Joining a gym

Five things to know before you sign up for a gym membership.

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1. "What are all—and I mean all—of the fees?"
Lucille Roberts member Nettie Riccardi suspected her gym's $12-per-month promotion was too good to be true. She wound up paying an initial membership fee, a facility fee every six months, tax and even a service charge on her monthly debit transactions. "But I was willing to overlook it this time because I figured it was still kind of worth it—and I had to do something" to get fit, she says. So ask questions, and then ask them again—especially about additional costs for things that aren't necessarily included in your monthly dues, such as taxes, lockers, laundry service, personal training and an initiation charge. Also inquire whether there are ways certain fees can be lifted or avoided; for example, some gyms, like New York Health & Racquet Club, won't charge the initiation charge if you pay for one year in full up front.

2. "Do you have a pool?"
Almost every gym sales rep we spoke to said this is the most common question they get. And while quite a few New York branches do have pools, if yours doesn't, find out whether you can use another one in the chain. For example, like many gyms, New York Sports Club offers two levels of membership, one that restricts members to a single branch and a slightly higher-priced one that lets you work out at any of more than 50 locales,including four with pools, plus the club's branches in Washington, D.C., Boston and Philadelphia.

3. "Is there any room for negotiation?"
It doesn't hurt to ask, even if the answer is almost always no. Mary Laudati, vice president of sales at Reebok Sports Club/NY says that prices at her club are set in stone, but that she expects a little bargaining—even if it's futile. "I actually encourage it," says Laudati. "We're from New York, we're conditioned that way." Erica Manning, a fitness advisor at Club H in Hoboken notes that she can't budge on her prices either. "We don't have a lot of room for negotiation at all," she notes. "We're trying to get them to see the benefits they'll get from working out. Instead of making it about the price, it's about a lifestyle."

4. "What's it going to take to get me out of my contract?"
Our advice for the noncommittal is to opt for more costly month-to-month fees instead of a yearly contract, so you can walk away anytime, no strings attached. But even if you go for the lower long-term rate, ask what it'll cost to cancel your agreement should you move, have a medical issue, or lose your job or your attention span. The first three reasons are usually good enough, if you provide written notice 30 days out, to break the contract without breaking the bank. But if you're just going through a lazy spell, consider freezing your membership until you snap out of it. "There is a cancellation fee," says Erica Schietinger, spokesperson for the Sports Center at Chelsea Piers. And to help members avoid it, she says the club will do anything to keep you committed to their contracts. "We'll actually call you if we haven't seen you in a while," says Schietinger. "We try to keep you on the wagon because it's the right thing to do."

5. "Are there family times?"
Ben Clymer, 27, joined Reebok Sports Club/NY without asking, to his dismay. "Every Sunday from 11 am to 2 pm they open up the whole gym to kids, and the entire place is just overrun with little people," he said. "The thing is they aren't too strict on when family time begins and ends, so 11 am to 2 pm is really more like all freakin' day."

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