1. If you re still here in April, it ll be a miracle.
Gym attendance was up 9% to 45.3 million in 2009 from 2007, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), a nonprofit trade group. What s more, despite the recession, increases in health club usage and non-dues spending (such as personal training, juice bar, nutrition counseling) helped increase overall industry revenues above 2008 levels.
Most new recruits sign up in January the busiest month for fitness clubs. That s when well-intentioned souls trying to stick to their New Year s resolutions flood their local gyms, often resulting in long lines at the treadmill, overtaxed gym staff, and towel shortages in the locker room. But it won t be long before the throngs thin; fewer than half of those who make New Year s resolutions still stick to them six months later, according to one study.
And indeed, that s what clubs expect. When selecting a new gym, visit the facility during the time of day you re most likely to attend. If it s crowded, check to see whether waiting lists and time limits on machines are enforced or whether it s a free-for-all.
2. Don t touch anything this place is crawling with bacteria.
About 80% of all infectious disease is transmitted by both direct and indirect contact, says Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology at New York University Medical Center and the author of The Secret Life of Germs. That makes the gym, with its sweaty bodies in close proximity, a highly conducive environment for catching everything from athlete s foot to the flu.
In swabs of medicine balls, for example, Tierno found samples of community-acquired MRSA a strain of staph resistant to some antibiotics. You take your chances, Tierno says. Anytime you touch a medicine ball or machine, you have to know that your hands are contaminated and should be washed. What about those spray bottles some gyms provide for wiping down equipment? They may help, Tierno says, but he recommends additional measures, such as wearing long sleeves and pants while working out. Also, bring your own towels, since there s no guarantee that your gym s linens have been bleached or rinsed in clean water. While in the locker room, make sure you wear flip-flops, and avoid sitting nude on any exposed surface.
3. We re not equipped to handle health emergencies.
While exercise helps the heart in the long run, the risk of physical activity is not zero, especially for those who are sporadic exercisers or have underlying cardiovascular disease. Overexertion or exercising improperly can lead to heart attacks that require immediate care. In the case of a cardiac event, personnel trained in CPR as well as automated external defibrillators, or AEDs become crucial. According to the American Heart Association, after cardiac arrest, chances for survival drop as much as 10% each minute that passes without proper treatment.
However, health clubs not only aren t required by law to have personnel trained in CPR, only a few states -- including New York, Michigan, New Jersey, California and Illinois -- require health clubs to have on-site defibrillators, the machines that can reset a heart after cardiac arrest. If you re in one of those states, find out if your club has the right equipment and, equally important, staff trained to use it.
Of course, some clubs do take the precautions to train their staff. The Palos Health & Fitness Center in Orland Park, Ill., requires all 110 of its personnel to be trained in CPR. Over the past six years, staff members at the 78,000-square-foot facility have administered CPR to and saved four patrons who had cardiac arrest, says Michelle Adams, operations manager for Palos.
4. Our trainers don t know what they re doing.
If you work out at a gym, chances are an on-site personal trainer will try to sell you his or her expertise. And with their Colgate smiles and buff bodies, they must be able to teach you a thing or two about getting into shape, right? Not necessarily. Trainers need no standard certification, and the credentials some flash require only a quick online course or a fee, says Neal Pire, a fitness-industry consultant and former trainer.
Ask the club managers which organization certified the personal trainers. Look for trainers with credentials from recognized institutions like the American Council on Exercise (ACE), American College of Sports Medicine or the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) -- preferably with some training in sports medicine or phys ed. These certifications should give you some assurance that the credentials are up to snuff, says Pire.
I recommend that the person is comfortable with the trainer, because there needs to be chemistry, says Joe Moore, president of IHRSA. And consult with your doctor before beginning any fitness regimen. A physician should make sure you have no underlying complications and that you re ready to engage in physical activity.
5. We won t let you quit.
If you think giving up the Ben & Jerry s is tough, try quitting your gym. Trouble canceling membership is one of the top complaints against fitness clubs logged with the Better Business Bureau and states attorneys general offices. Before you sign up, ask the club what its cancellation policy is and look for it in the written contract.
If you think you ve terminated your membership, but get a call from a collector or notice a battered credit score, it could be your membership wasn t cancelled after all. Your protection will be something in writing showing that you ve been released from the contract, says Lisa Ray, a financial education specialist with the Consumer Credit Counseling Service.
