Remember the days when European Health Spa, Bally Total Fitness and Gold’s Gym locations dotted the Western New York landscape? My, how times have changed – and how they’re likely to change again in coming years.

Christopher Salisbury has witnessed such transformation across upstate New York. He’s been around the gym business since he was 15, when his father opened a fitness club in the Hudson River Valley.

Since then, Salisbury, 41, has seen plenty other clubs come and go. He moved to Western New York in 1990 to attend the University at Buffalo and has been working in the fitness field pretty much ever since. He worked for a dozen of those years at Gold’s Gym in Cheektowaga, which today is called Catalyst Fitness, and nearly four years ago opened a full-service gym, Hive: The Lifespan Center, on Transit Road in East Amherst.

At the time, there were four fitness centers along the nearly 5-mile stretch of Transit Road between North French Road and Main Street. Today, there are 14.

Thousands of members of the Buffalo Athletic Club coed fitness centers, many struggling to grasp what’s in store for them now that LA Fitness has purchased their clubs and started making changes, and thousands of others focused on better health in the new year, may find it confusing to maneuver the shifting dynamics in the Erie and Niagara counties fitness club scene.

The good news is that change isn’t always bad – and we live in a buyer’s market.

“You can shop several clubs now, so don’t fall victim during a fitness club visit if you hear, ‘Do this today or you’re going to lose your options,’ ” Salisbury said.

While you shop, plan to ask several questions, said Robbie Raugh, a former Bally’s national director who has worked at the BAC for more than a year and will stay with that chain in the women-only clubs it has retained. And start with this premise, she said: “Nobody should be signing anything, anywhere, until they do their homework.”

Choosing the best fitness club comes down to one factor, added Kathy Corff Rogers, a longtime group fitness instructor at the Jewish Community Center on Delaware Avenue: “What will get you there and keep you coming back? In most cases, it is a location close to home or work. For others, it is a friend to go with to keep you motivated. In the end, though, it is the facility and offerings that are key.”

As you begin to dig deeper, Salisbury said, there are three things to consider when looking for a gym: the quality of the product; the quality of the service; and the lowest price. “You can’t get all three,” Salisbury said, and many people sacrifice the first two for the third.

The trick is to get the most for your money. The following questions can help:

1. What are my goals?

“Are you looking for a hard-core workout, a place to exercise and socialize, or maybe a little of both? You need to know what will motivate you to attend on a regular basis,” Rogers said.

Some folks are happy to join a yoga or pilates studio, or take aerobics classes at a local church or community center, and do the rest of their workouts at home. Others take to the outdoors in any kind of weather, and may want a no-frills gym to lift weights or steam ahead on an elliptical. Others want the individualized attention that Hive and other midsized to small gyms offer. Still others want it all. In most cases, you get what you’re willing to pay for.

2. Can I try out the place?

Committing to the right gym can add years to your life and help you feel better as the weeks and months pass. So try more than one, even if it means paying for the experience, Salisbury said. “Don’t assume it’s going to be free, but it will be risk-free,” he said.

Most people get a feel for a gym quickly, but get a better appreciation for one if they work out there a time or two, especially during times they’re likely to work out if they join. It’s also a chance to try some different group classes.

If you’re new to a place, or to exercise, it also may be a good idea to limit your commitment to, say, three months. Within a few weeks, if that good feeling sticks, it may be worth making a longer commitment, if the cost is right.

3. Is it convenient?

People are more likely to stick to an exercise regimen long-term if their club is near home, or in a spot between work and home, said Eileen Fitzgibbons, a personal trainer at Hive. Still, Raugh suggested you need not get too tied down to a place in a region where there are so many options within a short drive.

“You wouldn’t go to a restaurant on the corner,” Raugh said, “if you didn’t like the food.”

4. Does it have what I need?

Questions abound here: Is the club multifaceted or am I only interested in something specific? Does it have locker rooms and showers? Child care? A swimming pool, sauna or hot tub? A juice bar? Protein shakes or other healthy foods or beverages I can buy after a workout? “What is the feeling in the club?” Rogers said. “Do staff members smile and say hello as you tour? Do the members seem comfortable and motivated? Maybe you can ask one. And personal training is still at the top of many lists. What is the cost for this one-on-one service? See how the trainers are training. How many are there? Are they focusing on their clients?”

Want it all? “A community center offers a significantly greater personal touch without the high pressure sales,” as well as lots of exercise and wellness options, Rogers said.

Olin B. “Buddy” Campbell Jr., CEO of YMCA Buffalo Niagara, led a tour Wednesday at the Independent Health Family Branch YMCA, also known as the Northtowns Y, next to the Erie Community College North Campus in Amherst. The YMCA Buffalo Niagara has about 40,000 members at its seven branches, and they range in age and interests, he said.

Several hundred people have toured the 94,000-square-foot Northtowns branch since LA Fitness purchased the BAC, and about half of them have been BAC members, said Allison Lawson, associate executive director of the year-old facility.

5. What is the quality of the staff?

Trainers and group fitness instructors generally should be certified with the American Council on Exercise (ACE) or the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), Raugh said. Many top trainers also have bachelor’s or master’s degrees in fitness and exercise science.

6. When are they open?

Gyms are no help to your health and wellness if they’re unavailable when you are. Higher end clubs will often schedule what they consider important one-on-one or small group time. For other clubs, look at group class schedules and general operating hours, particularly for early mornings, evenings, weekends and holidays.

7. Is it clean?

During the tour of the Northtowns Y, Campbell stopped to pry a piece gum off the cardio exercise floor, then tossed the chewed piece and rubbed his hands with sanitizer from one of several dispensers sprinkled throughout the branch. “Cleanliness is so critical,” he said. “I’m a stickler about that. Everybody knows what the standard is.”

“Is it clean throughout the facility, from the equipment to the corners of the rooms?” Rogers asked. “I especially look at the bathrooms, locker rooms and showers.”

8. What will it cost?

Salisbury said he knows people haven’t thought very hard about finding a new gym when he gets a call and the first question asked is, “How much does it cost?” The answer can be complicated, and depends on an individual’s needs, goals and intentions. For $10 or $20 a month, you pay to come in, lift weights, do simple cardio and leave. Typically, anything more costs more. Full-service clubs – like Hive, Buffalo Niagara YMCA and JCC sites, which offer more services in their base prices – generally cost more, as does learning the proper exercise form and fitness habits from the region’s top personal trainers.

Charlie Totoro, 59, of East Amherst, an insurance agency owner in the Northtowns, started working out with personal trainers in his early 40s, when his father was struggling with diabetes, prostate cancer and COPD. He belongs both to Alessi Fitness Center and Hive, which keeps him in great shape but at a cost higher than many others would be willing, or able, to cover.

“I’d rather pay a personal trainer than the doctor,” Totoro said.

All local fitness experts say it’s better to do something than nothing when it comes to exercise, even if it’s at home, but point out that joining a club tends to yield better results. They also encourage people to check with a doctor before starting an exercise regimen.


On the Web: Read about how Refresh Editor Scott Scanlon, a longtime BAC member, is dealing with the local chain’s recent sale to LA Fitness at