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Health Clubs: Getting the Most for Your Money

IMAGE People join health clubs to look and feel better overall, as well as to control their weight. People often cite peer support and encouragement from staff members as the main stimulus for sticking with an exercise routine.

Where Can You Find a Health Club?

First look in the phone directory under "health clubs" or "gyms". If you are a college or university employee, you are probably eligible to use its fitness center. If you are retired from the military, find out if your local base has a workout facility. Call your town's recreation department. Many towns have pools and ice rinks or use the high school pool and gym to provide very low cost swimming, tennis, and aerobic programs.
Do not forget to call your local YMCA. Most of them have fully outfitted fitness centers, racquetball courts, pools, and multi-purpose rooms. In addition, they tend to have very accessible hours of operation.
Another way to locate a club is to log onto http://www.healthclubs.com/ and perform a search for health clubs in your area. Or you can do a search for gyms in your area using a different web browser.

Determine Your Workout Goals

When shopping for a facility, decide what you plan to do there. If you want to work with a personal trainer who has credentials, a full-service fitness center may be right for you. If you want to relax and be pampered, find a health club that has a swimming pool, sauna, and whirlpool. If you only want to play tennis or racquetball, a racquet and sports club may be the answer. If a good, solitary workout without swimming is all you want, then you should consider a less expensive, large membership club, usually referred to as a gym. Many gyms are outfitted with state of the art, high-tech equipment and offer exercise and aerobics classes as well as personal training.

Get the Most Services for Your Money

Consider the following when selecting a health club or gym:

Discounts

Search out a club that offers family, couples, single parent, or other promotional discounts. Membership fees and conditions are almost always negotiable. If you travel frequently or might be relocating, ask if the club offers discount guest passes to other clubs or relocation discounts. Many clubs will give you a three- or six-month free membership extension if you bring in new members, but you will probably have to ask.

Insurance Coverage

If price is your main concern, check with your health insurance or employee benefit plan. Most health maintenance organizations (HMOs) and third-party private insurers either offer discounted health club memberships as part of their benefits plan or will pay a portion of your initiation fee.

Buyer Beware

Be wary of lifetime memberships or multi-year contracts that require a large payment up front. If you are not sure about the reputation of a club, check with the local Better Business Bureau or Attorney General's office.
NEVER join a health club before it opens, no matter how sterling its prospects. Look for a club with at least three years of continuous operation or a new branch of an established chain. Do not sign on for any more than one year in advance, and make sure that your contract has an "escape clause," allowing you to cancel your membership or receive a rebate if you relocate or become disabled. Do not be pressured by a promotion that ends "tonight;" deals are often still available whenever you decide to sign up (be sure to ask). Make sure the contract covers everything you have discussed with club management. Never rely on verbal agreements.

Trial Run

When you find a club you like, take advantage of a trial membership or one-day pass. Also, ask about a complimentary workout evaluation with a personal trainer.

Convenience

Is the club within 15 minutes of home or on your commuting route? Do the club hours and class times fit into your schedule? Do the classes interest you? Is the facility open on weekends? What is the guest policy? Consider these questions and others that will affect how much you will use the facility.

Atmosphere

Go at peak times (at lunch and after work) to see if there is a wait to use equipment and look at the instructor/client ratio. How quiet or loud is the club? Are people talking to each other? How does it "feel" to you? Determine if the atmosphere is one you will be comfortable in. Your gut instinct is usually a good guide here.

Extra Fees

Beware of hidden and extra expenses. Some questions to ask include the following:
  • Are all services included in the fee?
  • Do you pay extra for aerobics classes, racquetball court time, etc.?
  • Is there a fee to "freeze" or terminate your membership?

Instruction

If you are interested in instruction and/or special services from the club's staff, there are several questions to ask. These include the following questions:
  • Is one-on-one instruction available? If so, does it cost extra?
  • Can you have your fitness level tested when you begin an exercise program, and periodically after that?
  • Are there special programs for children?
  • Are there programs for people with disabilities? Is the gym accessible to people with disabilities?
  • Do they have special times and workouts for seniors?

Certification

Ask if the club's exercise instructors are certified by a nationally recognized organization such as the The American Council on Exercise, the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America, or the National Strength & Conditioning Association. Make sure that all trainers are CPR-certified and at least half of the health club's staff members are as well.

Staff and Facilities

A few more important details to consider:
  • Is the staff pleasant?
  • Are the bathrooms, locker rooms, and equipment clean?
  • Do you need to provide your own lock or towels?
  • Can you park close by? Will you feel safe coming and going at night or early in the morning?

Safety

Equipment should be in good repair. Each electronic machine should be plugged into its own outlet, not into multi-unit extension cords. Faulty, worn, or overloaded equipment can cause injuries. Each piece of equipment should have instructions attached directly to it, facing you as you perform the exercise.

Child Care

Many gyms offer babysitting services for parents. If this is important to you, ask if these services are available. Find out who watches the children and where. Are they left unattended in a play area, or is there a babysitter hired to watch them?
Joining a gym or health club can help make working out a regular part of your lifestyle. These facilities take away the uncertainty of the weather and provide all the tools you need. A membership is a good investment for your health. Be sure to choose wisely so you will take full advantage of the services available.

RESOURCES

Aerobics and Fitness Association of America http://www.afaa.com/

American College of Sports Medicine http://www.acsm.org/

American Council on Exercise http://www.acefitness.org/

National Strength & Conditioning Association http://www.nsca-lift.org

CANADIAN RESOURCES

Health Canada http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/

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