Health clubs experience their biggest surge in membership this time of year. If you're looking for a gym membership to fulfill those New Year's resolutions, attention to a few key aspects will ensure you'll not only use it but truly enjoy it.
Determine the days and times of day you are most likely to go, and then visit the fitness center at those times. How busy is it? How is the parking? Do they offer the classes you want then? Do people have to arrive early to get a spot in those classes? Ask if the gym limits the number of members. If it does not, during peak hours you may end up waiting to use equipment.
If you'll be taking impact classes such as aerobic, step or dance, or intend to play basketball or volleyball, go into those rooms and test the floor. You'd be wise to avoid clubs with floors that are concrete, or linoleum or wood on concrete. Concrete magnifies the shock of high-impact activities and can cause injuries consistent with long-distance running: stress fractures, tendonitis, patellofemoral syndrome, arthritic pain, even hip stress fractures. The floor of the room where these classes or activities take place should instead be made of any one of several materials that are slightly spongy in order to properly absorb loading. Ask to walk across any floor you'd be using for high-impact activities. Test the feel of the floor by jumping on it. The right floor should offer some resistance but absorb shock.
Of course, check the cleanliness of the equipment, yoga mats, workout rooms, pool, showers, sauna and so on.
Note your level of comfort. Would you feel comfortable working out beside the people who are there at the times you want to go? Some women prefer a same-sex facility, for example, and some serious bodybuilders want a gym that caters primarily to bodybuilders.
How about the trainers and instructors — are they helpful to newcomers? Do they seem to have a good rapport with members? Ask to see their credentials.
Before you leave, be sure to talk with members. What are other pros and cons a prospective member should consider? How happy are they with the gym overall?
After you visit the gym, call and discuss any concerns. If you decide to join, try to negotiate a month-to-month membership. Those yearlong contracts won't necessarily motivate you to work out; they'll only contribute to your guilt if you don't. At the very least, take advantage of any trial offers to test the gym before you sign on.
And if a health club membership isn't in the cards right now? You may want to try what I've found is the best gym around. No contract required. Open 24 hours a day. Literally acres of workout space. Clean air. A huge variety of activities to choose from year-round. Pets welcome! And here's the amazing part: It's free. It's called the outdoors.
( Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible" (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf.