Exercise your options at health clubs

January 20, 1995|By Andrew Leckey

As Americans join health clubs in early 1995 so they can accomplish their New Year's resolutions to get fit, they'll find some things have changed and others remain very much the same.

There are now more women members than men, a significant departure from several years ago and an indication women have become much more comfortable with such surroundings.

Clubs aren't merely recreational centers anymore, but sophisticated health-promotion and disease-prevention facilities with a wide range of programs.

Personal trainers, who guide the member through a goal-oriented program of motivation and exercise, have become popular. Ten percent of club members now pay extra for such personal training sessions.

However, some things at many of the nation's 12,500 clubs unfortunately remain the same.

Many clubs still employ high-pressure tactics, such as giving you 24 hours to make a decision on club membership or you'll forfeit a "special" rate or "free" introductory services.

Most clubs still make their money because people pay to join but seldom show up. The dropout rate at some clubs is as high as 50 percent.

Clubs do offer valuable resources such as aerobics classes and cardiovascular and strength equipment, but it pays to keep your eyes wide open.

"Never make a commitment to a club of more than two years and realize that initiation fee and dues structures vary," advised John McCarthy, executive director of the International Health, Racquet and Sports Association in Boston. "Clubs are offering more payment options, such as one fee for an entire year; a contract for a year or two so you pay a lower fee on a monthly basis; or simply letting you pay month by month."

In big cities, fees are $25 to $44 a month at a high-volume, lower-priced club; $45 to $64 at a medium-range club; and $65 to $110 at a high-end affluent club, Mr. McCarthy said.

"Be wary of claims that the club will waive the initiation fee if you sign up today or that it's a one-time offer," counseled Collot Guerard, attorney with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). "Make certain that verbal statements about specific facilities or staffing are true and understand your membership cancellation rights."

Don't authorize a club to use your credit card number or bank account number to draw your fee each month, she warned. Pay the monthly bill yourself. An FTC case involving Bally's Health and Tennis Corp. settled in April 1994 noted many member complaints about duplicate billing and the fact that some memberships hadn't been canceled when requested, she said.

Also, avoid "free visits" offered as prizes, since they're usually just a high-pressure sales pitches. And use common sense when selecting.

"A club may be the best, but if it isn't convenient, you simply won't travel there," said James Auerbach, general manager of the World Gym in New York City. "A club must also be affordable or you'll stop coming and paying, and it's crucial that it's clean and well maintained."

Visit at the times you wish to use the club to determine how busy it will be. Talk to members and former members. Check out the club's reputation with the Better Business Bureau, state attorney general's office or local consumer office. Find out its accreditation with national fitness organizations. Read the contract carefully. Ask for a short-term trial.

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