Keep finances in shape while you get there, too

At this time of the year, a lot of us resolve to get more exercise and get in shape. Many join health and fitness clubs, believing that the facilities - and the financial commitment of membership - may finally supply the motivation to get fit and stay fit.

If you don't exercise regularly, or you want to increase your regimen, first formulate a plan. For most people, beginning a new exercise routine is akin to quitting a bad habit. Making a doable plan raises your chance of success.

Your plan should include realistic goals, a list of exercises for achieving those goals, an exercise schedule, and a list of reasons to stay motivated. (If you are older than 40, check with a physician before beginning any program.)

If you are thinking of joining a club, know up front that the fitness industry thrives on good intentions. Most people who join clubs stop using them after only a few months. Because many clubs charge nonrefundable initiation fees, you can waste a lot of money if you quit.

Be sure to compare the costs of joining a club to the many other fitness options. Most people can save money and meet all their fitness and recreation needs without joining clubs. You can do push-ups, sit-ups, and many other exercises at home for free.

Walking, running, and biking are very inexpensive. A regular soccer or basketball game at a nearby park is not only inexpensive but also probably a lot more fun than lugging weights around a smelly gym. For a onetime investment of a few hundred dollars, you can buy various types of home exercise equipment.

Local governments and YMCAs offer facilities and programs, and some have recreation centers where you can use cardiovascular fitness equipment, weightlifting rooms, and indoor swimming pools, and take exercise classes for free.

If you still want to work out at a private gym, be prepared to make a number of decisions. There are many clubs from which to choose, each likely to offer several membership options. And because sales staff at some clubs use high-pressure and deceptive sales tactics to close deals, it's not always easy to make the right choices.

To help you identify the best fitness centers in the area, check ratings from the nonprofit consumer group Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org, which finds large differences among clubs in customer satisfaction. Inquirer readers can access Checkbook's ratings for free through Jan. 31 at www.checkbook.org/inquirer/healthclubs

Among clubs that are conveniently located and get high marks from customers, shop for price.

Checkbook's ratings of area health clubs include sample prices collected by its mystery shoppers. While amenities and services vary, you'll find large price differences among clubs with roughly the same basic features.

If you're just interested in fitness equipment and group exercise classes, you'll find annual membership prices ranging from $150 to more than $800. If you want to join a facility with indoor tennis courts and a pool, annual membership prices range from $500 to more than $1,000.

Some quick advice to consider before signing up for a gym membership:

Because many clubs have several fee plans and discount options - and may offer the best deals only if it's necessary to close a sale - make sure the sales staff offers you the best available rates.

When discussing costs, mention other clubs you're considering. And check whether you qualify for a discount based on an arrangement between the facility and your employer or health insurance plan. In particular, many Medicare Advantage policyholders have access to programs that offer free or very low-cost memberships at participating fitness centers.

Ask if a membership includes a time commitment. If you've never joined a fitness facility, test both your determination and the club by taking a short-term or month-to-month option.

Before signing on the dotted line, find out the rules for canceling and freezing the membership.

Request a guest pass to try out any club you are considering. While there, check out the cleanliness and condition of equipment. Use your pass at a time when you're most likely to exercise regularly so you can see how crowded it gets and judge how helpful the staff is.

Have sales staff put promises in writing. If a salesperson has said you can cancel your membership at any time, make sure it says as much in the contract. If the salesperson says the facility is about to break ground on a new lap pool, don't believe it unless it's written down.

Delaware Valley Consumers' Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org, a nonprofit consumer group, rate various types of service companies. Inquirer readers can read Checkbook's full article through Jan. 31 at www.checkbook.org/inquirer/healthclubs