Gyms Exposed: The Secrets Fitness Centers Don't Want You to Know

By Michael KasianLast Updated Apr 18, 2020 9:28:15 PM ET
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These days, Americans are more conscious of their health and are working out more than ever before. In 2018, almost 54% of Americans met the U.S. government’s aerobic exercise recommendation. With new fitness crazes popping up every few months, it’s no surprise that America is starting to focus on fitness on a much larger scale.

Of course, every new trend comes with a lot of money-making schemes to capitalize on the quest for improved health. Don't believe it? Check out these secrets big-box gyms and fitness centers don't want you to know before heading out for your next workout.

Cardio Equipment Is in the Windows on Purpose

If you walk past a gym on the sidewalk, chances are you'll see some treadmills or ellipticals in the windows. Big-box gyms put cardio equipment in the windows instead of weightlifting machines and other devices for a reason.

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To successfully attract newcomers, gyms know they can't intimidate people as soon as they approach. Running on a treadmill looks far less intense than lifting heavy weights, so that's why treadmills are featured in windows. Additionally, treadmills are recognizable and used more by gym-goers, so giving them the window treatment makes the most sense.

Don’t Automatically Pay the Initiation Fee

If you're going to sign up for a gym membership, be sure to negotiate the terms. Gyms are always looking to sign up new members, and they are more than willing to cut deals. The initiation fee is one of the easiest fees to negotiate.

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Gyms would much rather have you pay an annual fee instead of a one-time fee at signup, so try to talk it down. If they're unwilling to cut the fee entirely, see if they can offer a free month or other freebies instead.

Get a Membership in the Summer, Not the Winter

Almost everyone wants to start a new year with a commitment to focus on health and wellness. Gyms are well aware of that. As a result, membership rates are often much higher in the winter than in other seasons.

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Keep the summer in mind when you sign up for a new gym membership. Enrollments are far fewer in the summertime, and employees will do almost anything to sign up new members. That could include offering discounted rates you could never get around New Year's Day.

It’s Often Cheaper to Pay as You Go

While we're on the subject of negotiating, think about how you want to make payments. Gym membership fees are often paid yearly or monthly, but if you can, try to pay by the visit. If you can work that out, it could save you hundreds of dollars a year.

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Let's be real, it's very unlikely that anyone is going to the gym 365 days a year. If you can work out a deal where you pay for each visit, you could cut your gym payments way down.

Big-Box Gym Brands Are on the Outs

In the last decade, boutique studios have popped up and taken the fitness world by storm. Classes like SoulCycle, Barry's Bootcamp and Orange Theory are posing a major threat to the success of big-box gyms.

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With each new boutique studio craze, people are dropping their gym memberships in huge numbers. This mass exodus poses a major threat to big-box gyms, especially since 40% of gym members ditch their memberships each year. These numbers are more threatening than ever before to the big brands, making their next chapters very questionable.

Check That Cancellation Policy

Gyms are notorious for making it difficult to cancel your membership. Leaving a gym can be almost as difficult as using some of the equipment correctly. In short, they load their contracts with fine print that requires you to jump through a dozen hoops before ending your membership.

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Some gyms will only let you out of your contract if you cancel in person, which then becomes an in-person interrogation. Other gyms claim there is a "waiting list" to get your gym membership canceled because they are backlogged with requests. Not exactly a great selling point, but it stalls your cancellation.

You May Continue Getting Billed After Quitting

It's almost expected that you'll continue to see charges on your credit card after you've left the gym. With some cancellation policies, you could end up getting charged for the rest of the year or until you move to another zip code.

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That fine print is small for a reason. Before you sign up for a gym membership, make sure you know everything about the billing procedures AND the cancellation policy. They are way more intertwined than you may expect.

Employees Are Watching You

If you're trying to keep to yourself at the gym, keep in mind that you're still under surveillance by the staff. Employees keep their eyes on patrons to make sure they're using equipment right, but that's not the only reason.

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The staff also tries to make sure it's a safe space for everyone. The gym often sees a lot of cruising between patrons, and employees want to make sure no one is being inappropriate to other patrons. It happens way more than you may think.

Gyms Have Bad Air Quality

Those big air vents in gyms may look like they provide great airflow, but it's quite the opposite. In general, gyms display high levels of airborne dust, carbon dioxide and formaldehyde. The concentrations of these substances exceed the standard for indoor air quality.

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Formaldehyde can contribute to asthma and other breathing issues, and breathing it in is never a good idea. If you think about the kinds of rigorous physical activities you do at the gym that lead to a lot of deep breathing, this should be very concerning.

