By Dallas Hudgens
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, February 12, 1999; Page N74 In the old days, joining a health club was easy. You just went down to the all-purpose gym and talked to "Big Guns" Tony, a tank top-wearing behemoth who was offering a "sweet deal" on a "lifetime membership."
"Two months in the weight room, man, and you'll be ripped like Arnold."
That's what Tony would say. Of course, Tony sent you into the weight room with a high-five and a prayer. He didn't bother showing you how to use the equipment. So, you wound up trying to do bench presses on a leg curl machine, hurt your back and rued the day you ever signed that contract.
What's the first thing to consider before you set off in search of your new health club? Convenience, say most experts. No matter how many amenities a club has to offer, you probably won't use them if you can't get to them quickly and easily. So, make a list of clubs that are close to your home or office and plan some visits. If you call ahead, most will give you a tour of the facility. Some will even offer you a free guest pass for the day.
Try to plan your visit during the time of day that you will normally be working out. This way, you can check out the atmosphere and the availability of the equipment. Even at busy times of the day, people move on and off weight machines pretty quickly. Aerobic equipment is another matter. If you can't exercise without a treadmill fix, make sure there are enough treadmills to accommodate your appetite. Also, ask if there is a club rule limiting the amount of time you can spend on one particular piece of aerobic equipment. While you don't want to join a Stalinist health club, reasonable limits (like 20 minutes) help keep the equipment open to as many members as possible.
If the bulk of your exercise regimen is going to involve fitness classes, observe the instructors for a few minutes to see if they have what it takes to motivate you. Also check the club's schedule to see if your favorite classes are taught at times when you'll be able to attend. Find the class that's most likely to become your favorite and ask for a free session before making your decision about membership.
If you're comfortable with the location, equipment and class availability, your next task is to check out the qualifications of the club's personnel. If you haven't been to a gym in a number of years, don't expect the training staff to be a posse of spandex-sheathed meatheads like Tony. Today's trainers are more likely to be wearing polo shirts and carrying clipboards.
"I've seen a great improvement in the knowledge of trainers and their ways of teaching in the clubs," says Chris Cousins, a physical therapist at Sports Therapy and Rehabilitation in Washington. "There are many organizations today who are doing a good job of training and certifying health club personnel."
The American Council on Exercise, the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Federation of Professional Trainers are a few of those organizations. A longer list of internationally recognized certifying agencies is included in "Your Guide to Choosing a Quality Health and Sportsclub," a free brochure offered by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA).
In addition to showing you how to properly use the equipment, the training staff should be able to address your particular needs. If you find the club and its trainers to be up to par, ask if they'll provide a free fitness evaluation and exercise plan as a sign-up bonus. Think of it as a fitness prescription. It can be helpful in starting you on the right track and in preventing injuries down the road.
"They should be able to evaluate your strengths and imbalances in a standardized way and then give you an exercise [plan] to address areas that are lacking," Cousins says.
Once your basic checklist of health-club services has been filled out, take time to consider personal needs such as the availability of child care, nutritional counseling or massage therapy. If you're interested in a particular fitness activity, such as racquetball or swimming, look for a club with proper facilities. Inquire about other activities as well, even those that you've never tried.
"Make sure they have what you're interested in, but also check out the variety," says Evelyn Fine of the YMCA of Metropolitan Washington. "Sometimes, people will want to switch from swimming to the Stairmaster or from aerobics classes to swimming. You may not know that right away, but if you find a facility that offers variety, your fitness routine can evolve."
A health club's atmosphere should also be weighed into any membership decision. Are the exercise areas and locker rooms clean and well-lit? Do you like the music that's being played? Do you think you would feel comfortable exercising among the people who are there?
Above all, don't lock yourself into a single notion of what a health club is supposed to be. The larger clubs that offer an abundance of equipment and activities aren't for everyone. Look into the many fitness options that are available. Small clubs. Large clubs. Clubs that specialize in personal training. Clubs that emphasize certain sports, like tennis. Who knows, your final choice might not even be a club, especially if you're lucky enough to live near a first-class county-run facility like Thomas Jefferson Community Center in Arlington. There, a $95 yearly fee (or a $4 drop-in fee) grants Arlington County residents use of the center's weight room, indoor running track, basketball court, tennis courts and athletic fields. Personal training and fitness classes, like Cycle Reebok, are also offered at the center.
"It's one of the best-kept secrets around," says Jennifer Blau, wellness programmer for Arlington County Parks and Recreation. "I think the convenience and price appeals to a lot of people. Some like the fact that it doesn't have the same airs about it as some of the larger clubs. In the morning, we have a lot of senior citizens, and in the afternoons we have a lot of kids. So it's more of a family-style atmosphere."
Thomas Jefferson is a standout among area community centers, though it's not the only facility equipped with weight machines and cardiovascular equipment. If your budget is standing in the way of a health club membership, check with your local parks and recreation department or with the nearest YMCA, which also offers numerous amenities at reasonable prices.
If you decide on a more traditional health club, you will eventually sign a membership agreement. The contract should clearly explain payment procedures, length of membership and club policies regarding early termination of membership.
"The most important thing is to understand the key areas like monthly costs and the ways that you can get out of a contract if you get sick or have to move," says Mitch Wald, past president of the IHRSA and current president of McLean-based Sport & Health Clubs. "Most clubs these days are past the problems of the fly-by-night clubs of the past. It's a lot more cost-effective for us to keep members than to keep chasing new ones. So, we want people to use the club. It's good for them and good for us."
Some clubs now sell month-to-month memberships, which can ease your fears of being locked into club fees long after you stop using the facilities. As Wald points out, there is a downside to short-term memberships. It makes it a lot easier to quit your fitness routine. If you're relatively healthy and know that you'll be living in the area for the next few years, making a one-year or two-year commitment might provide some incentive for sticking with a regular exercise program.
And who knows, after two years in the weight room, you might be ripped like Arnold.
International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) 263 Summer St., Boston, MA 02210. 800/228-4772. For a copy of "Your Guide to Choosing a Quality Health and Sportsclub," write or call the IHRSA.
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