Choosing a Health Club

Many people have no choice. If your neighborhood has only one club, that's the club you probably need to join, even if the facilities aren't top-notch. You're more likely to use the mediocre fitness center around the corner than the first-rate gym that's 45 minutes away. If you have a routine of basic exercises, you can get a good workout in just about any facility that calls itself a gym.

Don't be scared off by the name of a health club or the size of the people who work out there. Among the general public, Gold's Gym franchises seem to have a reputation of catering only to serious bodybuilders. In reality, Gold's clubs — like any other chain clubs — cater to people of all ages and ability levels. Somewhere, you'll find anyone from 18 to 94 who are avid attendees at Gold's Gym. Some gyms attract more serious lifters than others, but at virtually every gym in America, people like you attend. Besides, you can gather a lot of information from hanging around veteran lifters.

If you're lucky enough to have your choice of clubs, weigh your options carefully. You may want to tour each club to discover the variety of machines and mechanisms offered. You also want to notice if the staff is friendly and helpful. When you tour a club, bring the following checklist for consideration for your membership:

  • Hours of operation: Some gyms are open 24 hours a day; others close at noon on weekends. Make sure that the hours of operation fit your schedule.
  • The cancellation, freeze, and refund policies: Many gyms let you put your membership on hold for medical or maternity leave (freeze). Some clubs refund your remaining membership if you move more than 25 miles away. Most states have laws that allow you to cancel within three days of joining with a full refund.
  • Qualifications of the staff: When you visit, ask what the club's requirements are for staff certification. Nationally recognized certification organizations include the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Council on Exercise, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association, among others.
  • Cleanliness: Make sure that there are no strange growths in the showers. Check the weight benches and equipment for sweat residue. Most gyms have squirt bottles with bleach cleaner and towels handy for cleaning equipment before and after you use it. Remember that you're joining a gym to improve your health, not destroy it.
  • Equipment quality: The quality of free weights doesn't vary much, but it's not a good sign if the plates on the dumbbells rattle around or you see lots of "Out of Order" signs scattered around. High-quality weight machine brands include Cybex, Nautilus, Galileo, Body Masters, Hammer Strength, and Icarian. Try out a few machines. Do they move smoothly? Is the weight stack rusted? These subtle signs relate to how well the management takes care of the gym.
  • Friendliness of management: Does the staff at the front desk greet you with a smile, or are they standing in a clique gossiping about the members? If the staff isn't accommodating before they've made a sale, think about how they'll act after you sign on the dotted line.
  • Cost: Cheaper isn't always better. If the club's machinery is always broken or the bathrooms are cleaned monthly instead of daily, you may pay more in doctor's bills for injuries and infections than you do for your monthly membership.
  • Extra conveniences: Some gyms have hair blow dryers in the locker rooms, Internet access on the cardiovascular equipment, membership competitions, and special guest instructors — little extras that keep you motivated over the long haul.
  • Affiliation with other clubs: If you travel a lot, consider joining a club that is affiliated with gyms around the country. Large chains may not have the most qualified staff or offer the most personalized attention, but you can save money on guest passes.
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