Maybe you've decided to make swimsuit season your friend this year, or you just want to lead an all-around healthier lifestyle. Whatever your motivation for joining a gym, finding the perfect match can be a challenge. Here's how to stack the odds in favor of finding a fitness club that fits you.
Location, Location, Location
"The most important factor is convenience when it comes to location," says Bill Howland, director of research at the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. Eighty percent of a club's membership generally comes from within a 10- to 15-minute travel radius. And it makes sense that you'll want a gym you can get to quickly. "People consistently cite time constraints as one of the major reasons for either quitting a club or not joining at all," says Howland. So how can you determine the best locale? Well, if you're going to hit the health club only during the week, a location near your job might be best. But if you want to be a weekend warrior as well, joining a gym close to work may leave you without fitness options come Saturday. Some large-chain health clubs offer memberships that let you go to all of their locations, so if you want to work out all week, that might be your best bet.
The Screen Test
"Once you've narrowed gyms down by location, you'll want to do some phone research before trekking out in person," says Kathie Davis, executive director of IDEA, a membership organization of health and fitness professionals. Before you make that call, arm yourself with these questions:
What are the gym's hours?
Can you fax/send me a class schedule?
What are the monthly/yearly membership dues?
Do you have a child care facility? Is it free?
What's your club's gender breakdown?
Do you have personal trainers? What's their going rate?
The Right Ambience
If the gym passes the phone interrogation with flying colors, the next thing to do is actually go to the gym and check it out. If convenience is the number one factor to look for, Howland says atmosphere is a close second. "If it's too noisy or too quiet, if you've got an environment that's antagonistic, that would be one more reason not to go," he says. When looking for an environment that suits your needs, Howland recommends you consider the following points:
Is the noise and energy level what you're looking for? If pounding music gets you psyched up, that's great, but if it'll bring on a migraine, seek something more mellow.
Do you like the décor? If you can't stand the way your club looks, you're not going to want to be there every day.
Make sure your gym cares about cleanliness. Look around to see if there's a cleaning crew that makes sure the equipment is sweat-free.
Enough to go Around
While you're there, make sure you check on the quality of the equipment. After all, you don't want to use weight-lifting machines from the eighties. Davis recommends asking when the clubs last replaced them. "Ideally, the answer will be within the past two or three years," she says. Quantity counts too. Are there enough machines to satisfy the membership, or are people waiting around to use them? Is there a lot of cardio equipment (treadmills, bikes, elliptical trainers, rowers, StairMasters, etc.)? Are free weights plentiful? If there's just one set of 20-lb. dumbbells, chances are someone else will be using them when you need them.
The Right Time to Tell
The best way to gauge whether a gym will be a perfect fitness match is to check out the club during the times you would be working out. "If you go at ten in the morning, it's a very different scene from five P.M. on a weekday," says Howland.