The Unhealthy Working Conditions of Exercise Instructors

Hidden Labor: Interview with female trainers Da-hyeon and Rae-ah

Kim Si-hyeong 2021-05-13

Editor’s note: In collaboration with a women workers’ writing group, Ilda is publishing a series examining the previously ignored work and lives of female laborers. This series is being produced with support from the Korea Press Foundation’s Press Promotion Fund.


The number of people looking to physical exercise to keep them healthy—and even to give them the strength to live—has grown. Those around us often talk about their experiences of stress and distracting thoughts disappearing after they’ve worked up a sweat. As the value of exercise receives more attention as time goes by, so the scale of the industries related to it also grows and broadens. There are many fields, types, and aspects of exercise. In one of them, “sport for all,” there are people who constitute, support, and work in that industry—in short, there are laborers.


For the last few years, I’ve been taking different exercise classes—including yoga, aerobics, and strength training—at several different places. While doing so, I’ve become friendly with exercise instructors, and have slowly learned about the character, environment, and conditions of the work they do.


I thought that, as people who teach how to use the body properly in exercise, ball sports, martial arts, dance, etc., they would be healthier than almost anyone else, as well as happy and free of stress. As I looked closer, though, I saw people who couldn’t live very healthily because of the stress caused by, and emotional labor involved in, working long or irregular hours for too little pay and with too heavy a workload.


I became curious about how they worked and how they lived, these exercise instructors who had contributed substantially to my living healthily, and so I interviewed two women who’ve worked in this field for several years.


▲ “sport for all,” there are people who constitute, support, and work in that industry—in short, there are laborers. (pixabay)

‘We have to run around teaching from morning to night’


“When I really pushed myself to the limit while working out, I felt so relaxed mentally afterwards, like I could fly away. After having this new experience and seeing how exercise was changing my tired body and mind, a friend of mind told me do it in earnest. So I got a qualified to teach tae bo, and also step box aerobics. Until that time I had been making a living teaching English privately, but after I got certified, the training agency helped me get a job teaching group exercise (often called “GX”). I worked at a fitness center, teaching several kinds of aerobics. I continued English tutoring as a side job.”


Da-hyeon (36) started working as a counsellor at an NGO after graduating from college. She found her body and mind becoming exhausted from listening to the difficulties that her clients had experienced, and decided to take a break. During this time, a friend suggested exercising to her, and she tried it. She was immediately hooked.


At first, her goal was to be healthy, but soon she started wanting to become a person who showed others the value of exercise. She got qualified as an exercise instructor, but found that her resulting opportunities were far from favorable. Her low pay at the NGO had forced her to teach English privately on the side to get by, and it was the same as an exercise instructor. The pay was especially low in comparison to the intensity of the work and the long hours it required.


“There were never any written contracts. At first, I would get only 25,000 or 30,000 won [about 25 or 30 USD] per hour of class. Really bad places paid by the head to push instructors to bring in students. And GX classes like mine require a creative process of choreographing moves to the music, which requires time investments. There is no thought of compensation for that.”


She says that instructors’ pay doesn’t go up, either, even in their 8th or 9th years.


“The number of associations that train instructors is growing and the number of instructors is growing, so supply has shot up, and employers see no reason to raise wages. As a side effect, the wages for teaching other types of exercise—which used to be slightly better—have also fallen. So you have to teach from morning to night in order to make a basic living. And you have to run all over the place [to different centers].”


No matter how one might wish to, though, it’s impossible to teach very many classes, because your body will fall apart. Da-hyeon says that there is no one among her colleague who does not have either large or small injuries.


“Exercise instructors depend endlessly on chiropractors, acupuncture, and similar things. When you’re hurt, the first thing you have to do is rest and avoid using the injured part—but we can’t do that. And it’s standard to work wearing things like ankle braces and knee braces. I haven’t had any bad injuries yet, but my knees haven’t been great for the last couple of months, so I’m being careful.”


