As warm-weather clothing reveals body bulges, many people think about shaping up by joining a health club.
That can be a good idea for some, but joining a fitness center is also one of the trickiest purchases a consumer can make. It also can be expensive. An individual membership at a community recreation center might only cost a few hundred dollars a year, but a three-year contract at a pricey club could set you back more than $10,000.
“A lot of money is wasted on health club memberships,” said Kevin Brasler, executive editor of Consumers’ Checkbook, which has investigated fitness club prices and policies. “A lot of people join these clubs with really good intentions and just quit after a couple months.”
That can be an expensive mistake. “It’s not like buying a TV that’s not quite right for you. At least you can still watch it,” Brasler said. “With this, if you’re not going to the club, you’re wasting maybe $80 a month.”
U.S. health club industry revenue reached $21.8 billion in 2012, with more than 58 million Americans belonging to a fitness center, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.
If joining a gym is right for you, now might be the time to do it. Some reduce monthly rates and waive enrollment fees heading into summer. Here are some considerations.
• Should you join at all? Are you likely to get your money’s worth from a health club, or can you get fit for free, by running, biking or playing sports? Exercise videos might work for you. Some are free with your cable TV package’s on-demand offerings, while some video-game systems have fitness “games” that might provide light workouts.
“Step 1 is to think about, ‘Am I really going to use this?’ ” Brasler said. “Pushing and pulling weights isn’t very fun, which is why people stop doing it. … If you haven’t been working out two or three times a week before this, are you really going to make this drastic life change?”
Psychologically, some people might be motivated to regularly work out at a club simply because they’re paying. “This whole idea of wasting money on a club you don’t use does work in reverse for some people,” Brasler said.
If a fitness center is the right option, choose one close to either home or work to make going there convenient. Workout buddies can help motivate you to go.
• Do your homework. First and foremost, shop around. Membership fees for similar gyms vary dramatically.
“Even among clubs that offer the same types of facilities and equipment, we found really big price ranges,” Brasler said. That price difference comes not only from monthly fees, but upfront, nonrefundable initiation fees.
“Some have exorbitant fees to start,” he said. The good news is that joining fees have been declining in recent years at most clubs, according to Consumers’ Checkbook.
• Explore the options. Name-brand health clubs aren’t the only choices. A local government recreation center might suffice and is likely to be far cheaper.
• Beware the hard sell. A fitness center employee giving you a tour is likely a commission salesperson, so expect a sales pitch.
Beware of clubs pushing long-term contracts, often three years. Ask about shorter-commitment plans, which on a monthly basis are likely to be a little more expensive than a long-term contract but will give you greater flexibility, Brasler said. Compared with several years ago, more clubs are now offering no-commitment memberships and month-to-month plans, he said.
Personal finance expert Clark Howard suggests checking out fitness centers affiliated with hospitals. While usually rehab-based or geared toward hospital staff, they’re often open to the public and don’t force long-term contracts on you.
• When visiting. Stop in at a club during the hours you’re most likely to use it. Note how crowded it is and what the staffing is like.
Are classes offered at times convenient for you? Check out the condition of exercise equipment and the cleanliness of locker rooms and showers. For quality ratings, consider subscribing to rating services, such as Consumers’ Checkbook, checkbook.org, in markets where it’s available, or AngiesList.com. A health club’s Better Business Bureau report, BBB.org, and free online review sites, such as Yelp.com, might provide clues about quality.
• Seek deals. Many clubs will negotiate, offering the best deals only when pressed. Try to haggle on the joining fee and monthly fee. Mention other fitness centers you’re considering. “That way, they know you’re shopping around and willing to get up and walk out the door,” Brasler said.
And ask about discounts. “Most of these clubs, their normal rate is never charged,” Brasler said. “There’s always a discount.”
Some clubs offer corporate rates or discounts if you belong to certain health insurance plans, and some health plans will reimburse you for part of your gym membership if you go often.
One thing to watch out for? Sometimes the health club’s own discounted membership is a better deal than the health insurance discount. “We found better rates on our own when we were shopping,” Brasler said. So the strategy is to negotiate the best deal first, then mention your health insurance discount.
• Get the details. Ask about initiation fees and contract length. Ideally, try a club on a month-to-month basis during a trial period. And, of course, carefully read a contract before signing. Note the refund and cancellation policy. Many will have cancellation provisions if you are injured and can’t use the facilities, or you move your residence.