It’s a jungle out there and our gym survey discovered plenty of pitfalls for the unwary.
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  • Updated:12 Jul 2004

02.The gym environment

Most people were happy with their gym’s atmosphere and culture, but some of the following comments give you an idea of aspects to check when you’re shopping around.

  • "I'm very happy with my current gym. It has a very relaxed, friendly atmosphere, with all shapes and sizes feeling welcome and comfortable training there."
  • "Music too loud, and caters for the under 20s — who are also very beautiful."
  • "I find it annoying that there are lots of guys who swear and make a noise as they lift weights."
  • "I often find the aerobics classes are too full, especially when a new routine is introduced."
  • "Showers and change rooms are appalling — no space to hang towel at shower, no shelves in showers, often no hot water."

As many of our respondents noted, the atmosphere and clientele of a gym can make a big difference to your comfort and enjoyment — and hence how much value you’ll get from the gym. It may help to visit at a time you’re likely to be attending (lunchtime, after work, Sunday mornings, whenever) and check out the scene.

What to look out for

  • Is it very crowded? Are classes heavily subscribed? Are there queues for equipment?
  • Is the ambience (music, lighting, TV monitors, etc) to your liking?
  • Will you feel comfortable among the clientele?
  • Check out the atmosphere: hot and sweaty, stuffy, air-conditioned, open windows onto heavily trafficked streets, airy and spacious?
  • Is the equipment clean and well-maintained? Are towels required when working out (and is it enforced)? What are the showers and change rooms like?
  • Is drinking water available on the gym floor?
  • If relevant to you, does the gym offer childcare? What are the hours, and how much does it cost? Can you book in advance?

Our gym survey

Within days of the gym questionnaire appearing on our website, we received a letter from Ian Grainger, the CEO of Fitness Australia (see How fit’s the industry?), who was concerned that the questionnaire emphasised negative, rather than positive, aspects of gym membership.

We considered his arguments and looked again at our survey, but concluded it was well-designed for the purposes of our investigation: we wanted to be able to report the potential pitfalls of gym membership so that consumers can be more aware of what to look out for when joining one, and highlight the differences between good and bad gym service. We provided plenty of opportunities for people to add positive comments — which they did.

For as we expected, the majority of the 948 respondents were happy with their gyms, and hadn’t experienced any serious problems.

However, as this article shows, a significant minority of people also had negative experiences. We hope Fitness Australia will use our findings to improve areas in its industry that can be seen to be less than top-quality.

Every figure tells a story

Experiences reported in our survey:

  • Not informed of eligible discounts: 10%
  • Not given a medical questionnaire to fill in: 20%
  • Not shown how to use gym equipment: 22%
  • Not advised on an appropriate exercise program: 36%
  • Not offered a fitness assessment: 39%

Does a code of practice make a difference?

Most states and the ACT have a code of practice for the fitness industry. In WA the code has been drafted and endorsed by the relevant bodies, and is awaiting consideration by parliament. In the ACT and Queensland all gyms must be signatories to these codes; in other states it’s voluntary.

The codes of practice have policies in place that aim to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of clients; appropriate trading standards (including marketing practices) within the industry; and that adequate complaints resolution procedures are available.

While you might think that joining a gym that complies with the state’s code of practice would be some guarantee of standards, it’s not necessarily the case: we received many complaints about such gyms. On the other hand, there’s some indication that the codes may be helping. For example, in Queensland, where the code is mandatory, only 20% of people experienced misleading and unfair sales tactics (described in Membership), compared with the national average of 31%.

See How fit’s the industry?, for how to get hold of your state’s code of practice.

Member assistance

One of the key objectives in most codes of practice is to provide a standard of service that protects the health and well-being of clients. To us this suggests ensuring members know how to use equipment safely and effectively; having trained staff supervising workouts and offering advice to members where appropriate; and helping members achieve their goals.

While most people were happy with the fitness advice and instruction provided, a significant minority felt it didn’t meet expectations:

  • 22% weren’t shown how to use gym equipment.
  • 36% weren’t advised on an appropriate exercise program.
  • 39% weren’t offered a fitness assessment.

There are plenty of gym veterans who know what they’re doing and are happy to rock up, do their thing and mind their own business. But for people new to the gym scene — or even new to exercise — instruction and advice are especially important. And when you’ve already paid a lot for membership, to then discover you have to pay more for a personal trainer to guide you (as happened to several survey respondents), the temptation may be to go ahead on your own, risking injury and perhaps not getting as much out of it as you could.

A significant issue for many was that rather than having staff available for general supervision and advice, the floor staff are apparently more interested in touting for their personal training businesses than giving advice:

"The only time I was approached by a staff member offering me assistance was when he had an ulterior motive — trying to sell me personal training at additional cost."

What to look out for

Before signing up, be very clear about what services are included in the membership:

  • Are fitness assessments included? Free or an extra charge? How many and how often? What do they involve?
  • Does the gym provide you with a program to help you meet your health and fitness goals? Are there any costs involved? How often is it revised?
  • Are you shown how to use equipment? Is this included in your joining fee, or do you have to pay extra? Can it be spread out over several sessions if you’re new to gyms?

Joining a gym could be this good …

Megan Mackinney of Brisbane has been a member of her gym for over a year now, and is very happy with the staff, the environment and the financial side of things.

"I was given the opportunity to join on a month-by-month basis, with no cancellation fee. They also reduced the $150 joining fee to $50 as part of a special offer."

"The monthly fee was gradually reduced each month that I stayed a member. When I was satisfied that I’d continue to use the gym, I signed up for a year and was offered an extra month free of charge."

"I was very pleased to have these options, as I’ve never been a gym member before and it allowed me to see if I liked the gym and develop a routine before committing to a full year."


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