Before Joining a Gym, Exercise Your Options
Last updated November 2018
Cardio machines. Boxing classes. Yoga sessions. Indoor pool underwater stationary cycling (yes, that’s really a thing). There are as many ways to work out as there are excuses for staying on the couch. But even though there are lots of options—and lots of science telling us that getting enough physical activity leads to healthier, longer, happier lives—only one in five adults gets enough exercise, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
While there are lots of ways to stay or get fit—long walks, pushups and situps, regular tennis games, taking the stairs instead of the elevator—all require commitment. For those who need an extra push, many wannabe hardbodies decide the social and financial commitment of joining a gym or fitness studio will get them moving.
But if you’re thinking of joining a gym, be aware that the fitness industry thrives on good intentions. Most people who sign on with fitness clubs or studios stop using them after only a few months—and many workout dropouts continue to pay monthly membership fees hoping they’ll soon revive their motivation.
So first make a realistic plan. For most people, beginning a new exercise routine is like quitting a bad habit: the more doable it is (and the more you enjoy spinning/basketball/hot yoga), the more likely you’ll succeed. It also helps if your new exercise regimen includes opportunities to see friends or meet new ones. So does an attractive facility.
Start by setting realistic fitness goals, deciding on types of exercises to achieve them, and committing to a schedule. Make a list of reasons you can refer to when your enthusiasm flags. And if you are older than 40, review your plan with a physician before beginning.
Think about your own motivations and interests—and consider alternatives. Do you need to pay a company big bucks for activities available more cheaply than at a private gym or fitness club?
Many people can get fit for free or cheaply by doing pushups and situps at home, and walking, running, and biking around their neighborhoods. A regular soccer or basketball game at a nearby park is not only cheap but probably 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 cardio equipment, weight 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, seven of Arlington County’s community centers have well-equipped fitness centers with frequent group classes. A six-month pass, which includes access to all facilities, is $102.50 for county residents. A daily pass is $8 for an adult county resident, with discounts for seniors and youths, or for buying memberships as couples or families.
Montgomery County operates 23 recreation centers, community centers, or aquatic centers that offer fitness facilities, indoor pools, or both; most also have gymnasiums and offer group exercise classes. The cost of passes varies according to whether you want access to all activities at all facilities ($500 for an annual pass for an adult county resident) or gym- or pool-only access; whether you join as an individual, couple, senior, or family; whether you pay for yearly, six-month, three-month, or one-day access. Seniors (ages 55 and up) can get a special pass to access fitness centers and gyms at all Montgomery County community centers on weekdays before 3 p.m. for $50 per year for residents ($65 for non-county residents).
The District operates 25 community centers with fitness centers and 11 indoor pools. D.C. residents get free admission to all facilities.
Alexandria and Anne Arundel, Fairfax, Loudoun, Howard, Prince George’s, and Prince William counties also offer recreation centers with exercise facilities residents can frequent without a term commitment at prices well below those of most private health clubs. Fairfax County residents can access nine recreation centers with weights, cardio machines, and drop-in classes plus a range of other features like indoor tracks and pools. Residents pay $255 for a four-month pass with discounts for seniors, youth, and families.
Prince George’s community centers offer good deals for seniors and teens: Both Prince George’s and Montgomery County seniors (ages 60 and up) and teens (ages 13 to 17) can get fitness passes for the Prince George’s community centers (fitness and weight rooms only) for free; adult residents (ages 18 to 59) of either county pay $5 daily or $115 per year. (Note that this applies to community centers only, not the Prince George’s Sports & Learning Complex or the Fairland Sports and Aquatics Complex.)
Think you’ll eventually join a private health and fitness club? Still spend a few weeks trying the alternatives. It’ll give you a better idea as to whether you’ll stick it out at a gym and which activities and facilities matter to you. Then check out our ratings of area gyms and fitness centers to identify those that offer high-quality facilities and staff at reasonable prices.