The Diet Detective: What to Ask Before Joining a Gym

It's that time of year--you start to think about getting into shape, and joining a gym seems like a good place to start. Before you rush to join one, here are a few tips to keep you from losing more than you bargained for.

How should I choose a gym?

Shop around. Look at all the gyms in your area. See how far they are from your home or office. Some facilities offer trial memberships. Take advantage, and don't be pressured to join. Many gym salespeople work on commissions and quotas. Don't be sold a bill of goods. Take your time, especially if a long-term commitment is involved. Ask for a tour, write down what you like and dislike so you can compare. Check out the gyms' Web sites for their class schedules. And make sure to observe several of the classes in session during the time you would ordinarily be there. Don't go at an off-peak time to observe if you plan on working out at a peak time. Check out the crowd to see if you would feel comfortable.

When making your choice, what factors should you consider?

Take a look at the equipment, facility, classes and staff. "If you're looking for good equipment, see if they have the kinds of machines and weights you like, and make sure the machines aren't too crowded at the time of day you'll be going. If you're looking for group exercise classes, see what variety they have and if the times are convenient for you. If you're going to be showering and dressing there, see if the locker rooms are clean. If amenities are important, look for child care, day spa services, a pool, etc. In addition, look for a facility within 12 minutes of your home or work. Research shows you are more likely to use it if it's close," says Kathie Davis, executive director of IDEA Health & Fitness Association.

Gregg Cook, co-author of The Gym Survival Guide (Sterling, 2008), suggests you take a good, hard look at your fitness personality. "Are you self-motivated and already familiar with how to access and use equipment at a gym, or are you completely new to the gym environment and need the help of a trainer and the motivation of a group fitness class? See if the members of the gym are of a similar demographic. For example, if you are a woman in her mid-30s, a gym with mostly male members who are older than 65 may not be right for you."

Make sure the gym is not overcrowded if you plan on working out during peak hours, especially on Mondays--the day everyone wants to get healthy again after an unhealthy weekend. "This is generally a gym's busiest time. If there is a long wait for equipment you feel you would be using, you may be wasting a lot of time waiting around," says Cook.

What should you look out for when signing up for a membership?

Know the exact costs and make sure there are no hidden fees. And don't just take the salesperson's word for it. It all needs to be in writing.

According to Cook and American College of Sports Medicine's "Selecting and Effectively Using a Health/Fitness Facility," you should also be sure to ask the following questions:

  • Can you freeze your membership without fees? Under what conditions?
  • What is the length of the contract?
  • What does the membership fee include?
  • Are there any fees or penalties for cancellation?
  • What about automatic renewable contracts/memberships?
  • What method of payment is accepted? Think carefully about automatic or electronic fund transfers (EFT), which allow the gym to take funds directly from your bank account or credit card. It's better to use auto pay from your bank.
  • Are there any other fees, such as for towel use or group fitness classes?
  • Can monthly fees be raised without notice?
  • What are the initiation fees?
  • Is a package including fitness assessment tests and/or personal-training sessions available with a membership?
  • Is there a group package or corporate account program available?
  • Is there a trial membership program?
  • Is there a grace period during which you can cancel your membership and receive a full or partial refund?
  • Is there more than one type of membership, and are all the fees for services posted?
  • Does the facility provide you with a written set of rules and policies?
  • Does the facility offer a pool? Tennis? Squash? Is there an additional charge for these?
  • Is the gym clean? Look at locker rooms, gym floor and the equipment (e.g., rusty, creaky or missing any parts).
  • Do you like the music? Is it too loud to use your iPod?

What about programs and classes?

There are many different kinds of classes these days, but how good are the instructors? What are their backgrounds? Do they have a degree in exercise science? Are they certified by a recognized fitness organization such as American Council on Exercise (ACE) or American College of Sports Medicine (ASCM)? Make sure to review the group class schedule. Typically it changes monthly, so ask to see the schedules for the past few months.

According to the American College of Sports Medicine you should also consider the following:

  • Will staff members modify the programs to meet your needs?
  • Are there programs to address medical conditions (weight loss, diabetes, hypertension, smoking cessation, etc.)?
  • Does the facility offer programs for the age group in which you are interested (i.e., elderly, adolescents, children)?
  • Are there fitness assessments and personalized exercise programs?
  • Does it offer classes in aerobics, spinning, martial arts, strength training, yoga and Pilates?


Charles Stuart Platkin is an Active Expert , nutrition and public health advocate, author of the best seller Breaking the Pattern (Plume, 2005), Breaking the FAT Pattern (Plume, 2006) and Lighten Up (Penguin USA/Razorbill, 2006) and founder of Integrated Wellness Solutions. Sign up for The Diet Detective newsletter free at

Copyright 2009 by Charles Stuart Platkin

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