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Here’s what to look for when you join a gym. Getty Images
  • Gyms can use strict contracts to keep you on the hook for the whole year.
  • Experts say it’s key to always read the fine print.
  • If you want to cancel your gym membership, it may be difficult and take more than a simple phone call.

Did you make a New Year’s resolution to get in shape? You’re not alone.

Exercising more often is one of the top things people plan to do this time of year, along with similar resolutions like lose weight and improve health.

Signing up for a gym membership is often the first step people take in pursuit of their fitness goals.

But what you might not realize is that gyms have sneaky ways of locking you into a contract that lasts a lot longer than your New Year’s resolution, ultimately forcing you to keep paying for a membership that no longer works for you.

Here are some red flags to watch out for when signing a new gym membership, as well as some alternative ways to get in shape without a long-term contract.

January is a hot time of year for gyms to boost memberships, and many try to woo potential customers with special promotions like one month free or waived sign-up fees. However, that deal can come with fine print that locks you into a legally-binding contract for a year or longer.

“Ever try to get out of a cell phone contract? Your gym membership is the same thing,” said attorney Robert Herbst, a world champion powerlifter, personal trainer, and former general counsel at a large chain of gyms.

The only way to know exactly what you’re getting into is to carefully read through each line of the contract, which may be pages long.

That’s easier said than done when you’re under the pressure of a pushy salesperson waiting for your signature.

“A salesperson is supposed to behave in a way that’s legal, not lie or misrepresent the contract. With that said, they’re salespeople and they slant things,” said Herbst.

Fortunately most states have a “cooling off period” in which customers with buyer’s remorse can cancel a contract within a couple of days of signing, he said. If you miss that window, though, it often becomes a lot harder to get out of the agreement before the end of the term.

“If your membership is for 12 months, and you want to leave after 6 months, then legally you’re stuck paying for another 6 months, just like if you had a cell phone contract,” he said.

States do give gym members the right to cancel their contract for certain approved reasons.

These laws vary by state, but typically allow a member to end the contract early if they move farther than 25 miles away from the fitness center and the company operates no other facility near their new home.

What if you get sick or injured and can’t work out for a period of time? While that might seem like a legitimate reason to cancel, medical issues aren’t always a contractually valid excuse to end your membership.

“If you pull your hamstring, you might be able to freeze your membership. A lot of gyms have freeze fees, though, so you have to look out for that,” said Herbst.

Another sneaky way gyms lock members in to long-term contracts is by creating a confusing, multi-step process to request a cancellation — even if a member is backing out of the agreement for a permitted reason.

“A lot of times you can’t just go into the branch where you’ve been working out and tell the manager. You may have to give 30 days’ notice and send a fax or certified letter to a P.O. box,” said Herbst.

And if you think you can just go around the policy by changing your credit card number to stop recurring payments, think again. The gym could sue you in small claims court for breach of contract or turn the debt over to a collections agency, which could hurt your credit score, warned Herbst.

Despite the strict provisions, long-term gym contracts aren’t all bad. Agreeing to pay for a monthly membership might be the motivation you need to stick to your fitness goals for 2020.

But if you’re not down with a yearlong commitment to your local fitness center, there are some other ways you can still get in shape without an extensive obligation, said Patricia Friberg, a personal trainer who teaches fitness classes in southern California.

“There are studios where you can pay per fitness class, or buy a package of classes,” she said. “Just make sure you use them before they expire.”

You could drop in to a yoga studio that offers classes by donation, or pool funds with your friends to hire a trainer for a personalized group workout in a nearby park, added Friberg.

A number of digital fitness solutions — like apps and streaming videos — have popped up in recent years to give people a way to exercise at home, she said. You may have to subscribe to the service, but these memberships tend to be more flexible than a gym contract.

Some fitness professionals, including Friberg, also offer fitness classes you can download for a one-time fee and watch as many times as you’d like.

“For those who are really struggling financially and can’t afford any of these options, you can simply grab a friend and go for a walk or jog. You can also go through YouTube and find different exercises and workouts for free,” she added.