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As spring turns to summer and warm-weather clothing reveals body bulges, many people think about shaping up by joining a health club.

That can be a good idea for some, but joining a fitness center is also one of the trickiest purchases a consumer can make. It also can be expensive.

An individual membership at a community recreation center might only cost a few hundred dollars a year, but a three-year contract at a pricey club could set you back more than $10,000.

“A lot of money is wasted on health-club memberships,” said Kevin Brasler, executive editor of Consumers’ Checkbook, which has investigated fitness-club prices and policies. “A lot of people join these clubs with really good intentions and just quit (going) after a couple months.”

That can be an expensive mistake. “It’s not like buying a TV that’s not quite right for you. At least you can still watch it,” Brasler said. “With this, if you’re not going to the club, you’re wasting maybe $80 a month.”

U.S. health-club industry revenue reached $21.8 billion in 2012, with more than 58 million Americans belonging to a fitness center, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association. If joining a gym is right for you, now might be the time to do it. Some reduce monthly rates and waive enrollment fees heading into summer.

Here are some considerations:

Should you join at all? Are you likely to get your money’s worth from a health club, or can you get fit for free, by running, biking or playing sports? Exercise videos might work for you. Some are free with your cable-TV package’s on-demand offerings, while some video-game systems have fitness “games” that might provide light workouts. Psychologically, some people might be motivated to regularly work out at a club simply because they’re paying. “This whole idea of wasting money on a club you don’t use does work in reverse for some people,” Brasler said.

Do your homework. First and foremost, shop around. Membership fees for similar gyms vary dramatically. For example, prices in Washington, D.C., for an individual interested in only fitness equipment and group exercise varied from $458 to $1,224 for a year, according to a study by Consumers’ Checkbook. It found similarly wide price swings in other cities, too. Customer satisfaction also varied dramatically.

Explore the options. Name-brand health clubs aren’t the only choices. A
recreation center may suffice and be far cheaper.

Beware the hard sell. A fitness-center employee giving you a tour is likely a commission salesperson, so expect a sales pitch.

Beware of clubs pushing long-term contracts, often three years. Ask about shorter-commitment plans, which on a monthly basis are likely to be a little more expensive than a long-term contract, but will give you greater flexibility, Brasler said.

Seek deals. Many clubs will negotiate, offering the best deals only when pressed. Try to haggle on the joining fee and monthly fee. Mention other fitness centers you’re considering. “That way, they know you’re shopping around and willing to get up and walk out the door,” Brasler said.

And ask about discounts. “Most of these clubs, their normal rate is never charged,” Brasler said. “There’s always a discount.”

Get the details. Ask about initiation fees and contract length. Ideally, try a club on a month-to-month basis during a trial period. And, of course, carefully read a contract before signing. Note the refund and cancellation policy.
If you sign a contract, you’re probably stuck with it, depending on your state’s laws.

Joining a health club can be a good option. Just make sure it’s the right option for you.