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Fitness resolutions drag us to the gym in January

| Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, 9:35 p.m.
Jessica Dudas, of Hampton, works out at Fitness 19 in McIntyre Square Monday, January 7, 2013. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Bill Dobson, (left) and Sam Schrmack, both of Shaler, work out at Fitness 19 in McIntyre Square Monday, January 7, 2013. Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review

January ushers in optimistic New Year's resolutions to lose weight, balance checkbooks regularly and stop procrastinating.

In fact, more gym memberships are started in January — 12 percent — than in any other month of the year, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association in Boston.

Six month later, some may be looking to undo gym contracts they entered into while in post-holiday stupors.

“Many of us sign up for a full year with all the good intentions, and then our desire and interest falls apart, and we're saddled with those payments through the end of the year,” says Jack Gillis, spokesman for the Consumer Federation of America, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C.

Nationwide, lawsuits have challenged the validity of gym contracts, but if a gym has followed the state law in which it operates, it's extremely difficult for a consumer to break the contract, says Harrisburg attorney Joseph Goldberg, the Pennsylvania state chairman of the National Association of Consumer Advocates in Washington.

Would-be exercisers should educate themselves before signing on the bottom line, consumer-protection experts say.

“Be sure to read the fine print, rather than the advertisements, because that's the only way you understand what you're committing to,” Gillis says.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office receives hundreds of complaints a year from consumers about health clubs, mostly over disputes about contract cancellations and consumers seeking refunds when clubs suddenly close.

The Pennsylvania Health Club Act lays out conditions under which a consumer can cancel a gym membership. A gym member is allowed to cancel a contract and receive a refund if he becomes permanently disabled, or if he moves more than 25 miles away from the gym and the operator cannot transfer the contract to a comparable facility within 5 miles of the new residence, according to the act.

A gym is barred from automatically renewing contracts without members' permission.

Also, within three days of signing a contract, a consumer can cancel it and receive a full refund.

Gyms in Pennsylvania are barred from selling memberships for periods longer than 36 months, and gyms that sell contracts for terms of at least three months are required to register with the Attorney General's Office's Bureau of Consumer Protection and post financial security bonds to protect members' fees against the businesses' failure or closing.

If a consumer has doubts about his commitment to regularly exercising, Gillis says, he should consider looking for a gym that has a month-to-month membership plan, although the monthly fees might be more expensive than the monthly fees of a full-year contract.

Fitness 19 only offers month-to-month agreements, says Brad Ballintine, who owns the Pittsburgh-area franchises.

With monthly fees that range from $5 to $15, the no-frills gyms don't have aerobics classes or swimming pools, but membership is growing, he says.

The month-to-month plan was one of the features that prompted Scott Zmuda, 41, and his wife to join Fitness 19 about a year ago.

Zmuda of Ben Avon had been dissatisfied with his membership at a gym in Pine, but the fee to break the contract was excessive, so he just waited until it expired to switch gyms, he says.

McCandless resident Debbie Geiger had been turned off by long-term contracts at other gyms, so she joined Fitness 19 shortly after it opened in February 2007.

She works out about four times a week at the gym, which she chose because of its low price — $14 a month for her — and casual atmosphere. “I don't feel like I have to be all dressed up to fit in,” she says.

At Healthtrax Fitness and Wellness in Bethel Park, which is an upscale club, members are allowed to cancel their contracts within 30 days of signing them and receive refunds, says Kevin Sanker, vice president of operations.

“It's almost like a peace of mind relative to what they're getting into,” he says.

Furthermore, the club clearly explains it membership types, which include month-to-month plans and annual contracts, to prospective members during site tours, and is flexible in negotiating contract changes with members who are injured, pregnant or moving, says Peggy Gregor, group fitness director for the Bethel Park health club.

Tory N. Parrish is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-5662 or tparrish@tribweb.com.

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