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Originally published February 3, 2013 at 5:30 AM | Page modified February 3, 2013 at 7:40 AM

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Exercise caution when choosing a gym deal

In the new year, people flock to gyms and other workout locations. Here’s some practical advice for picking the right gym or other venue at the right price.

The Orange County Register

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SANTA ANA, Calif. — It’s a new year, and you want to transform that body of yours. It’s a natural instinct.

It’s an instinct that the owners of fitness centers anticipate. They can see you and your mile-long list of resolutions coming down the highway.

Despite the sluggish economy, people are flocking to gyms in greater numbers than ever: An estimated 51.4 million people were going to fitness centers at the start of 2012, according to an annual survey conducted by the Boston-based International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, a trade association representing gyms. That’s up 12.8 percent from four years earlier. Members went an average of 102.5 days during 2011, about twice a week.

“That’s the highest we’ve tracked,” association senior research manager Melissa Rodriguez said.

This is why, against all inclinations, you should wait a bit before signing up for a gym membership. Many health-related businesses seem like they’re peddling some sweet deals out there, but the law of basic economics applies: When demand for a product or service is high, the price point for it rises in kind.

Instead, use this time when the sales crews at gyms are eagerly signing up new clients to test the waters. Find a place that really suits you — your goals, your personality, your schedule and your budget.

Here are a few tips for your painstaking, well-researched, totally-not-hurried search:

What works for you?

Not to get too philosophical, but if you really like Pilates, you should probably go to a Pilates studio. Or take dance classes, or swim in the mornings, or go to an ice rink. If you like watching ESPN while logging miles on the elliptical, go with that.

What can you afford?

If you spring for an expensive gym membership — say, $80 a month — that works out to $19,200 over the course of 20 years. Many big gyms — like a 24 Hour Fitness — have everything you could imagine. If you’re only using a fraction of it, you’re overpaying. Don’t buy too much gym.

Compare and contrast

Many gyms have free trial periods, measured in sessions or days. Take advantage of this and see whether you like a particular class, whether machines are maintained well, whether the locker rooms are kept clean. The sales rep doesn’t need to know you’re trying five other gyms at the same time.

Investigate the really great deals

This is especially the case with bargain gyms or specific memberships. Check the fine print to see if your visits are limited with that super-cheap monthly rate.

Wait till the end of the month

As personal trainer Jason Anderson writes, most gyms have quotas. “At the first of the month, these sales goals don’t seem as daunting to employees as they do in the last week of the month,” he advises. Making a commitment later in the month enhances the odds that you’ll get a deal.

Bargain

When the moment of truth comes, negotiate. Ask if they’ll waive that exorbitant initiation fee, or throw in some guest passes or a couple of personal-training sessions for free. There might be a discount if you bring along a friend to sign up. It doesn’t hurt to ask.

See if your employer, or your insurance company, will reimburse you for the monthly cost.

Check out neighborhood alternatives

There might be a YMCA or a community center in your city that you’ve never investigated. If you have kids, the Y has play areas that can come in handy, in addition to activities and programming for everyone in the family.

“We have seen in our study that it’s not uncommon for members to belong to more than one club,” said Rodriguez, of the gym trade association. “They might belong to one that’s close to work and another that’s close to home.”

Whatever works for you and your lifestyle.

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