A man is smiling and riding a stationary bike indoors. In the background is fitness equipment. He is looking at a screen while riding the bike. Both of his hands are on the handle bars and he is wearing a red crewneck sweater. The photo has a Consumers' Checkbook logo and the bottom right hand corner.

Exercise Your Options Before Joining a Gym

If your New Year’s resolutions include exercise, get started by setting goals and reviewing your budget. Consumers’ Checkbook suggests cost-saving fitness options and helps you get the best price if you decide to join a gym.

Portrait of Kevin Brasler

Kevin Brasler (He, Him, His)
Consumers' Checkbook Executive Editor
Published Dec 29, 2023 in: Spending & Shopping

Read time: 5 minutes

Cardio machines. Boxing classes. Yoga sessions. Aqua cycling. There are as many ways to work out as there are excuses not to. But even though there are lots of options — and lots of science telling us that getting enough physical activity leads to healthier, longer, happier lives — fewer than half of U.S. adults get enough exercise, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

If you are thinking of joining a fitness club, know up front that the fitness industry thrives on good intentions. It can be easy to stop going after a few months and since many clubs charge nonrefundable initiation fees, you can lose money if you quit.

1. Make a Fitness Plan

If you don't exercise regularly or want to increase your fitness regimen, first formulate a plan. It can help you evaluate what you need from a gym — or if you need a gym at all.

Your plan should include:

  • Realistic fitness goals: This can range from the number of times a week you exercise to running a marathon. It all depends on where you are starting from and how you exercise.
  • A list of exercises: Choose exercises and training schedules that will help you achieve your goals. This will help you determine how much time you're going to need to commit to your exercise routine. You may find you need to adjust your fitness goals.
  • A schedule: Even if you have a modest fitness goal, like exercising three days a week, make sure you can fit it in around your work and family schedules.
  • A list of reasons to exercise: Knowing why you want to get fit and stay fit can keep you motivated. Try to focus on positive reasons, like having more energy or being able to play on the floor with your kids.
  • A fitness budget: Don't let the cost of a gym membership dictate your budget. Be realistic about how much money you can commit to your fitness routine. This will help you as you research gyms and other fitness programs.

2. Consider Alternatives to Gyms 

Many people can meet all their fitness and recreation needs without joining private fitness clubs — and it saves money.

Fitness Apps and Online Workouts 

You can do many types of exercises at home for free. The pandemic forced much of the fitness industry online, where you can find live and recorded classes and training sessions.

Most fitness apps cost from $13 to $30 a month. If you're OK with less structure, there are thousands of free online workout videos available.

Other Free or Low-Cost Options

Here are some other free and low-cost alternatives to gyms:

  • Walking, running and biking are free or inexpensive.
  • A regular soccer or basketball game at a nearby park can be a great source of cardio.
  • At-home exercise equipment is a one-time cost instead of the ongoing cost of a membership.
  • Local governments and YMCAs offer both facilities and programs at a lower cost than many private gyms.

3. Evaluate Gyms and Memberships 

If you still want to work out in a private gym or take classes, be prepared to make decisions. There are many local clubs, each likely to offer several membership options.

To help you identify the best fitness centers in the area, Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook is providing free access to its unbiased ratings of local fitness centers to BECU blog readers until Feb. 10 via Checkbook.org/BECU/gyms.

While amenities and services vary from facility to facility, you'll find that large price differences exist among clubs with roughly the same basic features. 

Some suggestions to consider before signing up for a gym membership:

  • Shop around. Some clubs charge twice as much as others for similar facilities and amenities. 
  • Check whether you qualify for a discount based on your employer or health insurance plan. For example, Medicare Advantage policyholders have access to programs that offer free or very low-cost memberships at participating fitness centers.
  • Many clubs have agreements with employers for "corporate" rates typically 10% to 20% lower than normal rates.
  • Watch out for the non-discount discount. While many advertised specials truly offer lower prices, others can be confusing or misleading.
  • Ask whether a membership you're considering includes a time commitment. If you've never joined a fitness facility, test the club and your determination to exercise by taking a short-term or month-to-month option.
  • Request a guest pass to try out any club you are considering. Use your pass at a time when you're most likely to exercise regularly so you can see how crowded it gets and whether the staff is helpful. 
  • Have sales staff put promises in writing. If a salesperson has said you can cancel your membership at any time, make sure it says as much in the contract.
  • Since the financial commitment of a club membership can be substantial, if you can persuade the club to give you a longer trial period, do so.

About Consumers' Checkbook

Puget Sound Consumers' Checkbook and Checkbook.org are a nonprofit organization with a mission to educate and help consumers. Checkbook also evaluates local service providers — home improvement contractors, doctors, dentists, veterinarians, stores and more. It is supported by consumers and takes no money from the companies it evaluates. BECU members can try Consumers' Checkbook for 30 days for free and can get 50% off their annual subscription.

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Portrait of Kevin Brasler

Kevin Brasler (He, Him, His)
Consumers' Checkbook Executive Editor

Kevin directs editorial, research, and publishing operations for Consumers' Checkbook, which has for decades empowered consumers to get the best service and prices on everything from auto repair to veterinary care.