Joining a gym can do serious damage to your wealth

Some simple calculations can stop you losing the wrong kind of pounds, says Jenne Mannion
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The Independent Online

Millions of optimists will be thinking of joining a gym now as part of their New Year resolution to lose weight, get fit and atone for the excesses of the festive season. However, unless you have the discipline to stay committed and maximise use of that membership, it will be your pocket rather than your physique that will be shedding the pounds.

Millions of optimists will be thinking of joining a gym now as part of their New Year resolution to lose weight, get fit and atone for the excesses of the festive season. However, unless you have the discipline to stay committed and maximise use of that membership, it will be your pocket rather than your physique that will be shedding the pounds.

January is the busiest time for new gym memberships, as people pledge to get fit following Christmas. Research from Sainsbury's Bank has revealed that 3.59 million people took out new gym memberships during the first two weeks of January 2004, and a further 4.28 million planned to do so in the following months.

But amid all these good intentions, few are able to sustain the momentum. Typically, many of us have a blitz in the first fortnight, attend once a week in February, and by Easter are rarely making an appearance on the treadmill. Meanwhile, the direct debits continue to be paid.

A reasonable gym in London, for example, generally costs in the region of £70 a month - that is if you want the white fluffy towels treatment - but you can pay anything from £30 to £100 per month.

Sainsbury's Bank calculated that an average annual gym membership fee in the UK is £372. This means new members who joined around the start of 2004 would have collectively spent £2.9 billion.

The research suggests that half a million people will waste some £200 million this year because they will not get full use from their gym membership. A further 815,000 members will only visit their fitness centres once or twice a month, making their workouts very expensive, the bank suggested. Mintel, the market analyst, has found that one in five members uses their gym less than once a month. For those who do attend regularly, using the sunbed is one of the most popular incentives.

Despite all this evidence, we remain a nation of optimists, and, year after year, the gyms manage to draw in crowds of new members. The health club has become part of our way of life; in 2001, the cost of gym membership was added to the Retail Price Index's basket of 650 of the most purchased household items as a measure of inflation.

Even if - a few months after all the good January intentions - you do concede that you've lost enthusiasm, cancelling a membership is not so easy, because you have taken out a contract. Many clubs require you to pay a hefty exit penalty - if you are allowed to cancel at all.

There is also the psychological factor involved; cancelling a gym membership is almost like admitting defeat. It can be much easier to keep promising yourself that you'll start up again... er, soon.

Mitch Hopkinson, an independent financial adviser at M2 Financial, based in Nottingham, says it's all very well to have a gym membership if you are using it to its fullest, but it is important to be realistic. Even if you pay £50 a month for a membership that you use only occasionally, you are almost certainly not getting your money's worth.

By cutting a £50-a-month unused gym membership, you could save yourself up to £600 per year. Obviously, there are even bigger savings to be made from avoiding memberships that you won't use at even more expensive gyms.

Many gyms will allow customers to pay per visit, as opposed to paying a monthly membership fee. If there is any risk that your enthusiasm could wane, consider this option instead.

You need to divide an annual membership by the number of visits that you will realistically make per year to see if this is the most financially viable option. The problem remains that when we look ahead, most of us are over-ambitious, promising that we will make full use of our memberships, then failing to do so.

Of course, the cost of the individual fee is important. If a visit costs £10 and you attend the gym five times a month, then you would manage to break even on a £50 monthly membership.

It's also a good idea, if possible, to take out a gym membership for a shorter period to see if you actually will maintain your commitment to attending. Although it is often more expensive, try to sign up for a month to see if you can maintain the self-discipline.

You also might want to think about other, less expensive ways to stay in shape. There are plenty of ways you can expend energy without the expenditure. Even those who might make good use of their gym memberships can maintain a high level of fitness and save some money in the meantime by finding alternatives.

Oddly, there are thousands of people who spend money on gym memberships and invest time on the treadmill at the gym, then stand on the escalator on the tube, or drive short distances when they could easily walk instead.

