ou can think of lots of good reasons to join a fitness center. And then your brain shifts into thinking about all the reasons why you don't: You won't know how to use the equipment properly and will look stupid, or even hurt yourself. You'll feel self-conscious around all those buffed-up bods in their fashionable workout suits. You won't really use the center enough to get your money's worth. And on the list of rationalizations could go.

Getting the most out of a fitness center depends in large part on picking the right center in the first place. And that means the one right for you. Choices abound, from chain outlets to locally owned centers, from small centers to mammoth ones, from upscale operations to more family-friendly places. Here are nine points to consider as you sift through your options:


Schedule a guided
tour at the
time of day
you're most likely
to do your

1. Location.
Convenience counts a great deal, fitness experts say. The easier it is for you to get to a center, the more likely you are to use it. In judging convenience of location, think first about the time of day you prefer to exercise. Before work? During your lunch break? At the end of your workday? If, say, it's the latter, pick a center that's right on your way home from work. If you hope to get the whole family active, choose a center near your home.

2. Affordability.
Compare centers' fees and what you're getting for your money. Pick a place that's within your budget. Otherwise, if the membership fee puts a strain on your finances, you'll soon have an excuse to drop out.

3. Personal interests.
Perhaps you have favorite fitness activities you enjoy or want to try, such as swimming, or basketball, or Pilates—a set of exercises focusing on strengthening and stretching the body. Find out if the center has the necessary facilities or equipment.

4. Get a tour.
Once you've narrowed your choices, schedule a guided tour of each facility you're considering. Take your tour at the time of day you're most likely to work out. Do you have any trouble finding parking when you arrive? How crowded is the center? Does it have the kind of fitness equipment you like to use, and does there seem to be enough of it to meet demand? Is the equipment kept in good condition? Are workout areas and locker rooms clean? Would you feel comfortable in this environment? If music is piped into the workout areas, is it something you can stand to listen to? Ask your tour guide to give you a chance to talk in private to people using the facility to get their comments and reactions.
    Ask to be allowed
    to attend one
    class session
    for free,
    or at least
    to observe one.

5. Staffing.
Years ago, you walked into a fitness center, checked in at the front desk, and then were pretty much on your own to figure out what to do and how to do it. Not anymore. These days, centers tend to be better staffed with people who can help you use equipment properly and answer your questions. Personal trainers may be on hand to give you individualized instruction and guidance. Ask about staffing. What kinds of help and how much one-on-one attention do staff members provide? What credentials and certifications do they have?

6. Classes.
If you prefer exercising in a class setting, then you'll want to make sure the class selection meets your needs and interests. Maybe you like yoga, tai chi, spinning, or trekking—a group workout using treadmills. How diverse are the choices, for now as well as for the future when your interests change? Are enough sessions offered so you won't end up on lengthy waiting lists for the most popular classes? Check into instructors' qualifications. Ask to be allowed to attend one class session for free, or at least to observe one. Would you be at ease here? For instance, do participants have a range of abilities, so you won't feel like the class klutz? Notice if the instructor pays attention to people of all levels of ability and makes everyone feel comfortable. Does he or she make the class fun and motivating?
    Convenience counts
    a great deal,
    fitness experts say.

Two-thirds of
people who join
fitness centers
stop going in the
first six months.

7. The extras.
Check into special services you'll want or need. Is there on-site child care? During what hours? How much child-appeal does the child-care setting have? What are the caregivers' credentials? Ask if the child-care facility has certification from the appropriate state agency. You also may be interested in other fitness-related professional services, such as massage therapy, stress management programs, or nutritional counseling. Find out about availability and any added cost.

8. Take a trial run.
Many centers will give you a free pass for a day or a few days, or a friend who's already a member can bring you in with a complimentary pass. It's an opportunity to get an inside look before you join.

9. Know what you're getting into.
Resist any pressure to join quickly, as in "This offer is good for only one more day." Walk away from any such sales tactics. Take the contract away with you and look it over closely. Be sure you're clear about what's covered in the membership fee. Are some of the special services or classes you're interested in included or extra? Know exactly what your commitment is. What's the length of membership? (Note: "Lifetime" memberships now are illegal in most states.) The payment procedure? The grace period for backing out if you change your mind? The policy on early termination of membership? Some clubs offer month-to-month memberships, so it's easier for you to get out on short notice if you have good reason. Of course, it also makes it easier for you to quit for no good reason. Finally, check your local consumer protection agency to find out if a center has any history of consumer complaints.

Two-thirds of people who join fitness centers stop going in the first six months, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. Two-thirds! Some, of course, may decide to pursue fitness another way, such as working out at home or outdoors. Many, however, just drop out of pursuing physical fitness altogether.

But if you vow that becoming fit is important to you, and follow some of the guidelines offered here for choosing a fitness center, you'll boost the odds you'll stick with a fitness program.

Credentials and certification
Several organizations—such as the American Council on Exercise, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the National Federation of Professional Trainers—certify fitness center personnel. The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, based in Boston, has a longer list of certifying organizations, as well as other information.