Before joining a health and fitness club, be realistic about what activities
you are likely to participate in and how often youll use the club. If
you have never exercised before, or havent for a long time, question whether
you will be able to stick with a new fitness regimen. Most people who join
clubs stop using them after only a few months. Since many clubs charge
nonrefundable initiation fees, you can waste a lot of money if you quit.
If you still want to join up, this article should help you choose a club.
Our Ratings Tables list ratings of area fitness centers for quality
and price, and offer details on available facilities, activities, and amenities.
Some quick advice:
Weigh all your options. Can you get exercise less expensively some other
wayfor example, by doing push-ups and sit-ups, running, biking, or joining
a sports team or exercise class?
Shop around. Youll find that some clubs charge twice as much as their
competitors for about the same facilities and amenities. Because many clubs
have several fee plans and discount optionsand may offer the best deals
only if its absolutely necessary to close a salemake sure sales staff
offer you the best available rates. When discussing costs, mention other
clubs youre considering. And check whether you qualify for a discount
due to an arrangement between the facility and your employer or health
insurance plan (see below).
Ask whether a membership youre considering has a time commitment. If youve
never joined a fitness facility, test both your determination to exercise
and the club by taking a short-term or month-to-month option.
Before signing on the dotted line, find out the rules for canceling and
freezing the membership.
Ask for a guest pass to try out any club you are considering. While there,
check out the cleanliness and the condition of equipment. Use your pass
at a time when youre most likely to exercise regularly to see how crowded
it gets, and judge how helpful the staff is.
Get sales staff to put promises in writing. If a salesperson says you can
cancel your membership at any time, make sure it says so in the contract.
If the salesperson says the facility is about to break ground on a new
lap pool, dont believe it unless its written down.
You had such good intentions when you bought that expensive recumbent exercise
bicycleso why are you only using it to stack magazines? You were also
certain the ab contraption you boughtwhile sitting on your couch watching
late-night TV and inhaling a pint of Ben & Jerryswould make all the difference,
but so far its just a convenient footrest. Ring a bell? Well, at least
you have plenty of company: The fitness industry thrives on good intentions.
Maybe the facilities of a health and fitness clubcoupled with the financial
commitment of membershipcould finally provide the motivations you need
to get fit and stay fit.
If you are thinking of joining a health and fitness club, be prepared to
make a number of decisions. There are many clubs in the area from which
to choose, each likely to offer several membership options. And because
sales staff at some clubs use high-pressure and deceptive sales tactics
to close deals, its not always easy to make the right choices.
Membership at many clubs doesnt come cheap. Although you can join a bare-bones
gym for less than $200 a year, many clubs charge more than $700 per person
for the first year, including initiation fees. Want a club that offers
racquet sports or has a wide range of facilities and amenities? Expect
to pay a lot more.
While the amenities and services vary from facility to facility, large
price differences exist among clubs with roughly the same basic features.
If youre just interested in fitness equipment and group exercise classes,
a single membership that provides unlimited access to all facilities for
one year costs $150 at MG Fitness in Wakefield; at Peoplefit Health and
Fitness Center in Woburn, youll pay $1,237. If you want to play indoor
tennis and swim, a three-year couples membership costs $2,618 at Westford
Racquet & Fitness Club; at The Thoreau Club in Concord, youll pay $9,523.
In addition to comparing the facilities and services of various clubs,
compare the costs of joining a club to the many other fitness options.
This article will help you sort through those options and, if you decide
that a health and fitness club is the best way to go, help you get what
you want at the best available price.
Before joining a club, think about your own motivations and interestsand
consider alternatives. Many consumers pay fitness clubs a lot of money
for activities available more cheaply elsewhere.
In fact, most people can save money and meet all their fitness and recreation
needs without joining private fitness clubs. You can do push-ups, sit-ups,
and many other exercises at home for free. Walking, running, and biking
are very inexpensive. A regular soccer or basketball game at a nearby park
is not only inexpensive but probably a lot more fun than lugging weights
around a smelly gym. For a one-time investment of a few hundred dollars,
you can buy various types of home exercise equipment.
