So you've resolved to do more exercise and maybe even shed a pound or two? Don't sign up for anything until you read our guide on where to work out - and what it will cost you. Kate Watson-Smyth reports

It's that time of year again. By now, you've probably broken the resolve you made never to drink alcohol/drink coffee/eat chocolate/eat hydrogenated fats/go to bed in full make-up... But you've at least promised yourself to get fit this year.

Gym membership has increased every year since the boom of the early 1980s when Jane Fonda exhorted us all to go for the burn. Last year more than 5 million people followed her advice - for a few weeks at least. Nearly £1.25bn a year is spent on the British gym industry, which is up 50 per cent in five years - and most of that is spent in the first few weeks of January when new memberships peak.

As a nation though, we need to get fit. In 1980, just 14 per cent of us were seriously overweight. Now more than 40 per cent of us are carrying extra pounds. However, it's no good joining the gym if you don't actually go. Surveys show that only 60 per cent of us are still paying the subscription by the end of the year, and one in five members will go once a month or less. So by joining a gym you are guaranteed to lose pounds - but they may not be the ones that make you slimmer.

This round-up of the biggest gym chains in the country and examines what you get for your money in a competitive and highly priced market. After all, if you make an informed choice about which gym to join, you should keep going for longer.

HOLMES PLACE

Slogan: One life. Live it well.

Number of branches: 46 in the UK, mainly in London and the Home Counties. There are four in the North West and one in Scotland.

Joining fee: This has been replaced with a choice of three starter packs, which offer health checks, nutrition advice, and information on fitness classes and health and beauty sessions. These cost between £39 and £129. Alternatively, there is a straight £29 joining fee, but this can vary from club to club and month to month.

Monthly subscription: Starts at £39 a month and goes up to £114.

What you get: Most clubs have ozone-treated pools, spa baths and women-only gyms. Classes include boxercise, pilates, bodypump and bodybalance. Many clubs have running clubs and social activities on a weekly or monthly basis and some offer free bathing towels (others charge, so check before you turn up without one). Some clubs offer 30-minute classes and many have childcare facilities, although the crèches may not be open all day and can get extremely busy. It's best to make sure that you book the crèche before the class.

Cost of personal trainer: £130 for three one-hour sessions.

Added extras: Holmes Place prides itself on its late opening hours (usually until 10.30pm), so there's no excuse for anyone who works late.

For more information visit www.holmesplace.co.uk

ESPORTA

Slogan: Join a club not a gym.

Number of branches: 52.

Joining fee: Between £30 and £990 (yes, really), depending on the club. This will include Ontrack - three one-hourly sessions, spread over a period of three months, that are used to make a detailed assessment of your eating habits, free time and exercise goals and then plan a realistic timetable of how to achieve your fitness goals.

Monthly subscription: Varies between £44 and £145.

What you get: All 52 branches have swimming pools. Classes tend to be of the more traditional variety rather than anything revolutionary brought in from California. But new to most clubs is Esporta Revolution - a core stability cycling lesson. The sessions centre on a row of bikes that are arranged in front of large screens showing wooded lanes, or sections of the Tour de France - and feature breeze machines mounted in front of the bikes so you can feel the wind rushing past as you pedal.

Cost of personal trainer: Between £30 and £70.

Added extras: Esporta likes to emphasise its club-class facilities and to that end, polite service is a promise and there are jugs of iced water and lemon dotted about all of its clubs. If you pay the £90 joining fee which is the charge at some clubs you will get a free kit bag that contains two towels, a water bottle and a T-shirt as well as the right to use some other Esporta clubs round the country. Every three months, anyone who has been to the gym at least 12 times over the period is entered into a prize draw, which features exotic options such as a week in St Lucia or a cruise.

www.esporta.com

LA FITNESS

Slogan: It's your life. We're here to help you make the most of it.

Number of branches: 65 in the UK, one in Ireland.

Monthly subscription: £36 to £49. The joining fee is £100 but it's usually dropped in promotions, so wait a month to see if it's been cancelled.

What you get: Lifestyle assessments, tailored programmes, classes (from yoga to group cycling), body conditioning, aqua aerobics and salsa. Pools (except at Aldgate and Birmingham Temple Row), saunas, steam rooms, tanning, weight management, crèches in 50 branches, and beauty salons.

Cost of personal trainer: Between £35 and £45. Male and female trainers are available at all clubs, with specialities including injury rehabilitation, weight management, flexibility and nutrition.

Added extras: Platinum and gold members can join the LA Journey - a tailored programme, with a bi-monthly review - for free (normally £75).

www.lafitness.co.uk

FITNESS FIRST

Slogan: Fitness first for every body

Number of branches: 166 in the UK, with more than 50 in and around London; 13 are Fitness First for Women.

Joining fee: None.

