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Cheap gyms suck - and how to find a good one

NordicTrack T 6.5 S Treadmill

I finally joined a gym. But I had to shop around first and go through the hell that is The Cheap Gym before finding one that was decent.

Concerning my weight loss journey (which I finished and still hold a BMI of 22), this involved some exercise equipment. Treadmills, specifically. I literally wore out two treadmills during my weight loss process. Bear in mind these were the cheap type. Had I bought a model like the one seen above, it would probably still be working today. But because I went with the cheap stuff, the first one had a track that fell apart, and the second one had a motor that burnt out. I should note I never ran on either treadmill. Just power walking. It still broke both of them.

I mention this because after the second treadmill gave up the ghost, I stopped buying exercise gear and developed my own workout routine using my own body weight for resistance. Pushups, squats and various arm and leg exercises. And it worked. I kept up the routine, still do to this day, and the weight stayed off.

However, for years I've been wanting to join a gym to get access to some decent exercise equipment, and did...

...which brings me to my experience with The Cheap Gym. I will not mention this gym by name, and its name doesn't matter because they all operate the same. I didn't even join this place. They ticked me off so bad that I walked right out before even signing up.

You may be thinking of joining one of those gyms that promotes membership for $9.99 a month. Before you do, follow my tips below.

Before telling you the tips, the gym I found that worked for me was my local recreation center. The price was great, the staff friendly, and while the cardio room is small, it was what I was looking for. If you are fortunate enough to have a rec center near you, try them first. You'll understand why after reading my tips.

The Cheap Gym Experience

My experience at this place was as follows:

Within less than 2 minutes from walking in the door, the "trainer" seated me at a desk, grabbed a form and a pen, and instantly started trying to get personal information out of me. She did not offer a tour of the facility first. This girl was in SELL SELL SELL mode. Her goal was to get my info, charge me and go on her merry way.

I walked out.

The reviews of this place warned about the "snotty girl" working there. And that's the girl I got. She lost a sale.

And that brings me to tip #1.

Tip #1: Read Google user reviews and Yelp reviews for gyms. Always.

You can find Google user reviews by using Google Maps. Just type in the name of the gym you're thinking about joining along with its location, Google will find it, and from there you'll see reviews you can read.

Yelp has been around since 2004, and a lot of people use it regularly to post reviews of businesses. Like with Google Maps, type in the gym name and location to find reviews on it there too.

What you're basically looking for with user reviews are two things. The number of reviews, and whether the 10 most recently posted reviews are positive or negative.

For example, a gym may have had wonderful reviews two years ago, but then management changed and it's terrible now. When reading reviews, always sort by most recent first and go with that. It's usually correct.

What is the biggest complaint about bad gyms? Billing. As in people getting overcharged, being signed up for "services" they never signed up for, being forced to go to small claims court just to dispute a bill, and so on.

If you see the majority of complaints are about billing, don't go there.

Tip #2: Understand that most (if not all) cheap gyms have staff that work on commission

This is the reason why I didn't even get to the signup process at The Cheap Gym. The girl "trainer" was in total selling mode. Get people in, get their info (so they can sell your address to a mailing list of course!), sign them up for everything possible, milk them for all they're worth, move on to the next one. That's how all cheap gyms operate.

If one of these cheap gyms is the only thing you have near you and you have no other option, pay any and all membership fees on a prepaid card. Do NOT hand over your debit or credit card or checking account information no matter what. If you do, you're basically asking to be ripped off.

Could you pay in cash? That depends on which cheap gym you're talking about. Some will take cash. Others "require" that you have a "backup" means of paying the bill. If that's the sleazy way they operate, use prepaid. If the gym hits the limit of the card and tries to squeeze for more, they can't. That's your protection.

Tip #3: Know that $9.99 a month is never $9.99 a month

You cannot walk into a cheap gym that advertises a $9.99 per month membership, get one and expect it to stay that way. That's not going to happen, because there's either an activation fee, hidden annual fee, or sometimes both!

Many cheap gyms require an upfront activation fee of $120 or more on top of your monthly membership fee, which in effect doubles your yearly cost. Now that $9.99/mo just turned into $19.99/mo. Not such a good deal now, eh?

Really shady gyms will charge you an annual fee after a certain period of time. You'll be paying your monthly fee, and then whammo, there's a $40 to $75 (or more) additional charge out of nowhere. The cheap gym will claim your "promotional period" is over, and now you have to pay more.

Really, really shady gyms will do the switcheroo on your annual contract. What was a certain price has now changed, and of course it's more. They might even "lock in" the fee where there's nothing you can do about it except take them to court just to stop them from charging you.

Tip #4: Better gyms are very upfront with their pricing structure

When you get to this level, you're no longer in cheap gym territory, because you will be paying around $40 a month along with a $75 to $100 activation fee just to get in the door.

Worth it? If you want a place that doesn't hide what they charge or try to sneak in any new charges, yes it is.

Gyms that charge more usually aren't in the game of upselling. At worst, they may offer you personal training programs and/or classes sometimes, but at least they are not constantly up your butt about squeezing every dollar they can out of you.

No options left? These are places you can work out for cheap or free

The only reason anyone ever goes to a cheap gym is because it's cheap. If you absolutely have to go there, it's like I said, use a prepaid card or cash.

If the financial risk sounds too scary to use a cheap gym (and I wouldn't blame you), there are some cheap and free options.

Cheap: City-run recreation center or fitness center

This is the one I went with as stated above. In most American cities, the local government has a rec center that offers something for a good price. It usually will not be as modernized as paid gyms are. Exercise equipment may be well-used, but hey it all works.

What's the best thing about a rec center? No upselling. Nobody there works on commission. That's the biggest perk there is.

Cheap or free: Park

Find a park, and go have a walk or a run. Or do some pushups or whatever. Whether the park is free or not depends on how your local government operates it.

If you're lucky, your local park may have outdoor exercise equipment ready-to-use.

Free: Playgrounds

Have a jog or run here. Free to use.

Free: Big shopping mall

You've seen those mall walkers. There's a reason they're there. Walking a mall is free. Go have a walk, but don't run. Security will usually kick you out if you start doing that. If you want to go when the mall is safest, do what the old folks do and get there the second the doors open in the morning.

Free: High school track

This one depends if your local high school actually has a track and allows the public access to it. If your local school does offer this, go there and have a run.

Free (maybe): Work out at home

I label this as maybe-free because it depends what you want to get done in your workouts.

For walking and running, you'll most likely need the treadmill. Not free.

For literally everything else, you can use your own body weight which is totally free, or buy some low-cost kettle bells or dumbbells at Walmart or Target, and maybe a workout mat. DO NOT use those cheap yoga mats, those are awful. This half-inch thick mat is much better.

Will I be a regular gym goer?

I've been wanting to get in a gym for years and am now finally doing it. My first day there went well and I'm looking forward to more.

Most people who join gyms are known as "tryhards". They get a membership, go to the gym maybe 2 or 3 times, then never go again.

I don't want to be one of those people, and won't.

I was lucky enough to have a rec center near me that's nice to go to, got a membership there and intend to take full advantage of it.

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