Around this time of the year, a lot of us resolve to exercise more and get in shape. A lot of newly fitness-inspired people join gyms or other fitness facilities, believing that the facilities — and the financial commitment of membership — may finally supply the motivations they need to get and stay fit.

If you don’t currently exercise on a regular basis, or want to increase your fitness regimen, first formulate a plan. For most people, beginning a drastically new exercise routine is akin to quitting a bad habit: Making a doable plan increases your chance of success. Your plan should include realistic fitness goals, a list of exercises for achieving those goals, an exercise schedule, and a list of reasons to keep you motivated. (If you are older than 40, check with a physician before beginning any program of increased exercise.)

If you are thinking of joining a gym, know upfront that the fitness industry thrives on good intentions. Most people who sign up stop using fitness centers after only a few months, then continue to waste their money by paying monthly dues for memberships they no longer use.

Be sure to compare the costs of joining a gym with the many other fitness options. Most people can save money and meet all their fitness and recreation needs without joining private fitness 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 probably a lot more fun than lugging weights around a smelly gym. For a one-time investment of a few hundred dollars, you can buy various types of home exercise equipment.

YMCAs offer facilities where you can use cardiovascular fitness equipment, weightlifting rooms, and indoor swimming pools, and take exercise classes — usually for less money than comparably equipped private gyms.

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 facility-to-facility differences in customer satisfaction. Through a special arrangement, Inquirer readers can access Checkbook’s ratings of gyms and fitness centers at Checkbook.org/Inquirer/Gyms for free through Feb. 10.

Among gyms that are conveniently located and get high marks from their customers, be sure to shop for price — membership often doesn’t come cheap.

Checkbook’s ratings of area gyms include sample prices collected by its undercover shoppers. While amenities and services vary from facility to facility, you’ll find that large price differences exist among those with roughly the same basic features. If you’re interested in just fitness equipment and group exercise classes, you’ll find annual membership prices ranging from $150 to more than $800, but some boutique gyms charge $30 or more per class. 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 gyms have several fee plans and discount options — and may offer the best deals only if it’s absolutely necessary to close a sale — make sure the sales staff offers you the best available rates. When discussing costs, mention other gyms 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 whether a membership you’re considering includes a time commitment. If you’ve never joined a fitness facility, test both your determination to exercise 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 gym 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.

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Delaware Valley Consumers’ Checkbook (and Checkbook.org) is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers we evaluate.