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, it’s not always easy to make the right choices.

When comparing fitness clubs, consider several points, including what its members say about it, its location, membership fees, contract terms, facilities and equipment, classes, and amenities. Our ratings of area fitness clubs will help you make these comparisons. You’ll notice from the sample prices we collected from clubs that membership at many facilities doesn’t come cheap. Although some bare-bones gyms charge less than $300 a year, many clubs charge more than $600 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.

Review Ratings from Customers

Our Ratings Tables report reviews of the facilities by their customers. We surveyed area consumers (primarily Consumers' 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
  • Cleanliness
  • 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 area that received at least 10 ratings, our Ratings Tables show the percent of each club’s 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. The most common complaints relate to lousy facilities and equipment, and indifferent customer service.

Check Complaint Histories

Our Ratings Tables also show counts of complaints we gathered from the Better Business Bureau (BBB) for a recent three-year period and the number of complaints on file with local government consumer protection offices for a recent two-year period. Click here for more information on reported complaint counts.

Try It Out

Before joining any club, take a tour and ask questions. Most clubs 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 don’t like about the club, and consider the following questions.

Is the location convenient?

If you can’t easily get to the facility, you’re not likely to use it. 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 you’re interested in specific classes, make sure they’re 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 we’ve 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 courts, basketball courts, and indoor tracks are less widely available. We also indicates whether facilities have such features as saunas, Jacuzzis, showers, towel service, and lockers. Remember that the information on our Ratings Tables says nothing about the size or quality of what is offered: One club’s pool might be barely bigger than another club’s hot tub.

Does stuff work?

Even if a club offers all the facilities and equipment you want to use, they won’t do you much good if they’re 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 90 percent of their surveyed customers, while others were rated “superior” by fewer than 40 percent.

Does it offer the classes and activities you want?

Our Ratings Tables indicate the variety of classes and activities offered by the rated clubs, including aerobics, yoga, group cycling, and dance. You can check the club’s schedule of classes for the current period to see how often these activities really are available, but that won’t tell you how quickly classes fill up. To provide greater 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 won’t do you much good if you can’t 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 you’ll 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?

You’ll want a well-staffed club—with 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 injury.

Ask how much experience various staff members have and whether they have certification—but 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, American College of Sports Medicine, American Council on Exercise, and The Cooper Institute 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 bachelor’s or graduate degrees in physiology or related fields. In recent years the fitness industry has become increasingly professionalized.

You can judge staff competence to some degree by observing them in action. For example, ask weight-training instructors what kinds of activities—and what limitations—they recommend for reaching specific 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 you’d want.

Is the atmosphere right 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 survey’s feedback on “friendliness” might provide some enlightenment.