If your New Year’s resolution includes going back to the gym, you may be happier at a local club than a national chain, according to a new survey
by Consumer Reports.
In its first-ever survey of health clubs, the magazine polled more than 10,000 subscribers who had visited a gym in the past six months. Gym-goers gave opinions on staff, equipment, classes, crowds, cleanliness and billing issues. Included in the group were 3,400 respondents who gave their reasons for canceling a gym membership during the previous three years.
Notably, national health club chains fared the poorest in the survey. The magazine found that private studios for yoga, dance or Pilates and gyms at local community centers, schools, work and nonprofit Jewish Community Centers and Y.M.C.A.’s received the best marks. National chains were often criticized for long wait times for machines, problems with contracts or fees, poorer cleanliness and less adequate locker rooms than other gyms.
“Consumers can pay up to $95 a month to join a health club and get certain extras like personal training sessions and spa services, but CR’s survey indicated that they might be happier spending a lot less,” said Jamie Kopf Hirsh, an associate editor at Consumer Reports. “There are some great values to be found at the gyms at Y’s, community centers and J.C.C.’s.”
One national chain did well in the ratings. Life Time Fitness received high marks for its equipment, locker rooms and classes, and for being open 24 hours a day.
The survey also found that paid gym memberships come with a fair share of administrative hassles. Among respondents with memberships, nearly one out of five reported having had a problem with contracts or fees, such as an unexpected dues hike or inability to freeze a membership temporarily during an expected absence. Thirty-eight percent of respondents who had canceled a membership to a big chain complained it took excessive time and effort to cancel, and that they received bills after cancellation and had other problems.
Although big chains didn’t score well, one advantage is that they often offer extras like personal training, child care, spa services and electronic tracking systems that allow members to monitor their workout progress. J.C.C.’s and Y.M.C.A.’s often offer classes tailored to specific groups, including kids, women and seniors. College and university gyms provide greater access to large-scale athletic facilities such as basketball courts and even climbing walls. The survey found that nearly a third of college gyms had large-scale facilities compared to 10 percent of commercial clubs. Meanwhile, gyms in apartment buildings or housing complexes are viewed as convenient but tend to have limited equipment.
The magazine recommends insisting on a trial membership before signing up and visiting the gym during the week, weekends and different times of day to gauge the conditions.
The full report on health clubs is available in the February 2008 issue of Consumer Reports. Portions of the story are available for free online