You had such good intentions when you bought that expensive recumbent exercise bicycle—so why are you only using it to stack magazines? You were also certain the “ab” contraption you bought—while sitting on your couch watching late-night TV and inhaling a pint of Ben & Jerry’s—would make all the difference, but so far it’s 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 club—coupled with the financial commitment of membership—could finally provide the motivations you need to get fit and stay fit.

Our Ratings Tables will help you compare the quality, prices, facilities, and services offered by local clubs. But before joining the fitness-center club, first compare the costs of joining a club to the many other fitness options. A lot of fitness-club customers waste a lot of money on memberships they don’t use.

Before joining a club, think about your own motivations and interests—and 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 pushups, situps, 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, and take exercise classes—all free or much cheaper than comparably equipped private health clubs.

For example, the Greater Plymouth Community Center offers a fitness center, indoor pool, gymnasium, indoor track, and a wide range of group exercise classes. A one-year pass for adults costs $417 for residents, $542 for nonresidents.

Philadelphia operates several community centers that offer fitness centers or weight rooms, and five facilities with indoor pools. Pool use is free. The cost for using fitness centers and weight rooms varies, but prices are very low; for instance, you’ll pay $1 per day to use the fitness center at Mallery Recreation Center and $10 per month to access the fitness center at Water Tower Recreation Center.

Delaware residents have free fitness opportunities. Wilmington’s William Hicks Anderson Community Center has a fitness center, indoor pool, and gymnasium available for free use. The Garfield Park Community Recreation Center in New Castle offers a free drop-in weight room Monday through Thursday from 9:30 a.m. to noon.

And YMCAs usually have facilities comparable to those of private health clubs but often charge lower fees.

Even if you expect to eventually join a private health and fitness club, spend a few months trying the alternatives. That will give you a better idea as to whether you really are likely to stick it out at a club and which activities and facilities matter to you.