It's no secret that health clubs sign up many new members this time of year, when people make New Year resolutions to lose weight and get into shape. But as complaints to repeatedly reveal, consumers need to exercise extreme care when considering a place to exercise.

Complaints to over the years have told a story of consumers being misled by fast-talking sales agents, of forged contracts, and unauthorized bank account withdrawals.

Before even going to visit a gym, it's a good idea to do your homework. In North Carolina, Attorney General Roy Cooper has researched the subject closely after grappling with a problem health club chain last year.

"My office hears from hundreds of consumers every year who are unhappy with their health club or see it shut down unexpectedly," Cooper said. "Hundreds of consumers contacted my office after several Peak Fitness clubs closed their doors. State law requires that most health clubs maintain a bond, so my office is helping many of those consumers get some money back."

Peak Fitness is a North Carolina chain that encountered economic turbulence in 2009 and had to close facilities. But that didn't stop the cash-starved company from selling memberships.

Facing a lawsuit by Cooper, Peak Fitness agreed in June to stop selling prepaid gym memberships in North Carolina until the company could secure bonds for each health club. Cooper filed suit, obtaining a consent judgment.

Health clubs are high-overhead businesses and therefore, the pressure to sell memberships is intense. Walking into a health club these days is very much like walking onto a car dealer's lot; you should prepare yourself for a high-pressure pitch. If you can withstand the pressure, here are a few tips for a more successful search:

Compare facilities and prices at several health clubs.

Shop around for the best value, which may or may not be the least expensive club. For example, some clubs with low monthly fees require long membership periods. Know what you can afford to pay and stick to your budget no matter what incentives the sales agent offers. Don't be afraid to bargain. Verbal promises from the staff are meaningless. If it's not written into a contract, it will not be honored.

Take a tour and check out the staff

Tour at the time of day you're most likely to exercise to make certain the equipment you want to use will be available when you need it. Make sure the club is clean and well maintained, and look for friendly and knowledgeable staff with the appropriate educational background and certifications. Some facilities have a staff member trained in Pulmonary Resuscitation on-site at all times, and some offer child care facilities. Make sure that the club you choose has the right combination of location, facilities and resources to meet your needs. If anything about any of the staff turns you off, better cross that place off your list.

Take a test drive

Ask if the health club allows free trial visits so that you can see if the facility is a good fit for you. Working out at the club will also give you the chance to ask current members about the facility. However, as with any "free trials," danger abounds. has received many complaints from consumers who thought they were getting a free trial, only to find they were signed up for a one-year membership. If the club asks for a credit card for a free trial, this is a very bad sign. Ask them why they need it. If they say it is for a deposit, ask them how much is the deposit and offer to write a check. If you give them your credit card, they can place charges against it and you will be left trying to dispute them. Also, beware of signing up with a club that hasn't opened its doors, no matter how good the offer sounds.

Pay attention to your contract

Don't take any hasty action. Take the contract home and read it carefully before you sign. Make sure you understand the cancellation policy, the services included, and the total cost. Stay away from clubs that pressure you to sign on the spot. Be certain that everything you've been promised is included in the final written version of your contract. If you sign up, do not leave the club without a copy of your signed contract. Consider a short-term contract rather than a two or three year contract so you don't get stuck with a membership you don't use. Under some state laws, a health club contract cannot be longer than three years.


Remember your right to cancel

In many states, you can cancel your contract within three days of signing it. Find out what the law is in your state. Most clubs require you to cancel in writing, so pay particular attention to the part of the contract that spells out how you must tell the club if you decide to cancel.


Watch out for automatic renewals

Before you sign, ask if your contract really expires after a certain period of time or if it allows the club to renew it unless you specifically ask them not to. Some consumers have complained about contracts that are automatically renewed, or that require the consumer to take time-consuming steps to keep it from being renewed.


If your health club expires before your membership does

If your health club closes, contact your state attorney general. Over the past few years, Cooper says his office has been able to recover more than one million dollars for hundreds of North Carolinians who were members of health clubs, gyms or dating clubs that shut their doors.


Finally, use's extensive database of complaints to learn what other consumers have experienced in dealing with health clubs.