Monthly subscription: Ranges from £34 to £56. However, everyone is offered Get Results! for a one-off £65 fee. As part of the Get Results! package, the company offers all members four hours of one-to-one instruction with a fitness professional, group orientation, equipment induction, a personalised results booklet, five-point health check (blood pressure, resting heart rate, flexibility test, body fat percentage and lung capacity), a tailored health and fitness programme with six- and 12-week reviews, and access to Slimming World advisers, which will cost extra (prices vary from club to club, so ring and check).

What you get: There are no swimming pools, so if that's your thing then join another club. But there is a good range of other fitness classes, including group cycling - the most popular activity of 2005 - plus pilates and yoga, aerobics, body pump and body combat, and various forms of dance classes, including urban funk through to individual routines put together by the instructors. All clubs have personalised audio-visual entertainment, which means you can switch your headphones to whatever screen or music channel you want. Some clubs have tanning salons, saunas and steam rooms.

Cost of personal trainer: £50 to £60 an hour in England, and from £20 in Scotland.

Added extras: All except three clubs (which are named Fitness First Express and situated in Dundee, Stoke-on-Trent and Aintree) offer free refreshments such as tea, coffee and juice throughout the day and access to a DVD/video library with free overnight hire.

www.fitnessfirst.co.uk

CANNONS HEALTH CLUB

Slogan: So much more than just a gym

Number of branches: 52 nationwide with 13 in central and greater London

Joining fee: Joiners pay a one-off banking and admin fee of between £25 and £35, covering the cost of setting up direct debits, a joining pack and induction programme.

Monthly subscription:

Between £35 and £76 a month. Connections membership - £81 a month - allows access to all the clubs in the UK.

What you get: Most clubs have air-conditioned gyms, swimming pools, studio, sauna, steam room and bar café. Some have a crèche, shops and a health and beauty area known as Cannons Retreat. Classes are divided into four sections covering calorie burning, muscle toning, all-over body and re-energise and relax.

Cost of personal trainer: From £25 an hour for those who want one-on-one instruction, but Cannons fitness instructors will meet members every six weeks to assess progress.

Added extras: Free shampoo, shower gel and hair dryers. Some London clubs have tumble dryers and ironing boards. The city club timetable now offers 30-minute classes so that members still have time for lunch. Family membership (£90 to £115 a month) is also available at selected clubs, and there is a range of classes for children from age two upwards.

Cannons is the first club to offer Hi-5 sessions, based on the television show.

www.cannons.co.uk

VIRGIN ACTIVE

Slogan: Fitness for anyone with every body.

Number of branches: 25 in the UK but rapid expansion is ongoing.

Joining fee: £20 to £50.

Monthly subscription: Between £37 to £75, which includes tennis facilities at the company's largest club in Acton, west London.

What you get: All have pools and crèches. Most have good spa facilities and all offer the usual range of classes as well as kinesis and gravity sessions. Both newly imported from the US, kinesis is a system of pulleys attached to the wall that allows you to do a range of movements to build strength in different parts of the body. Gravity classes use machines that are not dissimilar to pilates reformer equipment on which you can do various stretches.

Cost of personal trainer: Virgin Active is keen to promote the use of the PT and to that end, there are various packages on offer. You can have a 30-minute one-to-one session for £16, you can pay £30 for an hour and take as many or as few people along to share the cost or you can buy 12 one-hour sessions for £270.

Added extras: Virgin offers family membership - between £9 and £12 for the under 15s and has a range of classes to suit the younger members. There are also special rates for the over 55s. The Diamond package guarantees the same price for life and comes with a club card that will get you discounts on Virgin flights and records. Finally, for £29, you can do Body Gem. This is a personal diet and fitness programme designed to your specific weight loss and training requirements. During one 30-minute session, a trainer will assess your BMI and suggest the best way to bring it down, if necessary, as well as finding out how you like to exercise and building a programme around that.

www.virginactive.co.uk

DAVID LLOYD

Slogan: Feel the difference

Number of branches: 57 in the UK.

Joining fee: Varies from club to club, but is typically between £50 and £100.

Monthly subscription: Between £50 and £60; more if you use the racquets facilities.

What you get: This is the club for sports fans. Its UK facilities house more than 500 tennis, 100 badminton and 85 squash courts. There are health and beauty spas, crèches and, of course, specialist sports-kit shops. There's a wide range of the classes you'd expect at a health club. Many centres also have outdoor swimming pools.

Cost of personal trainer: From £35 an hour.

Added extras: Club lounges with free internet access. Apart from that, very few extras unless you pay for them; these include martial-arts lessons. For the past three years, David Lloyd has been voted the most "parent-friendly health complex" in a public vote run by Tommy's, the baby charity. The club has about 50,000 members over the age of 50.

www.davidlloydleisure.co.uk

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