Joining the gym

Test-driving ‘fitness’

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Joining the gym a lot like buying a car

Ugh. As if just deciding to join a gym weren’t a big enough hassle, there’s the actual attendance, the buff bodies in spandex, the perky personal trainers, the waiting for machines.

Well, it takes our minds off central matters, such as whether the gym suits our needs and, most important, what kind of contract we’re signing.

Joining a gym is a lot like buying a car. It takes research, tenacity and negotiating. Nerves of steel help.

While you work on your fitness goals, we’ve put together a checklist of things to concentrate on when considering a health club.


At the gym. Visit more than one gym; visit more than once. Location is important. Do you need a gym close to home or close to work? Visit all the gyms in your area during the time you plan to work out once you join. Determine whether you’ll have reasonable access to equipment. Make a second visit during a time you might use as an alternate to see whether the fitness center still meets your conditions.

Make sure the classes and equipment suit your fitness program. Gym equipment is sturdy but hard-used. Scrutinize the machines, looking for signs of excessive wear or fastidious maintenance. Make sure the machines you need are available and ask how often they’re serviced. Also ask whether the gym has personal trainers, and find out whether the center offers the classes you want at the times you need. Many gyms have brochures that spell out available programs.

Visit the locker room. Many people forget the locker room. But it’s where you’ll stash your stuff, shower and maybe enjoy a steam bath. Find out whether you need to bring your own towels, lock, and toiletries and whether you have to rent a locker. You should make sure that the room and showers are sanitary and that scales and sauna are in working order.

Get a guest pass. The best way to see whether a gym is for you is to get a guest pass and work out at the times you plan to exercise. If you like the gym but it won’t give you a pass, or if your choices are limited, see whether you can get a short membership, one to six months, to try it out.

The contract. Take the contract home and read it. This is crucial. Even if you think you understand all the terms, take the contract home where you can evaluate it and avoid high-pressure tactics to rush you into signing. The club’s representative may not have explained all the details to your satisfaction. When you get home, check that the representative’s claims about service are all included in the contract.

Make sure there’s no rollover clause. A rollover clause says that the gym may continue to charge you, even after the contract term is up, if you don’t notify the gym in writing that you wish to end your membership.

Avoid bank drafts. Having the club send you a bill every month lets you control your money. Members who haven’t read their contracts often are surprised to find that a health club has continued to charge their bank accounts long after the contract has expired. Make sure your membership agreement doesn’t allow the club to automatically debit your checking or charge account. Some clubs never mention they are going to do this.

Look for hidden charges. Finance charges and annual percentage rates make their way into some clubs’ contracts. That way they can offer what seems to be great bargains on dues. Be wary, especially if you see an unbelievable price. Also be aware of high sign-up fees, charges for classes, and locker and towel rentals.

Know your cancellation options (and what you have to do when the membership expires). Carefully examine the contract to see what’s required to cancel your membership. If you move, will your membership be transferred to another location? What happens if you become disabled or pregnant? Does the club require all cancellations in writing? If you end your membership, make sure you’re entitled to a refund for the portion that you didn’t use. You may find that the contract requires you to pay for your full-term, no matter what.

Know the length of the contract. Some members are lured by promotional pitches promising fantastically cheap rates, only to find the rates increase dramatically after the promotion ends. Others assume they’ve joined for six months or a year but have really signed up for a two- or three-year hitch.

Negotiate. Just as with car salespeople, never take the first offer. All contracts are negotiable, and if you press the representative, you may find you can get much better terms.

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