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Working out the best place to get in shape

So you are unfit. Watching the cream of the world's sportsmen and women this summer at Wembley and Wimbledon has finally made you realise.

And with television likely to beam more than one bronzed, muscle-rippling Adonis into your living-room every day when the Olympics start next week, maybe, finally, it is time to get up off the sofa, fulfil that New Year's resolution and join a gym.

But where do you start? What should you insist on from a gym before parting with the often considerable monthly membership fee? And does it have to be a private club? It is important to be just as picky as if you were choosing a new suit, after all the gym needs to be comfortable.

"Shop around, definitely," says Annette Burgess, of the Exercise Association, the governing body for fitness and exercise instructors in England. "You do not have to pay vast sums of money to go to a good gym. There are some dodgy places out there but also an increasing number of very good gyms and most are aware of all the health and safety requirements."

Choices range from council-run gyms and clubs in the high street to expensive private establishments at the top end. Burgess lists several key points to look for as you try out the alternatives. "You should expect to receive a fitness assessment, so the club can decide what your needs are, and full instruction about the machines and the correct technique and posture to use.

"Qualification of instructors is a difficult area, but I would have thought something from the British Amateur Weightlifting Association was an absolute minimum." Equally important are proper ventilation and heating, an unobstructed floor space and well-maintained machines.

The British are often reticent about their personal health, but it seems we are demanding higher standards now and that means there are more and better gyms to choose from. "Some of the sports centres over here look like they have the archaic equipment left over from the US," says Peter Bissell, an American from the leisure company Holmes Place which runs Camden council's sports centres.

"But it is changing now. People are becoming better educated and they know gyms are not just for the superfit or bums who have nothing else to do. People are expecting more from gyms now and they are starting to come into the 21st century."

Exercise Association 0171-278 0811; Fitness Wales 01222 520130; Fitness Scotland 0131-317 7243; Fitness Northern Ireland 01232 651103. British Amateur Weightlifting Association 01865 200339.