CLEVELAND, Ohio — ‘Tis the season for New Year’s resolutions. If you’re setting up goals for 2023, one might be getting healthier.
That’s why many gyms and fitness centers are offering discounts this time of year. But before you sign up, or agree to a yearlong contract, there’s a cheaper option you should consider: your local recreation center.
Yes, that’s an obvious answer for some readers. But when I tell people my gym membership is $97 a year, with no added fees and access to a pool, basketball court and sauna, they are often surprised.
Is it the Taj Mahal of exercise? No. But compared to Planet Fitness, which costs at least $170 a year and doesn’t even have free weights, I’m very happy with my rec membership.
Every gym is different, and so is every person’s list of needs. I’ve had eight gym memberships since I was a teenager. While I don’t have much fitness advice, I’ve spent enough time in gyms to know what to look for — and what the best bang for your buck usually is.
If you’re about to join a gym for the first time, you likely have a lot of questions. Here’s what you should know before you shop:
What amenities and features do you want in a gym?
Most gyms have the basics, such as cardio equipment, weights, strength-training machines and a room for classes. Anything additional usually means higher costs, but some amenities are worth extra money.
You’ll need a pool if you want to swim for exercise, obviously. A basketball or racquetball court is also a nice perk. But both take up a lot of space, and commercial gyms don’t always make room for them.
Many gyms are adding “functional fitness” areas, a space usually covered with artificial turf that has weight sleds, large tires, medicine balls, boxes to jump onto or over. These areas are great to have, but again, not every gym makes space for them.
If you hate using a treadmill, and hate running or walking in the rain, an indoor track is great.
Many gyms have saunas, steam rooms and spa tubs, too. They’re not crucial, but they’re nice to have.
Some gyms stay open late; others are available 24 hours, seven days a week. Some recreation centers have shorter hours or close on Sundays. If you’re trying to exercise before work or late at night, it’s something to consider.
These aren’t make-or-break features on their own. But it’s good to know what you want before you commit to membership for a year.
Plenty of gyms, whether they’re expensive fitness clubs or specialized for things like CrossFit, are tailored even more. But I wouldn’t advise splurging on a New Year’s resolution. You just need something that works.
Many gyms have a free trial. Take advantage of it and see which fitness center fits you best.
Deals and membership tiers
Most commercial gyms run a deal for New Year’s — whether they’re waiving the one-time enrollment fee or reducing your monthly cost.
Seniors, college students and teens can also get discounted rates.
Some gyms have tiered memberships. A “basic” plan may be cheap but only gives a person access to the gym’s equipment — not the pool or sauna. An upgraded membership might give you free access to group fitness classes and the ability to use any gym that the company owns.
One key feature is guest access, if it’s available.
Esporta Fitness, for example, used to have a $9.99 monthly membership. But the $30.99 membership would let you bring two guests per visit. So, I brought my partner each time as a “guest” and so did many others.
When shopping around, consider this: A salesman told me the gym’s pricing is changing Jan. 1. If you can find a similar deal somewhere, it’s a great perk.
In my opinion, a gym membership is a better route for beginners than buying a treadmill, weight bench or whatever all-in-one fitness machine is popular right now.
Having an elliptical in the house is very convenient. But paying $10 to $30 for access to dozens of pieces of equipment is a good buy — especially if you don’t know what kind of exercise you like yet.
If you enjoy working out at home, there are options that let you skip a gym membership.
Beachbody, the company that made the P90X workout DVDs, has a streaming service with hundreds of workout videos. YouTube is also full of high-quality fitness creators. You can find strength training routines that need no equipment. Dance-like workouts. Yoga. The list goes on.
There are many at-home solutions. But if you’re just starting, and can afford it, I think a gym membership lets you try out things till you find what you like.
So, which gym membership is the best value?
Every gym I’ve worked out in, whether it was Cleveland State University’s extremely nice rec center or the now-closed YMCA in Parma that was usually empty, was fine. You don’t need to overthink it; just get started somewhere.
If it’s available, a local recreation center is usually the best bang for your buck.
The Berea Recreation Center, for example, charges $97 for a yearly membership and $88 for every other adult in the household. For that price, I get access to a pool, a basketball court, a sauna, an indoor track and pretty much every machine I’d get in a big-box gym.
The Brook Park Recreation Center, just $15 a month or $95 a year, gave me many of the same amenities. Both offer discounts for seniors, college students and families.
I happened to get memberships at two of the cheaper rec centers in the area. A yearly membership can cost anywhere from $150 to $300 around Cuyahoga County. And those prices are for residents.
Cuyahoga Falls’ recreation center, “the Natatorium,” is 116,000 square-foot facility with just about everything. It’s $45 a month or $370 a year for residents. When I lived there, I opted for Esporta Fitness (and used the guest pass often).
Recreation centers do have downsides. They often have shorter hours or close on Sundays. You may need to work around classes or events.
They also tend to have more amenities than commercial gyms. It’s hard to find a commercial gym with an indoor pool, basketball court and sauna for less than $300 a year.
The absolute, cheapest membership you’ll find at a commercial gym is $10 a month. Big chains and smaller local gyms offer it, but they are few and far between. There’s always added fees, too.
Planet Fitness’s basic membership includes a $49 annual fee, for example, bringing the yearly cost to $170. Esporta’s current $9.99 a month deal — prices may change Jan. 1 — includes a $129 initiation fee.
A gym like Fitworks would cost anywhere from $415 to $450 a year, depending on whether you pay monthly or all at once. Esporta’s upgraded membership currently costs about $400 a year.
Like anything else, more shopping and checking out local, non-chain options can net you a better deal — possibly about $250 to $300 a year. You may find a place that’s open 24/7, but it doesn’t have everything you want. It really depends on your wants and goals.
I think your recreation center, if you’re lucky enough to have one, is a good place to start.
One more thing…
As a side note, New Year’s is usually when companies use health and resolutions to sell you things. Just so you’re aware, meal-subscription services like Hello Fresh and Blue Apron and the smoothie-subscription Daily Harvest, post recipes online for free. I certainly wouldn’t pay $8.49 for a smoothie I need to blend myself.
Saving You Money is cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer’s column about saving money. If you’re feeling the pinch of record inflation, you’re not alone. The goal of Saving You Money will be helping readers save and highlighting resources that can help.
We want to know how we can help you save money. Send your questions and comments to [email protected].
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