About 45 million Americans have gym memberships, but only about 9 million actually go to the gym on a regular basis. The other 36 million—or 80% of those who shell out money every month for a membership—have good intentions but fail to follow through.
As you’d expect, January is the most popular month to join a gym: About 12% of new gym members sign up after the holidays, but most of them stop going within six months. More than half of all Americans have paid for a gym membership they never used; unused gym memberships cost consumers nearly $2 billion a year.
Why do some people stick with their exercise routines while others fail? Fitness experts say inconvenient schedules and locations, unrealistic expectations and unenjoyable workouts all play a part. Choosing the right gym can mean the difference between achieving your fitness goals and wasting your money on an unused membership.
With nearly 40,000 health and fitness centers in the U.S., finding the perfect gym may involve some trial and error.
“Evaluate all your wants and needs in a fitness facility and then narrow down your list to ones you’d actually go to if you became a member,” said Tracy Gariepy, a certified personal trainer, running coach and fitness nutrition specialist in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
Gariepy recommends taking advantage of free or low-cost trial memberships before you sign an expensive contract. Just as you’d never buy a car without taking a test drive, you shouldn’t commit to a gym without taking a trial run.
Whether you’re a fitness newbie or an experienced exerciser hoping to find a better gym, here are top tips on how to find a gym that works for you.
How to find the right gym
Gariepy says the first thing you should do is figure out what days and times you’re most likely to use the gym, because the atmosphere and environment can vary hour by hour.
“What feels like a hardcore ‘meathead’ gym at one hour could easily transition to a recreational, family-type feel by the next, so tour during a time when you’re likely to be there as a member,” she said.
Scheduling a tour around your “normal” exercise times also helps you figure out how traffic patterns affect your commute to and from the gym. Although most people prefer to sweat locally, you may find that a gym near your house is less convenient than one close to work or your children’s school.
The social aspect is also important in choosing the right gym. “Take a look around before you start your tour,” Gariepy said. “Are people interacting with each other or do they have their headphones in when working out in their ‘zone?’” There’s no single right way to exercise, but you’ll be happier if your preferred style blends in with other gym members.
Some people need a supportive circle around them in order to meet their fitness goals, whether it’s a group of fellow exercisers who encourage one another, a welcoming face at the reception desk or a personal trainer to guide them and keep them accountable.
“During your trial membership, make time to interact with those people who could become part of your support circle. Make sure you feel comfortable around them and it’s an environment you want to return to,” Gariepy said. If you plan to take classes as part of your fitness routine, sample a few with different instructors to see how the tempo, fitness level and style fit with your goals.
It’s always a good idea to read reviews on Yelp! or Google, but keep in mind that people are more prone to complain than compliment in these gym forums. That’s why Gariepy encourages visitors to talk to other members at the gym; they’re more likely to give honest feedback and answers to your questions.
If you’re new to exercising, Gariepy recommends paying special attention to the equipment you expect to use the most.
“Look for clear diagrams and instructions for hand placement, how to adjust levers and what muscle groups are being targeted,” she said. “If you’re a regular at the gym, check out the areas you gravitate towards—is there enough space and equipment available to accommodate the number of people there?”
Finally, amenities are important, but you should be realistic about your habits and expectations. Most amenities are factored into the cost of the membership; you’ll pay more for access to that state-of-the-art pool, spa and Pilates area. “These perks are wonderful,” Gariepy said, “but if your time is primarily limited to 30 minutes a day on the treadmill or weight machines, is it worth paying more for those extras?”
Questions to ask before joining a gym
Once you find a gym you like, it’s time to dig into its financial details. Gym owners are in business to make money; it’s necessary to read the fine print in your membership contract so you’re less likely to be taken advantage of.
In nearly all gyms, the most important customer is the one who never shows up. The average Planet Fitness gym, for example, can accommodate about 300 people at a time, but has an average paying membership of 6,500. The 80% of gym members who don’t use the facility subsidize it for the 20% who do—and the automatic monthly debit undergirds their business model.
Kevin Volpp, director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, told NPR that gyms understand the psychology of the contract. The simple act of signing a contract makes people believe they are getting closer to the super-fit image they have in their mind.
The problem happens when new members realize they don’t really like going to the gym, but they’re unwilling to let go of their fitness dreams. So they pay membership fees month after month, because the auto debit is built into their contract and the cancellation process isn’t clearly explained.
Before you sign a gym contract, be sure you get the answers to the following questions:
- What’s included in a membership? Some gyms include unlimited classes, use of all facilities, and other perks such as massage sessions and use of tanning beds in the monthly membership fee. Others take an à la carte approach to gym services. The bare-bones membership at your local gym won’t feel like such a deal when you have to pay extra for every spin class and spare towel.
- Do you offer guest passes or trial memberships? Most reputable gyms offer a no-commitment way for you to try out the facilities before you sign a contract. You shouldn’t have to give a credit card or bank account number at this stage, so exercise caution if a gym asks for that information before giving you a pass.
- Is there an out-clause? If you move out of town, the gym should let you cancel your membership without penalty. Be sure to ask about early termination fees and under what circumstances the gym applies them, especially if they don’t have a clearly defined opt-out policy.
- Can I temporarily suspend my membership? If you need to be away for a period of time or you have an injury that keeps you from exercising, you should be able to pause your membership payments until you can use the facility again.
- Does the membership auto-renew? Most gyms happily debit your account month after month until you actively tell them to stop. Find out the term of your initial contract, the length of any automatic renewal agreements, how the gym communicates fee increases and the steps to take if you want to cancel your membership.
Choosing the right gym
You may have to try a few gyms before you find the perfect fit, but gym test drives shouldn’t break the bank. “Keep in mind, there are low-fee, low-commitment gyms in nearly every metropolitan area now,” Gariepy said. If you’re new to exercise, these no-contract facilities can help you decide if you’re ready for a long-term commitment before you hand over your debit card for a gym membership.
For most people, location, cost and amenities are the deciding factors, but don’t forget the intangibles that can make or break your fitness plan. Gariepy recommends being clear about what you want from a gym membership before you commit. The fitness center around the corner might be the most convenient option, but if it doesn’t have the classes, equipment and atmosphere you’re looking for, you won’t get your money’s worth from a gym membership.
Finally, make certain you know how long you’re obligated to pay and the steps to take when you want to cancel. Gym memberships cost as little as $10 a month up to $400 a month or more, so make sure you’re getting full value for your money.
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