Local governments offer both facilities and programs. At parks, you can
find tennis and basketball courts and sports leagues. Some local governments
have recreation centers where you can use cardiovascular fitness equipment,
weightlifting rooms, and indoor swimming pools, or take exercise classesall
free or much cheaper than comparably equipped private health clubs.
For example, Concords Beede Swim and Fitness Center has two large fitness
areas, a gymnasium, four indoor pools, and a wide range of group exercise
classes. A one-year pass for adults costs $860 for residents and $960 for
Boston operates nine community centers that offer fitness centers or weight
rooms and 15 facilities with indoor pools. Brookline, Dedham, Lexington,
and Quincy also operate recreation centers with fitness equipment, indoor
pools, or both.
And as you can see on our Ratings Tables, YMCAs usually have facilities
comparable to those of private health clubs for prices that are often lower
than what you can expect to pay at for-profit facilities.
Even if you expect eventually to join a private health and fitness club,
spend a few months trying the alternatives. That will give you a better
idea whether you really are likely to stick it out at a club and which
activities and facilities matter to you.
If you dont currently exercise on a regular basis, or want to increase
your fitness regimen, first develop a plan. For most people, beginning
a drastically new exercise routine is akin to quitting a bad habit: Having
a doable plan increases your chance of success. Your plan should include
realistic fitness goals, a list of exercises for achieving those goals,
an exercise schedule, and a list of reasons to keep you motivated. (If
you are older than 40, check with a physician before beginning any program
of increased exercise.)
Obviously, you have a better chance of changing your habits if you enjoy
what youre doing. Although some individuals endure a few months of agony
before they start to enjoy exercise for its own sake, its easier if you
like it from the start. It helps if your new exercise regimen includes
opportunities to see friends or meet new people. So does an attractive
facility. And it certainly helps if you look forward to playing a sport
you enjoy, rather than pedaling in place or pushing and pulling on a machine.
When considering a club, youll want to consider several points, including
what its members say about it, its location, membership fees, contract
terms, facilities and equipment, classes, and amenities. Our Ratings Tables include many of these details for area facilities.
Our Ratings Tables report ratings of the facilities by their customers.
We surveyed area consumers (primarily CHECKBOOK and Consumer Reports subscribers)
and asked them to rate health and fitness centers they had used inferior,
adequate, or superior on the following aspects of service quality
- Quality/maintenance of facilities and equipment
- Adequacy of facilities/equipment for demand
- Quality of instruction
- Availability/convenience of organized group activities
- Friendliness of staff
- Providing what the sales staff promised
- Overall value for your money
For facilities in the Boston area that received at least 10 ratings, our
Ratings Tables show the percent of each clubs surveyed customers who
rated it superior (as opposed to adequate or inferior) on each survey
question. (Click here for further discussion
of our customer survey and other research methods.)
Although several clubs rate quite high on all survey measures, we receive
scads of complaints about many other facilities, as evidenced by the ratings
shown for them on our Ratings Tables. The most common complaints relate
to lousy facilities and equipment, and indifferent customer service (see
For firms that were evaluated in our last full, published article, our
Ratings Tables show counts of complaints we gathered from the Better
Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent three-year period.
You can check current BBB complaint information on any company by visiting
www.bbb.org or by phoning 508-652-4800. You can check current customer
survey ratings by clicking on the companys name on our Ratings Tables
and, in the details under the listing, clicking a link to the BBBs most
recent report on complaints about the company.
When using the complaint information, keep in mind that complaints are
not always justified; sometimes customers are unreasonable. And remember
that we didnt have a measure of business volume; large health and fitness
centers are more likely to incur complaints simply because they serve more
Before joining any club, take a tour and ask questions. Most clubs also
provide prospective customers with free guest passes; be sure to take advantage
of these offers.
When trying out a club, ask members what they like and dont like about
the club, and consider the following questions.
Is the location convenient?
