Pete McCall by Pete McCall

We all know that we need to exercise and that it is important to do it on a regular basis, but one of the hardest decisions can be choosing where you are going to exercise. For many people, having a dedicated place to go to can make all the difference in making exercise a daily habit or something that occurs less often than a full moon. 

If you want to make exercise a regular habit, joining a health club could be a great idea. Here are seven things to consider if you find yourself in the market for joining a health club this year.

1. Is the location convenient?

The best option is a facility located close to where you live or work so you can easily make it a part of your daily commute. If you have to drive across town or fight traffic to make it to your workouts, it can be easy to avoid the extra commute, regardless of how nice a facility is or how great the instructors may be. 

2. Is it within my budget? 

Another critical consideration is your budget. Don’t be tempted to overspend on a “luxury” fitness experience or a series of instructor-led workouts. Yes, getting in shape is important and regular exercise can significantly improve your health, but it’s simply not worth adding to your personal debt to meet this need. Identify what you can realistically afford based on your personal budget and use that to guide your decision-making process. 

On the other hand, you get what you pay for. If you join a gym simply because it is the cheapest, you will often have to pay extra for amenities like group classes or even towels. Low-cost gyms typically operate on extremely thin margins. This means that when equipment breaks it can take a while to repair, and staff is frequently overworked and underpaid so there can be a lot of turnover. If you are considering a low-cost club ask the salesperson (or “membership consultant”) how long they have worked there and how long the management team (general manager, fitness manager and operations manager) has been in place. If the answer is, “I don’t know,” or less than six months, the location might experience frequent staff turnover, which can have a detrimental effect on your membership experience.   

3. Do they offer a trial membership? 

Ask for a trial membership or the opportunity to do a series of “beginner“ classes before making a long-term commitment to a health club or studio. Many facilities offer a reduced price for a series of beginner classes or even a free one-week trial membership. Investing in a series of beginner classes is often required for yoga or CrossFit studios to teach you the basics of the exercise format. Take advantage of these classes to see if you like the instructors and the techniques they teach. If you don’t feel comfortable doing the exercises after the initial series of classes, you will probably not enjoy the long-term exercise experience. If you do a trial membership at a health club, visit during the hours you will regularly attend so you can see how crowded it is at those times, and try a couple of group fitness classes to see if you like the formats and instructors. 

4. Is the equipment well maintained? 

When you are shopping for a facility or doing a trial workout, make sure to check out the equipment. A well-maintained facility will be clean and relatively dust-free. An accumulation of dust or dirt on equipment could also mean an accumulation of disease-causing germs. And don’t forget to check out the locker room or changing area—if it has a damp, musty or mildew smell, regular cleaning is probably not the club’s highest priority. Nothing can ruin your fitness experience more than having to change or try to get clean in an unsanitary locker room. 

5. Do they offer any discounts or reimbursements? 

Check with your employer or health insurance to see if they offer any options like discounts or reimbursements for health club dues or fitness facility fees. The new Affordable Care Act healthcare law makes prevention a priority. As a result, both private employers and health-insurance companies have been given more leeway regarding the financial incentives they can provide for fitness because it is a proven form of prevention. Many health clubs offer a discounted membership fee if you belong to a specific health insurance plan, but they will never tell you this during a tour; rather, you often have to tell them that you qualify for the discount. If your employer has an education reimbursement, they may allow you to pay for a fitness class as an education class. When I was personal training full-time, I wrote several letters for clients for whom I was providing “fitness education services” so they can use their company’s education funds to pay for my fees. 

6. Do they have high online ratings? 

Use the Internet to see how customers and members rate their experiences at a health club or studio. Doing a search on Google or Yelp or simply asking your Facebook network about their experience with a fitness provider can deliver a wealth of information that can help you make an informed decision. In addition, check the club’s website and social media channels to see what type of information they are providing to their members. Many of the larger clubs have blogs, articles or videos to educate members on exercise, nutrition and lifestyle strategies that can be extremely useful and relevant for achieving fitness goals. 

7. Do their trainers and instructors have the proper credentials? 

Before you make a commitment and invest your hard-earned money in a club, make sure the instructors employed by the club have the appropriate professional credentials; specifically, an accredited certification. The fitness industry is self-regulating and when it comes to certification credentials, anyone can call themselves a “personal trainer” or teach an exercise class without going through any formal education or licensing process. The American Council on Exercise is an accredited certification organization, which means that if an individual holds an ACE Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor, Health Coach or Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist credential, he or she has undergone an education process that meets a stringent review by the Institute for Credentialing Excellence. You can use this search engine to find an ACE Certified professional in your area. 

ACE has recently teamed with a number of other certification organizations to start the US Registry of Exercise Professionals (USREPS), which recognizes a number of established fitness certification organizations. For your protection and to ensure that you’re working with a properly qualified instructor, if an instructor is ACE Certified, he or she should, at the very least, be certified by an organization that belongs to USREPS.    

Be an educated consumer. Set your budget, do your homework and visit the facility a few times before making a long-term financial commitment. Choosing a health club is a lot like finding a favorite restaurant or bar—it may take a while to find one that you enjoy going to regularly, but once you do it becomes a part of your regular life. If a facility feels right, go for it. You’ll enjoy the opportunity to exercise and meet new people. If a facility doesn’t feel right, is unable to answer your questions, is too expensive (or cheap) or is simply dirty, skip it and keep looking for the right one. You’ll find it and once you do you’ll be glad you made the extra effort.