Getting into shape is tough enough. Gym memberships, with their sometimes confusing pricing, changing offers, and runaround with management, often weigh you down.

Gym memberships might tout limited time offers or low monthly costs, but the actual details of a commitment can vary. To make matters even more difficult, what seems like a simple membership usually is a legally binding contract.

Almost 53 million Americans were members of a gym, fitness center, or health club in 2016, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association’s annual report.

Meanwhile, the fastest growing health club franchise in the U.S. is Planet Fitness, according to the IBISWorld 2017 report on gym, health, and fitness clubs in the U.S. Planet Fitness, alongside other low-priced gyms with limited amenities, has made quick growth, for example, with memberships typically between $10 and $19.99 a month.

However, there are often more expenses and pitfalls to watch out for than just the monthly cost, so be wary of these five common gym lies.

1. "No commitment, no risk"

Most gym memberships are legal contracts, and even if you can get out of them, it might cost you a cancellation fee or part of the remaining cost. Look specifically for the contract’s cancellation policies, and keep a copy in your files.

Attorney Troy Doucet, founder of the Ohio firm Doucet and Associates, says all states have laws mandating contracts for gym memberships.

The laws even outline contract formatting, but his clients’ contracts often have been formatted incorrectly. For example, Ohio requires contracts to include a bolded paragraph in a specific font size with cancellation information, plus a verbal explanation, and consumers must receive two copies.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a gym contract that complies with Ohio law,” Doucet says.

If a gym is advertising “no contract,” it most likely will have some form of agreement for payment, though it may be more flexible than a traditional plan.

2. "Cancel anytime"

Breaking a contract, whether because you’re moving or realize you’re wasting money because you don’t go to the gym, often requires jumping through more hoops than expected.

Caitlin Brands, 25, moved from Georgia to Los Angeles in January and could no longer use her gym membership. She says she told her Georgia-based gym management in person and over the phone she wanted to cancel. She eventually was referred to the corporate office to get an ID number and thought she began the cancellation process. But she continued to be charged $15 a month for the membership.

She eventually found out from the corporate line that her cancellation request could only be made by mail, rendering most of her previous efforts pointless. It took until July for her contract to end. She says she lost about $80 during this period, even after receiving a small discount from the gym for her troubles.

“They make it so easy to sign up, but so difficult to quit because they make money by you not being there,” Brands says.

3. "Low monthly cost"

Often, the low monthly cost, like $9.99 a month, that a gym advertises appear small because they’re based on a lengthy commitment, such as a year-long contract. Month-by-month rates tend to be higher, says Jessica Monsell, founder and executive director of Consumer Sense, a consumer advocacy group.

Photo: Thinkstock
Photo: Thinkstock

If you don’t want to enter into a year-long contract, you may pay an additional $5 or more each month to have that flexibility. Monsell says amenities such as towel rental are typically included with the membership to keep facilities clean, but other amenities such as child care might be extra.

Before signing up for a membership with a low rate, consider the cost of a year’s worth of $10 monthly payments. Monsell says some gyms profit heavily from people buying a membership and forgetting about it as their interest declines.

4. “Bigger is better”

Many of the larger chain fitness centers advertise aggressively, but smaller studios and gyms are becoming more popular, Monsell says.

Smaller facilities may offer more individualized training and small group workouts, and better communication with management, since the owners also may be the personal trainers and class instructors. Monsell, who is also a spin class instructor in Charleston, S.C., says smaller facilities tend to have more personalized business practices.

"If you're running a smaller business, and people aren’t coming back, then there's a concern," Monsell says.

Doucet says contract disputes with bigger gyms tend to be more difficult, as there are often more corporate obstacles in place. He says it’s rare for him to hear from individuals seeking legal assistance because of a dispute with a gym that has one location or a local owner.

“The larger the gym, the harder it is to get out of the contract,” Doucet says.

5. “Initiation fees cover administrative costs”

Administrative or initiation fees, which are meant to cover the costs of signing up, often aren’t mentioned in ads and promos. And these fees tend to be pure profit, not actually needed for any administrative duties, Monsell says, and they can sometimes be waived during a gym’s grand opening, during promotions, or through negotiations, though Monsell says they might be non-negotiable with the on-site management.

Photo: Thinkstock
Photo: Thinkstock

Tips for avoiding a bad gym contract

Approach signing up for a membership as a negotiation

When you tour the facility, be upfront with the gym salesperson about what you want from your membership.

If that’s the freedom to pay month by month, don’t feel forced into a year’s contract, and ask about monthly options. Then make sure you get in writing what the final monthly cost will be, including fees.

Doucet advises consumers to shop around and mention other gym prices to management, which could help you receive a better deal.

“If someone knows you’re doing that, you’re going to get a way better deal than if you’re just walking in and saying, ‘I love this; this is what I want,’” Doucet says.

Doucet says the current market saturation should help most consumers negotiate away these upfront fees. Any agreed-upon class prices or complimentary services should be included in the contract before you sign.

Read the contract

Understand the contract before you sign. Doucet says anything not in the contract, such as a certain amount of guaranteed time with a personal trainer, should be noted. Doucet says additions can even be written on the contract before you sign.

Most contracts, he says, have a clause that says any promises made by the gym and not included on the contract before signing don’t have to be upheld.

Learn about state regulations regarding gym memberships before you sign. Ohio’s laws stem from the state’s Prepaid Entertainment Contracts Act, but Doucet says each state has its own regulations that are meant to protect consumers, typically through a department of justice or consumer affairs.

Don’t feel pressured

Gym sales representatives and management are good at pitching you and selling memberships, sometimes creating a high-pressure environment. Don’t be afraid to walk out if the arrangement doesn’t fit what you want. Think about your priorities before you sign.

Ask for a trial period, and then decide if the facility fits what you’re looking for, even if the pitch sounds like a limited time offer. Signing a contract for a long time period often won’t keep people going, Monsell says, so make sure you’ll get the most out of your money.

MagnifyMoney is a price comparison and financial education website, founded by former bankers who use their knowledge of how the system works to help you save money.