This is the time of year when many of us notice that our waistlines are expanding, but our energy level is declining. It's the time of year when we resolve to do something about it. Health-club memberships tend to spike in January.
There's no shortage of advice on how to choose. A Google search for "How to choose a health club" produced 54 million results. Experts say it's most important to consider:
• Location: Can you get to the club quickly and easily from your home or office? If you can't, the odds are that, by March, you won't be going there much.
If you don't have a friend to work out with you and you have the resources to do so, consider hiring a personal trainer. In addition to designing a workout program to meet specific goals, he or she will prod you to keep to your workout schedule.
• Cost: Your health-club membership shouldn't strain your budget. But if the cost is high enough for you to be aware of it each month, you might work out more often.
• Cleanliness: You're joining a health club to get healthier, not to get sick. The maintenance of the exercise area and locker rooms provides clues to other important considerations.
• Staff: Is the staff friendly? Helpful? Knowledgeable? How important the staff's knowledge is depends on your fitness goals and how you plan to achieve them. Not much knowledge is required to show you how to use exercise equipment properly. More is needed to teach an exercise class, much more to be a personal trainer.
You don't have to hire a personal trainer to get a workout plan tailored to your specific needs and desires. Visit the American Council on Exercise website, acefitness.org. Click on "Fitness for Me." Input your age, gender and goals. ACE will offer several plans to meet them.
• Types of exercise: Your workout plan should cover your entire body, and it should include a mix of strength, cardiovascular and flexibility exercises, ACE recommends. Some forms of each of these types of exercise produce better results, and faster, than others. But the only exercises that produce any results at all are the ones you actually do. The most important consideration in devising an exercise program is to do things you like to do because those are the ones most of us will do consistently.
• Club hours: Will the club be open at the times of day you want to work out? Will the classes you want to take be offered at those times? Visit the clubs you're considering during those hours. How crowded are they then? A club may have all the equipment you want, but that won't do you much good if you have to wait a long time to use it.
If you're just beginning a workout program, you may not know what kind of exercise you like best. If so, a larger club with broader offerings may be most appropriate. Try different things until you find what you'll stick with.
• Extras: Amenities are another consideration. The tonier clubs offer steam baths, saunas, massages and health-food restaurants in addition to exercise opportunities. There's nothing frivolous about being attracted by them. If your health club is a great place to hang out, and/or to meet fit guys or gals, you'll spend more time there. Just be sure to spend some of it actually working out!
• Smart shopping: Try before you buy. All the good clubs will let you work out a time or two before asking you for a commitment. Make sure you do your trial workouts at the time you plan to use the club on a regular basis.
Remember that you don't have to join a health club to exercise regularly. Walking is still the most highly recommended form of cardiovascular exercise for older Americans. But you have to exercise regularly to maintain good health.