Stepping into a gym for the first time can feel a lot like the first day of big school: everyone looks like they know what they’re doing, everyone looks bigger than you do and you’re desperate not to do anything that pegs you as the new kid.
Only there’s no kindly teacher to help you find your feet this time. But there might be someone in a sharp tracksuit and an even sharper smile gearing up for the hard sell. Choosing the right gym isn’t just about finding a space to get fitter in; it’s about making a sensible and sustainable financial decision right off the bat Do your research. Know exactly what you want from your membership.
Make the gym work for your money and make them earn your patronage.
You’re the one with the power.
The UK fitness industry is worth a massive 5 billion pounds with 1 in 7 people having a gym membership - that’s 10 million people. But how many of those 10 million are active users? How many are actually hitting the gym week-in and week-out? We probably all know someone whose memberships keeps ticking along unused.
You may even be that person.
Before you even step foot into a gym, you need to decide whether or not you’re going to use your membership. The gym wants you to sign up, of course, but they’re also hoping that you’ll never actually turn up. Running a gym isn’t cheap. The bigger the gym, the smaller the profit. Gyms simply can’t afford to sign up to their capacity and then close their doors to new members. Back in 2014, Planet Money (a financial podcast), visited a Planet Fitness in Los Angeles and discovered that despite having signed up 6,000 members, Planet Fitness only had the capacity for 600 people.
What the hell would they do if everyone turned up together?
The Washington Post notes that it’s a strange business model: one that stays afloat in tough financial times thanks to customers NOT walking through the door.
Be honest with yourself: are you going to go regularly? And don’t sign up by thinking well, if I’m paying for it then I’ll have to use it because you won’t.
Can I Try Before I Buy?
The Pay-As-U-Gym app allows you to buy short-term passes to local gyms without having to sign a contract. This is THE best way to do research. You can get a feel for a number of gyms in real-time without having to rely on other people’s reviews, brochures or a quick walk around. When we looked in our local area there were about a half-dozen gyms you could buy passes for and many were priced at around £4 per session. This app ideal, too, for anyone who'd like access to a gym but aren’t interested in going every week.
Can I Get What I Want for Free or Cheap?
The gym isn’t the only option you have.
You can exercise in other places, too. If you love being outside, for instance, are you likely to enjoy being stuck inside under strip lighting? Love running? Run outside. Find trails and routes near to your home and work or join a running club or a walking group, or one for hiking, cycling or circuit training. Outdoor exercise throws curveballs in your training that the gym can’t: wind resistance, precipitation, obstacles and humidity, for example. Outdoor exercise is a fantastic way to get fit and it’s way cheaper than a monthly gym subscription.
How Close is This Gym?
The further away the gym is from either your home or your work, the less likely it is that you’ll go. It’s easy to be optimistic at the beginning, but the reality is that ANY excuse is going to sound pretty convincing when it’s a thirty-minute drive to that treadmill. Motivation can be hard enough at the best of times so don’t make it easy to give up. Pick somewhere close by.
How Long am I Going to be Stuck in This Contract For?
Remember the episode of Friends where Chandler couldn’t quit the gym? Okay, so it’s not going to be that bad but remember, you’re signing a legal contract that can tie you into a membership for twelve months. A year is a long time. Have you thought about what might happen if you lost your job or if you moved out of the area? What’s the penalty for cancelling early?
Gyms want you to sign up for a year and that’s why annual contracts are often given at reduced rates but some gyms do offer flexible contracts: Virgin Active do. Pure Gym and the Gym Group sign users up on a rolling contract which allows them to be more flexible and will let you cancel your membership without having to bathe in pigs blood on a full moon, offer your eye, three back teeth and half your worldly possessions to do it.
Before you sign anything BE SURE that you can afford it now and in twelve months time.
What are the Opening Hours?
It sounds obvious but not all gyms will have longer opening hours. Some really don’t. Joining a gym with restricted opening hours can be an absolute nightmare if you’re trying to fit a workout in around a busy schedule.