Avoid Food and Beverage Options in the Gym

After a tough workout, it's natural to crave something to eat. Gyms are aware of this and offer juices and smoothies to help maximize your workout's impact. Too bad sugary drinks and smoothies are not recommended after a challenging workout routine.

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Your digestive system is in hyper-speed, so it's actually the worst time to drink something full of sugar. That sweet smoothie could lead to pretty uncomfortable digestive issues. It's best to avoid the gym's juice bar and drink water immediately after your workout instead.

Take Your Own Yoga Mat to Every Workout

Ever since Pilates and yoga broke into the mainstream, fitness mats have become gym staples. However, you should really take your own mat to the gym if you can. According to The New York Times, the fungi that lead to athlete's foot and plantar warts are regular guests on gym mats.

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If the mats aren't wiped down after every workout, they become a breeding ground of bacteria. Gyms aren't required to clean mats daily, let alone after each workout, so do yourself a favor and take your own mat.

Always Use Your Own Disinfectant Wipes

A study conducted by FitRated discovered that gym equipment has 362 times more bacteria on it than a toilet seat. Let that sink in. If you want a really clean workout with limited interaction with bacteria, you better take your own antibacterial wipes to the gym.

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Pre-saturated disinfectant wipes provide a much more effective cleaning agent to help remove germs. The wiping action is what really gets the job done, of course, and while you may look a bit odd to the other patrons, you will be safer and healthier for your effort.

Gym Cleaning Products Aren’t As Helpful As You Think

Taking your own wipes to the gym becomes an especially good idea when you consider how risky gym cleaning products can be. The gym staff probably uses some kind of high-potency cleaning agents, but they can be just as harmful to you as the bacteria they’re trying to remove.

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A whiff of these cleaning agents can cause headaches or worse during your workout. It's also worth it to consider how infrequently their cleaners are even used, but when they are, don't get too comfortable around them.

Keep Your Sandals On in the Shower

Whenever you step into a gym locker room, be sure to keep your shoes on. Even when it's time to head to the shower, don't forget your flip-flops. Seriously, this is important. Dangerous bacteria are all over the shower floors, and they are very rarely cleaned for how often they’re used.

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Foot fungus and athlete's foot are common bacteria found on gym shower floors, but it gets worse. Studies have even found human papillomavirus by the drain. That's without even considering what other fluids gym-goers leave behind.

Avoid Public Pools in Gyms

When you walk by a gym's pool, you can't help but notice the overwhelming smell of chlorine. Chlorine is fine for cleaning a pool, but not when it's mixed with sweat, urine and whatever else inconsiderate gym goers leave in the water.

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When chlorine mixes with other fluids, it has the potential to cause damage to your skin's cells. The water becomes mutagenic, and it's not recommended to spend any time near those harmful agents. Do yourself a favor and stay above water at the gym.

Don’t Go to the Gym Every Day

If you're trying to get the most out of your membership, you may want to go to the gym as frequently as possible. Beware: Going to the gym too much can be dangerous. In reality, working out every day isn’t the best way to get fit.

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If you engage in a solid 90-minute workout, your body needs time to rest before doing it again. Your immune system is weakened, so allow yourself some time to repair. Too much time at the gym could do more harm than good.

You May Be Using the Treadmill Wrong

The treadmill is one of the most recognizable machines at the gym, but many don't know how to use it right. If you lean on the machine when you increase the incline, you're doing yourself a disservice.

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Leaning on the treadmill reduces the number of calories you burn. On top of that, it's a pretty unsafe practice. Employees are aware of this common mistake but don't correct people for fear of causing an injury.

Fancy Weight Machines Won't Do Much to Help You

If the look of those big weight machines overwhelms you, fear not. You can have much more successful workouts without ever laying a finger on one. Weight machines focus on training individual muscles, which is not helpful for building overall strength.

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Gyms are aware that free weights are better for strength training, but they still have those giant machines. People injure themselves far less often on the big machines, and they're easy to use. To gyms, that’s two great reasons to keep the machines.

Gyms Hope You Don’t Show Up

As long as you keep your membership active, gyms would prefer you not show up to use their facilities. In order to pay the rent, they need about 10 times as many members as their space can legally fit, which means they need a lot of no shows.

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It's no surprise that weekends are a madhouse at the gym because more people have time to go work out. Despite the overflowing weekend crowds, that's only a fraction of what could happen if all the members tried to show up at once.

Gyms Are Full of Equipment on Purpose

Have you ever bumped into some gym equipment by accident during a workout? You're not alone. Gyms fill their spaces to the brim with workout equipment, not just to keep their members occupied, but because it makes them money.

