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How to choose a health club that's right for you



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OK, you're infatuated. Enticing looks, a seemingly ideal match, the promise of many long and fulfilling years together.

But in weighing any long-term commitment, don't let your impulsive heart overwhelm the common sense of your cool, logical head - or you could be stuck in an unhappy, expensive relationship.

We're talking health clubs, of course. High season is fast approaching, when the perfect storm of extra holiday pounds, New Year's resolutions and alluring deals propel many people to look for a place to work out.

"By far and away, January, February and March are the three biggest months in the calendar for us, says Bill Howland, director of research for the International Health Racquet and Sportsclub Association. "It's prime time for our industry."

But as sure as winter turns to spring, the holiday rush will fade.

"If everybody who belonged to a health club actually went, you wouldn't be able to get in the door," says James Hood, president of consumer affairs.com, a consumer watchdog Web site. "It would be too crowded."

Cedric Bryant, a vice president at the American Council on Exercise, figures the health club attrition rate mirrors the percentage of people who start exercising but don't stick with it.

"Everybody comes in with so much enthusiasm, and about half the people drop out," says Dr. Bryant, an exercise physiologist. "Unfortunately, a lot of facilities are banking on that."

Sam Mulroy, who owns health clubs in the Dallas area, disagrees. No matter what cynics think, he says, no club wants you to sign up and then stop showing up.

"It doesn't cost me an extra dime to have this place full," says Mulroy, who hopes to open more of his Fitness Evolution clubs in the area. "My electric bill is the same as when it's empty."

And when it's full, he says, customers are spending money on everything from energy bars to training sessions. When people like the club and renew memberships, he doesn't have to work as hard to recruit new ones.

"I don't want people out there saying, `I'm a member at Fitness Evolution but I never go,'" Mulroy says. "That's no good for anybody. You want the energy in your club."

Nobody disputes that the first key to maintaining that energy is picking the right club.

"Approach this as a long-term relationship," Howland says. "This is not a short-term fling."

To make sure this love lasts, Bryant says, "It just takes a little bit of homework."

Here are a few lessons.

LOCATION, LOCATION

"People will make any excuse not to work out," says Mulroy, who's also a personal trainer. "The number one reason is proximity."

So the No. 1 consideration is to find a club near your home or office. Howland says clubs figure that members won't drive more than 15 minutes to work out, with 8-10 minutes a more likely time frame.

"It's got to be convenient, because you've got to make it part of your day," concurs Josh Mandel, director of sales and marketing at the Baylor Tom Landry Fitness Center. "If you really fall in love with a club that's 30 minutes from your home or office, you'll have the best intentions, but you won't go."

WHAT ABOUT MY NEEDS?

America is all about choice, which is why there are clubs for grunting bodybuilders, clubs for women only, clubs for people more concerned about lattes than lats.

"I don't want to sound like Stephen Covey," Mandel says, referring to the business guru, "but you've got to begin with the end in mind. No club can be all things to all people."

So before you check out clubs, check out yourself.

"What type of person are you and what are you looking for?" says Mulroy. "Do you want a pool? Do you want a lot of machines or just a treadmill to run on when it's cold? Are you a big meathead (club talk for a no-nonsense bodybuilder), or do you want a nice atmosphere and a lot of classes?"

And when you're finished asking yourself all those questions, ask your friends. "People want to work out with people they know and like," Mandel says.

KICKING THE TIRES

Take a tour, of course. Check the place out - from machines to mildew to music to meeting members - and then check it again at the time of day you're most likely to work out.

"Clubs have a different feel on a Friday night than they do at 2 o'clock on a Monday," Howland says. "See how crowded it is when you're going to be there."

Then come back with your gym bag.

"I can show you the club and tell you what we offer, but you've got to feel comfortable," Mandel says. "You have to try the club and see if it's where you want to be. Any club that won't give you a free trial period, it's like, `What are you hiding?'"

PAPERS, PLEASE

"People get in all kinds of trouble by not reading contracts," says Hood, the consumer advocate. Still, he says the contract obliges you to pay, "but it doesn't oblige them to do anything, like maintain the club."

So if you're dubious about a club keeping its promises or even staying in business, Hood suggests making monthly payments by credit card. "That way, you can dispute the charge," he says. "If you gave them a check, you're out of luck."

KEEPING PASSION ALIVE

Mandel says his experience teaches that health club members want three things: "They want a clean facility, they want the equipment to function and they want people to be nice to them."

He pledges to do all that, but thinks members have a responsibility as well.

"People need to be comfortable to ask for help," he says. "We know there's going to be a rush in January and there will be people who look lost, aren't sure what class is going on or how to work the equipment. We try to be proactive, but we want you to speak up."

At Fitness Evolution, Mulroy says, the people most likely to stick it out are the ones who know the most about the club's programs and equipment.

He starts new members with a free trainer session and tries to make sure they get to know the staff.

"I tell them, `Tell us what we can do for you. I don't want you to be the person who joins and works out for a month and is gone.'"

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(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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