A good exercise program and diet are undeniably important parts of your fitness success. But they aren't the only factors -- the gym you choose can have a big impact on your success too.
Ultimately, you need to choose a gym you like. You may never love it (and let's be honest, it's hard to love a room specifically designed for a bunch of sweaty people contorting themselves under hunks of metal), but you should at least enjoy the environment enough to keep going back. To make sure you're making the right decision, consider the following factors:
- How much does it cost? It's the most obvious factor on the list, but how willing are you to pay for the amenities you want? Can you financially commit to a fully-decked out weight room, free group classes and a juice bar? Or is a no-nonsense gym with the bare necessities more in your range? Be realistic about what you're going to need -- as cool as a complimentary steam room may sound, it makes no sense to pay for it if you're not going to to use it.
- What are the other members like? From my observations, gym-goers can be conveniently categorized into two mutually exclusive buckets: those who treat it like a social club, and those who just want everyone to shut up and get on with it. Neither is better than the other, but don't delude yourself into thinking you're going to have a good time working out if everyone around you either talks too much, or shuns you like you're the Jon Snow to their Stark family.
- How much support do you get? If you're just starting out in the gym, it can be helpful to have trained floor staff, or at least a supportive gym environment, to give you a hand when you need it. There's nothing more discouraging than feeling unsure of yourself, and being unable to ask for help.
It's also worth asking about the personal training services available in case you might need more guidance with your programming. Ask for credentials and experience -- a trainer shouldn't merely be someone you throw money at to tell you what to do. For the greatest benefit, you should be able to connect with them on a personal level so they can understand your intrinsic motivations and barriers, and how to leverage them to boost your progress.
What facilities are there?
You don't need much, if anything, aside from your own body to get fit. But variety can be nice, and a wider selection of equipment can be helpful in supporting your specific goals.
For example, if you're training to supplement your track and field training, you might want to look at what weight equipment there is, and whether there are things like working sleds, ergo machines and bike machines, that can help you with your conditioning. You might want to even check if there's private or group training for similar athletes.
Alternatively, if you're just looking to get fit but know you get bored of your workouts quickly, make sure there's enough equipment to allow you to try new things, and perhaps a few fitness classes if you enjoy group environments.
- How accessible is it? If you've found what seems like the perfect gym, but it's nearly an hour away by car, it might not actually be the perfect gym. To be frank, if I had to travel for that far, or had to wait that long in traffic, I'd probably not go at all. If that sounds like you, consider other options -- there's no point in joining if you're never going to set foot in the door. Similarly, is it open at times that are convenient for you? If you tend to work late and the gym is only open until 9pm, you might have a hard time squeezing workouts in.
And of course, you might not choose to join a gym at all. If you're comfortable with body-weight workouts, the best option may be to continue as you do, and spend the membership fees on items to supplement your routines, like resistance bands and kettlebells.
To make sure you know exactly what you're getting into, call beforehand and see if you can arrange a visit. Gyms are normally more than happy to accommodate you and your questions. Also, read the contract before you sign, so you know you're getting what has been promised.
If you have options available to you, think them through. The gym is a place where you'll (hopefully) spend a fair amount of time in, so if any of the above aspects are majorly off it can be a big source of regret. Don't afraid to be picky, because making sure you get it right will pay off in the end.
Lifehacker's Vitals column offers health and fitness advice based on solid research and real-world experience.