What to Look for in a Gym
So You Want To Join A Gym
Even in these days of economic doldrums, physical fitness remains an important aspect of daily life. As a matter of fact, one might argue that staying in shape and keeping active is more important than ever. By now it's commonly known that regular exercise reduces your risk of heart disease, relieves stress, and promotes an overall feeling of improved mood and well-being, so don't skimp! Keep that gym membership going, and if you don't have one, get one: your heart will thank you.
Unfortunately, it remains easy to fall off of the wagon if you choose the wrong gym. If your gym is poorly run, poorly equipped, poorly cleaned, or simply poorly positioned, keeping up a workout routine will become an exercise in frustration - and one that's doomed to fail and leave you not only out of shape but out of months worth of wasted membership dues.
Fortunately, all it takes is to follow a few pointers, and you can avoid that grisly fitness fate.
Location, Location, Location
You no doubt know that the primary culprit behind most failed workout programs is a lack of motivation, but did you know that a badly-located gym is one of the biggest demotivators there is?
Let’s face it: Going to the gym takes time. If you go the bare minimum of three days a week, and if your workout lasts for one hour (plus the time it takes for you to shower and change), that’s already about an hour and a quarter out of your day, three times a week. If you add on a twenty minute commute each way, that’s almost two hours spent just to fit in an hour-long workout – time which many of us either can’t spare or can only spare by sacrificing our already limited free time.
Location isn't the only important aspect to bear in mind when choosing a gym. Far from it. Good quality equipment is important, as is a good selection of equipment and classes. So is good sanitation and ventilation.
However, none of that will do you any good if you never get to the gym because it’s just too inconvenient to get there.
For most people, the cutoff point between a reasonable gym commute and an unreasonable one is around the fifteen minute mark. More than that means more than half an hour just to get to and from the gym each day, which starts to become a serious nuisance for most people.
So, look for a gym which is within a fifteen minute walk or drive from wherever you’re likely to be during the day. Think: When is it easiest for you to get away? If it’s during your lunch break, find a gym near work. If it’s in between classes, find a gym near school. (Or use the school gym. They’re often underequipped and can get crowded, but they’re also free for student use and open almost round-the-clock.) If you work from home or are a stay-at-home parent, find a gym near your house. If the only time you have free is when you drop your kids off at school in the morning, find a gym near their school. If you rotate offices, either find a gym at a convenient point between them or determine which office you’re at most often and find a gym near there.
Plan your gym around your schedule, not the other way around, and you’ll find that it’s much easier to stick to your workouts over the long term.
The next most important aspect of your workouts will be the equipment. You can't lift weights without the weights, and if the gym has too few machines and too many members, you may find yourself spending more of your time standing around waiting than you do working out.
This is hardly motivational.
In addition, poor quality or poorly maintained equipment can not only ruin your mood, but also your health. When you're shifting heavy weights around or pedalling at 140 RPM, you want to know that your exercise machine won't unfold on you like reverse origami and leave you in a heap of metal, rubber, and agony.
Commercial gym equipment sees a lot of hard use. This is an unavoidable fact of life. Not only does it get used by large numbers of people, but many of the people who come to the gym are people who’ve seen a large number on the scale and are trying to turn it into a much smaller number. That’s a great and wonderful thing, and needs to be encouraged, but from the gym side of things, it's a catch 22. You can only ask a treadmill’s shock absorbers to absorb so much shock before they cry uncle. The bigger the gym, the faster the equipment wears.
Equipment also one of the biggest factors in any gym’s budget, and as such, it’s often tempting for a gym to scrimp a little and stretch their equipment’s lifespan out as long as possible to avoid having to purchase replacements.
A good quality commercial treadmill can cost upwards of four thousand dollars. The average gym membership costs about fifty bucks a month. A large gym will need eight to twelve treadmills to accomodate all runners. You do the math.
When evaluating a gym's equipment, keep an eye out for signs of extreme wear and tear, such as scratches, dents, obviously missing pieces, serious fading on the treadmill runners, or tears in the cushions on the weight benches and machines.
Test the pedals on the cardio equipment for wobbles and listen for unusual creaks and rattles. Ellipticals and stationary bikes should do no more than emit a constant hum, and occasionally creak if you suddenly shift your weight to one side. Sustained creaks or rattles are not a sign of a healthy machine. Treadmills will naturally be noisier, but also be wary of squeaks, creaks, and rattles.
When it comes to the on-board computers of most cardio machines, check that any digital display is fully functioning (no blips or blank spots where there should be a readout) and all of the buttons respond easily to pressure and do what they're supposed to do. If you press a button to increase resistance, resistance should increase. If it doesn't, your machine has a problem. It may be electrical, or it may be a problem with the hydraulics, but in either case, it needs attention.
Some good brands to look for include but are by no means limited to: Star Trac (especially for treadmills), Precor (the pre-eminent elliptical trainer), and Life Fitness.
When it comes to weight machines, make sure that their motion is smooth, without any sudden jerks or shakiness. Make certain as well that the machine is sturdy and stable, and is placed on even flooring.
Again, make sure that the cushioning on the seats and benches is not torn or stained. This is a sign of old, worn equipment, not to mention unpleasant to sit on. Make sure that the height of the bench or seat is fully adjustable, and that the padding around the hand grips is stuck firmly in place and shows no sign of cracking.
Over here you should keep an eye out for brands names like Cybex, Icarian, and Hammer Strength. These companies all produce sturdy, long-lasting machines with ergonomically sound seating and proven-effective motions.
