How to find the right gym for you — at the right price

Shot of a group of yoga students completing lunges into the warrior pose during a class. Kriya Yoga Teacher Training. Photo : Courtesy

Whether you are starting a new exercise regimen, coming back from an injury, or have relocated, finding a gym or health club that fits your needs and budget takes an investment of time, energy and, of course, money. It’s not unlike buying a car: You need to search for the best deal, take advantage of promotions, test drive several options and sift through the contractual fine print.

The fitness industry is moving away from its self-inflicted reputation of treating clients as marks and always upselling, but it’s still important to do your homework to find the right fit for you. “The best gym or studio should be an environment you want to return to and feel comfortable in within your price point,” says Sarah Luna, president of Xponential, a franchise of boutique fitness brands including Club Pilates and Pure Barre.

Here’s what to consider before committing to a fitness facility.

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Learn about the options

Depending on where you live, you may find one or more supersize chains, luxury amenity-filled clubs, independently owned gyms and/or specialty (such as Pilates or barre) studios. Before shopping around, figure out which type of environment will help you meet your personal fitness goals. Then, make a list of your must-have amenities (a dedicated cardio area, free weights, a private studio, a swimming pool, on-site child care, a locker room, showers, sauna, etc.) to help you narrow your options.

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Prioritize convenience

Ideally your fitness facility will be within five miles – or a 10- to 15-minute drive – from home or work. Anything farther increases the chances of logistical issues (think: traffic) that can keep you from getting there. Search online for fitness, barre, Pilates or gym + near me to identify the closest options, Luna says.

Hours also matter, says Bryce Henson, CEO of Fit Body Boot Camp. Look at the general operating hours as well as how late and early classes are offered, and whether there are weekend sessions. If the only class you’re interested in is at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays, can you make that work with your schedule? Ask front desk staff about how easy it is to book a spot in classes and gauge their reaction. “You want classes and a schedule that can be built into your routine,” Luna says. “If you can’t get into the ones you want, likely this isn’t the place for you.”

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Take a tour

Once you’ve narrowed your list, tour your top options, with an eye toward the look and feel of each place. First impressions count, says Nick Barshick, chief operating officer for Chuze Fitness, a chain of nearly 60 centers across the West, South and Southeast. Is the facility clean and well-maintained? Is equipment wiped down after each use? Is the equipment dated or out of order? No detail is too small. Check lockers and restrooms, as well as the exercise studios and child-care space. Also consider safety. Visit before sunrise or after dusk to see the lighting in the parking lot and building, as well as how far you have to walk to the entrance.

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Sample before you commit

Any reputable business should allow you to take some classes or try out the facility at no cost. If a gym won’t do this, consider it a red flag and look elsewhere. Planet Fitness offers a one-day pass, while 24 Hour Fitness lets you test a facility for three days, and Chuze offers a seven-day trial. A free trial allows you to get a realistic idea of how the place operates. How does the staff make you feel? Do instructors welcome new students to classes? Is the place quiet or mobbed at the time you are most likely to attend? Most important: Do you feel out of place or like you’re part of an inclusive community?

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Ask about deals and promotions

When asked if they offer any special rates, “the answer will always be ‘yes,’” at pretty much any gym, Barshick says. But generally speaking, the best deals are offered in January, followed by the summer. You may also find some sale prices over Black Friday. Also ask if the facility offers any incentives, perks or discounts if you refer friends or family, Henson says.

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Be leery of long-term contracts

“If an outfit wants a three months or longer contract, that’s a red flag to me, because it likely comes with a cancellation fee,” Henson says. “I like a low barrier of six weeks or less.” The best deals, Luna says, are programs that ask for a 60- to 90-day commitment to start, then shift to a month-to-month membership or offer class packs – say 10 passes that can be used over a three-month period.

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Read the fine print

Look over your contract carefully to make sure you understand all of the policies. It should be easy to cancel. Some gyms still require 30 days notice to cancel a membership, while others offer immediate cancellation through their online portal or app. Also make note of any penalties for terminating early. Some facilities charge a flat cancellation fee, while others may ding you for an additional month.

Don’t be surprised by an annual fee of $40 to $60. This is industry practice for most high-value, low-price gym chains such as Planet Fitness, Crunch, 24 Hour Fitness and Chuze. The rationale is that consumers seem to prefer paying a low monthly rate plus an annual fee to paying slightly more each month, with no annual fee.

“Add up all the fees you pay and divide by 12 so you know what you are actually paying per month,” Barshick says. Also, watch out for any hidden charges, such as processing fees, towel service fees, locker rental or an automatic monthly increase after the first year.



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