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A weighty decision

On your way to the bathroom New Year's Day, hunting for your favorite hangover remedy, did you by chance pass that mirror?

You know the one. The one you've been looking into the past month, turning to the side as your eyes slowly descend to your waist, taking the classic glance over your shoulder to assess the caboose.

The mirror that you've stared into, making stern promises of the day when you'd finally give the ol' chassis the tuneup it so desperately deserves.

Well, according to the calendar, the day of reckoning has arrived. It's time to find a solution to your resolution.

As a personal trainer, I love New Year's Day. It's the beginning of a great month. As much as peopled rushed to the malls and the dinner table in December, January is when they flock to health clubs with a head full of enthusiasm and a belly full of inspiration.

"Absolutely. January is by far our most popular time of year. It's the best time to start off the year right," said Bobby Donofrio, director of the Brandon Athletic Club.

Surprisingly, he added, "It's the month when we have our biggest discounts of the year."

If this is your resolution, you may need a little coaching as you go about selecting a fitness program. Picking one that suits you could be the difference between sticking to it or finding yourself repeating the same promises next year.

"You're not going to wake up one day and all of a sudden be into fitness," says Chandra Alexander, author of the self-help book Reality Works: Let It Happen. "No matter how noble the resolution, you have to be at the point where you are tired of hearing your same old story. Then you make a conscious decision where to put your power."

Something has to push you past that sticking point. Your commitment to yourself has about as much a chance of succeeding as the average marriage. Most gyms report about a 50 percent dropout rate after the first couple of months.

The power of two does have its positive points; studies show that couples or pairs of friends who join a gym are about 10 percent less likely to call it quits.

Every gym or health club that I surveyed in the Tampa Bay area offers some sort of new member introduction. Almost all memberships provide you with one or two complimentary one-on-one sessions with a personal trainer or, at minimum, a guided tour of the facility and its features.

These introductions often include measurements in weight and body fat percentage. The employees will help you spell out specific goals, introduce you to the equipment and show you how to use it.

While a personal trainer is the most appropriate person to do this introductory session, you shouldn't feel like you're walking through a car lot with a pushy salesman hounding you to buy personal training packages. A good trainer will be patient and thorough and should kindly offer you the option to buy additional sessions. (See accompanying story about trainers).

Let's start with the basics. You've made the resolution. You're motivated, and you want to know what to look for in a gym. We can break it down into five basic criteria: Price, location, atmosphere, equipment and programs.

PRICE: Unless you're Bill Gates, it's a concern, even though your body is your most valuable asset. Sales staff were almost unanimous in saying that customers ask about price right up front.

About 33-million people belong to some 17,000 health clubs in this country, a steep increase from 21-million in 1992, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.

Multiply that by an average $50 monthly membership cost (although it's more commonly $30 to $40 in the bay area). There's big money in fitness, but there's a lot of competition, too.

So be a smart consumer.

While the club may roll out the red carpet for you, keep in mind that your personal success may not be so important to the club. Gyms simply do not have enough space to accommodate every member they sign up. In fact, banking on a high dropout rate, many used to push customers into long-term contracts.

Big chains like Lifestyle Family Fitness and Bally Total Fitness have reversed that trend by switching to monthly membership plans and forcing the rest of the industry, including single-location gyms, to follow suit. A monthly plan also protects you if your gym goes out of business.

Still, beware. That bargain monthly price might not include a onetime registration or enrollment fee. You might be able to negotiate that fee down or convince the gym to waive it entirely.

Now ask yourself: Will I get my money's worth, even with a monthly rate?

A three-year study of 8,000 Boston-area gym members concluded that 80 percent were paying more on monthly contracts than if they'd gone on a pay-per-use basis because they were using their gym only an average of five times a month.

You can work out one time, under a "guest membership," for $10 or $15 in many places. Almost all clubs offer a free trial membership, ranging from a day to a week.

But ask yourself the value in working one time, or for one week.

