Harvard Heart Letter

Your New Year’s resolution: A gym membership?

What to consider when choosing a workout venue.

If getting in shape tops your list of New Year’s resolutions, you’re in good company. During the first few months of the year, sign-ups at fitness centers and health clubs tend to trend upward. While these memberships can be costly, you may be able to find more affordable options or take advantage of discounts. But no matter what you pay, shelling out a monthly fee may encourage you to use the gym regularly to get your money’s worth. If you do, your heart will likely reap the rewards: regular exercise is one of the best ways to boost cardiovascular health.

“The main advantage to joining a gym is to have access to a wide variety of exercise equipment,” says Alex Petruska, a senior physical therapist at the Sports Medicine Center of Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. That includes machines for a cardiovascular workout, such as treadmills, elliptical trainers, stationary bikes, and stair steppers, as well as a variety of weight machines.

The value of varied options

Access to all these choices means you’re less likely to get bored, since you can try different machines and routines. In addition, you’ll likely find it easier to meet the physical activity guidelines, which include aerobic exercise as well as strength training. Aim for

  • at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, or an equivalent mix per week
  • two to three sessions per week of strength training that exercises the major muscle groups of the legs, trunk, and arms and shoulders.

Exercise that raises your heart rate burns calories and helps get rid of belly fat—a common physical complaint that’s also a potent risk factor for heart disease. The good news is that you don’t have to do high-intensity aerobic exercise, says Petruska.

Moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking—which is easier to sustain for longer periods of time—is best for burning fat. But if you’re among the many people with ankle, knee, hip, or back problems, exercising on an elliptical ma-chine or stationary bike is a better choice than walking because it’s much easier on your joints, Petruska explains. Likewise, using weight machines rather than free weights (dumbbells) offers greater control and is less likely to lead to injuries.

If these advantages resonate for you, a gym membership may be a worthwhile investment. To find the right one, pay attention to safety and consider your specific needs and budget.

Well-trained staff

Make sure the gym you choose has staff with expertise in teaching people how to use the equipment. Many gyms have personal trainers—exercise professionals who can teach you to work out safely and maintain good form, introduce you to new equipment, and design and update an exercise program to keep you motivated. For an additional fee, you can hire a personal trainer for a series of one-on-one appointments or periodic overhauls of your routine.

Always ask about credentials and experience. Certification from the American College of Sports Medicine is a good sign. Find out how often the person works with people of your age, abilities, and overall health. Also, ask whether staff members can perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if necessary. Is a defibrillator available, and do staff members know how to use it?

Affordable options

At least one nationwide fitness center chain offers memberships as low as $10 per month. More pricey clubs typically offer more amenities, such as group classes, swimming pools, sports courts, and even indoor running tracks. Other possible perks include saunas, steam rooms, and whirlpools that can serve as a nice post-workout reward.

Take advantage of the fact that many commercial gyms will let you try their facilities for a few days or a week before making a commitment. Look for a gym in a convenient location and make sure you feel comfortable exercising there during the hours you would normally go. Some facilities offer discounts if you work out only during nonpeak hours (usually during the middle of the day). Also, some health insurance plans offer members discounted rates at specific gyms.

“The important thing is finding a place that you’ll feel comfortable going to consistently and will meet your needs over the long haul,” says Petruska.

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