Joining a Gym: What You Need to Know
It was in the middle of the second trimester of my second pregnancy that I did something that felt kind of crazy: I joined a gym for the first time in almost a decade. I was a pretty active person already, but I felt the need for an additional nudge to get moving. The monthly dues would serve as motivation, and the thought of using some fancy new equipment—like treadmills with built-in heart rate monitors and attached TVs, where I could get in a good, hilly walk and watch the latest reality shows—was just too tempting.
Add in a range of exercise classes and activities, the social atmosphere of a gym, and the guidance of trained professionals who can help you build, and stick to, a workout routine safely and effectively: You can see how a gym can give you many incentives to squeeze in some daily exercise.
Although some health club fees have been falling recently, joining is still a big investment, so you'll want to make sure you get your money's worth, counsels Hank Williford, PhD, director of the Human Performance Lab at Auburn University in Montgomery, Ala. He recommends shopping around and touring different facilities, to start. "First and foremost, proximity is key—you want [a gym] to be easy to get to, to have adequate parking, and to be open the hours you want to go, whether it's early in the morning or all night long," he says. "It's far too easy to talk yourself out of a workout, especially if you add in having to drive an extra half hour. ... You want to eliminate barriers to get there, and even within a facility, to make it as easy as possible to get to the gym and get in as much exercise as you can, to get maximum benefits in return."
To that end, it's important to make sure that a health club offers what you're looking for, both in program offerings and atmosphere. "Figure out exactly what you want to do, whether it's using the treadmill or a rowing machine or taking fitness classes like spinning, yoga, Pilates, and aerobics, or swimming, and make sure the gym has what you need, because you don't want to pay for extras you're not going to use," says Greg Cook, a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor in New York City, and coauthor of The Gym Survival Guide.
Cook also suggests considering the club's ambience: Is it a serene, high-end venue with fewer members and extra amenities like a pool and spa, for example, or a no-frills space with copious free weights, a hard-rock sound track, and a serious gym-rat clientele? "Go at a time of day when you'd normally be working out, to see how crowded it is, if it's to the point that you'll be intimidated or have to wait to hop on machines. Is it busy? Quiet? Loud? Women only? Is there day care? You need to find what makes you most comfortable, and most likely to keep coming."
You'll also want to learn about a club's trainers, their education and certification. "Personnel is probably the most important aspect of a club, and some exercise facilities employ people with little or no training related to exercise, while others require certification or other qualifications," explains Williford. He suggests that, at a minimum, a gym should require that staff have CPR and first-aid training. A college degree in a field like exercise science and certification from organizations like the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) or the National Strength and Conditioning Association are further pluses.
According to ACSM's brochure "Selecting and Effectively Using a Health/Fitness Facility," there are a range of other questions about instructors and offerings. Some could be particularly important for people with diabetes, including:
- Do qualified exercise instructors develop the programs?
- Will staff members modify the programs to meet your needs?
- Does the facility offer programs to address medical conditions (e.g., obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and smoking)?
- Does the facility offer fitness assessments and a personalized exercise program or prescription?
You'll also want to consult with your health care provider if you are considering changing your exercise regimen and if you don't already know how to prevent and treat low blood glucose.
A good gym should offer you a trial membership of at least a day, but ideally more like a week, as well as provide a free fitness assessment or at least one free personal training session when you join—the key to getting to know how all of the equipment works and feeling comfortable.
Before you join, take a careful look at each gym's business practices, which vary widely from club to club, says Williford. "Some gyms make you sign long-term contracts and may have some things in the contract that financially aren't very good for you, in terms of dues paying, hidden costs, cancellation policies, refunds, and the like. Read the contract carefully, and understand everything within that contract." On the plus side, with the economy still floundering, gyms are more likely than ever to negotiate initiation fees and rates or to match offers from competitors.
The ACSM recommends asking these questions to help you identify a reputable club:
- Does the staff not try to pressure you into buying a membership?
- Is there a grace period during which you can cancel your membership and receive a refund?
- Are there different membership options, and are all the fees for services posted?
- Does the facility provide you with a written set of rules and policies, which govern the responsibilities of both members and the facility?
- Does the facility have a procedure to inform members of any changes in charges, services, or policies?
What if you're ready for a more intense workout, but a health club is too expensive or too much hassle? Consider putting together a home gym, which can be much simpler—and less expensive—than you think. That's my plan now that our new baby boy has arrived—at least until I can get back to the gym and my reality-show hill climbs.
Setting Up a Home Gym
Thinking about creating a gym in your home? That doesn't need to mean building an addition on to your house and stocking it with massive pieces of machinery. "You don't need that much space or equipment to take the first step," says personal trainer Greg Cook, who notes that many of his private clients in New York City apartments simply move their coffee tables and use their living rooms as fitness areas, often with no more than 12 square feet of space and a couple of resistance bands (also known as tubes) or free weights. "You can get a great full-body workout using just tubes," he says, "but you do need some direction, some information that shows you how to do new exercises, how many repetitions you should do and how many times." Luckily, there are loads of fitness books, DVDs, and videos available these days for do-it-yourself exercisers. You might also want to consider hiring a personal trainer to come to your home for a session or two, to make sure any equipment is set up properly, to explain how to do certain exercises, and to help you create a more effective workout routine.
Be wary of the equipment sold on TV infomercials, warns Hank Williford, PhD, director of Auburn University's Human Performance Lab. "Some is legitimate, but a lot is not very good," he says. "Don't go for gimmicks. You have to put the work in to get the benefits." He suggests looking for more traditional equipment that will cover cardiovascular, strength training, and flexibility work: an exercise bike; a treadmill or rowing machine (although you can just keep running or walking outside); free weights and a bench, or resistance tubes; and an exercise ball. If the price of these supplies seems daunting, search yard sales or online sites like Craigslist for gently used offerings. Greg Niederlander, MS, director of product and program development for SPRI, a top manufacturer and distributor of exercise equipment for the health and fitness industry, suggests starting with a selection of resistance tubes and building from there. You can usually find them for less than $10 each. (His company's site, spri.com, offers hundreds of free online videos demonstrating various exercises.) After that, you could add a step for aerobic workouts (around $100), a slanted riser that ups the step workout ($60), and a stability ball ($30). The only other tool you need is free but precious: your own drive for a healthier life.