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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Man to Man Man to Man

A Guide to Health Clubs

January 21, 2013

By Harvey B. Simon M.D.

Harvard Medical School

Every man wants to be healthy. Most men like clubs. Many men hope that joining a health club will give them the best of both worlds. But are they right?

In a sense, a health club is just a big, expensive piece of exercise equipment. If you use it, you'll feel great and enjoy many health benefits, but if not, you'll just feel guilty and wasteful.

Here are a few tips to help you decide whether joining a club is right for you, and how to get the most from your club after you've signed up.

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The Benefits of Membership

A health club provides three major benefits:

  1. Motivation and companionship – If you're just starting to exercise, those first steps toward getting fit are the most difficult. It can take two to three months to get into a routine and really enjoy exercising. Going to a club can make those initial workouts easier to face. You'll meet men in the same boat as you are — and you're sure to see someone who is starting out in worse shape than you. You'll also see people who have made the transition from sloth to sleek, which is a powerful motivator indeed. For many folks, paying up front also provides motivation, since the only way to get your money's worth is to show up.
  2. Instruction and supervision – Instruction is also an important feature, whether you're a beginners or are ready to move up to a new level. Most clubs have someone who will show you the correct way to use each piece of equipment. Many have personal trainers who will plan and supervise a workout regimen tailored for you, usually for an extra fee. Group classes are also available at most clubs. They provide companionship, motivation, and instruction all at once.
  3. Equipment and facilities – Home exercise equipment is great, but few homes can support more than one or two pieces. Every health club worth the salt of your sweat will have elliptical trainers, treadmills, bikes, stair climbers, resistance machines and free weights. Many offer more, including rowing machines, cross country skiers and swimming pools.

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Picking a Club

Exercise facilities range from old-fashioned, hard-core gyms to neighborhood centers and YMCAs, to fancy clubs and sleek spas. Here are some tips to help you find the club that's best for you.

  • Find a club that's convenient. A long commute is a dagger in the heart of good intentions. If at all possible, pick a club within 15 minutes of your home or work. Location is everything, or at least nearly everything.
  • Be sure the club is open when you want to use it, and that it's not too crowded at your favorite times.
  • Be sure the club has what you want, but isn't charging you for more than you need. If you're a treadmill, bike, and Nautilus guy, you can save big bucks by staying away from clubs that have racquetball courts and steam rooms. On the other hand, if your stroke is the crawl, seek out a club with a lap pool.
  • Check out the atmosphere. Intangibles can make or break a club. A club should be inviting — clean, bright, and upbeat. That goes for the showers and lockers, too. If TV or music will help you work up a sweat, be sure the club has what you need. If you have biceps of Bach, steer clear of high-decibel rock music. Be sure, too, that the other members are compatible with your personality and style; if you like to jog in your old T-shirt and shorts, you may feel out of place in a Spandex crowd.
  • Choose a club that's appropriate for your age and health. A good club should ask you to fill out a medical questionnaire, and possibly ask for an okay from your doctor. If you have medical problems, find a club that has the equipment and personnel to provide first aid. But be leery of a club that insists you take an expensive stress test from them, whether you need one or not.
  • Check out the staff. Are they just body-builders who look good, or are they well-trained fitness experts? A good credential is certification by a credible organization such as The American College of Sports Medicine.
  • Visit the club at the time of day when you'll be using it to see what it is really like.
  • Talk to club members to find out if they like it and if the club delivers on its promises.
  • Ask for a free introductory workout or an inexpensive trial membership. It's the best way to see if the club works for you.
  • If you travel often, find a club that offers reciprocal memberships with clubs in other cities.

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Look Before You Leap

Health clubs want you for your body — and your money. Most clubs impose a one-time initiation fee in addition to a monthly or yearly charge. Costs vary widely. A no-frills gym may cost nothing to join and may charge a little as $10 per month. A very high-end spa with all the bells and whistles might cost $1,000 for the privilege of belonging, then $100 to $200 a month.

Many employers and health insurance companies offer partial payment for joining a gym. They want to keep you healthy, which lowers health care costs down the road. Check out your benefits.

Buy only what you need and pay only what you can afford. And even if the price is right, exercise a little care by:

  • Joining an established club that’s unlikely to close suddenly, leaving you with a prepaid invitation to a locked building.
  • Reading the contract, including the fine print.
  • Evaluating the payment options. A monthly or quarterly fee will give you more security than a prepaid annual fee. Ask if there is a finance charge. Pay with a credit card if you can. Look for specials or negotiate your own deal.
  • Signing the shortest contract you can, particularly if it's your first. Try to find a plan that will allow you to opt out for a small charge or one that you can sell to a friend for a modest transfer fee. Don't ink a long-term agreement unless you get a discount — and even then, be sure you'll actually use the club and that it will stay open and up-to-date.
  • Checking with your local Better Business Bureau or Consumer Affairs Agency to see if people have complained about the club.

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Heath Club Etiquette

To be a good member, all you need to do is follow the Golden Rule that you learned in kindergarten. Still, in the complex world of super bugs and electronic gizmos, a few reminders can't hurt:

  • Don't use a cell phone, especially in the locker room. Disruptive conversations are bad enough, but cameras are even worse.
  • Don't sing along with your iPod, grunt loudly as you lift, or use your outdoor voice. Not everyone is plugged in to earphones, so keep you decibel level reasonable.
  • Be considerate. Wait your turn for equipment that's in use and share as much as possible.
  • Wipe down equipment when you're finished with it. A towel will do a good job with sweat, but an antibacterial wipe will do a better job against nasty "superbugs."
  • If you feel annoyed or stressed, get over it by working out instead of taking it out on club attendants or members.
  • Put your weights back where they belong. Don't leave them on the machine or on the floor for someone else to deal with.

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Exercise Your Options

Joining a health club sounds formidable, but it's actually much easier than buying a car or filing your taxes. You don't need a lawyer or accountant in the locker room; a little care and common sense will protect your investment.

The most important investment is not your money, but your time. And the most important dividend is not dollar value but health and happiness.

Exercise is essential for optimal health and longevity; an investment of 30 to 45 minutes nearly every day will earn the best returns. You can do it when you travel or while you're at home. You can work out on neighborhood streets or bike paths, or you can use exercise equipment at a health club or in your home.

Mix the options up for flexibility and variety. Just exercise fiscal prudence and medical responsibility. Above all, exercise.

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Harvey B. Simon, M.D. is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Health Sciences Technology Faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the founding editor of the Harvard Men's Health Watch newsletter and author of six consumer health books, including The Harvard Medical School Guide to Men's Health (Simon and Schuster, 2002) and The No Sweat Exercise Plan, Lose Weight, Get Healthy and Live Longer (McGraw-Hill, 2006). Dr. Simon practices at the Massachusetts General Hospital; he received the London Prize for Excellence in Teaching from Harvard and MIT.

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