by: Joe Putrock
July 2001, Jill Doris thought she had found the perfect fitness
center. It was fairly new, local, and with relatively low
monthly fees. Most important was that the club had all of
the programs she was looking for—or so she was told.
was really just looking for an aerobics program,” says Doris.
“[One of the personal trainers] told me not to worry, that
they were expanding into the building next door and would
be starting up with free aerobics and other programs in August.”
In order to take advantage of the low monthly fees and programs,
however, she was told that she would have to sign up for a
was a bit cautious about the length [of the contract],” she
explains, “but the trainer said that it would be easy to cancel
if I decided that I didn’t like the place.”
So she signed on the dotted line, and just a few weeks later,
discovered how justified her caution had been.
Soon after she became a member, the club indeed began offering
aerobics classes, says Doris—but for a fee. The club had also
expanded its membership dramatically, and instead of having
swift access to the majority of the club’s equipment—a condition
she had been assured would be preserved—she found herself
waiting almost an hour for access to even the most basic equipment.
According to Doris, when she approached club management, she
was told that they could be held responsible only for the
content of her contract, which contained none of the verbal
assurances she had originally received. Furthermore, she discovered
that the only way her contract could be canceled was if she
moved more than 25 miles from the club or suffered an injury
that prevented her from exercising for six months or more—an
aspect of the contract that she said had not been communicated
to her beforehand.
Doris resigned herself to finishing out the membership and
the two years of payments it required, then found a new fitness
center to join, embarrassed at having taken someone at their
word rather than studying the fine print.
feel like I was taken advantage of,” says Doris of her experience
with Wolf Road’s Super Fitness, “like I had been lied to.”
And Doris is not alone.
to the Council of Better Business Bureaus, the number
of complaints against businesses in the health-club industry
has been steadily rising since 2001. Nationally, the industry
brought in $14 billion in revenue last year, and with more
than 23,000 clubs around the United States, the competition
for membership—and wallets—is fierce.
In February 2004, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer
concluded an investigation into Bally Total Fitness Corporation,
one of the most prominent names in the health club industry,
after his office had received more than 600 complaints regarding
the company in the last five years. In the complaints, consumers
alleged that Bally had tricked them into signing long-term
memberships through the use of deceptive advertisements, misrepresented
contracts and employed high-pressure sales techniques.
I asked about the plan you are advertising on television costing
$18 down and $18 a month, [the salesperson] said ‘Oh that’s
only for weekends,’” states one complaint filed in July 2003.
“As you know, it’s [actually] for alternating days. . . .
If this is not bait and switch tactics, I don’t know what
As a result of the investigation, Bally was ordered to pay
out more than $100,000 to consumers and required to initiate
sweeping reforms of its sales, training and advertising programs.
February 2004 investigation] was the follow-up to a previous
settlement,” says Christine Pritchard, a spokeswoman for the
attorney general’s office. “For years on end we continued
to receive complaints from Bally members.”
Calls to Bally’s corporate headquarters were directed to the
MWW Group, the public-relations agency representing Bally.
“We have changed a lot of our policies in order to make it
easier for people to buy memberships,” said MWW’s Matt Messenger.
“We’ve been working closely with the attorney general.”
Although Bally is one of the most prominent representatives
of the health-club industry to be accused of questionable
practices, it is not the only one. “As an industry, it’s not
the worst—but it’s certainly not the best,” explains Jon Sorenson,
director of marketing and public relations for the New York
State Consumer Protection Board.
spoke directly with more than half a dozen dissatisfied customers
of fitness chains including Bally, Fitness Factory, Super
Fitness, and Gold’s Gym. Their complaints ranged from misrepresented
membership costs to contract renewals that occurred without
when nothing illegal is involved, it is clear that shopping
around for a health club today often involves negotiating
through intensely aggressive marketing by clubs whose intent
is making sure that anyone who walks through the door leaves
as a member.
a business,” says James DeFalco, manager of Super Fitness
on Wolf Road, which hosts 300 to 400 members each day. “We
have methods to try and get people to sign up that day, because
99.99 percent of the time when people walk out the door, they
never come back in.”
