1. The first rule of choosing a gym is the same as the first rule of real estate: Location, Location, Location. If the trip to the gym is more than 15/20 minutes long, chances are when you're having an off day you won't be willing to travel all the way to the gym for an hour's workout. If this is the case, you need to ask yourself whether you would be better off with a home workout routine to save money or joining a closer gym.
Furthermore, if you're travelling to the gym by car, make sure the car park is adequate. I've heard of people driving all the way to their gym, finding no parking spaces, and then turning around going home!
2. Price Often gyms will not advertise their specific prices. Even during January the offers are often presented in percentages e.g. 35% off. If there's one particular gym you're considering joining then ask some of the members if they would mind confiding in you what they pay each month. Then when you go to join, quote the lowest price you were told. If there's a couple of gyms you're choosing between, visit each gym and ask for a membership quote. Don't feel pressured to sign up there and then, politely say you'd like to go home and consider it before making the commitment.
Keep in mind that it is possible some members are paying less the the 'official' price (dependent on many factors such as what time of year they joined, how frequently they attend and how long they've been going to the gym) so once again, if you narrow your gym choices down to one, ask around to find out how much members are really paying. It might be surprisingly different to the advertised price.
Another thing to look out for is whether the price includes the gym and/or studio sessions such as group exercise classes. Decide beforehand if you would like the option to use both or just one or the other. A good gym will be so affordable that you could have both included and still get your money's worth if you only attend the classes or only use the gym.
Also be aware that some gyms in the UK are entirely privately owned, whereas others are spilt with council funding and private ownership. Often the semi-private gyms are cheaper thanks to a council subsidy and may be maintained more frequently than the smaller, privately owned gyms.
3. Commitment & contracts
If you're not 100% confident with yourself that you'll keep on going to the gym every week, then look for pay-as-you go memberships or very short contracts, such as 6 months. If the gym hassles you to have a longer contract when they do have shorter ones available (note: that not all gyms do have these) and you struggle with defending yourself, outright lie and say you have a job that might result in you transferring to another location in the not-so-distance future. If the they try to catch you out by saying that you can transfer your membership to a new location, tell them that you're not sure of the location your boss will move you too and therefore you're not sure if there's a gym under the same company in that area. Don't feel guilty about lying, this is business and you're entering into an expensive contract.
Conversely, if, you're like me and you've found a gym you really like, maybe you've even got friends there to go with and so you're 100% certain that you'll be there for a long time, then longer contracts such as 12 months and either 18 months can be handy for reducing the cost per-month. Just make sure that if you sign up to this you're really, really certain you'll keep going.
4. Take a tour! If you were buying a house you wouldn't put a deposit down for it without looking around and getting a 'feel' for it, would you? Feel free to ask the gym staff for a tour of the gym and some copies of class timetables. Often when you walk into a new place you can have a first impression of whether you like it or not.
The first gym I visited smelt of sweat and socks, it was dark, no windows, no A/C(!), and really small. It was only a 5 minute walk away, but the membership was expensive considering it only included either the poor-quality gym or the classes. I knew it wasn't for me so I went 10 minutes out the way and encountered a gym that covered an expansive class timetable, a clean, bright, pleasant smelling gym and unlimited usage of the swimming pool just up the road from it (owned by the same company) for less per-month than the gym I'd visited originally. There's a large car park at my gym, so travelling them extra 5 minutes is not a problem and it's situated in a lovely grassy park setting, which appeals to me especially as I've always loved grassy open spaces (even my house and university is surrounded by grassy open spaces).
5. The gym's other activities The gym I go to is actually a leisure centre, which means it also boasts Tennis courts, hosts parties, roller derby's, Karate tournaments, football matches, the list goes on really. There's also a small sauna and salon in the centre for facials, massages and pedi/mani's. I personally love all of this extra activity going on in the centre, it gives it a sense of community and character. Other people however, may prefer a gym that's small, deserted and strictly a gym. If you have a preference for this either way, be sure to enquire about the gym's other activities before you sign up!
6. Who else goes there? Look around at the other people in the gym. Do these people look like they have a similar goal to you? Are they here to lose weight or body build; hang out with people and talk or workout on their own in silence? If the people in the gym are quite similar to you in the ways they workout out and the reason they're working out then chances are you'll make new friends who will support you and add to the overall experience of going to the gym. This is especially handy if you want to go to group exercise classes.
7. Facilities If you're likely to be going straight from the gym to elsewhere, like work, check that the showers, changing rooms and lockers meet your needs e.g. they're not out of order, dirty or over crowded. Other things frequently dotted throughout the gym like toilets and water coolers are also very handy mid-workout, as you don't want to waste workout time by walking all the way across a large gym or centre just to fill up your water bottle. Some gyms will even have add-on facilities like protein shake makers & bars.
8. Class timetable Vs Your own timetable For those looking for a gym that provides a selection of gym classes, this is really important. If the classes they offer interest you, make sure the class times will fit in with your day to day schedule. If you have to turn the rest of your life upside-down to accommodate the gym classes, then chances are it'll be hard to keep the classes as part of your daily routine.
Also look at the type of classes, is there a whole range of activities? If you get bored of one type of class or simply don't like it, are there other classes to try out? Are the classes licensed by large companies? i.e Zumba or Les Mills and therefore backed by a large following of happy gym-goers and expertly trained instructors. If you're considering classes, these are all factors to consider.
Your turn: Are you a happy member of a gym? What did you look for when joining? Perhaps you're unhappy with your gym, what is it that you don't like about it?