Alex Court, a fitness conditioning and sports science consultant at Tottenham Hotspur, says it is easy to incorporate exercise into your daily life. For instance, you can walk up the stairs at work rather than taking the lift, and get off the bus a stop before your home or your work and walk the remaining distance. For those who like to pursue more vigorous exercise, there are plenty of activities that are fun and do not require a gym membership, she says.

"It costs absolutely nothing to run around a park (though it's not so appealing in the depths of winter and there can be safety issues), cycle to work or do some sit-ups and push-ups in your home. Joining a running club in your local park is a good way to get fit and meet people, and it's certainly a lot cheaper than the gym.

"Even rollerblading in the summer is a good way to have fun and get fit at the same time. And with all these outdoor activities, it's nice to be out in the fresh air," Miss Court says.

Outdoor activity can even save you money in other areas. If you start jogging or cycling to work or to the shops, you could also save on car expenses and public transport fares.

Another alternative is to purchase a video or DVD workout that you can do at home. According to Amazon, the most popular workout DVDs include Hip Hop Workout (£12.79), Bodylicious - The Ultimate Dance Workout (£17.09) and Hotpants Workout (£15.19).

If you are adamant that you want to join a gym, there are ways to do so without paying the full price.

Looking for a second-hand gym membership is an option. Check eBay, for instance. Last week, the auction website was advertising a one-year gym membership to any Fitness First health club in the UK, with a reserve price of £130. The sale was an unwanted prize worth approximately £500, according to the site.

Generally, gyms that are run by local councils will be cheaper to use than their trendier counterparts. They may not offer the fluffy white towels and all the fancy trimmings, but most do offer a good service; and if you are serious about getting fit, that should be all that you need.

It's also worth investigating whether your company has arrangements with any local gyms, enabling you to get a discount. But even if you have an inexpensive membership, it's wasted money if you are not using it properly.

Mr Hopkinson says the money you could be saving by cancelling your gym membership will amount to even more if you put the cash to good financial use instead.

For instance, you could spend this money on a monthly commitment to fulfilling another common New Year resolution - paying off debts and saving money. He says: "Say, for example, that you divert the £50 a month for a gym membership that you are not using to overpaying your mortgage - the benefits of that will soon add up.

"And if you have any other debts such as credit cards, store cards or personal loans, you will be paying a higher interest rate, so directing extra funds toward this area will be even more beneficial."

Even if your debts are under control, a £50 per month saving is not to be sneezed at.

Most fund management groups will allow you to start a monthly saving plan, putting cash into an Isa, for as little as £50, or you could contribute to your pension, or put the money in a savings account that pays you interest.

"Most people, when they start their membership at a gym, undertake a health check, but keep this in the context of a wealth check," says Mr Hopkinson.

"It's important to do a financial workout at the start of the year, too."

'I save £500 a year without sacrificing my fitness'

Gareth Partington, of Ipswich, exercises at least five hours a week, but has not held a gym membership for several years. The lecturer at the Faculty of Health at Suffolk College jogs around Ipswich, cycles through the country lanes of Suffolk, and swims in the local pool, for which he pays a £3 entry fee each time he visits.

He says: "I've had gym memberships in the past, but have tended not to get my money's worth.

"I don't see the point of driving to the gym, just to run on the treadmill - you may as well start running from the moment you leave the house and get your exercise that way. I expect I'm probably saving £500-£600 per year by choosing not to join a gym without sacrificing my fitness."

Gareth concedes it may not be so appealing to run outdoors or cycle in the British winter weather, but he still aims to keep up his motivation. He does this by mapping out a series of events to train towards. These have ranged from local 10km charity running races to the UK Half Iron Man triathlon last August (3km swim, 80km cycle and 20km run).

And he doesn't avoid gyms altogether. "In the winter months I supplement outdoor training by swimming more frequently and with some gym work at various local gyms. I pay per visit, which costs less than £5 a time," he says.

Given the infrequency with which he attends the gym, paying these one-off fees a couple of times per month works out much less expensive than paying for a full membership.

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