Because GX classes like girly hip hop, tae bo, step box aerobics, jazz dance, etc., require the instructor to repeatedly demonstrate moves to the students, they expend a lot of energy and it’s hard on their bodies. Moving continuously in order to lead the routines, their joints and muscles often get injured before they know it. Even when they are injured, though, they cannot go to a hospital, get regular treatment, and rest fully. Time is money, and resting instead of teaching means getting fired. If they want time off, even to visit the hospital, they have to find their own substitute instructor for the classes they will miss.


They can’t even dream of something like workplace accident insurance. If they tell the fitness center manager or employer they are injured or in pain, that person will only worry about missed classes; they have no time to be concerned about health benefit services for instructors paid by the hour. The other three major types of insurance(Employment insurance, medical insurance, and the national pension plan) are also no more than dreams for exercise instructors. They usually don’t even ask for instructors’ input when they make the class schedules. When an instructor who can only work Monday-Wednesday-Friday is suddenly scheduled to work Tuesday-Thursday, her questions about this are commonly met with, “Oh you can’t? I thought you would be able to, of course.”


The violent and hierarchical practices of the sports world


Rae-ah (33), a personal trainer at a fitness center, says she has seen regular employees during her time, but rarely—one or two at each center, and only at the supervisor level and above. Trainers who work at just one center are usually irregular, and of course trainers who work at several different centers are as well. They don’t even have employment contracts, let alone the four insurances coverage.


“I work around 12 hours a day. It’s difficult because trainers have to be mindful of how they appear to clients, and so work hard on their own bodies. I have to fit in exercise here and there while working, or do it after work. And there’s no such thing as monthly or yearly time off.”


Rae-ah says that she has experienced the violence and contradictions endemic in the sports world at several levels, not just during her time as an instructor.


While in college, she went to a hapkido school and trained hard for four years. She thought that the grand master there taught well, and so she didn’t complain when, calling her an assistant master, he later sent her to do chores. His disdainful attitude was disappointing to her, though, and every time he dealt with her thoughtlessly, she felt uncomfortable.


“He said that since I was training for free as an assistant master, I should be thankful. He would say things like, ‘How will you make a living if you leave here?’ and ‘That person who majored in tae kwon do barely makes 800,000 won [per month], so a non-major like you can’t do anything,’ and do things that were similar to sexual harassment.”


The grand master sent her on errands without a second thought, and didn’t even treat her well—let alone pay her for her labor. Rae-ah quit the dojang. She still had a passion for sports, though, and so after graduating university, she passed a test to re-enter as a third-year student in the physical education department.


This new world was also filled with violence, military-like hierarchy, and authoritarianism, however.


“My school wasn’t that bad, but there was still some degree of duty and discipline, like using da-na-kka (ending sentences with –da, -na, or –kka like in the military, instead of the less-formal -yo). For departmental trips and drinking parties, the duties that younger students had to perform were completely fixed, and there was gender discrimination but it seemed I was the only one who noticed. It was a military, a mafia kind of culture. And then I became an ‘older student’, and to be honest, it’s nice to be served by younger students. It was a strange and bittersweet feeling. Eventually it became too much, and I took a leave of absence.”


▲ Da-hyeon teaching group exercise. (pixabay)

“I couldn’t tell whether I was a trainer or a saleswoman”


While on her leave of absence, Rae-ah got a job at a large-scale fitness center near Gangnam Station.


“The base pay rate for personal trainers there was only 800,000 won per month, and the only way to make up the rest of a passable salary was to register a certain amount of new clients. You go out every day and scatter flyers at the station, and then counsel the people who come because of them, trying to get them to get a one-year membership and pay as high a price as possible. I couldn’t tell whether I was a trainer or a saleswoman.”