If you cant easily get to the facility, youre not likely to use it. Surveyed
CHECKBOOK subscribers cited location as the most important factor in choosing
a club. Consider only facilities close to your home or workplace, depending
on when you plan to work out. Most chains offer memberships that allow
you to use several different facilities.
Is it open when you need it?
Check hours of operation. For early workouts, most open by 6 a.m. on weekdays,
but not until 7, 8, or 9 a.m. on weekends. In the evening, most are open
until at least 10 p.m., but a few close as early as 9 p.m. Also check hours
of the specific facilities you expect to use; for example, the tennis courts
may be open until midnight while the weight room closes at 10 p.m. and
all aerobics classes end by 9 p.m. If youre interested in specific classes,
make sure theyre offered when you can attend them.
Does it have the facilities and amenities you want?
Check whether the club has the types of facilities and equipment you plan
to use. Our Ratings Tables list this information for the facilities
weve evaluated. All facilities listed on our Ratings Tables offer
some form of weight training. Many also have racquetball or squash courts,
but indoor pools, indoor tennis, basketball courts, and indoor tracks are
less widely available. The table also indicates whether facilities have
such features as saunas, Jacuzzis, showers, towel service, and lockers.
Remember that our Ratings Tables say nothing about the size or quality
of what is offered: One clubs pool might be barely bigger than another
clubs hot tub.
Does stuff work?
Even if a club offers all the facilities and equipment you want to use,
they wont do you much good if theyre poorly maintained. Our Ratings Tables report how surveyed customers rated clubs for quality/maintenance
of facilities and equipment. Some clubs received superior ratings on
this question from more than 80 percent of their surveyed customers, while
others were rated superior by fewer than 30 percent.
Does it offer the classes and activities you want?
Our Ratings Tables tell you about a variety of classes and activities
offered by the rated clubs, including aerobics, yoga, group cycling, and
dance. You can check the clubs schedule of classes for the current period
to see how often these activities really are available, but that wont
tell you how quickly classes fill up. To give you more insight on the availability
of activities, our Ratings Tables report ratings on our survey question
availability/convenience of organized group activities.
Is it crowded?
Good facilities and equipment wont do you much good if you cant use them.
Our Ratings Tables show ratings on adequacy of facilities/equipment
for demand. When trying out a club, visit it during the time you are most
likely to use it and check whether there are waits for equipment, find
out how and when to reserve court time, check sign-up rosters for courts
to see how full they are, and ask club members whether crowding is a problem.
Is it clean?
Our survey asked about cleanliness; as our Ratings Tables show, clubs
scores varied widely. When you check out clubs, pay particular attention
to the state of locker rooms, showers, and swimming pools.
Does it offer childcare?
Our Ratings Tables indicate which clubs offer childcare. If youll
be toting along your tots, inspect the kids area. Is it clean and well-maintained?
Are age-appropriate toys available? Are workers attentive and caring? Are
there enough workers to safely supervise the number of kids? Do the kids
seem happy? Is the area secure?
Is the staff competent and helpful?
Youll want a well-staffed clubwith good tennis pros; experienced, inspiring
class leaders; knowledgeable instructors on weights and exercise equipment;
etc. A good staff can help you progress quickly, stay motivated, and avoid
Ask how much experience various staff members have and whether they have
certificationbut be aware that there are many certification programs,
and some of them are meaningless.
Certification programs sponsored by the Aerobics and Fitness Association
of America (www.afaa.com), American College of Sports Medicine (www.acsm.org),
American Council on Exercise (www.acefitness.org), and The Cooper Institute
(www.cooperinstitute.org) are among the most respected. Although certification
through these programs may not ensure competence in every facet of exercise,
most provide a good foundation for personal trainers and fitness center
workers. Also find out whether any instructors have college or graduate
degrees in physiology or related fields. The fitness industry has become
You can judge staff competence to some degree by observing them in action.
For example, simply ask weight-training instructors what kinds of activitiesand
what limitationsthey recommend to reach certain goals, and then ask why.
Evaluate the coherence of their answers. Also make sure tennis pros, for
instance, provide students with the kind of feedback youd want.
