How Healthy is Your Health Club?

By Jim Sloan Posted : 08/31/2010

When it comes to exercise, too many of us are willing to make excuses for not working out. Don't let dissatisfaction with your health club become one more excuse.

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If you're serious about joining a club and getting in shape, there are several things you can do to ensure you pick the right place. And according to a recent study by Consumer Reports, the most expensive health club chain may not offer the best value.

"Consumers can pay up to $95 a month to join a health club and get certain extras like personal training sessions and spa services, but our survey indicated that they might be happier spending a lot less," writes Jamie Kopf Hirsh, associate editor of Consumer Reports. "There are some great values to be found at gyms, Ys, community centers and Jewish Community Centers."

Here, according to Consumer Reports and the American Council on Exercise, are tips on evaluating whether a health club is right for you:

  • Choose a club that's close to your work or home. You won't exercise if it's not convenient.
  • Check a prospective club's class or child care schedule. If you need classes to keep you exercising, make sure any group classes you're interested in are held at the times you can participate. Likewise, if you'll be taking advantage of on-site childcare, ask about staff credentials as well as the hours (which may differ from the gym's own hours) and additional fees.
  • Give it a trial. Use the club a few times before signing a contract and paying membership dues. Most clubs offer trial memberships. Make sure you visit the club during the time of day you expect to be exercising. Is there a wait for machines? Are the locker rooms crowded? Are they clean? Is the teen swim team practicing at the same time of day you like to swim laps?
  • Talk to current members. Members are an objective source of information. Ask about billing and fee hikes. Many of the 10,000 gym members included in the Consumer Reports study reported having trouble with fees, payments and cancellations. Make sure you're asking members who have similar needs and priorities as you do, though. If most of the other members you see are heavily muscled body builders and all you want to do is run on a treadmill, you may find a better fit somewhere else.
  • Confirm that facilities are well-maintained. Are weight machines and other equipment in good working order? If you see at least a few "out of order" signs, that could be an indication of poor maintenance.
  • Make sure you see variety of equipment. You may love to run on the treadmill now, but six months from now you might want to mix in a stationary bike or an elliptical trainer. A good club will also have a mix of free weights and resistance training machines.
  • Ask about training from staff. Find out if the staff will be able to teach you how to use the machines or answer your questions about fitness. Is this part of the membership, or will you have to hire a personal fitness trainer?

What are your fitness goals? Do you simply want to lose weight, or do you want to be able to train for a marathon or triathlon? Knowing your goals -- and asking a lot of questions up-front -- will assist you in deciding which health club will help you achieve those goals.

Jim Sloan is a freelance writer in Reno, Nev.

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