In addition to all sorts of chores like cleaning parts of the center including the bathroom and classrooms, moving equipment, and distributing flyers, she had to manage clients and their moods. She only received 3,000 won per day for meals, so she had to eat instant food. The hardest part was that since she wasn’t good at drawing in new clients, she had to deal with painfully low pay. She was never left with enough energy to focus on her real job—teaching exercise.


Not only that, but the rampant violent behavior between trainers was very difficult for Rae-ah.


“Managers at like the team-leader level didn’t see eye-to-eye and later they fought with golf clubs and made each other bleed. I felt that it wasn’t right. And the atmosphere was violent even when we drank together or had company dinners. Blatantly sexually harassing women was also common. Male trainers would purposely encourage romantic feelings in female clients, and foster sexual tension. There were also male trainers who were dating several clients simultaneously. But again, female trainers were excluded and discriminated against. While they did nearly the same work.”


Several times, Rae-ah witnessed male trainers enjoying themselves by making sexually harassing comments. They would also point and snicker at the body parts of clients while they exercised, or purposely tell the client to do a certain move extra times so they could see a certain body part better.


The surprising thing was that most—though not all—female clients preferred male trainers. It is perhaps because of that that almost no women-only fitness clubs succeed, and few female personal trainers do, Rae-ah says. Rae-ah explained that the reason for this is that senior and junior female trainers don’t form relationships with each other.


“You get used to men calling each other ‘older brother’ and ‘younger brother’ and forming their own exclusive world. Usually, whatever the organization and without relation to how much they contribute to the organization or their talents, when men drink together and call each other ‘older brother’ and ‘younger brother’ they quite naturally integrate into the organization. But female trainers don’t have that kind of solidarity. Among them there are no senior trainers giving a helping hand, no junior trainers who want to work hard and succeed. And they don’t know each other well.”


She finally left the Gangnam fitness center that had nothing to teach her and did not even live up to the terms of the pay agreement that had been made during her interview. The next place she went was an oriental medicine clinic in Sinchon. She was hired as a physical therapist, and the lack of extra chores in comparison to her last job, as well as the free meals, made it seem like the conditions would be much better than in her last job.


Here, as well, though, she was asked to do unreasonable tasks. Her main job as a physical therapist was not to treat patients through exercise, but to talk them into spending as much money as possible.


“My job was to sell a package that combined herbal medicine, acupuncture, and carboxy therapy (injecting carboxy to break down fat) as much as possible. Of course, profits were more important than clients’ health. The crucial thing being how many millions of won worth of oriental medicine, acupuncture, injections, and exercise prescriptions I could make them buy. Though I didn’t have to distribute flyers like before, I had to pretend I was a patient and write about ‘my experience’ on the clinic’s blog, and visit related online forums and write promotional posts like ‘I went here and it was effective.’”


However, she endured it for three months, at which time she was supposed to finish her probationary period and become a regular employee. But the clinic’s owner suddenly changed his tune.


“He said he couldn’t let me become a regular employee because I wasn’t good at the business side of things. Instead, he would just raise my pay a little. Saying, ‘Why do you need the four major types of insurance? If you get hurt while working here, we can just pay for your treatment.’ It was quite a large business, so finding this kind of attitude was really disappointing. So I just went back to school.”


Rae-ah returned to her school and its violently hierarchical and authoritarian environment. She thought that if she could get important certificates in college and then get her Master’s degree, she wouldn’t get such shoddy treatment in the workplace, and that she could do the work that she wanted to do.


Seeking the possibility of a respectful exercise culture


After hearing Da-hyeon’s and Rae-ah’s stories, I asked if exercise instructors had formed a community to work together to improve their working conditions, or just to share their difficult experiences.


