Selecting A Gym

Know your goals, do some research before signing on dotted line

May 25, 2008|By Andrea K. Walker | Andrea K. Walker,Sun reporter

You're looking for a way to drop those few extra pounds and tone up that flab that's gathered around your middle or settled on your hips. Or you've resolved to change your couch-potato habits. Or you subscribe to the use-it-or-lose-it school of physical fitness.

Joining a gym is the most obvious way to get - and stay - in shape. But with more than 700 registered gyms and weight-loss centers in Maryland, choosing one can be daunting.

Should you join a mega gym that might cost a little more but has the newest equipment, offers the latest classes and staffs an army of personal trainers to offer you workout help? Or is a no-frills workout facility that costs less a better option?

Do you care if you can get a fruit smoothie or a protein bar? If you're new to exercising, are you going to feel comfortable at a gym where members work out like Olympians? Does the gym accommodate a range of ages, or is it predominantly 20-somethings?

The personality of a gym is just one of the factors you should investigate when looking for a place to work out. You also want to consider cost, location, cleanliness and rules for cancellation. You don't want to get stuck paying for a gym membership because you can't get out of the contract.

Do your research before joining. Write down your goals and what you want out of a gym. Visit the gym at the time of day you're most likely to be working out. A gym may be slow during lunch, but have every treadmill and elliptical machine taken after work when you intend to go. Make sure the equipment is in good working order and the bathrooms are clean. Broken-down equipment may be a sign that the gym isn't well-maintained.

Always ask for a trial membership. Most gyms will let you get a pass for at least a day to try them out.

Don't be pressured to sign a contract right away. And be wary of a gym that says you'll miss out on a good deal if you don't join that day. Under state law, you have three days to cancel a contract.

Treat a gym like any big purchase. You wouldn't buy a car without a test drive. Or buy a house without a walk-through.

"If people would weigh in these factors, there'd be a lot less of what I call charitable giving - where you pay for these memberships and never go," said Nichele Hoskins, a certified indoor cycling instructor and fitness editor of Heart & Soul magazine.

"People waste a lot of money on gyms because they don't choose one that's right for them," she said.

Fitness experts say one of the most important factors to consider in a gym is its location. The American Council on Exercise said you should find one no more than 30 minutes from home or work. Some gyms suggest closer is better.

"You want it to be consistent," said Cedric Bryant, chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise. "If it takes too long to get there, you'll be unlikely to do it consistently."

The type of gym you choose depends a lot on personal preference. Someone new to fitness may want a bigger gym with trainers who can teach the correct way to use equipment. If you need a lot of motivation, you may want to choose a gym with a lot of classes. A more advanced, independent exerciser may just need a small gym with basic equipment. There are also women-only clubs, including Curves and a Brick Bodies in North Baltimore, for those intimidated by the typical testosterone-filled gym environment.

"It comes down to what motivates you to exercise," said John Terpak, general manager for the Maryland Athletic Club and Wellness Center, or MAC gyms. Once you've decided on a gym, check with the Maryland attorney general's office, which registers all gyms, and the Better Business Bureau to see if there are any complaints about the facility.

If you're considering paying a full year of dues up front, rather than monthly, make sure the gym has posted a surety bond or other security with the attorney general's office to protect customers' advance payments if it were to go out of business.

"You want to make sure the club doesn't disappear overnight," said Alfreda Cooper, director of the health club registration unit of the attorney general's office. "You'll have a situation where a club will close and we'll find that they have been taking payment in full and they don't have adequate security."

Also read your contract closely to see exactly what it covers. Sure, a monthly membership of $33 may seem like a good deal. But do you have to pay extra for certain aerobics classes? Do the rates increase over the term of the contract? Do you have to pay for parking? Also, make sure your contract doesn't automatically renew.

"You may get in on an introductory deal and then six months later pay more than you anticipated," Bryant said.

If you do feel that you're unfairly locked into a contract, you can appeal to the mediation unit of the attorney general's office to try to get the matter resolved, Cooper said.

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