For Salvador Marquez-Munoz, the perfect health club was more than a collection of weight machines and treadmills. Marquez-Munoz, 35, wanted a club that was on the way to work, clean, and most of all, one that made him feel comfortable. "I really pay attention to whether the staff makes me feel welcome when I first come in the door," Marquez-Munoz says. "I like a place where people greet me with a smile."
With the wide variety of equipment and services offered at health clubs these days, choosing the right gym can take a lot of time and research. While some of the best tips can be gleaned from friends and associates, ultimately, you need to personally inspect gyms in your area to find one that will work for you.
First, experts say, think about what kind of facility you want. For example, would you like a club that has a pool, sauna, Jacuzzi and steam room, or will a simple set of weight machines and cardiovascular equipment do? Will you need baby-sitting? Do you want a juice bar?
Next, you'll need to think about location. Experts suggest choosing a health club that is near to home or work, or on the way to work. If the commute to your club is too long, you're less likely to show up on a regular basis. You also want to make sure that the club is open during the hours you'll want to work out.
One way to get the skinny on fitness clubs is to ask co-workers about their experiences, says Brooke MacInnis, a spokesperson for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. "Ask them about the drawbacks of their clubs," she says.
Look for a variety of equipment
Next, check out the equipment. When it comes to cardiovascular equipment, make sure there are several types, not just treadmills, says Fred Klinge, a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine and general manager of the North Little Rock Athletic Club in Little Rock, Ark. If there's a variety of cardio equipment available, you're less likely to get bored and you'll have the benefits of cross training, he says.
Also, check to make sure there are enough machines to guarantee you'll have one when you want to work out -- even if that's during peak hours. Many clubs restrict members to 30-minute stints on cardiovascular equipment during hours when they are most crowded.
When it comes to equipment for resistance training, experts suggest you make sure that there are enough machines to avoid a long wait before you can take your turn.
Another consideration: the age of the equipment. "Make sure the equipment is up to date," Klinge says. "And if the club has some older equipment, you want to check to see if they machines are well-maintained."
On a tour, take a close look at the club's standard of cleanliness, Maclnnis says. "Look around to see if there are paper towels and some type of cleaning solution near the machines," she adds. "Make sure there's more than one bottle."
Also inspect the locker rooms and the pool area if you plan to use those. "Several of the clubs I looked at weren't very clean," Marquez-Munoz says. "I like swimming and use the showers and locker rooms all the time. Some of the places didn't smell very nice and you could see mildew in the showers."
The quality of the staff is another issue. Experts suggest finding a health club with instructors who have proof of an appropriate education. Personal trainers ought to have a bachelor's degree in some type of exercise science, says William J. Kraemer, a professor in the department of kinesiology at the University of Connecticut in Storrs. He also suggests checking to see whether instructors are certified by a non-profit organization, such as the American College of Sports Medicine or the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
Trained instructors will be able to help you draw up an exercise program with the right combination of cardiovascular exercise and resistance training, Kraemer says. And a good program will help you improve in strength and fitness.
Take a trial run
One way to find out whether a club is right for you is to try it out for a few days. Some clubs offer a special guest pass for prospective members. But even if you have to pay for a week to try it out, it's better to spend the money than to make a long-term commitment to a club that doesn't work out.
Try the club out during the hours you will be using it, experts advise. "If you're going to be working out at 5:30 p.m. every day, and you don't like crowds, you want to check to see how busy the club is at this time," MacInnis says.
Beyond this, you'll have a chance to see how well the club monitors temperature. "If the gym is too hot, I get a headache," said Marquez-Munoz. "And I get hot easily when I'm working out on the treadmill or other cardiovascular equipment. In some places, the ceilings were so low that when there were a lot of people in the room, it got hot quickly."
The way equipment is arranged can sometimes cause problems, too. "Spacing between the machines was important to me," Marquez-Munoz says. "I'm not claustrophobic, but if there isn't plenty of space between pieces of equipment, it doesn't feel comfortable."
Marquez-Munoz also worried about the safety of the neighborhoods in which clubs were located.
"In the summertime when I was looking there was no problem," Marquez-Munoz says. "But I asked about winter, when it gets dark early. Is the parking lot visible from the club? Are there security cameras? Is there plenty of light not only where the cars are parked, but also on the way to the lot?"
Another safety issue is whether the club personnel have the training to deal with emergencies. For example, Klinge says, you might want to check to see if the club has a defibrillator on hand and someone on staff who is trained to use it. Is there someone available who is CPR certified?
Experts also say it's important to read health club contracts carefully. Don't assume the club offers classes such as aerobics as part of the membership. While some do, others charge extra. If the health club requires a long-term commitment, find out whether you'll be able to get a refund if you need to cancel your membership due to a job transfer, an injury or if you simply find that the club isn't working for you.
And, even if there are incentives to signing a long-term contract you might want to find out if a shorter-term arrangement is possible -- a few months, for example -- so you can take some time to determine whether the facility is a good fit for you.
For Marquez-Munoz, the search for the right health club took three months. But, in the end, he found one to suit his needs. "It was one that I felt safe and comfortable with, not only the equipment but also the people who worked there," he says.
Linda Carroll is a freelance reporter based in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Health and Smart Money.