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7 Things to Consider When Choosing a Gym

First Things First

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Do you really need to join a gym? Ask yourself this question before you even start shopping around, says John Mulry, a personal trainer and owner of Expect Success Fitness. A gym membership certainly has its benefits, but if you love exercising outdoors, your office or apartment building has a fitness center, or you're just as happy working out at home, joining a gym might be a waste of money.

Still ready to sign up? Great! The next question to ask: What are my reasons for joining? For instance, if you love indoor cycling classes and want to get back in the saddle, you can immediately eliminate any clubs that don't have a cycling studio. It's a simple concept, but it's important to consider early in your search—it's amazing how convincing luxurious locker rooms and state-of-the-art treadmills can be.

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List Your "Must-Haves"

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Write out a list of your absolute "must haves" in an ideal gym, which are different from the "nice to haves," says Tanner Martty, a personal trainer with LEAF Lifestyle in Santa Monica, Calif. If you're seriously into strength training, a spacious and well-maintained free weight area might be high on your list. You'd be surprised how many gyms don't have a space where you can do your own bodyweight workouts or foam rolling. Also, will you be showering and getting ready for work at the gym? Don't forget to take your pre- and post-workout routine into consideration when making your list.

Snoop Around on Social Media

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Don't be swayed by savvy marketing or slogans, but instead do some research online, says Mike Ganim, co-owner of Harbor Fitness in Brooklyn, New York. If the gym you're considering has a Facebook page or Twitter account, check their feed for posts by current members to get a sense of their day-to-day activity. In addition to social media, check for reviews on sites like Yelp, City Search, and Google to get a feel for what current and former members like (or don’t) about the club’s classes, customer service, and cleanliness.

Take a Test Drive

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Sites like Groupon, Living Social, Crowd CutHalf-Off Depot, and Scoutmob are always offering package deals on fitness, with everything from boot camps to CrossFit to kettlebells to Zumba, says Cynthia Phillips, a personal trainer at ABSolute Body Symmetry in Atlanta, GA. Taking advantage of the special deals and introductory offers is a great (and in-expensive) way to test out various locations and options before committing to a long-term contract.

Location, Location, Location

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To eliminate excuses for skipping your workout, choose a location based on your lifestyle, says Laura Williams, a former fitness center manager and owner of Girls Gone Sporty. Do you plan to hit the gym during your lunch break or after work? Choose one close to your office. If you'd rather work out in the mornings or on weekends, a gym close to home is better.

There's no magic mile radius to aim for, Williams says, but rather a magic commuting time. A five- to eight-minute walk or drive is ideal, keeping in mind that factors like traffic lights, roadway congestion, or even the time of day you’ll be traveling can influence your overall commute.

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The Devil's in the Details

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When you walk into a potential gym, pay attention to all the details. Is the lighting too bright? Too dim? Music too loud? Classes too crowded? Are there too many "meat heads" for your taste? Things that may not seem important during your initial tour can become major gripes later on. Cleanliness of the gym is a common example, so look for signs of regular maintenance.

“Two telltale signs of gym cleanliness are the bathrooms and the corners,” says Joe Vennare, certified fitness professional and co-founder of Hybrid Athlete. “If the bathroom is dingy and there is dirt or dust-bunnies in the corners, upkeep is an issue.” Vennare also recommends checking to see if the facility provides a way to disinfect equipment after use. “Look for gym wipes or a spray bottle and towels, and see if anyone actually uses them,” he says.

Sealing the Deal

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Once you've found your perfect gym (and tried at least one free trial there), you may be ready to commit. But before you sign on the dotted line, it pays to remember a few key things, says Jenn Walters, certified personal trainer and co-founder of Fit Bottomed Girls. For example:

1. Ask if your location offers a discounted membership if you only come during "off-peak" hours or only take group exercise classes (if that’s what you plan to do).
2. Make sure you know exactly what "extras" are provided. Do they offer towels? Shampoo and conditioner in the showers? Hairdryers in the locker room?
3. Are all group exercise classes included or is there an additional cost? Some health clubs that offer Pilates or other training styles that require special equipment charge extra for those classes.
4. Do they offer discounts for members on massage therapy?

Don’t be afraid to play hard to get, Walters says. “Many times clubs will call you back in a few days or weeks to offer you an even better deal than when you came in for the tour.” And if you don’t like the initiation fee or aren't ready to sign a year-long agreement, you may be able to negotiate a little. “While not all clubs will budge, many will work with you, so don't be afraid to suggest a different price or a different membership than what's stated!”

Finally, when it comes to price points, the time of year you join matters too. “The best deals of the year on membership and fitness services like personal training are in January and September, so if you can wait, try to sign up then!”

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