Extended hours or 24-hour access puts you in control of your own fitness; it allows you to pick times where the gym is quieter and should make it harder for you to make excuses and skip sessions. Ask about holiday and Sunday opening times, too.
Can I Use Other Gyms?
If you’ve signed up with a franchise, then you may be entitled to use other gyms in that chain in other parts of the country. This isn’t always the case, however, so never assume it. If you’re away from home a lot, then it can be a useful membership perk and should help you keep in shape even when you’re hundreds of miles away from home.
Can I have a Trial?
Any gym worth its salt will let potential new-users try it out first. You may have to pay a small fee, but it’ll be worth it. This is valuable research. This is intelligence. You can really scope a place out and see what it’s like because you can’t always trust other people’s reviews, the brochures or the person signing you up (and taking a commision).
What’s Included in the Price AND What Additional Amenities are Available?
All gyms are different. Find out what’s important to you. Maybe you want the spit-and-sawdust sort of place where there are little-to-no frills or maybe you want WiFi and protein shakes and baskets of free little shampoo bottles in the bathrooms. Don’t wait until after you’ve signed up to find out what’s included.
How Clean is This Gym?
You can catch ALL kinds of nasties in the gym so it’s important that your gym has good hygiene practice no matter how cheap the monthly premiums are. You should see staff and users wiping down equipment, anti-bacterial spray and hand gel should be available and the toilets and changing rooms should be maintained to a high standard. Hygiene is especially important if you’re planning on taking a hot class like Bikram Yoga as MRSA can breed easily and quickly.
Are the Staff Trained To Help Me Achieve my Fitness Goals?
The Telegraph probably summed it up best when they wrote:
And they’re not wrong. Some gyms employ “personal trainers” just to open up, man a desk and explain what the buttons on the treadmill do. Other gyms have PTs that are part of the gym’s prestige and worth their weight in gold for knowledge and skill. Choosing the right PT is probably tougher than choosing the right gym, so it’s worth finding out all you can about staffing before you sign up. Some gyms allow you to bring in outside PTs to train with and others keep it all in-house.
What Classes are Offered and Are they Included in the Price?
Classes may or may not be included in the price of your membership. If there’s something that you’re burning to do, then find out if you’re going to have to pay extra for it or not. Sit in on a couple of classes and get a feel for the instructor. Find out how often the timetable changes. If classes are all that you’re interested in, then it could be worth going to a studio instead or finding a freelance instructor in the local press. Yoga, Pilates and Zumba are often done from public buildings like schools and village halls and are pay-per-class.
When are the Peak Times?
Go when it’s busy. Watch for any queues at the machines and see how long it takes to clear them. Visit at the time when you’ll be most likely to go and get a feel for how many other people will be there, too. Do this for a couple of days and see how attendance stacks up.
What’s the Culture?
Some people are only there for the equipment or the sauna but for others the overall culture of the gym is important. This will depend on the gym’s specialism and the crowd it attracts. If you get the chance to try the gym before you sign up, then it should be pretty obvious if there’s a community identity. What’s the average age of users? Is it more or less equal in gender? Women might prefer a female only gym.
Maybe you’d prefer a gym that emphasises martial arts training, CrossFit, circuits or strength. Culture and community are important to some people, but it might not be to you. Friendships and relationships are formed quite frequently in such places so go to where you feel at home or where you think you’d feel most supported.
What Music is Blasting Out of the Speakers?
Okay, so this probably isn’t going to be a deal breaker BUT if you like to workout without headphones or earbuds then how motivated are you going to be if the gym is blasting mid-1990s trance 24/7.
Maybe you’ll love it.
Maybe you’ll end up smashing your sweaty little face into a treadmill display.
The music selection is probably going to be an extension of the overall gym identity: a high street franchise gym will be different, for example, to a bodybuilding or boxing gym and the soundtrack will reflect that. Would it be worse or better if it was Eye of the Tiger non-stop? If the music does bother you, then the simplest solution is to take your own: grab a pair of decent headphones and add a pair of EarHugz so you won’t have to worry about sweat damage.