As our Ratings Tables show, our customer survey question quality
of instruction yielded some of the lowest scores.
Does it have the right atmosphere for you?
Different clubs have different atmospheres. Some are very attractively
decorated, others more down-to-earth. Some seem oriented toward socializing;
others provide little opportunity for mingling. At some clubs, standard
dress is come-as-you-are casual; at others, you might feel uncomfortable
arriving in jeans. Although in-person visits are the only way to find out
how a club feels to you, our surveys feedback on friendliness might
provide some enlightenment.
Although its easy to check on clubs facilities and activities, finding
the right membership option for you could be a lot more difficult. Some
clubs refuse to give price information over the phone. And even when you
can get the information, it can be hard to compare rates since initiation
fees, monthly charges, facilities, and many other features vary widely.
Even worse, you may be expected to make a substantial upfront financial
commitmenta high initiation fee or long-term contract that may cost a
lot even if you, like many club members, stop using a facility after a
At some clubs, already-confusing fee structures are made worse by salespersons
who try to squeeze each prospective customer for all they can get.
When our shoppers called clubs, some salespersons pushed long-term contracts
and mentioned month-to-month or lower cost options only after our shoppers
hesitated or asked about them. A common ploy is to offer a steep discount
only if you sign a membership contract that day.
In addition to allowing selective price-squeezing, multiple pricing plans
open the way for other abuses. A salesperson might not offer you the best
prices because he or she thinks youll use the facility too heavily, complain
too much, or wont fit in.
Another ploy is the discount that isnt a discount. Many clubs print up
membership fee schedules with inflated prices so that they can cut the
price during the sales pitch.
The same non-discount strategy appears in advertising. While many advertised
specials truly offer special prices, others are confusing or misleading
Careful shopping is your best tactic. When deciding whether to sign up,
forget about the discount on the table and focus on how the clubs price
compares to prices at other clubs.
As previously noted, fees vary dramatically from club to club. Our Ratings Tables report fees for six different profiles, ranging from full access
for three months for one person to full access for three years for a couple.
Based on the fee information collected from the clubs, weve attempted
to calculate the lowest possible fee for each profile for each club that
was evaluated in our last full, published article (see further descriptions
of the profiles in the footnotes for our Ratings Tables). For the three-month
user profile, we assumed the user planned to use the club for three months
and then quit. Charges might be much higher for someone who planned on
being a member for a year but quit after three months.
For each profile, fee differences are large. For example, the one-year
full-access individual user would pay $150 at the MG Fitness in Wakefield
and $2,059 at The Thoreau Club.
When comparing fees, keep several factors in mind
- Which facilities you can use. One reason for the price differences is that some clubs offer much more than others. Evaluate the price in relation to the facilities, equipment, and activities offered (also shown on our Ratings Tables)especially those that you expect to take advantage
of. Some clubs offer lower fees for memberships that exclude certain features, such as racquet sports.
- Times of day. You can sometimes save money by using a club only at off-peak hours.
- Per-use fees. Some clubs, or membership options, require you to pay separately for court time or other benefits, while others offer a broader array of benefits for a basic fee. If you want tennis instruction, regular massages, or other personalized services, check the clubs charges for these services.
- Other clubs you can use. If you are interested in using more than one club location, either locally or outside the area, ask for details on multi-club use opportunities. Our Ratings Tables report whether each club offers membership options that allow customers access to other local clubs and has memberships that allow access to other clubs nationally (typically through a national reciprocal-use program that gives its members access to participating clubs for a per-use guest fee).
If you are interested in using more than one club location, get a list
of participating clubs. Some clubs offer use of only one other local club,
while others let you use dozens.
If you know you will be using only one club location, mention it to membership
salespersons. Health club chains often have lower membership-rate categories
for customers who agree to limit their access to one club location.
- Renewal fees. Some clubs charge lower fees for renewals after an initial contract period.
Check whether you qualify for a discounted membership rate.
