It happens every year without fail. Right after the holiday shopping rush, the frenzy moves from the malls to the same old place: your local fitness center.

Fitness experts say January is the busiest time of the year for health and sports clubs. Members return from the holidays, sometimes with extra pounds. Newcomers sign up for memberships, flush with determination and resolutions to be healthier, fitter, perhaps lighter on the scale.

"I call them snowbirds," said Laraine Kwilman of Anaheim Hills, Calif., a 56-year-old health club member of about a decade. They roost during the latter half of winter, but fly away in the spring, she said.

What keeps people like Kwilman exercising at the gym for many years? And what makes others quit after 16 weeks or less?

The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) has looked at the dropout phenomenon and concluded that less than a third of people new to health clubs are still around after six months. The other two-thirds leave because they didn't make sufficient use of their membership, lost interest or motivation, didn't like the club atmosphere, found the facilities overcrowded, or were dissatisfied with the staff.

"New members, in particular, quit when the dreams of why you were there fail to meet the realities of what is there," said Jason Convisor, vice president of clinical services for Bally Total Fitness centers. "A health club's job is to help new members set appropriate dreams and help make the dreams and reality the same."

Health and sports clubs have been working hard in the past decade to improve customer services and retain members, said Nick Devereaux, vice president of operations for IHRSA.

The number of health-club-related complaints filed with the Council of Better Business Bureaus dropped from 3,140 in 1991 to 263 in 1997.

Despite the changes, joining a health club still can be a daunting, unpleasant experience for a newcomer. Once that's over, the challenge becomes how to develop an enjoyable workout habit.

Preparation

Advice from health club experts and members on how to join and persevere at a fitness center includes:

* Identify your goals: Do you want to lose weight? Do you want to make fitness a part of improving your health? Do you want to assist your recovery from illness or injury?

Improving and maintaining health is the best goal you can set, because it is a long-term objective--one you keep for life, said Skip Jennings, a group exercise director. Health is a goal to reach gradually and safely, he said.

* Decide whether you like to be surrounded by people or prefer to be alone. If you aren't comfortable in the company of others, maybe you should work out at home.

* Set a budget. What can you truly afford to pay monthly?

* Determine the minimum amount of time you can devote to exercise and when you can do it. The government recommends 30 minutes of vigorous exercise daily as part of a healthy lifestyle. You don't have to exercise every day, but it's best to meet the reasonable equivalent of this recommendation--say, an hour and 10 minutes of vigorous exercise three times a week.

When Dave Sherry, 44, of Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., started working at an auto insurance company several months ago, he signed up at the health club across the street. His goal: health. He's kept a regular schedule of precisely timed daily workouts, which he does during his lunch hour. "It gives me energy for the afternoon," he said. He has lost 15 pounds in three months.

Wayne Hazle, 32, got a multilocation club membership several years ago, which proved to be a smart choice. He recently moved to a new area and it enabled him to make a smooth transition to another health club and to fit exercise in with the demands of his job as software engineer for America Online.

Shop for a Fitness Center

If you're lucky enough to live in a metropolitan area where choices in health and sports clubs abound, take advantage of the selection. Compare and select. Go to boutique clubs, mom-and-pop fitness centers, chains, mega-complexes.

Most health clubs should offer a complimentary workout, Devereaux said. "If they try to make you sign a contract without you having tried the club at least once, look for another club," he said.

The length of the free workout depends on the club--some allow only a one-day pass, others an entire week.

Meet with a club sales representative, who can answer any questions you have about the club and give you a tour. It's a good idea to accept the club tour during your first visit so you can get a comprehensive review of the facilities, programs and amenities.

Make sure you take, or at least observe, a couple of group-exercise classes. Try the cardio machines. Look at the weight-training equipment. If possible, make an appointment with the group-exercise director to discuss the schedule and safety tips for introductory classes. Discuss exercise formats such as indoor cycling, step, yoga and aerobic kick-boxing. Visit the club at the time you plan to work out, to get a realistic picture of what it will be like.

Ask members what they don't like or what needs improvement in the club.

Convisor suggests the following guidelines for evaluating a fitness center:

Are staff members helpful, knowledgeable and friendly? Is the club clean and well maintained? Do the workout and locker rooms smell pleasant? Is the equipment in good shape? Are there long lines for equipment? Are the classes crowded, and is there a system in place to make sure people get a place in a fair manner? Is there a sufficient variety of programs and activities to help you achieve your goals? Is child care available if you need it? Is there sufficient safe and well-lighted parking? Most of all, do you feel comfortable there, and do you like the club atmosphere?

