To run or not to run: are gym memberships worth the hassle?

11 February 2010
Image

Once upon a time in a suburban land far, far away was a place called Northwood Hills and in it was a squash club. It had more courts than I have fingers on my hands, a friendly atmosphere and an annual membership that cost something in the region of £150–200. 

Admittedly it was a little scrappy around the edges but, like a well–loved cuddly toy, it didn’t matter.

Roll on a few years though and it finally succumbed to the inevitable and became part of a chain, in this case LA Fitness. At first the differences weren’t that noticeable but gradually the place lost its health club sheen.

At least I was on a good deal; because my mum was a member of the club for so long LA Fitness offered her a free membership for a member of her family. That meant we could just share the one £70 membership cost between the two of us.

However, at the start of this year my mum looked at her bank statement and noticed that LA Fitness had debited £121.75 for the last two months. Neither of us had received any details saying that our 2–4–1 offer had expired. Nor had we seen anything at the gym that suggested there had been price increases.

On asking at reception we learnt that apparently a letter had been posted out in September informing all members that there would be membership fee increases to cover the £500,000 refurbishment and “major operating costs”.

The letter also stated that if we didn’t get in touch then LA Fitness would simply assume that we were happy with the increases. That’s pretty hard to do when you don’t receive anything – though a smart move on itd part, requiring minimum follow–up and admin costs.

There were two main things that bothered me about this: firstly when we went through the payment options the tariffs that we were offered didn’t match up with the £121.75 that had been deducted for the last two months. The first of the “loyalty options” was a 24–month contract with a £46.75 monthly fee, adding up to £93.50 for two people.

The one–year contract would cost us £49.50 each or £99 in total a month, and the final option was to stick with the rolling contract but pay £52.25 each a month, adding up to £104.50.

So where did the £121.75 figure come from? Given the ‘computer says no’ attitude of the staff, I’d guess thin air, as they failed to come up with any explanation.

The second thing is (although I appreciate it’s standard practice) it’s frustrating that in order to get a good deal you have to opt for such a long contract. And how is it that gyms can just up monthly fees seemingly as soon as they paint a wall or fix a broken locker? Even the cheap £70 rate for the two of us has crept up to £76.95.

So much for us being regarded as “loyal and valued” members. The club has at least promised to reimburse my mum but only the difference between the new membership prices and what was taken out of the account. Surely the fact that we didn’t receive a letter means we shouldn’t be charged the new fees, as had we received notification back in October we would have cancelled our memberships.

I now have to work out if I can get by without a gym membership and still eat my desired amount of chocolate and cakes or if I’m going to have to take up running (shudder) instead. The only time I run is for the bus or train – certainly not out of choice but if it saves me at least £627 a year, perhaps I’ll finally get over my jogging aversion.

In the meantime here are some of the tactics I’ll be employing over the next couple of months:

Haggle: it seems like everyone pays a different tariff. My teacher friend gets a discount because of her job but you can also whittle down costs if you’re joining with a friend or perhaps simply because you’re not prepared to pay as much as the gym is asking.

No joining fee: does anyone pay these anymore? If your prospective club demands one, just tell them the club round the corner is willing to waive theirs and see what happens.

Gym–surf: I’ve just finished a free five–day trial at Fitness First. You can get one–day passes at its website fitnessfirst.co.uk but just pop in to your nearest Fitness First and see if you can get something for a bit longer. You can also get one day passes for Virgin Active gyms and LA Fitness at their websites (virginactive.co.uk and lafitness.co.uk) or a three–day pass for the latter from gym–membership.co.uk.

Clubcard points: Tesco clubcard holders can use their points towards the cost of their LA Fitness gym membership. Converted into reward vouchers, the points quadruple in value; however, current members can only use the vouchers towards gym costs once their existing contractual period has ended.