photoJanuary is generally a busy month for health clubs since “lose weight” or “get in shape” tops many people’s lists of new resolutions.

While belonging to a gym can be convenient and fun, consumers should be aware of each individual facility’s rules and regulations before signing any paperwork.

Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray has issued a reminder to his state’s residents that could be helpful to any consumer considering a gym membership: read the fine print.

The right to quit

What’s the most important information to have before signing up? The club’s cancellation policy.

"The new year provides a popular opportunity to buy a gym membership, but it's also a busy time when consumers may be distracted and fail to read contracts carefully," said Cordray. "Months after signing a membership agreement, consumers sometimes discover extra fees, unauthorized charges or a strict cancellation policy."

People who have been through the registration process at a gym -- big or small -- can probably attest to the high stress situation that occurs when it comes time to sign the contract.

Whether they mean to or not, employees can talk fast, explain membership terms in a vague way, then discourage potential new members from really reading what they’re about the sign.

Before signing any gym contract, Cordray urges consumers to pay close attention to the following:

  1. Whether verbal agreements are included in the written contract
  2. Total costs, including sales tax or other fees
  3. Cancellation policies
  4. Length of the contract

 

The length of the contract is especially important to find out. Deeply discounted monthly rates advertised in commercials tend to be reserved only for members who sign multi-year or even “lifetime” contracts.

And sometimes, those contracts are difficult or impossible to get out of, even if the member fulfills the one-or-more year mandatory time or moves far from any of the club‘s facilities.

Gym problems

Kristi Currier of Lubbock, TX, told ConsumerAffairs.com despite moving over 30 miles from the nearest location and canceling her membership, Bally Total Fitness is still trying to get past dues from her.

“I sent a cancellation, in writing, when I moved because there are no Bally Total Fitness centers in Lubbock, Texas. Now a debt collection agency is contacting me to pay $787.50.”

Another reason to read the fine print before signing is to make sure your rights as a member will be kept intact on their premises.

Matt Lang of Los Angeles, CA, found out the details of his contact the hard way when he slipped and fell on a wet floor at a 24 Hour Fitness location, breaking his wrist and separating his shoulder.

He told ConsumerAffairs.com the club, “claims that in my contract, I waived liability in my membership contract for use of their facilities.”

“They also point out that the caution sign absolves them from liability. I would agree if the floor was wet because they had just mopped it, but the floors are wet 24/7. They have to be wet because the way they designed the place, it's impossible not to walk through water to get to your locker,” said Lang.

Consumer action

So what can consumers do to arm themselves with the information they need before signing on the dotted line?

The best thing to do first is ask around. Family, friends, coworkers -- just about everyone has had an experience with a gym at some point in their lives. Asking what they liked and didn’t like can help you make the best choice.

You may be able to find out the club’s cancellation policy on their website, although some digging is sometimes required to find it.

Some chains, like Bally’s, don’t lay out their cancellation policy on their main website, but rather urge members to call an 800 number as they claim the policies differ among locations. (That's another thing to keep in mind: one policy does not always fit all.)

Don’t be afraid to take your time during the sign up process. If you feel rushed or disrespected because you ask questions, want the rules explained again, or want to read the fine print on the contract before signing it, you can always take your business elsewhere.

Find out your rights. Ohio's Prepaid Entertainment Contracts Act gives consumers three business days to cancel contracts for dance studio lessons, dating services, martial arts training and health spa services -- including gym memberships.  See if your state has similar consumer protections.

Cover your bases. Even if the club says it only requires cancellation in writing, call their 800 number to cancel over the phone as well. Make sure you get the name of the representative you’re talking to.

Find out the exact cancellation date from a club representative and don’t forget it. Many clubs have new members pay “first and last month’s” dues, so it could take several weeks for the membership to be completely cancelled.

Then, keep an eye on your bank account in case the cancellation “didn’t take” and you get charged again. Fighting a current charge instead of a series of back-charges is an easier battle to win.