Many clubs offer steep discounts for seniors. The age requirement varies
by club, with some clubs offering discounts to members age 50 and up. Keep
in mind that some clubs limit access of senior memberships to off-peak
You may also qualify for a discount through your employer. Many clubs have
agreements with employers for corporate rates typically 10 to 20 percent
lower than normal rates. If your employer doesnt have an agreement, you
may be able to foster one by recruiting coworkers to join with you. Clubs
typically extend corporate rates to employees of businesses with even a
handful of employees willing to sign up.
Finally, find out if your health insurance plan offers benefits for fitness
services. Several area insurers reimburse a portion of health and fitness
club membership costs, and some insurers participate in programs that offer
plan members discounts at participating clubs (see below for more information).
Once you identify clubs that have the range and quality of offerings you
want, examine the kinds of financial commitments they require.
You might expect a health and fitness club would let you use it when you
want for a daily fee. A $10-per-day fee, for example, adds up to $1,040
per year if you used it twice a week. In fact, most YMCAswhich arent
out to make a profitallow such per-day payment.
But most private clubs are not so flexible. Many clubs want to lock you
in with a substantial initiation fee, a long-term contract, or both. Thats
good for the clubs: They collect your money even if youlike most new club
memberslose interest and stop using the club. But its bad for you. Oral
promises salespersons make when pitching clubs may not be legally binding.
If a club does not meet your expectations, or its service is terrible,
you still may be responsible for paying off the contract.
Dont join a club without carefully reading its contracts fine print.
For the most part, clubs are merciless in enforcing their contracts. If
youve signed up for a year and want to quit after a week, your club may
come after you for payment for the full year. You need to look for several
contract terms to determine how much flexibility youll have.
A $200 initiation fee would seem stiff if you quit after two months. A
big initiation fee does more than raise the risk that youll waste your
money if you lose interest; you also risk losing all or part of the fee
if the club goes out of business. In the past several years, many clubs
have failedand many members have lost their fees.
Some clubs require you to sign up for a year or more. While most clubs
let you pay monthly fees throughout a contracts duration, others demand
the full fee for a long-term contract upfront. Our Ratings Tables indicate
which clubs offer month-to-month or short-term contracts that permit you
to drop out at any time without obligation for future payments.
Low initiation fees and the availability of month-to-month memberships
may also be signs of quality. Clubs that require no initiation fees, or
only modest ones, or offer month-to-month memberships, display confidence
that you will be satisfied enough to continue your membership. Also, clubs
that dont devote enormous resources to advertising are likely able to
count on word-of-mouth recommendations of satisfied members to recruit
Most clubs will not release you from a term contract or refund payments
if you quit. By law, a club must stop requiring monthly payments or refund
a pro-rata share of prepaid fees if you quit because of medical reasons
or move out of the area. Some clubs will let you off the hook for monthly
fees or refund unused shares of their annual fees in the absence of illness
or moving. In many cases, however, youll have to repay the club for any
discounts received for committing to a term or pay a cancellation fee.
If a club wont let you out of your contract and refund your fees, you
might be able to sell your membership to someone else. However, most clubs
dont allow members to transfer contracts to someone else, and those that
do usually charge a fee for the privilege. Selling memberships is not easy.
You can advertise on Craigslist or similar websites, or pass the word among
other club members who may have friends whod like to join. Expect little
help from the club itself.
For members who need to take some time off, many clubs defer monthly payments
during freeze periods. Or they may have you continue making discounted
payments on schedule but extend your membership and waive the initiation
fee when you become active again. Most clubs that allow freezes restrict
them to cases of illness or injury, pregnancy and childbirth, or temporary
relocation: You cant just take time off because the weather is nice. But
some clubs allow membership freezes regardless of the reason. Many have
a minimum length of freeze (for example, at least three months), a maximum,
or both. And some require you to pay monthly fees at a reduced rate for
the months when your membership is frozen.
Since the financial commitment of a club membership is substantial, and
since some clubs employ aggressive sales tactics, Massachusetts law provides
for a cooling-off period. You have three days after signing a contract
to cancel and get your money back. You should cancel in writing by certified
or registered mail. If you can persuade the club to give you a longer cooling-off
period, or trial period, than the law requires, do so.
