We all know someone who's joined a gym so they can get fit or lose weight, with a vague plan to "use the equipment". They go a few times, lift some random weights and then stop going after a few months. They try to get out of their contract, only to find they're pretty much locked in, leaving them out of pocket – poorer but not fitter!
This doesn't have to be you. With a bit of planning and shopping around, you can make a better choice and get more out of your membership.
Before choosing a gym, there are some basic practicalities to consider.
Types of gym
A standard gym usually includes weight-training equipment (free weights and machines); cardio equipment, such as treadmills, exercise bikes and rowing machines; and workout space for classes. If you're new to gyms, thinking about what will interest you is a good start.
Other offerings may include a women-only gym, a 24-hour gym, or a gym with a pool and aqua classes. If you're already active and looking for a new challenge, something a little different – such as CrossFit or mixed martial arts (MMA) – could be worth looking into.
Where the gym is will make a real difference in terms of when and how often you'll use it. The harder it is to get to, the more excuses you'll find to not go.
Will it be open when you're most likely to want to exercise?
Does the gym offer a fitness assessment for new members, and an individualised program from a good personal trainer?
If you need this service, find out the times it's available, costs and the booking process.
The atmosphere and clientele of a gym can make a big difference to your comfort and enjoyment. It may help to visit at a time you're likely to be attending and check out the scene.
- What's the attitude of the staff – are they pleasant and helpful, or rude and pushy? Are there staff on the floor, supervising the weights area?
- Is it very crowded? Are classes heavily subscribed? Are there queues for equipment?
- Is the ambience (e.g. music, lighting and TV monitors) to your liking?
- Will you feel comfortable among the clientele?
- Check out the atmosphere: is it hot and sweaty, stuffy, air-conditioned, has open windows onto heavily trafficked streets, airy and spacious?
- Is the equipment clean and well-maintained? Are towels required when working out (and is this enforced)?
- What COVID-safe practices are in place and how well do the staff enforce compliance?
- What are the showers and change rooms like?
- Is drinking water available on the gym floor?
- Are safety and security measures adequate? This applies particularly for 24-hour gyms (and gym parking) which may not be staffed at all hours.
- Are there enough lockers available during peak times?
Check out the atmosphere of the gym before you sign up.
For beginners, a casual membership (pay-per-visit sessions, or buying a 10-visit pass, for example) gives you an opportunity to try it out a few times before making a larger financial (and time) commitment. Not all gyms offer a casual membership – especially chain gyms, or 24-hour gyms that give you access cards.
A short-term membership – such as a one-month special, or three months – is another way for newbies to test the waters. You may also benefit from members' services such as a fitness assessment, induction (instruction on how to use the gym equipment correctly) and having a program devised for you.
These do in fact usually involve contracts – that is, you sign a contract to join up and authorise direct debit payments, but there's no fixed term. However, before you sign, be sure to check that there are no conditions or fees for cancelling your membership.
Fixed-term and ongoing memberships
Paying upfront for a 12-month membership can get you a good deal – typically much better than a monthly debit arrangement. However, if the gym goes broke, you'll most likely lose the lot.
If you sign up for 12 months and pay month by month, you're still locked into a 12-month contract – and if you want to leave after six months or so, you'll still have to pay for the rest of the year, or at least pay a (perhaps substantial) penalty for breaking the contract.
Also, even if you sign a 12-month contract, membership may continue beyond the 12 months, and your fees will still be deducted until you cancel it – this is called an 'ongoing membership'. Check the contract to determine whether you're agreeing to a fixed-term or an ongoing agreement before signing.
Gyms that follow the Fitness Australia Code of Conduct should not accept more than 12 months' fees at a time, so don't pay more than this. Some get around this by offering a 12-month contract with an extra six months 'free', making the 18-month membership look like a better deal financially.
If you're new to gyms, and aren't sure what a contract will look like and the sorts of things it covers, see if you can find the contract for the gym you're interested in online. You can then have a really good look at it.
If you can't, at least try looking at contracts for other gyms to see what sorts of things to look out for – google 'gym contracts' or 'gym terms and conditions'.
Don't tolerate pushy sales tactics
Tell them you want to take the contract home and look at it carefully. If they say the offer is 'today only' or similar – and gyms do legitimately offer specials for a limited time – this should be clearly advertised.
Do the maths
Work out how much it will cost per week, how many times per week you're planning to go, and whether the cost is worth it. Would you be better off going as a casual (if possible), at least at first?
Look for added fees
This could be anything on top of basic membership fees, such as joining fees, fob/access card fees, monthly administration, direct debit fees, late or dishonour fees, cancellation, transfer or exit fees.
Also look out for terms around fee increases. Some ongoing contracts automatically increase your fees every year after the conclusion of the period you committed to when signing up.
Check the cooling-off period
There are minimum cooling-off periods that apply to all gyms for long-term contracts (more than three months) that are members of the industry association Fitness Australia: generally 48 hours in most states, and seven days in the ACT and WA.
Gyms may have their own cooling-off period exceeding this. There may still be fees that apply, such as administration fees, or 'guest' fees if you've used the gym within the cooling-off period.
Find out what their holding, freeze or deferral periods are
If you're away on holiday, or sick or injured for a long time, you may be able to get the time added to the end of your contract or pay a reduced fee for the duration. However, some notice – check how much – is required, and minimum and maximum periods may apply.
Check the cancellation policy
How much notice is needed, and what do you have to do? Regardless of what's stated, you should always cancel in writing on a dated form or letter, and also tell your bank you have cancelled.
And under what circumstances can you terminate your contract without penalty? Moving more than a certain distance from the gym (and relevant affiliates) or long-term sickness or disability are typical reasons.
If you don't want to or can't continue your membership, can it be transferred to someone else?
