We probably all know someone who has joined a gym so they can get fit and lose weight, with a vague plan to "use the equipment". They go a few times, walk on the treadmill for 20 minutes or so, lift some random weights and then stop going after a couple of months. They try to get out of their contract, only to find they're pretty much locked in, leaving them out of pocket – and no stronger, slimmer or fitter!
This doesn't have to be you. With a bit of thought about what you want from a gym, and shopping around to see what's on offer, you're likely to make a better choice and get more out of your membership.
What type of gym do you want?
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 and don't know what will interest you, it's a good start.
Other offerings may include a women's 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 – like CrossFit or mixed martial arts (MMA) – could be worth looking into. See our article on new ways of working out for more on the different types of gyms around.
Before choosing a gym, there are some basic practicalities that you'll need to consider.
- Location, location: Where the gym is located will make a real difference in terms of when and how often you'll use it (near work, near home, near the kids' school, in a shopping centre etc). The harder it is to get to, the more excuses you'll find to not go.
- Opening hours: Will it be open when you're most likely to want to exercise?
- Fitness support: Does the gym offer a fitness assessment for new members, and an individualised program from a good personal trainer?
- Child minding: If you need this service, find out the times it's available, costs and booking process.
Types of membership
Think about what kind of membership will suit your needs best.
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 – like 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 equipment correctly) and having a program devised for you.
Another option is so-called 'no contract' memberships, which 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, be sure to check that there are no conditions or fees for cancelling your membership.
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 quit 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 note that 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 – check the contract for this.
Gyms 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 additional six months 'free', making the 18-month membership look like a better deal financially.
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 (lunchtime, after work, Sunday mornings, whenever) 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, 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 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?
What's in the contract?
If you're new to gyms, and you're not 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. 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'.
- 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 offer genuine specials for a limited time – this should be clearly advertised.
- Do your basic maths – how much will it cost per week, how many times per week are you planning to go, and is the cost worth it? Or would you be better off going as a casual (if possible), at least at first?
- Look for added fees on top of basic membership fees, such as joining fees, monthly administration, direct debit fees, late or dishonour fees, cancellation or exit fees.
- Check the cooling-off period, in case you change your mind. There are minimums that apply to all gyms for long-term contracts (over three months) that are members of the industry association Fitness Australia: generally 48 hours in most states, and seven days in the ACT. 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.
- Check the gym's policy on holding or deferral periods – if you're away on holidays, 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's required of you? Regardless of what's stated, you should always cancel in writing on a dated form or letter, and also inform your bank you have cancelled.
- 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.
- If you don't want to or can't continue your membership, can it be transferred to someone else?
Got a complaint?
Fitness Australia has various resources to help consumers 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). There's a letter template available on its website.
If you get no joy from that, and your gym is a member of Fitness Australia, submit your complaint to Fitness Australia (there's a form for that as well), and if it's still not resolved you should then take your complaint to your state fair trading office.
What if your gym closes down?
In a competitive marketplace, with new gyms opening regularly, existing gyms may close down, leaving members in the lurch.
Your gym may have contingencies in place for clients if it closes down. The contract for 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 at Marrickville and Erskineville. Judging by the comments on its Facebook page (which was quickly taken down) this wasn't a popular option, and in any case, those gyms also closed down shortly afterwards.
If you're lucky, nearby gyms not affiliated with the facility that has closed may offer to take on members as a goodwill gesture. However, you may be required to agree to a membership with that gym after your current contract expires.
If you're not happy with the solutions offered by the gym, direct debit payments can at least be stopped – contact 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 fair trading department for advice.
If you've paid with a credit card, you may be able to use chargeback to get a refund – though this only works for a limited time after you've paid.
Top five tips for getting a good gym deal
- Shop around and find out what nearby gyms are offering, and use the information as a bargaining tool.
- Don't be too eager to sign – say you'll think about it.
- Negotiate in person – it's harder for salespeople to say no to a real live customer sitting right in front of them.
- Can you reduce the price of a membership by opting out of things you don't want (crèche, classes, pool access, PT sessions, use of towels) or by going during off-peak times?
- Keep an eye out for specials, often linked to seasons and holidays – think 'Spring Special', or 'New Year, new you!' offers in January.