Jewish World Review March 13, 2003 / 9 Adar II, 5763

BODYFIRE: How to pick the perfect gym

By Eric Harr | According to a recent report on fitness trends by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, the number of gym memberships have been rising steadily. Over the past decade, the total number of health club members has increased a whopping 76 percent, from 17.4 million in to 30.6 million.

More people are experiencing firsthand how integral a health club can be in sculpting their bodies and strengthening their hearts. But to realize the highest possible return on investment into a gym, you must choose intelligently.

"A health club membership can turn into an expensive proposition if you aren't careful about choosing a club that meets your specific needs,'' says Stephanie Oakes, a fitness correspondent for Discovery Health Channel and contributing editor for USA Weekend Magazine.

Here's what to look for:

Price: Membership dues top most people's lists, but being too budget conscious in theshort term may cost you in the long run. For example, if you save $10 a month on a bedraggled, crowded gym, you'll skip more workouts, and that's a waste of money. You needn't join the hottest, hippest "pump-atorium'' either. Strike a balance between a gym you love and a gym you can afford.

Location, Location, Location: This real estate axiom applies to health clubs, too. "The excitement of your first month at the gym wears out pretty quickly,'' says Drew Mitchell, of the Sport Medicine Council of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. "You need to work your workouts into your daily routine. If you go to a gym that's close to work, close to home or somewhere in between, it makes for easy access.''

Staff: A bright and knowledgeable gym staff can help you achieve your fitness goals more enjoyable. Do staff members greet you when you arrive? Do they motivate you? Do they more closely resemble friends or salespeople? Are they credentialed through such organizations as the American College of Sports Medicine or the American Council on Exercise? Are they able to impart training and information to you effectively? Ask them good, pointed questions before you join.

Equipment: Before investing in a long-term gym membership, make sure you understand your goals and know what activities you most enjoy. For example, if you want to build muscle tone and you savor a good swim, then look for a health club that has a wide selection of free-weights and a clean lap pool that's at least 25 yards long. If you're a Stairmaster junkie, you'll want rows of those gleaming machines at your gym.

It's important not to get overly enraptured of equipment you won't use. Some health clubs have extra features, such as saunas, massage therapy and racquetball courts, which are great for some people. But if you don't see yourself using these facilities every week, then you'll pay for features you don't want.

Examine the quality and condition of the equipment. Well-maintained machines are easier to use and safer. If you're a beginner, check to see if the strength-training apparatus includes placards with clear diagrams and easy-to-follow instructions for each exercise.

Feel: What's your gut reaction of the facility when you walk in the front door? How fresh is the air? What kind of music is playing? What are the other members like? What's the temperature? Is it so hot that you might begin sweating like a farm animal a mere two repetitions into your leg-press exercise?

Bottom line: Will you want to spend a few hours there each week? A health club that energizes and motivates you will lure you back more often -- and for longer workouts.

Crowds: As vexing as it is to wait for a treadmill, working out in a deserted gym is like eating at an empty restaurant; it kind of defeats the purpose. Visit your prospective health club during the hours you'll most likely work out. Are there enough people there to keep you motivated, but not so many that you can't move smoothly from one exercise to the next? Remember, during peak hours (7 a.m. to 9 a.m.) and (4 p.m. to 7 p.m.), most gyms get crowded.

Additional Features: Are you an older fitness enthusiast who requires assistance fromspecially trained staff? Are you a parent who needs day care while you work out? Take stock of any special needs you have, and make sure your health club can meet them.

Ultimately, we learn most by doing. Request a trial membership, and "test drive'' your health club. After a few complete, vigorous workouts, you'll feel it in your heart -- and in your muscles -- if you've found the perfect gym.

Eric Harr is a professional triathlete, author and television host. He is the author of "The Portable Personal Trainer: 100 Tips to Energize Your Workouts and Bring out the Athlete in You.'' Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Distributed by TMS