10 things your gym won’t tell you

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By SmartMoney

Not all health clubs are problem-plagued, but don’t be surprised if yours is filled with illness-causing bacteria, employs a poorly trained staff and makes it expensive to quit.

1. “If you’re still here in April, it’ll be a miracle.”

The fitness craze is going gangbusters, with gym attendance up 23% since 2001, to 41.3 million, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA).

Most new recruits sign up in January, the busiest month for fitness clubs. That’s when well-intentioned souls trying to stick to their New Year’s resolutions flood their local gyms, often resulting in long lines at the treadmills, overtaxed gym staffs and towel shortages in the locker rooms.

But it’s not long before the throngs thin; most people who make those resolutions trip up in the first 90 days, says Alan Marlatt, the director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington. Indeed, that’s what clubs expect. “They bet on it,” says Meg Jordan, the editor of American Fitness magazine, adding that most gyms count on a 20% to 30% dropout rate.

In the meantime, there are ways to avoid the January crowds and make it past the 90-day hump. When selecting a gym, visit the facility during the time of day you’re most likely to attend. If it’s crowded, check to see whether waiting lists and time limits on machines are enforced or whether it’s a free-for-all.

2. “Don’t touch anything — this place is crawling with bacteria.”

About 80% of all infectious diseases are transmitted by both direct and indirect contact, says Philip Tierno, the director of clinical microbiology at New York University Medical Center and the author of “The Secret Life of Germs.” That makes the gym, with its sweaty bodies in close proximity, a highly conducive environment for catching everything from athlete’s foot to the flu.

In swabs of medicine balls, for example, Tierno found samples of community-acquired MRSA, a strain of staph resistant to some antibiotics. “You take your chances,” Tierno says. “Any time you touch a medicine ball or machine, you have to know that your hands are contaminated and should be washed.”

What about those spray bottles that some gyms provide for wiping down equipment? They may help, Tierno says, but he recommends additional measures, such as wearing long sleeves and pants while working out. Also, bring your own towels because there’s no guarantee that your gym’s linens have been bleached or rinsed in clean water. While in the locker room, make sure you wear flip-flops, and avoid sitting nude on any exposed surface.

3. “We’re not equipped to handle health emergencies.”

Almost one-third of sudden cardiac arrests outside homes and hospitals occur in fitness clubs or sports facilities, says Mary Fran Hazinski, a registered nurse and senior science editor for the American Heart Association.

Yet most health clubs aren’t fully prepared for such crises. That was the case at a 24 Hour Fitness in California, where Nick Pombra, 43, collapsed after running on a treadmill in July 2004. The gym staff tried CPR, but by the time paramedics arrived, it was too late, says Mike Danko, a lawyer for Pombra’s family. The fitness company declined to comment.

Though effective CPR can buy time, it won’t reset a heart after cardiac arrest. That’s where automated external defibrillators, or AEDs, come in. Chances for revival drop as much as 10% each minute that passes without proper CPR and defibrillation. But even in states such as New York that require gyms to have CPR equipment, as well as AEDs and trained personnel in clubs with more than 500 members, two-thirds surveyed by the attorney general’s office in 2005 weren’t in compliance. Find out if your club has the right equipment and, equally important, a staff trained to use it.

4. “Our trainers don’t know what they’re doing.”

If you work out at a gym, chances are an on-site personal trainer will try to sell you his or her expertise. And with their Colgate smiles and buff bodies, they must be able to teach you a thing or two about getting into shape, right? Not necessarily. Trainers need no standard certification, and the credentials that some flash require only a quick online course or a fee, says Neal Pire, a fitness-industry consultant and former trainer.

Jonathan Jacobson, a marketing executive with a degenerative disk disease in his lower back, sought out a trainer to design a routine appropriate for his condition. But after a boxing regimen the trainer recommended, he was left in pain. When his doctor told Jacobson, 35, to stop, the trainer suggested Pilates, which only further aggravated the problem, leading to a slew of medical procedures.

“He had certificates and tons of plaques on the wall,” Jacobson says. “It’s taken about a year to not be in pain every day.”

You should seek trainers with credentials from respected institutions such as the American College of Sports Medicine or the National Strength Conditioning Association, preferably with some training in sports medicine or physical education.

5. “We won’t let you quit.”

If you think giving up the Ben & Jerry’s is tough, try quitting your gym. Trouble canceling membership is one of the top complaints against fitness clubs logged with the Better Business Bureau and states’ attorneys general.

Before Chris Hinkle and his wife moved to North Carolina, they met with the manager at their Gold’s Gym in Austin, Texas, to cancel their prepaid membership. They were told a refund check would be in the mail. That was March. After months of unreturned calls, Hinkle contacted the Better Business Bureau, which also got no answer from Gold’s and gave it an unsatisfactory rating.

“I was an ecstatic booster of Gold’s,” Hinkle says. “Now I tell people to never go there.” A Gold’s spokesperson says the club sends a refund in such cases once it receives proof of a move — documentation Hinkle says the Austin manager didn’t ask for in March.

