It's the time of year when gyms pump up their advertising, promising to help you meet your new year's fitness goals. But before you sign up, make sure the gym is fit for purpose.
Try before you buy
Most major gym chains will offer a free trial or session for prospective members to try out the facilities and services. Make use of these freebies to see if the gym's a good fit for you.
To get the cheapest gym deal, you'll normally have to sign up for a fixed-term contract for 12 months or more. Gyms highlight the lower weekly membership fees you pay with these contracts. But you may be up for other charges as well, such as a joining fee or an access card fee.
Ask the gym for a breakdown of its charges so you know exactly what you'll pay.
You also need to be aware you'll have to pay a termination fee if you want to cancel your fixed-term membership early. That said, the gym can't just charge what it likes: a cancellation fee must be reasonable.
Compare the costs of the fixed-term deal with an open-term contract that gives you the flexibility to walk away without a fee. If you're not sure you'll become a committed gym junkie, the flexibility may be worth the price.
Before you sign on the dotted line, take a few deep breaths and check the contract fine print to find out:
• the minimum contract term
• how much it costs and whether any other fees apply
• how you can cancel and the notice you have to give
• whether you can put your membership on hold and, if so, what it costs
• how the gym deals with complaints.
Ask the gym to explain any terms that leave you scratching your head.
Getting the runaround
While gyms are keen to sign you up, they can give you the runaround when you decide you want out.
The gym may claim you need to cancel your membership in person. Not true. You don't need to make a special trip to the gym to cancel. An email is fine.
It may also try to claim you have to give a lengthy period of notice if you want to end the agreement. Don't put up with it – any notice period must be reasonable.
If you want to quit because of changes to the gym's services – for example, it moves and the new location is across town – you're entitled to cancel without copping any penalties. Gyms can't make wholesale changes to their services without giving members the right to opt out. Terms that claim the gym can do so are likely to fall foul of the law.
What about if you're injured or unwell and can't use the gym? A fair contract should let you end your membership if your circumstances change. A gym that doesn't let you cancel due to injury is on shaky legal ground.
Pausing the membership can be another option, giving you time to recover from injury before hitting the treadmill again. The gym may ask for a medical certificate and charge a fee for putting a membership on hold.
Under the Consumer Guarantees Act, you're also entitled to expect the gym will provide its services with reasonable care and skill. If it falls short and fails to put things right, you have good grounds to cancel the contract as well.
Hiring exercise gear
Loud music and lycra-clad gym bunnies not your thing? You could consider hiring or buying exercise equipment instead.
Our price comparison found the cost of hiring an exercise bike ranged from $8.50 to $30 per week for a minimum 12-week term. Cross-trainers and treadmills were more expensive. The cheapest cross-trainer was $10 a week and a treadmill $15.
In addition to the weekly rental fee, there can be other charges if you're hiring gear. Check whether you have to pay cleaning or delivery fees. You should also check the process for cancelling the agreement and returning the gear, and whether there's a charge for ending the contract early.
If you're set on going the distance with an exercise bike, you're likely better off buying. Our comparison found new exercise bikes ranging from $105 to more than $400, which could work out cheaper than renting in the long run.
It's best to try the bike before you buy. If you're above average height, your knees may knock on the handlebars of a bike that's only 120cm tall. The maximum weight the bike can handle should give you an indication of its sturdiness.
Some machines also have programmes that enable you to adjust your workout routine based on your fitness level. Or, you might just want a water bottle holder or somewhere to rest your book while you pedal.
Of course, there are cheaper options to start your new year's fitness regime. A walk around the block is free.