionals narrowed between 2003 and 2006. During the three-year period, executive directors' salaries increased 11 percent while entry-level employees earned a 14 percent average increase. The gender gap for salaries has also narrowed from 12 percent to 6 percent at the sub-executive level, and for entry-level positions, the JCC found a 5 percent variance in the salaries for men and women in comparable job positions. About one-quarter of JCC executives are women, and gender-based variation remains an area of concern, according to the association.

University Recreation Centers

The average salary for directors at universities with 30,000 or more enrollees was $88,516 per year while the average salary for directors at universities with enrollment under 5,000 was $44,707, according to a 2005 National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA) Salary Census of 214 directors at university recreation centers. The study also found that for all directors surveyed, male directors earned an average of $62,090 per year, and female directors earned an average of $59,078 per year.

Salaries for the Top Five Fitness Job Titles (2005)
Full Time Part Time Consultant / Casual
Personal Trainer $39,000 / $38.00 $23,000 / $32.00 $24,000 / $33.00
Group Fitness Instructor $36,000 / $34.00 $21,000 / $23.00 $20,000 / $17.00
Fitness Director $43,000 / $22.00 $22,000 / $21.00 $60,000 / $25.00
Club Owner $52,000 / $39.00 $32,000 / $32.00 $48,000 / $74.00
General Manager $49,000 / $19.00 $35,000 / N/A N/A / $75.00
Source: American Council on Exercise
IDEA Survey Shows Upward Trend for Fitness Salaries
2004 Median Hourly Rate/Salary 2006 Median Hourly Rate/Salary
Fitness program director $22/hour / $35,000 $23.50/hour / $37,500
Personal training director $25/hour / $32,000 $25/hour / $37,500
Group exercise coordinator $18/hour / $24,000 $20/hour / $30,000
Personal trainer $26/hour $26.50/hour
Fitness floor staff $8/hour $9/hour
Group fitness instructor $20/hour $21/hour
Specialty instructor $21/hour $23/hour
Fitness instructor $18/hour $15.75/hour
Pilates or Yoga instructor $28.50/hour $25/hour
Source: IDEA Fitness Industry Compensation Survey from 2004 and 2006
Note: For the full 2006 survey, please visit the IDEA Web site at www.ideafit.com.