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Health Club Memberships: The Fine Print

Beyond the Sales Pitch

Health clubs now can provide you with 24-hour access to facilities, ways to monitor your fitness online and a monthly membership that doesn’t tie you down. These changes bring new reasons for you to exercise the caution that you always should when you consider a health club that’s eager to sign you up in an increasingly competitive environment.

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When it comes to health clubs in 2014, consumers have more choices than ever before as they refine their individual workout regimen. To tailor a consumer’s exercise experience to his/her needs, today’s health clubs incorporate everything from 24-hour access and mobile applications, to coaches who call you and classes that can help anyone to reach his/her personal goals. You even will find health clubs that charge as little as $10 per month and don’t make you agree to a 2-year contract.

Although health clubs took an economic hit after the 2008 financial crisis, both membership and the number of health clubs were on the rebound by 2010. In 2011, health-club membership reached an all-time high of 51.4 million—up 2.2 percent from 2010, according to a 2012 report (the most recent data that was available) by International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). Those 51.4 million members paid an average monthly membership fee of $42.55. According to a November 2013 report from IBISWorld, which is a market-research company, health clubs represent a $26 billion industry—another all-time high, according to Sarah Turk, who covers the health-club industry for IBISWorld.

As with any multibillion-dollar industry, of course, the powers that be don’t always have the consumer’s best interests in mind when it comes to profit. Therefore, consumers who search for a health club in 2014 have new reasons to exercise caution and read contracts carefully before they make a commitment. A contract’s language could tie you to a health club for longer or for more money than what you’d expect.

Frank Dorman, who is a spokesperson for Federal Trade Commission, says that after you tour a health club’s facility and hear the sales pitch, it’s best to wait a few days before you join. He says you should take the time to read the contract carefully. What you were told by a salesperson is meaningless—it’s what’s written in the contract that counts.

REFINING TASTES. With more health clubs than ever before vying for your dollar, it’s worth pointing out how the market now is driven by types of membership that are tailored to consumers’ individual needs and budgets, Turk says. She says the health-club market is fragmenting distinctly between health clubs that provide basic services at a lower monthly cost and those that charge more but provide more amenities, such as pools, basketball and racquetball courts, and spa facilities.

Click chart above to view full presentation

Click chart above to view full presentation

Health clubs that limit their offerings to fitness equipment, weights and group classes are known as “fitness only” clubs. Those that provide these basic services as well as swimming, racquet sports and spa facilities are known as multipurpose centers. Membership at a fitness-only club sometimes costs a lot less than it does at a multipurpose center. For example, membership at Planet Fitness, which is a fitness-only chain, costs as little as $10 per month, while membership at LA Fitness, which is a multipurpose chain, runs at least $30 per month. In its 2012 report on the industry, IHRSA said the growth in health-club membership since 2008 was driven primarily by fitness-only clubs, which it found increased market share by 4 percentage points between 2008 and 2011.

If health clubs in 2014 are about providing a personal touch, then it comes as no surprise that personal trainers who take on multiple clients represent the biggest trend, according to a 2013 study by IDEA Health & Fitness Association, which is an industry organization. Personal trainers, who can tailor workouts to your individual goals, now are available at most health clubs for an average additional fee of $30.50 per hourly session, according to the study.

“Personal training” doesn’t have to mean one-on-one interaction, either. Jeff Zwiefel, who is the chief operating officer of Life Time Fitness, says group training is more economical for members, because the cost of the instructor is split among the participants.

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