For those paying monthly, calls from collectors or a battered credit score may be the first clue a membership was never terminated, says Todd Mark of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta. Follow contract terms to the letter, providing proof of a move or a doctor’s note. Create a paper trail, and alert credit agencies about any dispute. (See also “How to quit the gym (or anything).”)

6. “Be sure to read the fine print on our contract.”

The devil is in the details, and it’s never truer than when it comes to fitness-club contracts. Fast-talking reps may offer you a deal you can’t refuse, but often that’s exactly what you should do.

“Sometimes you end up with salespeople trying to make quotas that engage in pressure,” says Helen Durkin, the head of public policy at IHRSA, the health-club association.

Occasionally, this can lead to a glossing over of details. One Bally offer that has elicited complaints on Consumer Affairs’ Web site is a 30-day trial membership with a catch: You must visit the club a minimum of 12 times during the first month to cancel without penalty; otherwise, you’re locked into a multiyear membership. Some consumers complain that they did attend the required number of times but that when they decided to cancel, the club had no record of the visits. A Bally spokesperson says the company’s policy is to check all members entering the club and record their usage.

Your best defense: Read every word of the contract. Never rely on a suave salesperson’s “word” no matter what authority they profess, and don’t let anyone pressure you into signing before you’re ready. Take the contract home and read it overnight.

7. “Our equipment can be downright dangerous.”

Unlike many businesses, fitness clubs do not need a special license to operate. Furthermore, although the American College of Sports Medicine and other groups publish guidelines for the industry, they don’t have the teeth of the law.

“In most cases, (the gym) is not a safe place to go because there is little standardization,” says Marc Rabinoff, a forensic expert and professor of human performance and sport at the Metropolitan State College of Denver.

Take equipment maintenance, for example. Although manufacturers must include instructions with exercise machines, nothing forces gyms to follow them, Rabinoff says. Injuries can result from poorly or improperly maintained equipment, says Cedric Bryant, the chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise. Harold Leon Bostick knows that all too well. Because of a design defect in a machine he was using, a stack of weights came crashing down while the law student was doing squats at a California gym in 2001, severing his spinal cord.

Bryant recommends asking to see maintenance and cleaning logs — hallmarks of a good club. Gold’s Gym, for one, says it follows manufacturers’ maintenance guidance to the letter and replaces equipment every five to seven years. Avoid machines that stick or don’t move smoothly.

8. “Everything is negotiable.”

Balloons and freebies often signal promotion time at your local gym — most frequently before the holidays and at the start of summer.

Already a member? Jot down these specials and ask for one of them when it comes time to renew your membership. Some gyms will honor the rate months after the posters come down, says Mark, of the Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta.

If you’re looking into a new membership, remember that the cheapest deals will likely be those that lock you in for a long time. For example, Bally’s flexible plans, including month-to-month memberships, typically cost $5 to $10 a month more than its popular long-term plan. As for trainers, you might be able to get a break if you decide to share sessions with a friend or two, says Carol Espel, Equinox’s national group-fitness director.

9. “If your wallet gets lifted, it’s not our problem.”

In 2003, the FBI put out a bulletin about a group of burglars stealing credit cards from lockers of health-club members on the East Coast. Since then, there’s been no similar FBI bulletin, but that doesn’t mean your valuables are safe at the gym. You never know who’s lurking around the locker room while you’re sweating away on the elliptical machine.

“For so many people, the health club is like a community,” says IHRSA spokesperson Brooke Correia. “You feel very comfortable, but there are situations where potential thieves will break into the club and take advantage of that safe atmosphere.”

Ben Osbun tried to end 2004 on a healthy note by working out at his local YMCA on New Year’s Eve. But the day quickly soured. When the Chicago real estate agent returned to his locker, he found that the padlock had been cut and his cell phone, keys and wallet were missing. Only his jacket was left behind; the thieves showed him some mercy since it was December, Osbun says. He adds that the gym staff wasn’t particularly surprised by the incident because petty theft is common in health clubs. Osbun learned his lesson; he now brings very little with him to the gym.

If you do intend to store items in a locker while you’re working out, IHRSA recommends using a padlock with a key, which is harder to pick than a combination lock. That wouldn’t have helped Osbun any, of course.

10. “Go ahead and sue; you’ll never win.”

Fitness clubs know how to watch their backs, legally speaking. It’s nearly impossible to visit a fitness center without signing a waiver that absolves the club of liability — involving everything from malfunctioning machines that cause injury to improper instruction by staff members.

In Michael Stokes’ case, it was a defect in the basketball court’s floor at his Kent, Wash., gym that caused ruptured tendons in his knee and shoulder. Though a judge found that Stokes may not have known what he was signing, a subsequent appellate-court ruling upheld the waiver and dismissed the case, says Mark Davis, a lawyer who represented Stokes.

That’s how it usually goes because the majority of states’ courts tend to side with the gyms on the matter of liability waivers, while only a handful, including those in New York and Virginia, are likely to rule against them. Occasionally, a judge will rule in behalf of plaintiffs in instances of gross negligence, but that bar is set pretty high in some states, such as Washington, Davis says.

Bottom line: Understand that you’re taking your health in your own hands when you go to the gym, so you need to watch your own back — literally.

This article was reported and written by Reshma Kapadia for SmartMoney.

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