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Madison, Wis. — If you’ve been considering joining a gym, you know there are an overwhelming number of options out there. Low monthly fees, no contracts, 24-hour access, personal trainers, child care – the options are endless, but your wallet isn’t. And how do you determine whether it’s worth it anyway?
“The price tag of a gym membership doesn’t necessarily reflect its value,” says Jude Sullivan, senior exercise physiologist at UW Health’s Sports Medicine Fitness Center. “And really, you need to remember this isn’t an investment in a facility. It’s an investment in your health.”
For Sullivan, gym memberships are like insurance premiums. You maintain insurance to protect your home or your car. The money and time you regularly invest in exercising and maintaining a healthy lifestyle will pay off through better health and well-being throughout your life. But is a gym necessary?
Recent research suggests that going to a gym does make a difference – regular gym users are more likely than non-gym users to meet the daily guidelines for physical activity. Dan Wanta, a colleague of Sullivan’s and an exercise physiologist himself, isn’t surprised.
“It is common knowledge that physical activity is important,” says Wanta. “But the reality is that most people do not meet the established guidelines for physical activity. Are those people who use a gym more likely to meet those guidelines? The answer is a resounding yes.”
Both agree that belonging to a gym facility of any type has a lot of pros. And the type of facility that is best for an individual is really based on what a person needs, and that includes convenience. One recent survey found that individuals who belonged to a gym within four miles of their house were more likely to go regularly. Alternatively, individuals who joined more high-end facilities were more likely to use them as well, regardless of distance. Wanta notes there hasn’t been a study comparing activity levels and the types of facilities, so there’s no way to compare a 24-hour express facility against a full-service gym, for example. But both Sullivan and Wanta say there are considerations that can help.
What Do You Really Need in a Gym Facility?
There are high-end facilities with saunas, heated pools, free child care, exercise classes and more. Are those kinds of amenities important for you and will you use them? Another consideration is just how comfortable are you with knowing proper forms and exercises that can help you reach your goals?
“Trainers can help you create routines that will help you achieve your goals,” says Sullivan. “At some facilities, time with trainers is an add-on expense but can be beneficial if you’re new to a gym or want to advance your exercise routine.”
He adds that at the UW Health Fitness Center, which is open to the public and considered a medical fitness facility, members have access to staff at all times at no additional cost. “Our mission is to help people. And in a way, we’re trying to help you not need us,” comments Sullivan.
Wanta agrees adding, “We work to help individuals develop a foundation from which they can grow. We take into consideration their past and current health history, interest and goals and then help them understand why we recommend certain exercises. So it’s not just about how to use the equipment, but what the equipment and exercises actually do to help.”
It’s also important to consider your own personality – what motivates you, what do you like to do, what will keep you going. “For some people, working out at home may really be the best for them, or an exercise class might be important. For others, belonging to a facility where the staff knows you and you may see familiar faces each time you go can help keep you motivated,” says Sullivan.
Beyond the basics of where to actually go, Sullivan adds that helping to establish reasonable expectations is important as well. “We see it a lot right after the New Year when individuals commit to a program that is beyond their fitness level. Or they want to know how their routine compares to others – are they progressing as fast, losing as much weight – whatever they are trying to achieve.”
Despite television commercials that promise you can completely change your body in just 15 minutes a day, Sullivan stresses that every individual is unique. “It goes back to what you want to achieve in the first place,” he says. “And, if we’re doing our jobs properly, if we’re truly teaching prevention, people should be able to embrace their health, do what is necessary and be confident that they know what and how they need to do it.”
A Checklist for Finding a Gym That's Right for You
When you're debating about joining a gym, or trying to figure out whether a 24-hour access or full-service facility is right for you, consider these questions:
About the Facility
Is the gym located close to places you usually are, like your home or work?
Are the hours convenient?
What is the facility security like, and do they have an emergency response system?
Do you feel comfortable being in the facility?
Is there a pool and if so, are there lifeguards on duty?
How busy is the facility at the time you would regularly go?
Does the facility have the type of equipment that you need and know how to use (or is someone available to help with questions about the equipment)?
Is the building clean and well maintained, including locker room, fitness area, classroom and pool area?
If needed, is there safe and supervised childcare?
About the Staff
Does the exercise area always have knowledgeable staff available to answer questions or do you need to schedule an appointment to speak with someone?
What is the education level and training of the exercise staff?
Are the staff certified in CPR and AED?
Are the fitness staff used to working with someone having your health and fitness needs?
About the Programs and Membership
What is included in the membership?
Do you have to sign a contract, and if so for how long?
If you experience an injury or medical issue, can you put your membership on hold or cancel it?
Is health coaching or fitness training available and is there an extra cost?
Can you participate in an exercise class without purchasing a membership?
How are the classes run, do you have the same teacher all the time?
Are there classes that are appropriate for your fitness needs? Is the instructor able to adapt their curriculum to suit different class levels?