Many health and fitness clubs have reciprocal arrangements with other clubs
in the area, or participate in reciprocal programs that allow members to
work out at other clubs worldwide. Our Ratings Tables show which clubs
offer local and/or national reciprocal benefits.
With most chains, you buy a membership to a home club and can purchase
an upgrade that admits you to other clubs affiliated with the chain either
for free or for a discounted guest fee.
Some area clubs belong to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub
Association (IHRSA) or International Physical Fitness Association (IPFA).
Generally, members of clubs that belong to either of these organizations
can pay a discounted guest fee to use all other member clubs on a per-visit
basis. To utilize these reciprocal benefits, members must be at least 50
miles away from their home club and present proof of membership in good
standing. Its a good idea to call a club you will be visiting ahead of
time, as most clubs place a priority on meeting the needs of their own
If a clubs reciprocal arrangements with other clubs are a factor in your
choice, ask for a full list of clubs that reciprocate and the rules and
fees for using reciprocal privileges. IHRSA (www.healthclubs.com/passport)
and IPFA (www.ipfa.us) list all participating clubs worldwide on their
Most health insurance plans offer discounts on health and fitness clubs
and other fitness-related purchases. Many insurers operating in Massachusetts
even reimburse members fees at health clubs, if they use them often enough.
Insurers usually publicize these programs as ways to promote healthy habits
among their members. Cynics argue the insurers are trying to attract a
large pool of health-conscious customers who are less likely to run up
huge medical bills.
Some of these programs offer pretty good deals
Fallon Community Health Plan has the most generous offer. It reimburses
up to $200 per year for individuals and up to $400 for families for fees
paid to participate in just about any type of fitness activity, including
gym memberships, dance classes, swimming lessons, skiing, sports leagues,
running races, and weight-loss programs.
For members enrolled in plans that include a Fitness Benefit, Blue Cross
Blue Shield of Massachusetts reimburses up to $150 per year for health
and fitness club memberships. To collect, members must remain members for
at least four months.
Health New England reimburses its members up to $150 per year for fees
paid to participating health and fitness clubs.
Tufts reimburses members up to $150 per year for fees paid to participating
health and fitness clubs. To collect, members must remain members for at
least four months. In addition, members who join one of 80 participating
facilities pay no enrollment fees and get a 20 percent discount on monthly
fees if they sign one-year contracts. Members can also use participating
facilities without signing membership agreements for up to five visits
per month for $6 per visit. And members who join Curves facilities get
a 50 percent discount on enrollment fees, plus one months free dues after
completing 12-month memberships.
Neighborhood Health Plan reimburses members up to $50 per year for fees
paid to eligible health and fitness clubs.
Aetna has a relationship with GlobalFit.com, which claims to offer the
lowest rates for thousands of fitness centers. (If you find a lower rate
on your own, GlobalFit promises to reimburse you the difference, plus five
percent.) When we compared its rates at participating clubs with what our
shoppers were quoted, we found that most GlobalFit rates were lower.
But it is harder to calculate the savings you might get through programs
offered by some insurance plans. Cigna and UnitedHealthcare have discount
programs for health and fitness clubs. Each plan says that its program
provides 10 percent discounts off participating clubs current rates. Unfortunately,
these discount programs dont provide customers with detailed costs. A
10 percent discount sounds fine, but if you still have to call or visit
clubs to gather fee information, youll still be subjected to the hard
sell that is common at some clubs. Remember, many clubs show prospective
customers inflated regular rates and then offer discounts to create the
illusion of value. If you dont have fee information in advance, you wont
know whether the discount your health insurance plan offers really is a
The message here? Push clubs for their lowest rates and then ask for any
discounts available through your health plan. And even if your health insurer
reimburses costs or provides detailed cost information, dont limit your
choices to participating facilities. Facilities outside the program may
offer better deals, even when you take into account your insurers reimbursements