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Published: Monday, 7/29/2013 - Updated: 8 months ago

Why aren’t gym memberships tax deductible?

Exercise known to reduce U.S. health care costs

BY JAMES FELL
CHICAGO TRIBUNE
The IRS says health club memberships are not tax deductible. The IRS says health club memberships are not tax deductible.
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My gym membership is a tax deduction. So are my running shoes. And my bike. And my Rush “2112” cycling jersey.

This is because I write about fitness for a living, and if (probably “when”) I get audited, I can point to hundreds of articles that prove all of these things were necessary expenses for me to make a living.

Chances are, your tax situation is different.

Here is what the IRS has to say (via “Publication 502”) about such expenses: “You cannot include in medical expenses health club dues or amounts paid to improve one’s general health or to relieve physical or mental discomfort not related to a particular medical condition.”

Perhaps you have a health savings account (HSA) or a flexible spending account (FSA). These cards are loaded with your pretax earnings up to a certain limit each year and are to be used for qualifying medical expenses.

However, like with the IRS, elective gym memberships are not seen as a justifiable expense for FSAs or HSAs.

It just makes sense to be active. In this column I’ve examined how exercise increases bone strength, decreases stress, improves brain function and battles dementia, combats Type 2 diabetes, aids recovery from cancer, increases life expectancy and decreases late-life disability.

“Cardiovascular risk factors are increasing, and the No. 1 risk factor is obesity,” Dr. Sharon Mulvagh, director of the Women’s Heart Clinic at the Mayo Clinic, told me. A Boston Marathon qualifying runner, Mulvagh is a big advocate of exercise to dramatically reduce risk of disease and promote longevity. “More and more evidence is accumulating to prove what common sense already dictates. There are great studies out now about how exercise increases longevity as well as reduces cardiovascular disease risk.”

And heart disease is a big, expensive risk.

Mulvagh sent me projections by the American Heart Association about the health care costs associated just with cardiovascular disease, and the U.S. is currently at around $350 billion annually. By 2025, those costs are projected to exceed $600 billion, and by 2030, more than $800 billion. That's a lot of bypasses.

And that doesn't even get into all the other costly diseases being physically active dramatically reduces the risk for. So when you think about just how good exercise is for improving health and cutting related health care costs, the fact that things like gym memberships aren't a qualifying health expense is a bit of a head-scratcher.

"There is nothing better long term for your health than staying in shape," said Scott Golden, chief financial officer for the health benefits consulting company NFP/​Golden & Cohen LLC. "Most people like to think the tax code and logic go hand-in-hand, but they don't."

Golden, a lawyer with an MBA and a master's in taxation, explained the reasoning behind the government's short-term thinking. "The loss of revenue is year-to-year, and the improvement in terms of less money spent on health care takes a long time to be realized."

He explained that FSAs, which are more common than HSAs, would suddenly be getting maxed out if people could claim expensive gym memberships and personal trainers. Just being able to deduct your health club cost on your taxes is a further loss of annual revenue for the government.

And when it comes to revenue, the government cares a lot more about what's coming in this year than what could be saved in future years.



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