Work Out Your Health Club Choices

As people learn the benefits of keeping fit, the decision to join a health club can become easy. Deciding which one to join, though, can be tough.

Millions of Americans belong to health and fitness clubs, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). But how can you be sure you're getting the most out of your club?

The motivation to work out must come from within, but a club can enhance your motivation by making exercise more enjoyable and effective. On the other hand, a health club should not hinder you. If you don't feel comfortable, you won't want to exercise there.

When you're choosing a health club, convenience is important. Your club should be no more than 10 minutes from home, either on foot or by car. If you plan to work out before or after work, find a club within 10 minutes of your business.

Walking to your club is better because it can serve as a warm-up. If you drive, assess traffic, parking and parking lot safety.

Tour the club

Go around the time you plan to work out to get a truer sense of the experience. During the day the club may be empty, but at night, when you want to work out, lines at the treadmills might be three deep.

During the tour, ask yourself some questions. Is the facility clean? Is the equipment up-to-date and well maintained? Does the type of equipment make you want to work out? If music is playing, is it the type (and volume) you would choose?

More important, how do staff members treat you? Are they friendly? Do they answer questions easily? Are they pressing you to sign up? If you're not comfortable with the staff, the rest of it doesn't matter.

Ask your tour guide for some time alone and talk with club members. Ask him or her several questions: How long he or she been a member? What does he or she like about the club? Is there anything he or she doesn't like about it? Would the person recommend it to a friend?

Ask for a guest pass. Working out at a club will let you know if you really like the place or were simply swayed by the sales pitch. Every club should provide a one-time visit free, and a few will let you work out for up to a week.

Consider these factors

Staff qualifications: All clubs have weight machines, cycles and steppers, but do they have the staff that can help you use them properly? A certified instructor makes it more likely you will be able to design a safe and effective exercise program. Look for certification from these respected organizations: the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), National Strength Coaches Association (NSCA), the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). The ACSM, NASM, and NSCA require that the instructors and personal trainers they certify have a four-year degree in exercise physiology, sports medicine or a related field.

Price: The less money you make, the more important this will be. For people making less than $25,000 a year, it is the top factor, according to IHRSA research. For those with incomes of $50,000 or more, price ranks fifth.

Variety: Your club should provide enough choices so that you avoid a rut and work different muscles. There should be several types of equipment that focus on a cardiovascular workout: cycles, stair climbers, treadmills, rowing machines, cross-country skiing simulators. Does the club have a track? A pool?

Lifesavers: Does the club have anyone trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and other life-saving techniques? For that matter, does the club check on your health? At good clubs, prospective members fill out a form that includes questions about medical history.

Most clubs require you sign a contract to become a member. Make sure you understand the agreement fully. Beware of lifetime membership offers. Read it carefully before signing it and, if possible, compare it with the contracts of other clubs in your area. Your membership agreement should include a "cooling off" period that lets you cancel within a certain time without penalty. The standard is three days, according to the IHRSA. These are factors the IHRSA advises you to find out about:

  • Length of your commitment. Is it month to month, or are you required to join for a specific period?

  • Termination options. Can you cancel your membership before the end of the contract? Under what conditions?

You may also want to call the Better Business Bureau and see if any complaints have been registered against the club.

Enjoy the payoff

After you've invested in a membership, here are strategies for getting the best value for your health-club dollar:

  • Take an inventory of everything your club has to offer. Classes? Competitions? Variety will keep you interested and motivated.

  • Read the bulletin board. Clubs are often centers for fitness activities in their communities. Many club bulletin boards also offer tips on nutrition and fitness, deals on equipment and more.

  • Use the trainer. A trainer can make sure your fitness program is right for you.

  • Be skeptical of nutritional supplements and other products offered by the club. Compare prices with similar items in retail stores.


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