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How to pick out a gym or health club facility

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The comic strip Cathy had an annual tradition of the main character trying on bathing suits each spring in anticipation of weight loss to come in time for summer. The whole bikini purchasing affair often ended with funny, but less than satisfactory results for the main character. Many opportunities for outdoor exercise exist (and are free!), but here in the overweight, diabetes ridden southern USA, few people seem to take advantage of the outdoors, or even the indoors. This dubious honor includes Tennessee, which ranks among the top states for both chronic problems. Of greater interest is that in healthier states, the residents there utilize both the indoors and the outdoors as part of their daily living.

Before heading to the outdoors (see link at the conclusion of this column), we are going to look at factors to consider when picking out a gym or health club. These places are often a best starting point for people who want to get “in-shape” but have no idea how to quantify that vague notion and execute it with any real success. Six important factors to consider when looking at joining a health club or gym are cost, hours of operations, focus, amenities, equipment and classes.

Cost: First and foremost on the considerations list is the cost. If you cannot afford the membership price, then any of the other points below are meaningless. Yes, you will need to find out all the other factors discussed below to know if the facility is right for you, but cost is the limiting factor to everything else. Hint! Watch for month end and year end specials and do not hesitate to ask if the gym or health club is running any particular types of specials for joining; 99% of the time, they are. The worst time to join a gym is January or February. Those months are the biggest business period for the health club industry and the time when the specials will be the least, well, special.

Hours of Operation: Gyms and health clubs have varying hours of operation. Some are open 24 hours or have 24 hour access such as The Rush and Workout Anytime, respectively. While others, such as the YMCA, have more limited hours, especially on the weekends. Know the operating hours and whether or not these fit into your daily schedule.

Hint! If you are scouting possible gyms or health clubs form home via the internet, nearly all gyms list their hours of operation. Longer hours are especially important if your schedule allows you to avoid peak usage times (7:00 am to 9:00 am and 4:00 pm to 7:00 pm). Some gyms offer virtual tours but these are no substitute for touring in person.

Focus: This factor concerns where you are in your exercise development. Gym and health club attendees all have the same general goals: to be healthy and “in-shape,” but people have different specific goals and are at differing places along the wellness path.

Bodybuilders and power lifters are going to generally feel most at home at private gyms that cater to muscle growth and strength development for the purposes of athletic competitions. Gyms ranging from The TrainStation in Chattanooga (Hixson) to the Olympus Athletic Club outside Nashville fall into this category.

Most mainstream fitness clubs (YMCA, The Rush, Gold’s Gym) cater to a clientele that tends towards toning and basic endurance and strength work through solo or group work, though all have a few of the competitive athletes as well.

Only one, Planet Fitness, caters strictly to those just starting out and who would feel self conscious around “the big guys.” In fact, in an ironic (if not hypocritical) twist Planet Fitness boasts itself as a “judgment free zone” though it would never sell a membership to a bodybuilder or “lunk” as they call it (and even have a “lunk alarm” that goes off should one engage in musclehead lifting). In truth, “the big guys” do not judge the out of shape people who come into their gyms and are only too happy to help when asked for advice or direction.

Hint! To find the facility right for you, look at where you want to go on your own fitness path and then look at where you are in terms of that goal.

Equipment: The range of equipment a gym or health club has is another important factor relative to your own wellness goals. Nearly all gyms have cardio equipment and for three reasons:

1) Many people associate losing weight and getting in shape with cardio. This is not wholly accurate as circuit training is just as effective compared to cardio, if not more so;

2) many of those same people are stuck sitting behind a desk all day and this is their opportunity to get up and do some sort of walking or riding (though oddly, you can do either of those activities in your own neighborhood and for free (or the cost of a bicycle);

3) Most people starting out need to build some basic endurance because they sit at a desk all day and cardio is a good starting point…though it should NOT be the ending point!

The kinds and type of weight machines and free weights are also important to those wanting to engage in muscle toning, growth or strength building. Be sure to check these things out when touring the facility.

Amenities: All gyms and health clubs offer the basic components of cardio and weight machines. Beyond these components you will want to find out what other amenities are offered. These include child care, group exercise (see below), personal trainers, sauna, pool, hot tub, steam room, climbing walls, and basketball courts, just to name a few. As you assess where you are in your exercise development consider what amenities will help you reach your goals. For those just starting out, seeing a personal trainer even just one time a week will help better focus your workouts the rest of the week to help meet your goals.

Classes: Many gyms and health clubs offer classes whose range depends on space and amenities. Classes include aerobics, spin, pilates, and water/pool-based exercise. Group classes offer both a change up from the normal types of exercise and cardio equipment and an opportunity to make friends with other members who share similar fitness goals.

As mentioned above, touring the facilities that interest you is an important step that should not be overlooked. This period also gives you the opportunity to see the range of equipment and amenities first hand and, most importantly, to ask questions. Before going to visit a gym or health club, you might find it helpful to write down some questions you have prior to your visit. Many questions will be answered in the course of the tour, but if a question or two goes unaddressed you will have the opportunity to ask it.

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