If you intend to use the free weights, make sure there are plenty of plates, dumbbells, barbells, and benches available. Less than three or four flat benches tends to be a recipe for disaster. Less than three weight trees full of plates ranging from forty-five pounds down to five pounds is also a recipe for disaster. More than one squat rack is also a very good thing to see, as are pull-up bars and dip stations. You'll also want to see plenty of weight collars, since the last thing you want is to find your weight plates slipping off of your barbell in mid-bench press.
If, on the other hand, group exercise classes are more your thing, make sure to ask for a full class schedule and go over what’s available. Make sure that the class descriptions are clear, and if not, ask a gym employee to give you a fuller description. Make sure that the classes you'd like to take not only coincide with your schedule, but that there are second options in case you miss your first choice. It's easy to find yourself skipping workouts because you missed your intended class and didn't have a backup plan.
Check out the aerobics studio. Is it clean, well-lit, and well-ventilated? Believe me, if there's a slight "off" odor in the room when it's empty, it'll become more than slight as soon as the doors are closed and twenty sweaty people are heating up the joint. Try a few experimental jumps as well. Does the floor offer good traction, or is it slippery? Does the flooring have good shock absorption, or does it feel as if a few jump tucks will leave your knees in pieces?
Next check out the equipment in the studio. How does it look? There should be a selection of dumbbells and body bars, gymnastics balls in a variety of sizes, sturdy steps for step aerobics, and plenty of good quality yoga mats for those who don't have or forgot to bring their own. If there is resistance tubing, check the handles - the handles are usually the weakest point and the first to snap under tension. The best resistance tubing has integrated handles, and the worst has handles attached to the tubing by the means of flimsy plastic hooks. Try to avoid the plastic hooks. They have been known to break, and this is one thing you really don't want to happen while you have the band under tension.
If you do happen to spot any signs of excessive wear, don't rule that gym out immediately. Equipment maintenance is an ongoing process, and repair or replacement isn't instantaneous. You may have caught them right before the repairman was due to show up, or the new machines were about to arrive.
If, however, you see several of these signs, it's probably a good idea to look at another gym.
Hold the Funk
A dirty gym is not a nice place to be.
Mind you, nowhere is a nice place to be if it's filthy, but there's an extra degree of skin-crawling-ness to a dirty gym that doesn't exist anywhere else.
Maybe it's because there's such a degree of horrifying intimacy in sitting and sweating all over the same equipment when the equipment hasn't been cleaned nearly well enough, or maybe it's just because the stank of a thousand sweating people tends to become downright oppressive unless careful measures are taken to make sure it never builds up to that point.
Either way, it's hard to stay motivated to get to the gym regularly when it's such a gross-out experience.
Most people look to the locker room first, since that tends to be where any signs of poor sanitation show up most readily. And you should look there, above all else. Do a smell-check, since that will tell you a great deal about the general state of the locker room, but also do a visual check. How worn down does everything look? Are the counters clean? Are the fixtures all clean and in good repair? Are there signs of discoloration? Are the floors clean and clear of debris, or are there ancient scraps of toilet-paper ground into the tile because it's been days since anyone bothered to mop?
Beyond that, though, you should always do a smell-check throughout the gym. How is the air quality? Is there plenty of venting? Are there lots of openable windows and fans? Ventilation is key here, since it's only that which keeps the air fresh to be breathable in a building in which people spend all of their time sweating.
Keep an eye open for any debris or dustiness piling up in the corners. The gym should be swept regularly, and if it isn't, it's a sign that someone might not be keeping up with things in general.
The seats on the weight machines and the padding on the weight benches should not be stained or discolored. There should also be multiple stations throughout the gym with paper towels and spray bottles full of disinfectant, and plenty of signs encouraging members to clean the equipment after use.
Try Before You Buy
Most gyms will offer a free trial to anyone who’s interested in joining, usually for the span of a week. (Some very generous gyms, or ones currently running promotions, may offer up to two.)
Take advantage of this.
It’s free, and it will allow you to actually use the facilities and attend the classes multiple times before committing to anything. This will give you a much better idea of what your gym has to offer, and how it works. If there are a lot of mediocre teachers or the classes tend not to run on time because the person with the keys to the aerobics studio spends too much time sleeping off their hangover in the sauna, best to know now, so you can decide whether or not this is a deal breaker. Similarly, if there are some equipment shortages that leave you with the occasional wait to use the weights, or if there are certain times of day when you have to fight tooth and nail for a free treadmill, it’s better to be aware of this now rather than later.
The final factor in choosing a gym is one that's hard to measure: the people.
Are the receptionists pleasant, or do they level a glare at you that makes you wonder whether you ran over their dog on the way in?
Does the fitness staff seem to be helpful, or are they disinterested and resentful of any interruption?
Are the trainers enthusiastic, energetic, and involved, or do they seem to be going through the motions?
Is the manager usually on-site, responsive, and seems genuine, or is the manager the kind of person who gives you the sensation that he should be leaving a trail of slime behind him wherever he goes?
Trust your instincts, and give some weight to how the people at any potential gym make you feel. It may seem silly, but when you see these people day after day, a high level of overall unpleasantness might just erode your motivation to nothing.
On the other hand, when the receptionist greets you pleasantly and the manager responds to your concerns, you're likely to feel happier, more comfortable, and - the occasional flubs or equipment issues or scheduling programs notwithstanding - much more likely to come back again, and again, and again.