published Thursday, July 12th, 2012

Monthly fitness plans increasing, but value still debated

James Arnold lifts weights at Planet Fitness on Perimeter Drive. Planet Fitness offers low-cost, no-contract fitness plans to its 6,500 members.
James Arnold lifts weights at Planet Fitness on Perimeter Drive. Planet Fitness offers low-cost, no-contract fitness plans to its 6,500 members.
Photo by Alyson Wright.

To sign or not to sign, that is the question.

Month-to-month memberships at fitness centers may be on the rise, but the jury is still out as to whether they're the best bet for folks trying to get into shape.

Zachary Pearce, assistant manager at Planet Fitness on Perimeter Drive, said "the majority of people that we see like the idea of no contracts or long-term commitments."

He said his center's offer of a small monthly fee ($10) that is available "till the world ends or they quit" is relatively new for the region, but it's not new for the company.

"I don't think of it as much as a trend," he said, adding Planet Fitness has offered it since 1992. "The concept is not brand new."

"People don't like the idea of being tied down to [longer commitments]," Pearce said. "They scare people away. They don't know where they're going to be in a year or two or even next month."

A nonscientific 2008 poll referenced in the online site That's Fit said people preferred month-to-month memberships to long-term contracts 63.4 percent to 29 percent, but an item in the Moneyland segment of a 2011 Time magazine said an extensive study by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University concluded people will pay slightly more per visit if they pay monthly.

Ryan Aytes, a membership care representative in the Knoxville corporate office of The Rush Fitness Complex, said more members of The Rush are under longer-term contracts than month-to-month agreements.

"It's a little bit cheaper to have an agreement," he said. "That's why people choose the agreement -- because of the discount."

Aytes said he could see how people are scared off by long-term commitments, but he said that's less about the fitness center and more about "whether they're comfortable with that."

"It's about what the members want," he said.

Joshua Michalski, owner of Curves on Gunbarrel Road, said franchisees do "have some flexibility" to offer month-to-month memberships but are not what they recommend.

People have "a lot of reticence toward long-term agreements" because of worry about what might happen, he said, but "the reality is most people [who opt for month-to-month memberships] want to get a quick fix.

"Short-termers don't stick with it," Michalski said. "There's not a long-term commitment to change. I don't think Curves is going to go in the direction where we push that. We want people to be healthy for the rest of their lives."

Kevin Coblentz, general manager of North Shore Workout Anytime on Cherokee Boulevard, said people are tired of contracts with their cellphones and fitness centers.

"I've never met anybody who said, "Lock me in,' " he said.

The Dunwoody, Ga.-based Workout Anytime franchise was founded on the premise members may not be able to make the time commitment a contract calls for or that a contract may put a financial hardship on them, Coblentz said.

Members do have the option of a paid-in-full year, especially if they want to "motivate themselves," he said, but the franchise is "all about being value-based" and "how much you're getting out of it."

Penny Nall, manager of Snap Fitness, on Ooltewah-Ringgold Road, said her Minnesota-based chain center offers plans with a lower monthly price with a year's commitment and a no-strings month-to-month plan with a slightly higher cost.

Her members are about split on the plan, she said.

However, Nall said month-to-month agreements are probably the wave of the future, or at least the norm during uncertain economic times.

"People don't like the [long-term] contracts," she said. "They don't like to be locked in. Economy-wise, people's incomes are iffy. They want to be able to cancel or drop if they need to."

In light of statistics such as a Better Business Bureau report that complaints about gyms rose more than 90 percent over a recent five-year period, Mackey McNeill, a certified public accountant and spokeswoman for the National CPA Financial Literacy Commission, said in a 2010 SmartMoney story that it might be a good idea to start with a month-to-month plan.

Then, she said, if the user is confident the fitness regime will stick, the user could switch a contract of a year or longer.

The flexibility to cancel a month-to-month plan also comes in handy if the cost of a gym membership turns out to be too high for your budget, McNeill said.

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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