My suggestion is that you cough up the $60 to $80 for two months and consider it a sound investment.

LOCATION: Be realistic. How far will you travel to go to a gym? Likely not more than 10 or 15 minutes. Time is usually a factor. You don't want to spend more time driving to the gym than working out there. In South Tampa, where I work, there are a handful of gyms within a five-minute drive of downtown. Many offer lunchtime aerobic or spinning classes ideal for businessmen or women looking to squeeze in a workout on their lunch break.

If you're a stay-at-home mom or work out of your house, you still want to choose a convenient location. If you have only a half-hour or 45 minutes to spare, you'll find yourself saying, "Aw, it's too far," far too often.

Are you on the road a lot? Some chains offer memberships that let you work out in any of their locations.

ATMOSPHERE: To me this could be the most important factor in whether you stay committed to your goal. I say, go with your gut feeling. When you walk in the door of the health club, how do you feel? Is there energy? Is it clean? Is it too hectic or loud for you? Too serene or quiet?

If you're going to spend several hours a week there, you'd better like the way it feels.

Much of this is subjective.

"We're a community-based gym," said Jose Colindres, fitness director at the Northwest Hillsborough YMCA. "People identify us with family-oriented values. We like to give them that warm, fuzzy feeling."

Gold's Gym calls itself the "Mecca of Bodybuilding." But, while working at a Gold's in South Florida, I saw plenty of senior citizens and pregnant women.

Don't think, either, that any gym is reserved for those who are already in top shape. If you're afraid you'll tip the scales on the frumpy side, think like trainer Corey Simpson.

"In reality you are watching them, they are not watching you," he said. "You should be motivated to work out at a gym where people are in shape, and draw inspiration from them."

EQUIPMENT: It's 2005. If the club you're thinking about joining has equipment that looks like it came off the set of Olivia Newton-John's Let's Get Physical video, that's not a good sign.

Advances in equipment have come a long way, and any good club should provide the latest equipment. Inspect the machines, the plates and barbells for rust or loose fittings. Make sure the padding on the benches is tight and clean.

Quantity is important as well. Who cares how nice the equipment is if all you can do is watch somebody else use it? Go to the gym at peak hours, which are typically mornings and evenings between 5 and 8.

Is there a line to use equipment? There should be dozens of treadmills and cardiovascular machines in an average-size gym. Use the Noah's Ark test for things like incline benches, squat racks and dumbbells. If there aren't at least two of everything, it's not going to float.

PROGRAMS: While price, atmosphere and equipment will get you into the gym, the programs keep you coming back.

People are coming to expect more from their health club than just dumbbells and aerobic classes. They want services, entertainment, excitement and variety. And that can come down to the personality of instructors and the creativity of the classes. Boot camps, hip-hop aerobics and spa treatments are just a few of the growing trends in fitness.

Most gyms offer the basic aerobic, step and spinning classes two to three times a day for the entire week. These are usually included in the membership fee. Many include child care or nursery services in the membership.

Personal comfort in fitness programs comes in all forms. For you resolution seekers, I highly recommend that you take advantage of your club's new member program, such as the one at the Brandon Athletic Club.

"We set all new members up with a free training session and after that we continue to track their progress the first month," said Donofrio, the club's director. "If we see they haven't checked in, we call and remind them. They usually say they've been busy and we kindly let them know that they joined for a reason. We like to make them feel like we expect them here."

Those extras, are they worth it? While basic classes such as aerobics and spinning are typically free at most health clubs, expect to pay extra for things like karate, some specialized group exercise programs, and use of tennis courts or spa treatments.

Again, it's an investment in your health. What's more important?

"Procrastination is the No. 1 enemy of good health," Donofrio said. "A week becomes a month and a month becomes a year. I stress to everyone who walks through that door, we're not getting any younger."

David Norrie of Westchase is a freelance sports writer when he isn't helping people get in shape. He writes an occasional column about recreational sports and personal fitness. You can e-mail him at gimmie10aol.com.

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