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2010 Tax Countdown – Is a Gym Membership Deductible as a Medical Expense?


As we all start drafting our 2011 New Year Resolutions, “get healthy and fit” will be at the top of many of our lists – AGAIN. But this time, I’m serious!! Aren’t you? So, of course, the burning question is: Can I deduct my gym membership? After all, it is all about being responsible for myself so I don’t become a burden on society, right? Taxpayers everywhere should applaud my effort.

Lucky for us, a lot of taxpayers are anxious to deduct gym membership fees and one of them was bold enough to approach the Chief Counsel of the Internal Revenue Service recently to find out about introducing legislation that would permit such a deduction as a medical expense. Chief Counsel responded in a readable letter  that explained once again that “health club dues paid to improve one’s general health or to relieve physical or mental discomfort not related to a particular medical condition” are NOT deductible.

However, the door did not slam closed. Chief Counsel went on to say that “A taxpayer who claims that an expense of a peculiarly personal nature is primarily for medical care must establish the fact.” OK – WHEN is a medical expense NOT “peculiarly personal” in nature? Anyone who has ever had a colonoscopy would agree!

That said, there are objective factors that can support that a personal expense (gym membership) is actually a deductible medical care expense:

  •  What is your motive /purpose for the gym membership? Chief Counsel states, “A taxpayer cannot deduct a personal expense as medical care if he/she would have paid the expense in the absence of a medical condition.” There is a court case to support this interpretation. So, if the gym membership is to help you fit into your Size 6 jeans again, sorry, that is not a medical care expense, even if your heart gets stronger by accident. But if it is to force yourself, an avowed couch potato, to beat back diagnosed diabetes, AND you would not otherwise have joined the gym, the expense may very well be deductible. However, you may not have an argument if you have been a gym member for years and now get a diagnosis that recommends that you exercise. That could be an uphill battle with the IRS at audit – you’ve been exercising at the gym but it apparently did not work, so now you will be exercising more/differently because maybe now it will work? Hmmm–isn’t that the definition of insanity?  Hey – that is a medical condition, too!
  • Did a physician diagnose your medical condition AND prescribe a particular course of action that could be gotten by joining a gym? GET IT IN WRITING. GET IT RENEWED ANNUALLY. Ask your doctor to be as specific as possible – for example, “Because Bob has bad knees and is diabetic, he must swim several times a week to control blood sugar as part of his treatment for diabetes. Since Bob does not have a pool at home, I recommend that he join a fitness center with a pool and a swimming program.” Then make sure you join the swimming program.
  •  Is the “treatment” related to the illness and are you improving? Document the types of classes and activities in which you participate and how your illness is affected by those activities. It is a great idea to chart your progress with your doctor and have him/her mention the results of the treatment in the annual letter that recommends gym membership.

Remember – medical expense deductions go on Schedule A Itemized Deductions and before the first dollar is deductible, your medical expenses must exceed 7.5% of adjusted gross income. This is not an easy hurdle. If you don’t otherwise itemize your deductions, then go to the gym, be happy, get healthy and enjoy the simplicity of not keeping records to support a deduction.  Look for me in a gentle yoga class.  OHMMMM.

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