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7 Steps to Happiness at Your Health Club

As our packed closets and garages show, we buy a lot of things we don't use. A health club membership shouldn't be one of them. Your well-being could hinge on how often you use it -- something you can't say for that had-to-buy plaid jacket.

Yet a lot of us use our club memberships less than we could. According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), less than half of the 39.4 million Americans who belong to a club use it at least 100 days a year.

Before joining a health club, shop around. Universities and recreation divisions of local governments sometimes have health clubs that may be less expensive than private clubs. Choose two or three that you want to investigate, then take these seven steps before you sign up.

Step 1: Ask for a deal

Clubs often run specials, from waiving membership fees to lowering monthly dues. If the salesperson tells you none is available, make an offer. For example, what if you signed up with a friend or relative?

The best time to find a deal is in the summer, when clubs compete with outdoor activities. The worst time? January, when New Year's resolutions fill clubs.

Don't give in to pressure tactics. Take a day or two to weigh your options. If you aren't sure about a long-term commitment, ask about month-to-month memberships. And make sure the salesperson explains the contract, including the steps needed to cancel it.

Step 2: Inspect the facilities

A health club should give you a safe, pleasant environment. Dirty facilities with worn equipment fail on both counts. Ask how often the club gets new machines. Most larger clubs bring in new equipment once a year.

Are antiseptic wipes on hand to clean the equipment after use? Do the machines look new or worn?

Step 3: Check staff qualifications

If you have a pre-existing health condition, are just beginning to exercise, plan to take a class, or want to work with a personal trainer, this is a must. But even if you just plan to do your tried-and-true solo workout, wouldn't it be nice to know that the club has a trained nutritionist or dietitian?

All personal trainers and class instructors should have a college degree in exercise physiology, kinesiology or exercise science, or be certified by a reputable, established group. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and American Council on Exercise (ACE) are examples.

Ask if the club has a staff member trained in CPR on duty at all times. That could be a lifesaver.

Step 4: Visit at the right time

Drop by whenever you plan to work out the most. In a 2004 survey, ACE asked people: "What keeps you from going to the gym?" Nearly half cited overcrowding. See for yourself how bustling the gym looks when you're most likely to work out.

Another indicator of the gym's level of activity: the expected wait time to use a machine during peak hours. Ask if the club uses sign-up sheets for equipment. If so, how long is the average wait?

Step 5: Ask for a guest pass

There's no substitute for experience. Working out at a club will let you know if you really like the place or were simply swayed by the sales pitch. Every club should provide a one-time visit free, and a few will let you work out for up to a week.

Step 6: Learn all you can

One example: If you would like a friend to join you occasionally, what's the guest policy at the club? Some may charge a nominal fee; others may make guests pay $20 for the privilege. What about makeup classes? Does the club request ideas or suggestions for improvements?

Step 7: Look inside yourself

Finally, remember that no matter what your health club provides, you still have to provide the motivation. Take a good, long, hard look at yourself. You have to consider your lifestyle and your schedule, and know what works for you.