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How to Choose the Right Gym

Updated on October 20, 2018
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I worked at a gym through college and have been a fitness junkie ever since, trying everything from P90X to yoga to power lifting.

So You Want To Join A Gym

We all know the benefits of regular exercise, but what about the benefits of a good gym? Having access to great trainers, top-of-the-line equipment, quality fitness classes, and an energetic vibe can keep you motivated. The wrong gym, though, can kill your workout routine and your wallet. So how do you choose the right gym?


Location, Location, Location

Getting to the gym is a schlep. The more the schlep, the less you'll go. Don't just take my word for it. A study by the data firm Dstillery found that a distance as small as 1.4 miles made a fivefold difference in gym attendance. Another study found that the closer college students lived to the campus gym, the more often they went.

So, when choosing a gym, look for one that's close to home, work, or along your daily commute: within 5 miles or less, ideally.

Can't Find a Gym Nearby? Get Creative!

Hey, don't give up that easy! Just because there's nothing close to your house doesn't mean the search has to stop there.

  • If there's no gym along your usual daily commute, look at alternate routes. Sometimes all it takes is taking a different exit off the highway.
  • If you have kids who need a ride to school or to practice, search for a gym near their practice field.
  • Don't just look for commercial gyms! Check out your local hospital, community health center, or community college, which often have gyms which are open to the public.
  • Don't just look for full service gyms! Try small fitness studios with a narrower focus, like yoga, barre, pilates, Crossfit, etc.


Equipment 101

Commercial gym equipment gets used hard. Scout it out. Does it make funny noises? Are the seat cushions torn? Any scratches, gouges, or dents? These are all warning signs.

Also, some brands are better than others. Here are some good brands to look for in both cardio and weight equipment:

  • Life Fitness
  • Precor
  • Body Solid
  • Rogue Fitness
  • Free Motion
  • Cybex
  • Kettler

As for free weights, count the benches and the racks: if you have fewer than at least three or four squat racks and flat benches, you're probably going to have a bad time around rush hour.

And make sure the gym lets you try before you buy!


It's the Money, Honey

I know what you're thinking: this is cool and all, but even if I find the perfect gym, I still need to pay for it. How do I save on a gym membership?

  1. Ask work. Many workplaces have employee wellness programs which offer discounted gym memberships or other fitness incentives.
  2. Ask your health insurance provider. They also have wellness programs: after all, they'd rather pay for a gym than a heart attack.
  3. If you keep irregular hours, consider an off-peak membership. You won't be able to use the gym during its busiest times, but who wants to get involved in that mess, anyway?
  4. Are you a student or a senior? If so, most gyms will offer you a discount.
  5. Ask for a class-only or other limited membership. If you couldn't care less about the treadmills and are only there for the Booty Barre, some gyms offer cheaper memberships in exchange for restrictions on what services you use.

The Do-Gooder's Option: Volunteer!

If you have some extra time, here's a way to score free classes or a membership: volunteer!

Contact your local yoga studio. They may have an "energy exchange" program. Here's the gist: yoga studios are often understaffed, so some offer free classes in exchange for help around the studio. The trade is usually 2-3 hours a week for 1 free class. Not a bad deal for a couple hours of your time!

Talk to your local YMCA, too. Very often, if you volunteer to work the reception 3-4 hours a week, they'll repay you with a free membership.

Help out your local community, and get in shape, too! What's not to like?

Does It Pass the Sniff Test?

Seems obvious, right? Gyms attract sweaty people, and sweaty people smell. Make sure you check out the fitness studios and locker rooms. If you stick your nose in a shower stall and it looks like somebody just had a kegger in there, pass.

But that's just one way a gym has to pass the sniff test. Look and listen carefully. Ask around. Look for reviews. Avoid places with pushy salespeople, rigid contracts, and always read the fine print. Look for flexible contracts and payment options, and beware anywhere that wants your bank information so it can automatically deduct money from your accounts each month: those are often the gyms that are hardest to get out of and get your money back from when it comes time to leave!

Last but not least, try before you buy. Most gyms (if they're smart, anyway) offer week-long trial memberships. Take advantage of that, and don't be shy: not only are THEY trying to sell YOU a service, but a bad gym can make all the difference between fitness and failure. Set yourself up for success by choosing the right one!


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