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 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, Fairfax County operates nine well-equipped recreation centers, all with fitness centers and indoor pools, some with gymnasiums, and a wide range of group exercise classes. A six-month pass, which includes access to all nine facilities, is $367 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. Also, Reston Community Center has an indoor pool at its Hunters Woods location; adult Reston residents pay only $4.50 for a one-day pass.

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 by 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 (age 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 only $50 per year for residents ($65 for non-county residents).

The District operates 29 facilities with fitness centers and/or indoor pools. District residents receive free admission to all pools and pay only $5 for a daily fitness center membership (and only $125 for an annual pass); there are discounts for senior and family passes, and options for monthly or quarterly memberships.

Alexandria and Anne Arundel, Arlington, Loudoun, Howard, Prince George’s, and Prince William counties also offer recreation centers with exercise facilities that can be accessed without a term commitment for prices well below those of even the least expensive private health clubs with comparable facilities. Alexandria residents can access four recreation centers for $5 per day (or $125 per year), and seniors get a 20 percent discount. Prince George’s community centers offer quite a deal 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 just $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.)

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.