Just like finding the perfect mate, that show-stopping dress, or the best deal on a pair of Bruno Maglis -- when looking for a fitness club, you better shop around.
"In any industry, it is extremely important for consumers to do a little legwork to ensure less headaches after the purchase," said Ellen Tucker, foundation director of the Better Business Bureau of Upstate New York. "This includes looking for a health club because a contract is involved."
The Buffalo-Niagara region alone offers dozens and dozens of fitness clubs for men and women. Their names say it all: Fitness Factory, Fitness Plus, Fit Express, Allentown Athletix, Body Blocks. Big or small, when it comes to health clubs local consumers have many places to go shape up.
"The average person goes to his or her club 100 times a year," said Craig Pepin-Donat, author of "The Big Fat Health & Fitness Lie." "That's almost two visits a week. To get maximum benefits, I would think you need three times a week. I've been in the fitness industry for 26 years. I'm married. I have two kids. I live in reality."
Last year, the health club industry soaked up $17.9 billion of revenue, according to Pepin-Donat, who has operated more than 450 health and fitness clubs in 11 countries. The weight-loss industry, by comparison, is projected this year to exceed $58 billion, while the supplement industry will exceed $23 billion.
"What you find is that people would much rather go on a diet or take a pill than they would exercise. Why? When you think about exercise, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Work. We're already working hard to keep up in life," said Pepin-Donat. "If you're the average person doing nothing, you can not change to working out five or six times a week."
Don't be the average person doing nothing. Take charge of your body before the New Year brings a blizzard of shape-up resolutions. Beat the rush by looking for a health club now. Your heart (and your wallet) will thank you.
>Let the hunt begin
The biggest excuse for not working out is lack of time, so make convenience a priority in your search. Choose a gym between work and home. This will give you one less excuse to skip exercising. Once you have selected a gym or two, schedule a tour for the time you would usually exercise.
"Go up to some people in the club and talk to them," suggested Tucker of the Better Business Bureau. "How do they like it? How long have they been working out here?"
Look around. Are there wait lists for the ellipticals? Is there a time limit on the treadmill? These are signs of overcrowding. You may want to pick a different time -- or a different gym. And beware the out-of-order machine. It could signal a dysfunctional gym.
Many gyms would not pass the white-glove test, but scrutinize the locker room as if it were your bathroom. If it's less than pristine, ask whether the cleaning staff has the day off. Take a look inside the shower, check out the toilets, then examine the sinks. Ask if towels are provided without charge, and see if they are stationed throughout the fitness areas to wipe off equipment after each use.
Amenities like a fireplace, waterfall or neon-lighted smoothie bar may be enough to sway your decision if all else appears equal. Saunas, massage therapists, cherry-wood lockers figure into the mix, too. Most clubs are coed with a few offering workout areas for women only. Child-care services, too, can help close the deal.
"Considering the variety of equipment, the classes and the personal training with certified instructors, joining a quality fitness center is the best solution for the average person," said Pepin-Donat. "Don't think clubs are out to scam you. You really need to determine what it is you're going there for in the first place."
>The fine print
One of the primary factors that people should look for in a fitness club that offers a "month-to-month" membership is whether it is based on a fixed time frame. Sure, you may pay monthly, but you will be obligated to do so for a fixed period of time -- anywhere from one to three years -- regardless if you are using the facilities or not.
"Even on month-to-month memberships, enrollment fees or processing fees are legally earned by the club at enrollment," said Pepin-Donat. "The only way you will see that money again is if you cancel in writing within three days of the date of enrollment."
"If you prepay your membership, there are usually some great incentives, but you need to know you are signing a contract," he added. "You are locked in, whatever the term is."
The most important part of the contract to read and understand is the cancellation clause. Be aware of what it will take to break the contract. You need to know what you are signing. By law you have a three-day cooling-off period after that dotted line is signed.
"It's rare that you will lose your money when you join a club," said Pepin-Donat. "The biggest challenge people will have with the contract is cancellation. You join and get cold feet. If it's after the three days, it will be very difficult to get your money back. You need to go into it knowing that this is what you want to do."
Multiple purchasing decisions face the fitness club rookie: enrollment fee, dues, personal trainer time (usually available in sets of three, six, 10 and 20 one-hour sessions, costing on average an additional $40 to $60 per hour).
"A critical component is the personality of the individual who will train you," said Pepin-Donat. "I don't care if that person has 10 certifications, 10,000 hours of training and his clients get great results. If you don't like that person, you will not go meet him at 6 in the morning."
Certifications attesting to the credentials of a personal trainer are important. Make sure the certification is from a nationally accredited organization like the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Academy of Sports Medicine, or the American Council on Exercise.
"Most clubs won't hire you if you don't have a national certification," said Pepin-Donat. "The next question to ask is the actual experience in training people. How long? How many people has he trained, and more importantly, what were the results?"
If you work with a personal trainer, speak with the club's fitness manager about the staff and certification. Usually, personal trainers are not staff members, but are employed as independent contractors who set their own hours and rates.
"A personal trainer is like the shrink of the fitness industry," said Pepin-Donat. "People talk to him about everything. He becomes their friend, their mentor. It's a natural course. You spend time with somebody, you must like him. But is he pleasant? Does he motivate you?"