The time's right for choosing a health club membership

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This is the time of year when many of us notice our waistlines are expanding, but our energy level is declining. It's the time of year when we resolve to do something about it. Health club memberships tend to spike in January.

You've resolved to get back in shape, but you haven't belonged to a health club before, or it's been a long time. How should you choose?

It can be hard in Pittsburgh because we have so many options here. There are 275 entries in the Yellow Pages under "Pittsburgh Health Clubs." Citysearch lists 446 "Health Clubs and Gyms" in the metro area. There are large gyms and small, which offer a wide variety of individual and group workout options. Some focus on the latest fitness trends, others emphasize traditional methods. There are gyms for serious athletes and for dabblers. There are gyms for women only.

There's no shortage of advice on how to choose. A Google search for "How to choose a health club" produced 54 million results. Experts say it's most important to consider:


Can you get to the club quickly and easily from your home or office? If you can't, the odds are that by March, you won't be going there much.

"The hardest part [of working out] is making the time to get there," said Pete Martorelli, supervisor of Club Allegheny, the employee fitness center at Allegheny General Hospital. "It's just physically going from wherever they are to the club to work out."

If you plan to work out with a friend or friends, you're more likely to work out regularly, Mr. Martorelli said. "We have a group of ladies who come every morning. They force each other to be there."

If you don't have a friend to work out with you and you have the resources to do so, consider hiring a personal trainer. In addition to designing a workout program to meet your specific goals, he or she will prod you to keep to your workout schedule.


Your health club membership shouldn't strain your budget. But if the cost is high enough for you to be aware of it each month, you might work out more often.


You're joining a health club to get healthier, not to get sick. The maintenance of the exercise area and locker rooms provides clues to other important considerations.

"If they don't care about the upkeep of their facility, then they probably don't care much about their clients," said Ron DeAngelo, director of sports performance training at UPMC Sports Medicine.


Is the staff friendly? Helpful? Knowledgeable? How important the staff's knowledge is depends on your fitness goals and how you plan to achieve them. Not much knowledge is required to show you how to use exercise equipment properly. More is needed to teach an exercise class, much more to be a personal trainer.

For Mr. DeAngelo, the most important consideration in selecting a health club should be the "qualifications of the personal trainers and the people who are working the floor.

"You want to make sure you're getting the most benefit from your workout time," he said.

A good personal trainer is the best way to make sure of that. "Personal trainers and group fitness instructors should be certified through a nationally recognized certification organization like the American Council on Exercise," that group advises.

You don't have to hire a personal trainer to get a workout plan tailored to your specific needs and desires. Visit the ACE website ( Click on "Fitness for Me." Input your age, gender and goals. ACE will offer several plans to meet them.

Types of exercise

Your workout plan should cover your entire body, and it should include a mix of strength, cardiovascular and flexibility exercises, ACE recommends. Some forms of each of these types of exercise produce better results, and faster, than others. But the only exercises that produce any results at all are the ones you actually do. The most important consideration in devising an exercise program is to do things you like to do because those are the ones most of us will do consistently.

This means the next most important consideration in selecting a health club is to make sure it offers the kinds of exercise options you like. Do you prefer to get your cardio playing tennis, racquetball or basketball? Then you'd better join a club that offers these opportunities, even if it's pricier. If you like group exercise classes, you'll want to know how many a club offers, how often the classes you are interested in are offered and the qualifications of the instructors. If you're interested chiefly in resistance exercise, check if a club has the exercise machines and free weights you want to work out on, or if it offers instruction in kettlebells, which appear to be most effective in gaining strength fast.

Club hours

Next, check availability. Will the club be open at the times of day you want to work out? Will the classes you want to take be offered at those times? Visit the clubs you're considering during those hours. How crowded are they then? A club may have all the equipment you want, but that won't do you much good if you have to wait a long time to use it.

If you're just beginning a workout program, you may not know what kind of exercise you like best. If so, a larger club with broader offerings may be most appropriate. Try different things until you find what you'll stick with.

For some, exercise will always be a chore. They want to do what they have to do in as little time as possible. If this describes you, consider clubs such as Curves, at various locations, or The Body Bar, 9365 McKnight Road, McCandless, which emphasize circuit training. There are many better ways to build strength and cardiovascular endurance but few better ways to do both in 30 minutes or less.


Amenities are another consideration. The tonier clubs offer steam baths, saunas, massages and health food restaurants in addition to exercise opportunities. There's nothing frivolous about being attracted by them. If your health club is a great place to hang out, and/or to meet fit guys or gals, you'll spend more time there. Just be sure to spend some of it actually working out!

Smart shopping

Try before you buy. All the good clubs will let you work out a time or two before asking you for a commitment. Make sure you do your trial workouts at the time you plan to use the club on a regular basis.

Ask friends for recommendations. If you don't have that many friends who are health club members, customer reviews at Angie's List give top ratings to 38 local health clubs. Almost all the local YMCAs are among them. For those who feel cost is a big consideration, the Y could be a good option.

About 50 health clubs within a 20-mile radius of Downtown Pittsburgh are enrolled in the Silver Sneakers program. That's important if you're a senior enrolled in a Highmark, Bravo, Geisinger, Independence Blue Cross or Universal Health Care plan. In addition to offering special classes for seniors, participating clubs offer memberships to Silver Sneakers participants free or at substantial discounts. Another dozen or so clubs participate in a similar senior fitness program, Silver & Fit, offered by health plans in the area, including UPMC Health Plan.

Remember that you don't have to join a health club to exercise regularly. Walking is still the most highly recommended form of cardiovascular exercise for older Americans. But you have to exercise regularly to maintain good health.

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Jack Kelly: or 412-263-1476. First Published January 7, 2013 5:00 AM


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