Don't rush to sign your contract and make sure you understand the cancellation terms.
Tricky cancellation terms
If you're not used to gym contracts, you may find that cancelling a membership – even after the conclusion of the period you signed up for – can be trickier than you expected.
This is because the majority of gym memberships are classified as 'ongoing' agreements.
For example, you may assume that your contract will automatically terminate 12 months after you sign up for a yearly membership. But if you signed an ongoing contract, your membership will automatically continue unless you actively opt out by cancelling your membership.
Most gyms also require a notice period of about one month to cancel a contract, even after the conclusion of the period you committed to when signing up (referred to in the contract as the 'Minimum Term').
This means that if you actually want your yearly membership to end after 12 months, you'll need to cancel your membership in writing one month before the agreement is due to end.
In fact, ongoing gym contracts work similarly to most residential lease agreements. Although you may sign up for a 12-month lease, you'll still need to give your real estate agent notice in advance if you actually intend to move out after 12 months. If no notice is given, it's assumed you are continuing the rolling agreement until you 'give notice' that you intend to move out.
Pre-paid and fixed-term agreements
The exception to this is prepaid or fixed-term agreements.
If you pre-pay for a specified period, the contract will probably terminate automatically at the conclusion of the pre-paid term unless you renew, but it's still worth checking your contract to confirm.
Fixed-term agreements will also usually terminate at the end of the term.
It's no secret that gym contracts can be hard to understand and tricky to terminate. In fact, in 2017, NSW's Department of Fair Trading received 550 consumer complaints relating to gym membership cancellations, cooling-off periods and refunds (or the lack of them).
The ACT, Queensland and Western Australia have implemented a mandatory Code of Practice for the fitness industry to offer consumers better protection – but most states haven't, leaving many people unsure of their rights.
In 2017, NSW Fair Trading received 550 consumer complaints relating to gym membership cancellations, cooling-off periods and refunds
In 2011, the ACL banned unfair terms in consumer contracts. This means contracts should be fair and you may be entitled to remedies if the service you paid for doesn't meet consumer guarantees.
Before signing a gym contract, make sure to read it thoroughly, and if important information (including cancellation fees, notice periods etc.) is not included, make sure you ask for this information first. You may also want to consider signing up with a gym that complies with the Fitness Australia Code of Practice if you're not in a state with a mandatory code of practice.
Cancelling a gym membership before the minimum term can often involve hefty fees, so transferring your membership instead can be a clever alternative.
If you're moving house, transferring your membership to a different club location will usually be cheaper than cancelling an existing membership and signing up again in your new location.
Alternatively, if you're looking to get rid of your membership altogether, selling your remaining membership to another person could save you a significant sum in cancellation fees.
Gyms are not legally required to let you to transfer your membership (either to a new branch for yourself, or to somebody else) but a number of the bigger chains do allow it, although policies can vary from one location to another.
Transferring to a new location
Transferring your membership to a club at another location within the same franchise may come with some fees (such as an administration fee and/or a new access card fee). And remember membership fees can vary from one location to the next, even within the same franchise, so if you're moving to a new club, you may need to pay higher membership fees.
If your current gym membership lets you visit any of the gym's club locations for free, keep in mind that if you start attending a new location more frequently than your designated 'home club', you may have your membership automatically transferred to that club, which may come with fees or higher membership rates.
If you're moving and your new home will be too far away from any branch of your current gym, you may be able to cancel your membership without penalty (Fitness First and Anytime Fitness allow for this if you are moving more than 15km away from any of their gyms.)
Transferring membership to another person
If your agreement allows it, transferring your membership to another person will usually be subject to a number of conditions.
You may have to have a certain amount of time remaining on your contract and the new member often can't be somebody who has recently held a membership at the same gym.
Most gyms will charge either a transfer fee or the initial start-up fee charged to new members when transferring a membership to a new person.
In a competitive marketplace, with new gyms opening regularly, existing gyms may close down, leaving members in the lurch. And with the current COVID-19 pandemic forcing many gyms to close their doors for extended periods, it's possible that more and more gyms will be forced to close their doors permanently.
Your gym may have contingencies in place for clients if it closes down. The contract for the Virgin Active chain of gyms, for example, states that if your home club closes, you have the choice of transferring your membership to another club, or terminating your membership on the day the home club closes.
Some gym closures have left members no choice but to go to other branches, which may not be very convenient. For example, when Lifestyle Fitness in the Sydney suburb Carlton closed down, members were told they could use the gyms in two other suburbs. Judging by the comments on the gym's Facebook page (which was quickly taken down) this wasn't a popular option and, in any case, those branches also closed down shortly afterwards.
Some gym closures have left members no choice but to go to other branches, which may not be very convenient
If you're lucky, nearby gyms not affiliated with the facility that has closed may offer to take on members as a goodwill gesture. But you may be required to agree to a membership with that gym when your current contract expires.
If you're not happy with the solutions offered by the gym, you can at least stop the direct-debit payments by contacting your bank.
If you've paid upfront, you'll have to try to recoup your money from the company or its liquidator. Contact your state's fair trading department for advice.
If you've paid with a credit card, you may be able to use a chargeback to get a refund, although this only works for a limited time after you've paid.
Making a complaint
Fitness Australia has various resources to help people with complaints about their gym.
- Start by writing a letter to the business concerned (whether it's a gym or a personal training service or something else).
- If that doesn't work, and your gym is a member of Fitness Australia, submit your complaint to Fitness Australia.
- If it still doesn't get resolved, take your complaint to your state's fair trading office.
We compare the costs and cancellation policies for eight of the biggest gym franchises in Australia by market share according to IbisWorld.
Note: Minimum term refers to the length of the agreement outlined in an ongoing contract. For example, if you sign a yearly ongoing contract the minimum term will be 12 months.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.