A Run for Your Money


It’s January, the time when millions of Americans stare at their swollen gut and declare, “That’s it! This is the year I’m going to get in shape.” Health clubs know this and at this time of year promise rock-hard bodies at rock-bottom prices--but for a limited time only.

Harder perhaps than instant muscles is comparison shopping for a fitness center. Those “$5 a month” come-ons that sound too good to be true usually are. In fact, it turns out, most health clubs change the price of membership as often, and seemingly as arbitrarily, as airlines change ticket prices. (“Our prices change daily, even hourly, so there’s no way to give a potential member a price,” says one health club salesman.)

I tried calling four major health clubs and the YMCA, asking the price of a basic one-year membership. The information, I was told, was not available over the phone; I’d have to come in. When I did, I was given an intimidating flood of options. While there are several truisms--prices go down the longer you join; renewing membership is less expensive than joining; cash gets a better price than credit--there was no one number to work with.


With the exception of the YMCA and Family Fitness, club personnel insisted this fluctuating approach was not duplicitous, merely a way of customizing plans for individual members. When confronted with an advertised special, one saleswoman shrugged. “My manager sets a price I can’t go below. Of course, I start a lot higher. Hey, if someone wants to pay a grand a year, I’m going to let them.” OK . . . but is the special available? She didn’t know, she’d have to check with her manager.

This kind of runaround seems to be endemic to the industry.

“Health clubs are one of our biggest complaint areas, year in and year out,” says Tim Bissell, chief investigator for the County of Los Angeles’ Department of Consumer Affairs. “In the large chains, the salespeople work on commission, so they’ll do anything in order to get you to sign up. If they think they’re losing you, they’ll run in the back to ‘check with their manager,’ then bring you a better price. It’s a classic used car salesman maneuver.”

In February 1994, after amassing 400 complaints against the Bally’s Corp., Bissell’s office brought a case to the district attorney over the “patterns and practices” of the company. Bally’s agreed to a consent decree, not admitting wrongdoing but paying $100,000 to settle the charges of false advertising. Also that year, the Federal Trade Commission sued Bally’s, leading to the refund of membership fees to thousands of customers and an additional $120,000 in civil penalties as part of a settlement regarding billing, cancellation, refund and debt-collection practices.

Although these kinds of problems crop up in the industry, Bissell stresses that, for most people, they prove evanescent. “Existing members,” he says, “almost never have problems.”

How can consumers make a happy marriage with so fickle a partner?

Here’s a basic rule from those in the industry: Almost all clubs offer a range of payment plans, but examine the contract carefully. Some “no money down” come-ons may attach a whopping annual interest fee that you’ll be saddled with for years, even if you decide to quit after two months. And make sure you don’t pay for what you don’t need, such as sessions with a trainer if you’re self-sufficient. In other words, study the fine print.

When choosing a facility, says Richard Hirsch, director of national marketing for the Bally line of health clubs (which includes Bally Total Fitness and the Sports Connection chains), these are key points to look out for:


* Proximity. “If a club is not convenient to your home or office, you’ll think of every reason not to go.”

* Diversity of equipment and facilities. “You don’t want to get bored. Make sure the club offers things you want now and might want later on.”

* Affordability. Make sure the pricing matches your financial situation. “If you join a club with a high initiation fee and you wind up never going you’re probably going to be resentful.”

* Congeniality. Make sure the environment is one that you like. “Find people at the club who are like you, no matter what level of fitness you’re on. You don’t want to wind up with only weightlifters if you’re into a little light aerobics.”


To save you some legwork, we’ve compiled a list of the major chains around Los Angeles, and the YMCA; the ballpark figures for membership; and what you’ll be getting for your money--with the caveat that prices are always subject to change.

Bally Total Fitness, The Sports Connection and Nautilus Plus

Cash price, three-year membership: $200 to $300 per year.

Financing price, three-year membership (16.9% APR): $5 down, $25 to $39 per month.

Number of clubs in Southern California: 47.

Reciprocity between clubs: Depends on membership level chosen.

Fitness evaluation and training session included in price?: Yes.

Equipment and exercise options: Full range of Lifecycles, StairMasters and weight machines; aerobic classes, swimming pool and Jacuzzi; sauna and steam; snack bar.


Child care: No.

Free parking: Yes.

Scene: Prototypal spacious health club--lots of mirrors and disco and Lycra. Can be very crowded at peak hours.

Family Fitness

Dues-paying membership: $16 per month, no money down.

Two-year, non-dues paying membership. $448, with option to renew for $60 per year.

Number of clubs in Southern California: 63.

Reciprocity between clubs: Yes.

Fitness evaluation and training session included in price?: Yes.

Exercise and equipment options: Full range of Lifecycles, StairMasters and weight machines; swimming pool and sauna (at some locations); aerobic classes; snack bar.

Child care available: Yes; $2 for two hours.

Free parking: Yes.

Scene: Family-oriented and functional. Not a high-pressure environment. Less crowded than most chains.

Gold’s Gym

Gold’s Gyms are individually owned and operated. These are the prices at the Hollywood branch.

Price for one-year membership: $399, with a renewal option of $279. You can also visit Gold’s Gym on a daily ($8), weekly ($39), monthly ($75), tri-monthly ($159) and six-month ($225) basis.

Number of clubs in California: 51.

Reciprocity: Yes, depending on membership chosen. But members can use any Gold’s Gym for free provided it’s outside a 50-mile radius of their home club.


Fitness evaluation and training session included in price?: Yes.

Exercise equipment and options: Extensive range of Lifecycles, StairMasters; weight machine options.

Child care: No.

Free parking: Yes.

Scene: Gold’s Gym is a gym, not a club. There are few amenities, but an enormous amount of equipment in a very industrial setting. Loud music, lots of biceps, bit of a “scene.” (Says one saleswoman: “Mickey Rourke, Christian Slater and Seal come here. And Demi Moore came in her limo. And Fabio? He’s here every day.”)


Services at individual YMCA’s differ. The facility profiled here is the Hollywood YMCA.

One year membership: $100 enrollment fee, plus $32 a month. The YMCA also provides membership for families and students, and assistance may be granted for those with special needs.

Number of YMCAs in Southern California: 120.

Reciprocity: Yes. Most YMCAs will welcome your membership; some charge a small fee.

Fitness evaluation and training session included in price of membership?: Yes.

Exercise equipment and options: Full range of Lifecycles, StairMasters and weight machine options; swimming pools and Jacuzzi; racquetball; basketball; dance center; kindergym; boxing; yoga and aerobics; sauna and steam rooms.

Child care: $4 for two hours.

Free Parking: No. $1.25 for three hours.

Scene: Pleasant, functional, lively. Emphasis on family involvement.

LA Fitness

Facilities vary; these prices and stats are from the club in Sherman Oaks.

One year membership: (same prices, cash or credit): $14 per month, plus $125 initiation fee, for single club membership; multiclub membership prices vary. Renewal is $120 per year for single club, $99 for multiclub.

Number of clubs in Southern California: 27.

Reciprocity: Depends on membership level chosen.

Fitness evaluation and training session included in price of membership: No; $10 fee.

Exercise equipment and options: Full range of Lifecycles, StairMasters and weight machines; aerobics; Jacuzzi; snack bar. Racquetball, pool, sauna and steam room at some locations.


Child care: Available at some locations for $2 an hour.

Free Parking: Yes.

Scene: Facilities range from luxurious (Woodland Hills) to low-key. Sherman Oaks is a no-frills workout environment.