Exercise caution before joining a health club

Getting washboard abs could come with a lot of headaches

Published: January 16, 2015 03:15 PM

Working out a health club can help you get in shape and keep a New Year's resolution, but it can also cause headaches. How's that?

Health clubs generate lots of complaints. Better Businesses Bureaus in the U.S. and Canada handled 5,108 complaints about health clubs in 2013, the latest statistics available. That made health clubs the 28th highest complaint category among hundreds of business categories. In 2014, the Michigan attorney general reported receiving 61 health-club-related complaints, the majority of them involving “discrepancies between what consumers say they were told by sales personnel and what the signed contract actually guaranteed,” according to a recent alert issued by the state. Some of those discrepancies involved cancellation procedures. 

Besides those issues, there are many other reasons why you might become dissatisfied with a health club and end your membership. Perhaps the equipment or gym staff is lacking. Or maybe you just want to cut the gym expense, or you're moving to a different city.

If you haven’t signed a contract and are paying as you go along, you're free to do as you want. But if you’ve entered into a long-term agreement with the club, paid in advance, or even taken out a loan or used a credit card to pay for your membership, ending your membership can be a problem.

Even if you’re legally entitled to terminate the contract or get a refund, exercising your rights can be difficult, requiring you, in some cases, to go to small-claims court or even hire an attorney. Just consider all the different possible scenarios described in this advice the California Department of Consumer Affairs prepared on what to do if your health club closes.

How to protect yourself

Learn your rights. Many states have rules for health clubs, but they vary. Some states, such as West Virginia, give consumers a right to cancel a health-club contract if they change their minds within a certain period or if they become disabled. Some spell out your rights if a club closes or relocates beyond a certain distance.

In some jurisdictions, health clubs must be registered. Some states, such as Connecticut, have guaranty funds or, like Maryland, require clubs to post bonds to reimburse consumers if a club closes or breaches its contracts. Check with your state or local consumer-protection agency, or try a Web search with your state and “health club regulations.”

Investigate a club. Get references from friends or relatives who actually use a club consistently. Take advantage of a trial membership and check out the facility during the hours you plan to use it the most. Look for a report at the BBB, and try a Web search using the club name and such words as “reviews” and “complaints.”  Also, check for complaints with your state or local consumer-protection agency and verify that the club has met any registration requirements

Think twice about long-term commitments. Consider carefully before signing a contract, making advance payments, or otherwise entering a long-long relationship with a club. If you take out a loan to pay for a membership, you’ll likely have to continue to make payments even if the club closes.

Know what you’re buying. If you decide to sign a contract anyway, don’t simply rely on what a salesperson says about cancellation rights or anything else. Read the contract carefully. Can you terminate it, and, if so, how? What happens if you move or become disabled? Is there a separate enrollment fee? What are the monthly charges? Is there a penalty if you pay late? Does the contract renew automatically? Beware of or low-cost lifetime memberships or “free” memberships, which could be a sign that the club is financial trouble, warns the Michigan attorney general.

—Anthony Giorgianni

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