Posted by Elisabeth Leamy, Fri Jan 04 2008, 10:42PM

It's a new year and that means many Americans will resolve to get in shape and gym memberships will soar

It's a new year and that means many Americans will resolve to get in shape and gym memberships will soar. A great idea, but keep in mind that you join a gym to exercise your body, but if you want to quit, you may find it hard to exercise your rights. A brand new Better Business Bureau analysis found that consumer complaints about gyms are up more than 90% in the last 5 years.If you're hoping for buns of steel, then you'll probably be asked to sign an ironclad contract. Don't accuse gym managers of being dumb jocks. Their contracts are long, involved and full of legalese. If you sign one without reading it, you're the dummy. A contract's a contract. The BBB analysis found that 73% of customer complaints involved contract or billing disputes, including people who were upset that they were still being billed after they thought their contract was over.

One national chain holds customers to their contracts unless they are gravely ill, badly injured or move more than fifty miles from the nearest branch of the gym. Can you imagine driving fifty miles to work out? I have some exercise gear in my basement and I have a hard time summoning the will power to go use it!

Many gyms push three-year, five-year or lifetime memberships. Customers go for it, because the longer the contract, the cheaper the monthly rate. But is it really a savings if you are dissatisfied with the gym and never go? As with all future services contracts in which you make a long-term commitment and pay in advance, there are risks.
Some gyms have been known to sell memberships before they're open and then fail to open for months. Others have gone out of business, leaving prepaid members in the lurch. Once again, the BBB numbers are enlightening. A hefty 15% of complaints concerned gyms that went out of business soon after opening, leaving customers in the lurch who had paid expensive initiation fees.

Some states now require gyms to offer people the option of a brief introductory membership –typically 90 days. Unfortunately, when I investigated the health club industry, none of the gym salespeople informed my undercover producer about the introductory membership option. Plus, when we went to cancel the various memberships we'd signed up for, some of the gyms sicced collection agents on us.

1. Learn the law in the jurisdiction where you're thinking of joining a gym. Specifically, find out if gyms are required to offer a brief trial period before locking you into a long-term contract.
2. Check the gym's reputation by contacting the Better Business Bureau and your county and state consumer offices.
3. See if there's a good gym in your area that offers a month-to-month membership. Some gyms are starting to do this as a counter-marketing strategy. Typically you just have to give 30 days notice and you're free as a bird!
4. Ask for free guest passes and visit the gym you're considering during the hours that you would normally work out. Some gyms set no limits on membership, so check for overcrowding.
5. Find out what is and isn't included in the gym contract. Will you have to pay extra for specialty courses like yoga and pilates? Is your gym membership limited to certain hours?
6. Hold out. Gym salespeople have to make quotas. The longer you hem and haw, the more they'll drop the price or add incentives.
7. Read and understand the contract before signing. Take a copy home with you to study, if possible. Make sure all the salesperson's verbal promises are included in the written contract.
8. Sign a short-term contract first, to see if you like the gym, even if it costs more. Then, if you're satisfied, you can enter into a longer agreement.
9. Pay monthly or quarterly so if the gym closes, you won't lose too much money.
10. Many gyms charge customers' credit cards or checking accounts each month. Use caution. When your contract ends and you go to quit, you could have trouble canceling that automatic debit. Some customers resort to cutting up their cards or closing their checking accounts just to ditch their gyms!

This is a case for the Better Business Bureau and your county and state consumer protection offices. But remember, if you sign a long-term contract, you may have no recourse.