Remember those New Year's resolutions to get fit and maybe lose a few pounds? Tough, isn't it?
Maybe you're thinking of joining a health club for some help and support. Great idea, but how do you choose the one that's best for you?
Experts from health associations and health clubs agree the first factor is to decide your personal goals for joining a health club, such as weight loss or strength training. Then start looking around for clubs that meet your criteria.
"Most people join [a health club] to get bigger or smaller," says Victor Brick, owner of Padonia Fitness Center, with his wife, Lynne. "So then you need to make sure the club has the services you require and can offer you the level of service you need, whether you are a beginner or veteran."
If you are interested in building muscle, the club should have free weights and resistance exercises, such as Body Master or Nautilus. People who want to lose weight need to look for aerobics classes, stationary bikes or stair machines, a track or treadmill, and maybe a pool. Some clubs even have in-house weight management programs.
Once you've determined what you need, visit a few clubs. For many people, a pivotal point in choosing a health club is the quality of the service and the instructors.
"The 1990s are going to focus on customer service," says Jill Flyckt, education manager for IDEA: The Association for Fitness Professionals. "It's the small things and the personal attention that are going to be important."
Fitness professionals agree that health club professionals should certified, which means they are trained to help clients work out efficiently and safely. Instructors are certified by a number of organizations such as IDEA, an international association of 19,000 professionals, or the Mid-Atlantic Club Management Association, a regional association.
Don't be afraid to ask about certification during your visit. You may also want to ask if the staff is certified individually, not just as a club.
"It's not as critical for all fitness staff to be certified, such as those who are not teaching," says Kathy Carroll, marketing director for Merritt Athletic Clubs. "But it is critical that aerobics instructors and other top people be certified individually."
Another important point is how the health club's services fit into your lifestyle.
"Make sure the club has the flexibility to meet your lifestyle and time constraints," says exercise physiologist Kevin Steele, Ph.D., director of education, research and member service for Bally's Health and Tennis Corporation.
"Check the time required for work-outs; the nursery, if you need child care; and whether or not you can use other club locations," says Mr. Steele.
Other things to consider during a visit include cleanliness, the security of the locker rooms and the proximity to home, in case you want to work out on weekends.
Also, visit the club during the time you want to use it, for example lunchtime or after work, to see how crowded it is and how long you'll wait for equipment.
Before you commit, ask for references, talk with other members and check out local consumer protection organizations.
In Maryland, all health clubs must be registered and, if they ask for more than three months' payment in advance, must be bonded, says Steve Sakamoto-Wengel, health club program administrator of the Consumer Protection Division of the Attorney General's Office. Bonding helps protect the consumer should the health club file for bankruptcy.
You can also call the attorney general's office to find out about any complaints against a health club, says Mr. Sakamoto-Wengel.
After you've checked the credentials and services of a health club, assess how you feel about it. Feeling comfortable is crucial; otherwise, you'll be a health club dropout by March.
"You can accomplish your fitness goals in most clubs, but you want to find a place that is comfortable," says Ms. Carroll. "The people who stay with it the longest are those who stay for social or business reasons, people who develop friendships with the other clients or the staff."
"People stay not because they see results, but because they are treated well and feel good about themselves," says Mr. Brick. "People go when there is a need and stay because there's an appreciation."
"It can take about three months to see results; that can be a long time," he says.
Unattainable expectations are another reason people drop out, so be realistic.
"Find an environment that allows you to enjoy exercise, a place with good music or special programs," says Mr. Steele. "Then the key is to set realistic goals, have a system to evaluate your progress, and provide rewards for yourself."
For example, you may want to lose weight and for you, a realistic goal may be 5 pounds a month. When you lose 5 pounds in a month, treat yourself to a movie or a healthy dinner.
Finally, consider the financial aspects and the contract. And as the adage goes, if the price looks too good to be true, it probably is.