Before joining a fitness club, be realistic about what activities you are likely to participate in and how often you’ll use the club. If you have never exercised before, or haven’t 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. Be sure to weigh all your options: Can you get exercise less expensively some other way—for example, by doing exercises at home, running, biking, or joining a sports team or exercise class?

If you still want to join up, our ratings of clubs for quality and price should help you choose a club. We found that some clubs charge more than twice as much as their competitors for about the same facilities and amenities. Because many clubs offer several membership options—and may offer the best deals only if it’s necessary to close a sale—make sure to ask for the best available rates. Before signing any contract, ask about cancellation and freeze rules, and make sure any promises made put in writing. Ask clubs you’re considering for guest passes to try them out.