In a sense, a health club is just a big, expensive piece of exercise equipment. If you use it, you'll feel great and enjoy many health benefits, but if not, you'll just feel guilty and wasteful. Here are a few tips to help you decide about joining a club — and to help you get the most from your club after you've signed up.
The benefits of membership
A health club can provide three major benefits: motivation and companionship, instruction and supervision, and equipment and facilities.
Motivation is the most important, especially for those who are just starting to exercise. The first steps to fitness are the hardest. It can take two to three months for people to really enjoy exercising; going to a club can make those initial workouts easier to take.
Instruction is an important feature, both for beginners and people who are ready to move up to a new level. Most clubs offer free hands-on guidance to get you started on a piece of equipment, and many offer personal trainers to plan and supervise an individualized regimen, usually for an extra fee. Group classes are also available at most clubs, providing companionship, motivation, and instruction all at once.
A third reason to join a club is to get your hands — or feet — on their equipment. Home exercise equipment is great, but few homes can support more than one or two devices. Every health club worth the salt of your sweat will have ellipticals, treadmills, bikes, climbers, resistance machines, and weights. Many offer even more, from rowing machines and cross-country skiers to swimming pools.
Picking a club
Exercise facilities range from old-fashioned, hard-core gyms, to neighborhood centers and Ys, to fancy clubs and sleek spas. Here are some tips to help you find the club that's best for you.
- Find a club that's convenient. A long commute is a dagger in the heart of good intentions. If at all possible, pick a club within 10 to 15 minutes of your home or work. Location is everything, or at least nearly everything.
- Be sure the club is open when you want to use it, and that it's not too crowded at your favorite times.
- Be sure the club has what you want, but don't pay for more than you need. If you're a treadmill, bike, and Nautilus guy, you can save big bucks by staying away from clubs that have racquetball courts and steam rooms. On the other hand, if your stroke is the crawl, seek out a club with a lap pool.
- Check out the atmosphere. Intangibles can make or break a club. A club should be inviting — clean, bright, and upbeat. That goes for the showers and lockers, too. If TV or music will help you work up a sweat, be sure the club has what you need.
- Choose a club that's appropriate for your age and health. A good club should ask you to fill out a medical questionnaire, possibly including an okay from your doctor. If you have medical problems, find a club that has the equipment and personnel to provide first aid. But be leery of a club that insists you take an expensive stress test from them, whether you need one or not.
- Check out the staff. Are they just bodybuilders who look good, or are they well-trained fitness experts? A good credential is certification by a credible organization such as the American College of Sports Medicine.
- Talk to club members to find out how they like it; be sure to ask if the club delivers on its promises.
- Ask for a free introductory workout or an inexpensive trial membership. It's the best way to see if the club works for you.
Look before you leap
Health clubs want you for your body, but they want you for your money, too. Most clubs impose a one-time initiation fee, then a monthly or yearly charge. Costs vary widely; a no-frills gym may ask for $100 to join and $25 to $50 a month, while a spa with all the bells and whistles might accept $1,000 for the privilege of belonging, then $100 to $200 a month. Buy only what you need, and pay only what you can afford. And even if the price is right, exercise a little care:
- Join an established club that's unlikely to close suddenly, leaving you with a prepaid invitation to a locked building.
- Read the contract, even the fine print.
- Evaluate the payment options. A monthly or quarterly fee will give you more security than a prepaid annual fee. Ask if there is a finance charge. Look for specials or negotiate your own deal.
- Sign the shortest contract you can, particularly if it's your first. Try to find a plan that will allow you to opt out for a small charge or one that you can sell to a friend for a modest transfer fee. Don't ink a long-term agreement unless you get a discount — and even then, be sure you'll actually use the club and that it will stay open and up to date.
- Check with your local Better Business Bureau or consumer affairs agency to see if people have complained about the club.
Exercise your options
Checking out a health club sounds formidable, but it's actually much easier than buying a car or filing your taxes. The most important investment is not your money but your time, and the most important dividend is your health and happiness. Exercise is essential for optimal health and longevity; an investment of 30 to 45 minutes nearly every day will earn the best returns.