The Fine Print

Read and understand everything before signing a membership contract:

* Comprehending the membership agreement is one of the most important elements of a successful health-club membership, Devereaux said. Ask the membership representative to explain everything in the contract. Do not rely on verbal promises--get it in writing.

* The trend of clubs charging extra for new specialty classes is going to continue, Devereaux said. "New exercise equipment is expensive, and affordable, certified, well-trained quality instructors for specialty classes such as Pilates and spinning are hard to find, so some of those costs have to be passed on to the members who are availing of those classes," Devereaux said. "Otherwise, the club would have to hike fees even more for everyone, including for those members who may not be taking those specialty classes."

* There is no such thing as a lifetime membership. Ask a sales representative if the club offers short-term trial memberships, Devereaux said. These typically last about three months. If this is not available, choose a month-to-month membership lasting no longer than one year, Devereaux said. This option might cost more, but it gives you flexibility to change clubs after a year if you are unhappy with your choice.

* Ask the membership representative to clarify who owns your contract. Some clubs may sell your contract to another health club. Sometimes clubs are purchased by other clubs that charge higher fees, which means members must cover the extra cost or look for another fitness center.

* Know that there is a grace period in which you can change your mind and terminate a contract and get a complete refund, Devereaux said. The grace period should be included on the contract. Ask the sales representative how many days you have to change your mind. If you decide to quit, you must do so in writing.

* Understand that once you've signed a contract, you can't end it the moment you don't feel like working out anymore, Devereaux said. The contract should specify the rules under which you can terminate a membership, such as permanent illness, medical condition or injury, or relocation to a place not served by a branch of the club.

* Don't be pressured by an aggressive sales pitch, especially when a sales rep says there's a special promotion that will expire tonight. There are always promotions and special deals going on in most clubs. If you feel pressured, let the manager know you are uncomfortable. Do not leave your home or work telephone number with the sales rep, even if asked for it, if you aren't ready to sign a contract.

Making the Most of It

If you don't know where to start, make an appointment with a personal trainer at the club; the trainer can show you how to use the cardio and strength-training machines. Usually, there is no fee for this.

* Your best bet is to set aside a budget for a personal trainer at the club, said Jennings of 24-Hour Fitness. "Tell that trainer what you can afford to pay and ask how you can spread the money in training sessions," he said. "The trainer can at least show you the correct way to do exercises and design a program to help you meet your goals."

* If you haven't done this during your free workout week, make an appointment to meet with the group-exercise coordinator to discuss the schedule for beginner classes and the formats that you are most likely to enjoy, Jennings said.

Meeting with the coordinator will take a lot of the guesswork out of your exercise program and help tailor it to your goals. "The coordinator also can tell you what attire or gear you need or don't need," Jennings said.

* Don't be intimidated by your lack of knowledge, your excess weight or attire. People of various fitness levels and weights work out in gyms. Many types of workout clothing--loose track pants, bike shorts, sports bras, or quick-drying T-shirts, for example--are acceptable. Make sure your clothes are clean and not torn. Most important, wear athletic shoes appropriate for your activities.

* Work at your own pace. "Don't feel like you have to keep up with the seasoned members of a class," said Cathy Brokaw, who teaches cardio-kickboxing, step and Body Pump classes. "Make sure you place yourself in a spot in the room where you can see the instructor clearly."

For Marilyn Gallarde, 36, the key to improving is to stick with it, even during the frustrating period of learning the movements of a class. A gym enthusiast for 18 years, she advises newcomers to be patient--it takes several classes to get the hang of the format.

* Make an appointment with yourself to take certain classes at specific times, but be flexible about taking other classes, said Shari Mowlavi, 20. The college student has been working out for four years. "I plan my schedule around my workout classes when I can," she said. "If I'm busy with school, I take whatever class is available."

Put variety in your workout menu, said physical therapist Bill Applegate, 29. "I work out on different machines and take different classes to keep myself interested in exercise."

CAPTION: Personal trainers--such as Lance Fountain, helping client Sharon Schwartz--can be essential to crafting an appropriate fitness regimen.

CAPTION: Patrons of the World Gym Fitness Center in Landover sweat it out on the treadmill.