It's easy for gyms to pack the house in January, when everyone is hopped up on resolutions. That's why it's possibly the worst time to score a deal.
But come July--well, that's another story. You have much more leverage because, as it turns out, only 6 percent of new memberships come in during the summer, says Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League, an advocacy group.
This isn't the only secret some gyms are hiding, and what you don't know can hurt your wallet and your health. Whether you're shopping for better deals or a new club, use this insider intel to make smarter decisions.
They'll Fight to Keep You
For the same reason summer is a good time to join the gym, it's also the perfect time to milk an existing membership, says Greenberg. Most health-club sales teams are required to meet monthly quotas and keep cancellations down, so they'd rather offer you extras than risk losing your business.
Show them the cheaper rate of a competing club and see if they'll match it. Or find out what your gym is offering newbies and ask for the same perks--extra guest passes, an all-gym pass (so you can hit up other locations while traveling), a few personal training sessions, or even a free month.
Monthly Contracts Can Be a Rip-off
They're fine for gym rats. But if you're more of a gym mouse--i.e., you hit the place less than twice a week--don't sign on the dotted line just yet.
Gym users with monthly memberships can end up paying 70 percent more than those on pay-per-visit plans (often in the form of a 10-visit pass), says Stefano DellaVigna, Ph.D., an associate professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, who studied gym users for three years. In fact, over six months, the average member would have saved more than $150 by paying a drop-in rate.
The Place Is Crawling with Germs
We suggest you Purell before reading further. All sanitized? Here goes: One study found that three-fourths of weight equipment was contaminated with cold-causing rhinoviruses, and even wiping surfaces down twice didn't completely nix germs.
The sniffles are the least of your worries: MRSA (!) and other types of staph infections can be contracted if a cut or scrape on your skin comes in contact with the bacteria. And your gym can have its fair share of the stuff, says Jack Foley, director of sports medicine at Lehigh University and coauthor of the National Athletics Trainers' Association report on skin infections. Bacteria, fungi, and viruses can survive in moist spots . . . like damp locker rooms and sweaty mats and public benches.
To lessen your exposure, put down a towel when using an exercise mat or bench (that goes for benches in locker rooms too) to limit direct skin contact with surfaces. (Also smart: Swap your tank and short shorts for a less-skin-baring T-shirt and capris or leggings.)
Bring your own yoga mat; most communal ones are only sporadically cleaned. After your workout, shower immediately, change into clean clothes, and keep your dirty gear in a separate compartment in your bag, says Jeff Hageman, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
When you get home, let your shower flip-flops air out and dry before repacking them. And next time, you may want to rethink using gym-provided towels: Outbreaks of MRSA have been associated with shared towels. Ask if your gym launders them in hot water and hot dryers. If the staff can't say for certain, bring your own.
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They Hire Some Dud Trainers
Don't be distracted by his ripped biceps and "staff" tee: There are hundreds of ways to get certified as a personal trainer--some via an at-home, open-book test.
"It's a completely unregulated industry," says Walter Thompson, Ph.D., a Regents' professor in the department of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University.
Before you shell out extra dough for a session with someone who may have learned everything he knows from Personal Training for Slackers, ask the gym manager about the hiring criteria for trainers. Check for years of experience and a certification that's accredited through the National Commission for Certifying Agencies. (Look for one of these acronyms: NSCA, ACSM, NASM, or ACE.)
Resume aside, watch the way a trainer interacts with clients, says Pamela Kufahl, editor-in-chief of Club Industry. If you want a Chris Powell and he's more Jillian Michaels (or vice versa), keep looking. Another red flag: He doesn't ask questions about your fitness level, past injuries, or other medical issues. A good trainer won't tell someone with a sore shoulder or tennis elbow to drop and give him 20.
You Can't Trust Them with Your Life
Sudden cardiac death during exercise is rare, but if your ticker does time out, what happens next can make all the difference.
If an automated external defibrillator (AED) is used right away, your chance of survival is more than 90 percent, according to the Annals of Emergency Medicine. Yet fewer than a dozen states require gyms to have one on the premises. Even if your gym has a device, there may not be anyone on staff trained to use it. (Not great news, considering every minute of delay lowers your chances of survival by 10 percent.)
Check if your gym has an AED and if the staff is required to have CPR and AED certifications, says Gil Fried, a sports management professor at the University of New Haven.
They May Keep Charging You After You've Canceled
Like that creepy boyfriend who just won't let go, gyms can make breaking up hard to do. Of the almost 7,000 complaints consumers filed against health clubs in 2011, the biggest gripe was billing and collection issues.
"Many times someone is still being charged for something they thought they had canceled," says Kelsey Owen, a spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau.
Say you relocate--some gyms will let you out of a contract only if you can give a sufficient reason that your membership can't be transferred to a gym location in your new town. Others will let you cancel only in person or by certified mail.
The rise of electronic contracts (membership salespeople asking you to review the fine print on a mobile device smaller than an iPad) is making things worse. "There's no substitute for having a piece of paper in your hand that you can review closely," says Alfreda Cooper, head of the Maryland attorney general's health clubs registration unit.
Before you sign on, make sure you clearly understand the gym's cancellation policy and billing procedures, how long you're locked in, and the ins and outs of the membership renewal process. And take home hard copies of all documents, says Greenberg. Some states give you a few days after you've signed to review and cancel if things don't seem right.
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