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Most franchise gyms get a payout for whatever equipment their gym purchases. They can earn upwards of 10-15% of the cost of the equipment, so as far as they're concerned, the more equipment, the better. Be sure to watch your step.

Check Your Trainer’s Credentials Before Working with Them

Certified trainers at gyms can offer you a personal workout, but their rates can be more than $100 an hour, so it's quite an investment. The cost makes it all the more important to make sure the trainer you choose is actually qualified. More often than not, trainers aren't as certified as they claim to be.

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They may look like they're super fit, but knowing their background is important. For starters, ask them if they're certified with the National Federation of Personal Trainers. A trainer who has taken a few online courses on working out is not worth your time.

Training Sessions Should Be Longer Than 45 minutes

Trainers make their money working with clients, so the more clients they have, the better. This is why training sessions often only last from 45 minutes to an hour, on average. If that's the case, make it a point to make the most of that time.

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For example, if you want to get your money's worth, get your stretches in prior to training. Stretching often takes up the first 10 to 20 minutes of a session, but if you stretch prior to your start time, you can get more time devoted to a good workout.

Trainers Are Human and Have Limits

Trainers and fitness instructors can have it rough at times. People want to get their workouts in before or after work, so trainers need to make themselves available both early and late. That probably means waking up at 4:00 a.m. every day, which is far from ideal.

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If they instruct a class that requires a lot of activity, they have to do it 10 to 15 times a week at times. That can be incredibly taxing on the body, no matter how fit you are. Regardless, trainers can't show weakness.

Trainers Don’t Make a Reasonable Wage

As hard as they work, trainers often don't make a lot of money. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median salary for fitness instructors is a little over $39,000 a year. That's roughly $19 an hour.

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Celebrity trainers obviously make much more, and trainers with certifications can up their pay grade as well. However, for the majority of fitness instructors at gyms across the country, the income is far from desirable.

You’re on Your Own If You Get Injured

Gyms will go out of their way to avoid taking the blame if you get injured. Their contracts are jam-packed with liability waivers to keep their hands squeaky clean. Employees even have instructions to avoid touching you so the gym has less involvement in your injury.

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If you do try to sue the gym, it's often a game of phone tag with the gym's insurance company. Some contracts even withhold the obligation to share their insurance information. You're on your own if you get hurt at the gym.

Trainers Aren’t Prepared for Emergencies

If something serious happens at the gym — like maybe a heart attack — you would hope the staff is ready to help. However, not every state requires gyms to have medical equipment on hand or training to help someone in an emergency.

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Even if a state does require medical devices in gyms, not every staff member knows how to use the equipment. That goes for trainers too. They don't all have the same health certifications, so you could be out of luck during a personal training session as well.

Gyms Aren’t Liable for Stolen Items

If you step into the locker room, you are likely to see a sign warning you to lock up your belongings. That's a polite way to say, "If your stuff gets stolen, it's not our responsibility." Stolen property at gyms actually happens a lot.

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That's another little section of your membership contract at the gym. They don't want to take any responsibility for any thievery that takes place in their gym. If you're going for a workout, be sure to take as few earthly possessions with you as possible.

Group Exercises Keep You Around

If you've noticed your gym is hosting more group exercises, it's not by accident. The consumerist tides are turning in the fitness world, and people are increasingly drawn to group classes. Big-box gyms are losing almost half their members on a year-to-year basis, so they need to stay fresh.

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Participating in group classes requires accountability for attendees, which is perfect for gyms. They need their members to stick around, so Zumba, yoga and myriad other classes are popping up in droves.

Boutique Fitness Clubs Exploit Your Desire for Community

Group classes are also on the rise because people want a sense of community. It’s part of the reason so many boutique fitness crazes are so successful. They allow people to come together to share a challenging experience.

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If you're a member of Barry's Bootcamp, Orange Theory or any other boutique fitness craze, the community is at the forefront of your experience. Team events and social media are designed to fuel the feeling that these communities are real so the owners can keep your money coming in.

Even When You Work Out at Home

Exploiting community doesn't even have to be in person anymore. Peloton, the stationary exercise bike, connects you to a mobile community with trainers that encourage you to keep going. This is a whole new challenge to the big-box gym's business model.

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Just when they thought adding group classes to fight boutique fitness trends solved their problems, here comes the at-home challengers. This combination of community and at-home workout convenience poses the next big threat to their business model. Only time will tell if big gyms can clean up their act — literally — and stay on top of the fitness world.