“We don’t hang out together. We share information on the Internet a lot, but it’s just complaining about working conditions. There are places to report bad center owners, and we give each other advice. But it’s just here and there. We need organizational power but we aren’t that far yet. Many lack consciousness of being a worker, or aren’t used to publicizing things like unfair emotional labor. It’s lucky that at least the media is talking about sexual violence culture and military culture in university physical education departments and sports teams.” (Rae-ah)


“My biggest complaint is when the pay for GX instructors is too low. In that situation you have no choice but to quit. It’s because the so-called market price is a set thing. I’m just one of countless hourly instructors, after all. For instructors, this kind of condition is considered natural, and things like a labor union or fighting for your interests are difficult and don’t even occur to them. To be honest, I at least have another way of making a living so I was never that bad off. And when I would bring this kind of thing up, I would hear, ‘Eonni, why are you talking about this difficult subject, I don’t know about that kind of thing.’” (Da-hyeon)


Currently, Da-hyeon and Rae-ah are part of an effort with like-minded people to create an activity and exercise space with a new concept. It is a kind of feminist local community experiment. They have found hope of spreading an exercise culture that is enjoyable and focused on maintaining health, even without degrees or diplomas, without getting clients to pay as much as possible.


They have seen the number of women who want a strong and fully developed body instead of a thin one rise, and that the people they work with love themselves and are proud of their community. These are things that have become possible through encouraging each other and exercising together, through the process of lovingly caring for the relationships formed this way.


This kind of feminist sensibility wouldn’t be able to exist at a commercial exercise center focused on unlimited profit increase. Also, exercise instructors work at one place for a half year or year at most. It’s hard to maintain community spirit, solidarity, and relationships because workers and clients come and go so often. You need to see each other regularly to observe, oversee, and encourage the goals you’re each trying to achieve and each other’s process of development.


Of course, just because it is a community exercise center with a good purpose, it does not mean that the workload is small. They have to take care of classes, administrative work, and client management. I asked Da-hyeon why she kept working as an exercise instructor despite it being so difficult.


“I really like sharing with students the experience of doing difficult exercise, pouring sweat, and overcoming limitations. Their faces as they’re leaving, proud and confident. And when students say things like, ‘This part of my body is ugly,’ ‘I want to fix this part,’ ‘I hate this part and I want to lose weight here,’ I say, ‘No, you’re precious and beautiful the way you are.’ I think there is a class that only I can teach. Male instructors sometimes say things like, ‘Moms, do you want to lose that belly fat? Then do this exercise and don’t eat this, this and this.” As if we were creatures whose lives revolved around dieting. I don’t use the word ‘diet.’ Though I may say things like, ‘Let’s reduce our body fat.’ Because that’s totally different. I am determined not to teach that kind of class, to people who already feel guilty. The feeling when my students come around to my way of thinking—I’m just over the moon with joy and pride.”


Rae-ah’s last comment focused on more of a structural aspect.


“I’ve said that the world of athletics is really authoritarian and patriarchal, or steeped in military culture, but I think this is actually true of all of society. It’s just that in the sports world it shows, because it is explicit and intense. Fixing just the sports world won’t fix everything. The process of finding what is necessary for women and others oppressed in that world to be liberated and achieving, one by one, the things I must do, has given me a sense of accomplishment. (...) At the place I work now, as well, the workload is high and the working conditions aren’t innovatively good, but at least the culture is one of humanity and mutual respect. I think that that alone is great asset to start with.”


Da-hyeon and Rae-ah are hopeful about the new exercise culture they will pioneer and its possibilities, but seem to still feel the burden of the limitations they’ve felt, the heaps of standard practices, and the competitive culture. They have to compete with health centers offering increasingly low prices, and the fact that there are hundreds, thousands of exercise instructors forced to put up with low pay and all sorts of manual labor also stops them from having too rosy a view of the world.


However, they are happy that there are students who say, “Because of you, I’ve improved this much,” or decide that they would also like to study to become exercise instructors. Da-hyeon and Rae-ah pray that their small efforts will be seeds that gradually grow to influence all of exercise culture, and that the day when they won’t have to pass on horrible working conditions to younger instructors comes fast.


By Kim Si-hyeong

Published: June 9, 2014

Translated by Marilyn Hook


*Original article:


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