Personal finance: Burn off fat, not money

Keeping fit can come at a price, so shop around for a gym, says Paul Dinsdale
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The Independent Online
HEALTH and fitness is big business. Around 2 million people are members of gyms and clubs, and this booming industry is worth around pounds 1bn a year.

The choice is bewildering, but the quality of facilities available tends to be reflected in the joining fees and subscriptions. If you made a new year's resolution to join a club, but are still looking, your first step is to decide what you want from it: fitness or a social life. You'll pay over the odds for a club with a fancy reputation.

"Our research shows that customers are becoming more sophisticated," says Chris Butcher, at Mintel, the market research firm. "People want a full range of facilities in one club and the more fashionable ones can charge a premium. Around 17 per cent of the adult population are members of clubs, and the core market is the 25 to 35 age group. However, many clubs are increasingly targeting the over 50s as they are perceived as having more money and time on their hands.

"When we asked people if they intended to join a club, only 6 per cent of those questioned in London said they were, compared with 14 per cent in the north-west. This is probably because the market is nearing saturation point in the capital. The average club now has around 900 members and the average subscription is around pounds 393 a year."

The costs of joining a health club can vary substantially across the country. Even clubs owned by the same chain can charge surprisingly different fees depending on the area they're in (see box).

If you are looking for a basic gym, look first at local authority leisure centres. Many are run under franchise by big fitness chains (such as Holmes Place or Courtneys). These clubs are relatively cheap, and most will allow you to "pay as you go". This is a good bet if you aren't sure how long your January resolve will hold out. When you shop around for a luxury club, first check on the location. However good your intentions, you are unlikely to bother trekking miles out of your way after a long day at work. Pick somewhere on your direct route home or close to your house.

You may find it hard to get an idea of the membership costs over the phone. For example, I found it impossible to get any information from the Holmes Place chain. At every club I phoned, staff insisted that they would only give details of costs face-to-face. They stressed the need to "get a feel" for the centre - but one can't help thinking that this is to allow the full sales pitch to happen face-to-face.

When I turned up at the Putney club, I was introduced to the manager, who then interrogated me about why I wanted to join; it felt like a vetting procedure.

If you can put up with this pushiness, the facilities are certainly up- market, with potted palms, a cappuccino bar and soothing classical music (see box for charges).

Clubs have different tariffs and in a saturated market you may even be able to negotiate a reduction or ask the club to waive the joining fee. Wait a few weeks - this is still the peak time of year for new members. Come February, things may not be quite so rosy.

And if you can be flexible about when you work out, most centres will give you a big discount for off-peak membership.

getting good value from a gym

Check what your local council gym can offer. Many are under private management and have improved their facilities. There are residents' discounts and you can "pay as you go" - cheaper if you only use the centre occasionally.

Be realistic about your gym usage. Two or three visits a week is a good average - is that worth pounds 40 a month?

Are classes included in the fees? Some places charge extra.

Pay monthly if you are uncertain about a new club's finances. If the economy slows down, some clubs may fail.

how much do they cost?

Cheaper:

Courtney's clubs do not charge a joining fee. In London, the Ultimate Plus membership costs pounds 33 a month or pounds 380 a year. Outside London it's cheaper: the York club charges pounds 335 a year.

Luxury:

Holmes Place charges a pounds 195 joining fee. Annual membership is pounds 590, or pounds 55 a month. Joint membership is pounds 150 each and payments of pounds 49 per month each. Off peak, the joining fee is pounds 125, with a subscription paid in full of pounds 440 or pounds 39 monthly.

David Lloyd has 34 centres. In Raynes Park, south London, there is a pounds 295 joining fee and a monthly subscription of pounds 68, or pounds 816 a year. If you only use the gym and pool, the joining fee is pounds 250 and you pay pounds 54 a month. At the new Teesside centre, the joining fee will be pounds 230 and the subscription pounds 58 a month.

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