6. Be sure to read the fine print on our contract.
The devil is in the details, and it s never truer than when it comes to fitness club contracts. Fast-talking reps may offer you a deal you can t refuse, but often that s exactly what you should do. One nasty surprise club goers may get if they don t read the contract well is an increase in monthly payments. Most contracts will allow for those bumps which typically happen once a year or every other year, says Pamela Kufahl, editor of Club Industry, a publication for health club operators.
Your best defense: Read every word of the contract. Understand all cancellation and refund provisions as well as the length of the agreement, says Kufahl. Don't be pressured into signing a contract when you visit a club. The Maryland attorney general s office, for instance, advises consumers to take it home and read it over. Make sure you understand all of the charges and that everything you want is included in the price you will pay. Also, check that all promises made by the salesperson are reflected in the contract.
7. Our equipment can be downright dangerous.
Many health clubs post warnings on their equipment and instructional placards that show the proper way to use the machine. But sometimes people really need to be instructed, says Marc Rabinoff, forensic expert in sport injury cases and professor of human performance and sport at the Metropolitan State College of Denver. One problem: falling off the treadmill. If the machine is placed too close to a wall, you can hit your head. Placement of equipment in facilities is critical, Rabinoff says. People trip, lose focus, get fatigued it happens all the time.
New equipment with bells and whistles can also pose a problem for health club personnel. If the club brings in new equipment, they need to train personnel on that type of equipment, because it might operate differently than the ones they had before, says Rabinoff.
As far as the function and safety of equipment goes, that s where a good personal trainer comes in, says the IHRSA's Moore. They should make sure the equipment and programming is safe and effective, he says.
8. Everything is negotiable.
Balloons and freebies often signal promotion time at your local gym most frequently before the holidays and at the start of summer. Already a member? Jot down these specials and ask for one of them when it comes time to renew your membership. Particularly in the last year or so, health club operators have been more willing to either not charge an initiation fee or give a month free, says Kufahl. It s cheaper for an operator to keep a member than get a new one, she says, so you might have a better chance at negotiating a deal if you re already a member. A lot of clubs have referral programs: Get two free months if you refer a friend, for instance. Your options depend on the individual club and on how the competitive the market is in the operator s mindset, Kufahl says.
If you re looking to join a new health club, check out all the clubs in your area to see what they re offering. Keep a detailed list of their prices and ask for week-long pass to try it out. Once you narrow your list down to two, go to both, and tell the managers the prices you were quoted at the other facilities to see if they ll meet or beat them. Some operators will, some won t, Kufahl says.
9. If your wallet gets lifted, it s not our problem.
Last year a Boston man was sentenced for his role in a scheme to steal credit cards from health club locker rooms and take more than $350,000 in cash advances at horse race tracks in at least 10 states, according to the FBI s Boston bureau. Another thief went on a 30-minute shopping spree after stealing a wallet from a locker in a Vancouver, Wash., 24 Hour Fitness club last December, according to local news reports.
Clearly, your valuables are not always safe at the gym. You never know who s lurking around the locker room while you re sweating away on the elliptical machine. Most clubs remind patrons not to bring valuables in and post signs in locker rooms saying that the club is not responsible for any lost or stolen items. If you do intend to store items in a locker while you re working out, use a padlock with a key, which is harder to pick than a combination lock. The IHRSA also suggests that patrons wear their locker keys around their wrist or ankle to minimize the chance of loss.
10. Go ahead and sue; you ll never win.
Fitness clubs sure do know how to watch their backs, legally speaking. It s nearly impossible to visit a fitness center without signing a waiver that absolves the club of liability involving everything from malfunctioning machines that cause injury to improper instruction by staff members.
But the big hurdle to successfully suing a gym is the contract you sign when you join. It usually includes a waiver with language stating that the client assumes the risk of injury and waives their right to sue. It comes down to the wording of the waivers, says Walter Champion, professor of sports and entertainment law at Texas Southern University. In circumstances where the patron can show gross negligence on the part of the health club, then he might have a case. If the health club knew of a problem say, with a certain faulty machine and could have taken care of the problem but didn't, that could be considered gross negligence, says Champion.
Bottom line: Understand that you re taking your health in your own hands when you go to the gym, so you need to watch your back literally.