Money Wasters: Gym Memberships

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Gym memberships drain bank accounts with monthly fees or a hefty lump sum each year, and in many cases they can be just be another waste of money even if you work out regularly.

Gyms may offer access to treadmills, elliptical trainers, a weight room and fancy new machines, but you can workout at home and spend far less out of pocket than what you’d pay to use a gym.

What You Pay

About 41 million Americans had gym memberships contributing to $17 billion in annual revenue for these facilities in 2007, but it’s likely that far fewer members actually used the facilities.

Expensive gyms can cost more than $200 a month. Your membership fee may offer fluffy towels, razors, soap, shampoo, access to a sauna and possibly even a smoothie bar, among other amenities. But it’s easy to rack up other charges including paying an extra $20 a month to have access to other gym locations and locker rental charges that can nearly double your monthly fee at some pricier gyms.

And if you want personal training, you’ll have to shell out even more. A single session might cost you about $90, but if you buy a pack of 10 sessions, for instance, that price may be dropped to $850. But even then, it’s a hefty price to pay.

At less-expensive gyms and recreation centers, you might pay about $75, possibly less, for an entire annual membership. But for some, that may still be a waste of money. If you’re serious about working out but also serious about your budget, you can have much of what you look for in a gym at home.

Here are a few ways to get fit while saving both money and time.

Get Going With Cardio

It may take a bit of motivation, perhaps with some friendly competition among workout buddies, but running and cycling outdoors may actually be a better workout than doing cardiovascular exercise at the gym.

At a gym, you’re likely in a comfortable, climate-controlled environment. Outdoors, you experience varied terrain, obstacles and wind resistance that can make your body use more energy to endure, notes Fitness Magazine.

If you’re concerned about the impact that pavement can have on your knees, running on grass is a better option since there will be less stress on your joints, according to SimplyFitnessGear.com.  And buying a treadmill to use at home could actually be cheaper than a gym membership. A simple Paradigm Fitness Walking Electric Treadmill costs about $318 at Wal-Mart for instance.

Running indoors can be unbearably boring, however, unless you have a TV screen in front of you. But chances are, if you work at a computer all day, you might want to give your eyes a rest from glowing screens and venture outside.

Biking

If you’re more of an elliptical user or you’re still concerned about straining your knees, cycling might be the best cardio workout for you.

And it may actually be easier to ride your bike since many cities are improving and expanding their bike paths to provide a greener mode of transportation.

Portland, Ore., and Davis, Calif., are two of the best places in the U.S. to get around by bike.

Plus, whether you’re going uphill or downhill, mountain biking or touring, riding exposes you to the elements and more oxygen, which could motivate you to keep going.

A cheap new women’s bike at Toys “R” Us, for instance, costs $139.99.

Targeting Muscles

For the muscle-focused portion of your workout, using your own body weight to build or tone muscle is a cheap and easy way to workout at home, and you aren’t limited to hundreds of push-ups.

For example, squats require no extra weight in addition to your own, and they work your quadriceps, hamstrings and other leg muscles, health professionals say.

Plus, muscle toning can be done with objects you already have in your home or small items, which is good news for those of you with no room to store a treadmill or a bike.

Chair dips are also a great way to tone up those saggy triceps, and the only equipment you need is a chair – one without wheels, notes Fitness Magazine.

If you need some resistance, having dumbbells at home might run you about $30 for two 15-pound weights.

And durable elastic exercise bands (About $23 for three bands and a Gaiam DVD on Amazon.com) or tubes (About $8.50 for one resistance tube with an exercise chart) also make for affordable and portable exercise tools.

If you need an intense weight training session, some bands offer as much as 50 pounds of resistance.

Personal Training

If you think you need one-on-one guidance to get in gear and really start working out, you don’t need to buy a package of multiple $80 personal training sessions. One session might actually be enough for you to learn what exercises to do to get the results you want. You could ask your trainer to write out a weekly plan for you to follow on your own and negotiate a cheaper price for that than a whole package of training sessions.

And some personal trainers might actually work with you on a sliding scale in which the amount you pay depends on what you can afford.

Workout videos are also an option if you need some encouragement during your workout. And workout videos today aren’t just for Jazzercising. The Firm home fitness videos, for instance, could easily give you  hard workout and individual DVDs will run you about $15.

When a Gym Is Your Best Bet

If you live in a cold climate, it may not be so easy to just hop on your bicycle and ride for an hour in the snow, so a gym membership, at least in the colder months, might actually be worthwhile.

But there’s a reason why many gym websites don’t list membership fees and suggest you give them a call to find out. You may be able to negotiate for a lower rate than what’s usually charged.

To get the cheapest rate possible, you should be able to negotiate a membership without having to pay a membership fee. You can also try bargaining for a good monthly rate by starting at a price below what you’ve budgeted, suggests the Negotiation Board, a site that offers advice on negotiating your way into favorable rates in a variety of situations.

And if you can’t get the rate you want right away, you may want to wait a few days for them to come back to you with a better offer, the Negotiation Board suggests.

Summer might be a good time to negotiate a good gym membership rate.  With many members on summer vacation putting their memberships on hold, or quitting during warmer months, gyms might be especially willing to negotiate a good deal.  Some gyms even have discounted summer packages for students.

Otherwise, you’ll want to check with your employer or any organization you belong to in case you’re eligible to receive a group discount.  Some large employers or health insurance plans offer discounts on memberships or will reimburse you for your fees.

AARP members can also receive discounts on memberships at several gyms.

You may also be able to save by getting a couples or family membership.

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