How to choose a health club

December 31, 1998|By Meg H. Partington

Are you feeling a little cold toward your outdoor fitness routine as the mercury in the thermometer sinks? Perhaps it's time to shift your energy indoors.

Fitness clubs offer all sorts of outlets for cleansing your system of stresses from work, home and the aftermath of the holidays. There are several steps that should be taken, though, before lacing up those athletic shoes and prancing into a gym with contract-signing pen in hand.

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Evaluate your goals, says Dr. Mat McIntosh, director of Wellness and Rehabilitation Center at Hagerstown Community College. Make sure you're being realistic, not setting your standards too high.

Have your health screened before committing to any fitness facility, McIntosh says. Those who have a history of medical problems or who are taking medications should get clearance from a physician before embarking on any type of workout program, he says. Even those who are generally healthy and fit should have a complete physical every year, he adds.


The credentials of the staff at any health club are very important, says Doug Wilson, a certified athletic trainer at Shenandoah Valley Physical Therapy and Sports Medicine Inc. in Martinsburg, W.Va.

Just because a person has lifted weights for years doesn't mean he or she is qualified to teach others how to do it, Wilson says. Staffers need to be able to understand the needs of clients, he says.

Employees should be certified by such organizations as American College of Sports Medicine, American Fitness Association or National Strength Training Association, McIntosh says.

Call gyms and inquire not only about their staff training, but about their philosophies and cost to join.

Visit the facilities you're considering joining, says McIntosh, and ask yourself, "Is this a place I want to spend time in?" Do you feel comfortable or is it too much of a jock shop or meat market for your tastes?

Take time to stop by at least three different facilities, suggests Cynthia Reeves Tuttle, assistant professor and nutrition extension specialist at University of Maryland in College Park. Some can be ruled out by a phone call - if they don't offer the programs or expertise you want, there's no need to visit.

Make sure there are employees willing to work with members on personal programs, Tuttle says. Beginners, in particular, should be well supervised and put on fitness regimens that will not overburden them, she says.

Some people prefer a specific brand of machine or free weights, which may limit the number of choices they have. Others may need day-care facilities or be particular about changing and bathing areas.

"To a certain degree, it's a personal preference," says Wilson. Word-of-mouth can also be a determining factor, he adds - listen to what others have to say about the various clubs you're exploring.

Another thing to consider is accessibility of equipment. If the facility is too crowded, there may be a long wait for some machines or free weights, which means a lot of time could be wasted.

Clubs should allow prospective members to try out the machines, says Brian Everhart, who owns Everhart's Home Fitness in Chambersburg, Pa., with his wife, Cathy. Look for equipment that moves smoothly and make sure cables are not frayed or taped.

Trimming costs, too

Another important factor is cost. There's no need to give away your whole wallet for total fitness.

"The hard part is not getting caught up in the hard sell," says Tuttle. Even if a health club is offering a great price, don't hesitate to shop around, she says. Health club memberships in the Tri-State area can vary from about $150 per year to $375, based on estimates from McIntosh and Wilson.

Ask if rates vary during peak hours - usually between 5 and 8 p.m. - and nonpeak hours, Everhart suggests.

If your budget is tight, look for a club that allows month-to-month payments rather than one that requires members to dole out funds for an initiation fee and several months up front, writes Chad Thackett, president of Global Health and Fitness in Portland, Ore., on the company's Web site.

Beware of gyms that only offer multiyear contracts, McIntosh says. If you have to move or the business closes, you may lose money.

Choose a place that is convenient to get to. If it's too far out of the way, it will be harder to stick to your fitness program, Thackett writes.

Those who are interested in nutritional guidance should ask if there is a registered dietitian on the staff, Tuttle says. Finding such qualified personnel is not too difficult these days.

"The competition requires it," says Tuttle.

McIntosh says the building should be kempt, light and airy, with good circulation. "You should smell cleanliness, not the smell of sweat," he says.

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