For many people, the idea of a health club is totally unappealing; they hear the phrase and think of overcrowded facilities, sweaty equipment, sleight-of-hand membership sales techniques, and the grunting of weight room fanatics. But a new survey by Consumer Reports finds that those folks are overlooking some less flashy, but wonderful workout options: local independent facilities like work and school gyms, yoga studios, and the Y.
The big health club chains, with the exception of Life Time Fitness, fell to the bottom of the ratings, which were based on survey responses from more than 10,000 subscribers to ConsumerReports.org. (The magazine also sent in secret shoppers to gauge how easy it was to join a particular facility.) Tops in overall satisfaction were independent yoga/dance/Pilates studios, followed by Life Time, the gym at work, community centers, the Jewish Community Center, school gyms, and the YM or YWCA. Chains such as Curves, Gold's Gym, and LA Fitness were in the bottom half. At the way bottom was Bally Total Fitness, which emerged from bankruptcy in the fall. (A Bally spokeswoman, in an E-mailed statement, said that Bally has "many satisfied and loyal long-term members" and has invested almost $30 million in upgrades since the survey was conducted.)
I've always approached my health club memberships strategically, calculating exactly what I want to get out of them and what I'm willing to pay for that. (I joined the YMCA up the block as well as taking classes at a dance studio a few subway stops away.) Here's how I—based on my own experience and what the experts say—would approach joining a gym.
Figure out your budget. In New York, where I live, monthly dues for a bells-and-whistles chain like Equinox can exceed $140. But if you find a pricey place you absolutely love, ask if there are reduced rates for using it less frequently, maybe every other day or during off-peak hours, suggests Jamie Hirsh, associate editor at Consumer Reports and author of the health club article.
Be brutally honest with yourself about what facilities you will actually use. I'm a regular swimmer, so finding a facility with a pool was a priority for me. And I knew I'd use the weights and, on occasion, the treadmill. I figured out how much I was willing to pay for that and landed at the Y, where the aerobics and other classes cost extra (i.e. I'm not paying for classes I don't use—instead I pay per-class at the dance studio I attend).
Initiation fees are for suckers. This is my personal rule; at some places, a fee may well be nonnegotiable. But it never hurts to try, and I've never met a gym that wouldn't waive the fee during certain times of the year—say, right after New Year's.
Look for discounts through other groups. My local triathlon club negotiated a 20 percent discount from the Y, and the $144 a year that saves me is many multiples of the triathlon club's annual dues.
Understand the contract you're signing. One of the reasons I love the Y is that I can quit anytime I want with only a month's notice. Other places aren't so generous; understand what you're getting into. (CR's article has a great rundown of the fine print of contracts).
It's no bargain if you never go. Some people are fine with a bare-bones gym; others want daycare, a juice bar, and nice-smelling soap or they won't ever make it there in the first place. Know thyself and buy accordingly.