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105homespunweb.jpgBy Dana Dratch,

RISMEDIA, Oct. 5, 2007-Protect your enthusiasm by joining a gym you’ll actually like. To guarantee that the health club you eventually choose slims your waistline instead of your wallet, get satisfactory answers to these 10 questions.

1. Is a contract required? If so, check out the terms carefully, says Joe Decker, co-author of “The World’s Fittest You.”

“Do not get roped into an extended contract,” he says. Decker speaks from experience. The general manager of Level Fitness, a Washington D.C.-area gym, he still feels the burn from having three months left on his contract with another facility. “It’s not the money,” he says. “It’s just the point that I can’t get out of it.”

His new club offers only month-to-month memberships. “You move, you change jobs, you buy a home,” he says. “I don’t want people to feel like they’re stuck.”

2. Does the gym offer a trial membership? Try the facility before you buy. “I would say two weeks is fair,” says Kathy Kaehler, author of “Real World Fitness with Kathy Kaehler.”

This is the time to test drive the offerings that really interest you, notes Brooke Siler, author of “The Pilates Body Kit.” Is the pool accessible when you’re able to go? Are the classes that you want to take offered when you’re available to attend? When you try out the gym in real life conditions, what’s it really like?

Siler, an owner and instructor at New York’s re: AB Pilates, recently scoped out a class at another facility. The experience was a turnoff. The teacher didn’t ask if anyone was dealing with injuries or even if any of the students were first-timers, she recalls.

“And there were 48 people in the class,” Siler says. “You couldn’t even move.”

3. Are staff members degreed or certified? “Some places will take a warm body and throw them back there,” says Decker. “There’s no set standard.”

His advice: Look for certification from the American College of Sports Medicine or the American Council on Exercise or degrees in related fields, such as kinesiology, exercise science or sports medicine. And make sure instructors are also trained in CPR and first aid, Decker says.

“If you find a place where everyone is certified or has a degree,” he says, “it’s probably a pretty decent place.”

4. Has anyone ever been hurt here? Granted, you might not always get an honest answer. But if you seem to be getting along well with the staffer who is showing you around, you ask anyway, says Siler. “Sometimes if you catch them off guard, they may say ‘Oh, I’ve seen a couple of things,'” she says. Bottom line: It can’t hurt to ask.

5. How old is the equipment? “Like any other technology, exercise equipment is constantly changing,” says Decker. If you want a club that’s going to be around, look for one that’s making the investment in up-to-date equipment and training.

“Some places open up, take your money and never replace equipment,” says Decker. “They never put any money back in the club. You want to go to a place where people really like it, really care about it.”

6. When is the gym open? “Definitely check the hours,” says Kaehler, who also is co-owner of Health-E-tips, a company that provides health pointers for corporate wellness programs. Make sure the club offers hours that make it easy to fit the gym into your schedule, she says.

Visit at peak hours to see just how jammed it can get. “Look at equipment, look at rooms, make sure it’s not going to be so crowded that you have to wait a half hour for a piece of equipment,” he adds. “You may only have 30 minutes for a work out. What’s the point?”

Then visit again at the times you’re most likely to work out, says Kaehler. That way you get to see the gym as it likely will be when you’re sweating off those pounds.

Also take note of the parking when you’re there. You want to make visiting the gym as easy as possible, especially on those days you might be a little less motivated. When you want to go in and work out, says Decker, “Nothing is worse than driving around in circles looking for place to park.”

7. Which services or amenities cost extra? “There are usually additional charges you don’t realize initially,” says Siler. You may have to rent a mat, rent a towel or pay for water. “Those are additional costs that add up.”

8. May I see a class schedule? If you’re joining for specific classes, look at what is taught and when, says Siler. If you want to use the pool, does it have special hours? Ditto personal instructors or anything else you plan to use.

9. Do you offer child care? If you have kids, you may have to occasionally take them with you to the gym. Accommodations for children are “very common,” says Kaehler. “You’ll see (child care) in commercials for national chains. It’s definitely a big incentive to get more parents to participate in an exercise program.
“I’ve seen a few places that offer really nice child care in the facilities and also have cameras that will show on closed-circuit TV in the adult area, so that a mother or father can watch their child,” she says.

10. Will the club waive the initiation fee? Sometimes gyms charge initiation fees that can be hundreds or thousands of dollars, says Decker. But they often waive or reduce them, especially if you’re shopping around and know what other facilities are charging, he says.

Siler agrees. “The initiation fee is there for them to barter with,” she says. “So don’t just accept it.”

Also look for holiday or seasonal specials, when the gym might be waiving fees, or slow traffic days, when the staff members might be more willing to dicker, says Siler. “That’s the best time to go in because they have quotas to make,” she says. “Some people get amazing deals.”

Finally, take your time. Don’t rush into a gym membership until you get the answers you want.

“Like anything else, all health clubs are not created equal,” says Decker. “Shop around.”

Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.