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.

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 exercise facilities and programs. Recreation centers and local parks have cardiovascular fitness equipment, weightlifting rooms, tennis courts, swimming pools, aerobics classes, basketball courts, sports leagues, and much more—all free or much cheaper than comparably equipped private health clubs.

For example, San Jose offers seven community centers, all with fitness centers and a variety of classes; most also have gyms. A citywide fitness pass, which provides access to exercise facilities at six community centers, costs $260 for one year; the price is $150 annually for seniors (ages 50 and up), teens, and the disabled. Monthly passes cost $26 for adults and $20 for seniors, teens, and the disabled. Drop-in rates are $5.50 for adults and $2.75 for seniors, teens, and the disabled.

Access to the fitness centers and weight rooms offered by San Francisco’s recreation centers is free. To swim in any of San Francisco’s pools, adults pay $6 per swim ($1 for ages 18 and under); a 10-swim pass is $51 for adults (just $24 for seniors).

Richmond has four community centers that offer fitness memberships to adults either for free or for $5 per month for residents ($6 for nonresidents).

The Mark Green Sports Center in Union City offers a fitness center, 12,000-square-foot gymnasium, and a wide range of group exercise classes. An annual pass costs $325 for adult residents ($360 for nonresidents); the daily drop-in rate is $7 for adult residents ($12 for nonresidents).

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.