Gym memberships: What to watch for before signing a contract

The Better Business Bureau is advising people in a push to meet their New Years resolutions to think carefully before signing up for a gym membership.

'They know they can sign up people that aren't going to show'

(iStock/Getty Images)

The Better Business Bureau is advising people who may be rushing to start their New Year's resolutions to think carefully before signing up for a gym membership.

Fitness goals and a renewed dedication to a life of healthy living are among the most popular New Year's initiatives, but that new-found motivation to hit the gym can lead people to hastily sign contracts without thinking it through.

"People after the holidays have some money in their pocket," said Patrick McKeen, president, CEO Central Ontario Better Business Bureau. 

"They want to make a commitment, they want to make a tangible step towards their goals, and so they go out and make a quick decision and frequently they don't think about all the things that may be important," McKeen told The Morning Edition host Craig Norris.

Up to 70 per cent of new memberships in January

"New Year's is a time that inspires Canadians to set or revitalize their health and fitness goals, so our clubs from St. John's Newfoundland to Victoria B.C. see a positive increase in members getting started," GoodLife Fitness Divisional Manager Judie Friesen said to CBC-KW by email. 

For some gyms the winter sign-up rate for new members is modest. GoodLife said it sees 10 per cent of its new members join in January. The Better Business Bureau said overall, gym activity is up 50 per cent in January from December. 

For World Gym in Kitchener, the wave of "January joiners" is up to 70 per cent, said club manager Andrew Kennery.

"We'll have the New Year's resolutioners from this year, and then we'll have some from last year coming back again... people that have had their membership, maybe not used it as much as they intended from say March til now, and re-starting back up again."

Gyms know people often bite off more than they can chew, said McKeen. "They're running a business, they're looking for a long term commitment."

"The amount of equipment that they have, relative to the number of memberships they sign, they know they can sign up people that aren't going to show. There is a bit of that in that business."

Contract: what to look for and avoid

McKeen said every January his group sees a spike in complaints about gym memberships. 

"Things like hidden fees, automatic renewal and details that were on the contract but people didn't read... promises that maybe they heard the salesperson give, or they think they heard the salesperson give, that didn't turn out to be in the contract."

So before signing on the dotted line, the Better Business Bureau has these tips how to avoid buyers remorse:

  • Make sure you  check with your doctor before starting a fitness regime before making any long-term gym commitments.
  • Make sure the gym is in line with your goals and has the equipment and services you want and need.
  • Get recommendations from people you trust: friends, family and coworkers.
  • Walk away from high pressure sales tactics "Sales should be a service thing, they should be serving people," said McKenna. "They shouldn't be in a position where they feel pushed to make a decision."
  • Ask about free trials. Gyms often give a multi-day free passes to recruit potential new members. 
  • Do the math. Calculate the true costs. "Make sure you understand what the regular monthly fees will be and what they include," says the BBB's website. "Gyms often use special introductory offers to encourage new members, but the price could go up more than you budgeted once the initial period is over. "
  • Check for reviews. "We've got 15,000 listings of health facilities on our, so there's a fantastic resource for people to go to get some reviews."
  • In Ontario, there is a 10 day cooling off period for contracts of this type, when you can cancel and get your money back.

But, warns McKenna, some gyms require an annual contract, and once that 10 day cooling off period is up "there's nothing really the Better Business Bureau or anyone can do."

"You made the commitment."


Jackie Sharkey is a producer for CBC News in Kitchener-Waterloo and an occasional guest host. She has been been based in Kitchener, Ont., since the station was created in 2013, after working for CBC in Kelowna, B.C., Quebec City and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.