And these high-pressure sales techniques can take a variety
of forms, from salespeople telling prospective members that
the prices they’ve seen advertised are for “this weekend only”
to offers of free months of membership—with the free months
usually excluded from the life cycle of the contract, of course.
encouraged to look for a way in with a person,” explains Conor
Higgins, a former personal trainer who worked for more than
10 years with some of New York City’s largest health clubs.
“Like any service industry, the object is to relax the potential
member—to talk them around the problem issues.”
According to many of the complaints submitted to the state’s
consumer- protection agencies, these “problem issues” often
include the length of memberships offered by health clubs
(too long), as well as members’ actual awareness of the commitment
they’ve agreed to make. The desire to ensure a steady rate
of membership—along with the lure of hefty commissions for
every long-term contract—can cause salespeople to push the
multiyear options with potential members, no matter how uncertain
they may be about their long-term plans.
And just as with many other services that advertise low monthly
rates on extended contracts, the monthly payments are often
accompanied by a host of taxes and surcharges, too—a condition
that often makes the actual monthly fee quite a bit larger
than the advertised rates. As many potential members have
discovered, this fact is conspicuously absent from most advertisements.
Albany resident Jason Litwak joined Super Fitness more than
a year ago under the impression that his membership was a
month-to-month arrangement, and then decided soon after that
he wasn’t satisfied with the facilities. After noticing that
monthly dues had been applied to his credit card in the months
that followed, he contacted the club.
Litwak discovered that the contract he had signed was actually
quite different from what was described by the salesperson,
and only after several months of discussion with the club’s
corporate headquarters—in Ohio—was he able to get his finances
back in order.
center] contracts are structured in such a way that you can’t
understand a lot of it,” says Litwak, “but they make it sound
While most health clubs do offer a variety of terms for their
memberships, getting past the initial two- and three-year
plans to these short-term contracts can require some persistence.
When approaching local branches of Bally and Super Fitness
as a potential customer would, Metroland found that
salespeople were reluctant to provide the option of a contract
for any term less than 24 months.
memberships are the norm,” says Higgins, “even though people
rarely stay that long in one place. . . . [When talking to
potential members], the word from the managers on down is
usually to tell them it’s no problem to cancel, when actually
it’s a big hassle.”
Fitness-center members looking to end their contracts are
typically given few options. While most contracts state that
moving more than 20 or 30 miles away from any of the company’s
participating facilities will allow members to end their contracts,
when the club is part of one of the larger chains and has
similar facilities in every major city, meeting such a condition
An injury that prevents a member from using the club’s equipment
is also accepted as grounds for contract cancellation at most
clubs, but a stipulation regarding the extent of the injury
is usually included in a contract’s fine print. In some cases,
an injury will merely extend a contract past its original
expiration date for a length of time equal to the duration
of the injury. Contract-limiting injuries aren’t something
the club is going to take members’ word on, either. Usually,
the member’s doctor must get involved in the process, confirming
any injury and, in the case of some clubs, filling out forms
provided by the club and sending the paperwork out to various
According to DeFalco, such requirements are necessary in order
to ensure that a club’s success doesn’t depend on the general
public’s mood swings.
going to come up with every darn excuse from A to Z to get
out of their contract,” says DeFalco.
Another option is also available for those who wish to cancel
their contract but don’t fall into any of the previously mentioned
categories. Most fitness centers will allow you to cancel
your membership by paying a fee. Yet, as many frustrated members
have discovered, that fee is usually only slightly less than
the sum of the remaining monthly payments—a fact that is conspicuously
absent from most contracts, even in the fine print.
rather not get into that,” answers DeFalco when asked about
Super Fitness’ cancellation fee. “That’s between the manager
and the member.”
With many of the larger, more widespread health clubs, members’
frustration is often compounded by the fact that many of these
companies rely upon outside agencies to handle billing operations.
Members with questions about their payments or problems with
billing are often directed to call long-distance numbers outside
of the state and, in some cases, outside the country.
For many frustrated consumers, the problems associated with
a membership gone sour extend beyond the cost of the contract.
In an age where consumers’ financial reliability is measured
by the strength of their credit reports, a disagreement with
a health club’s billing agency can leave a lingering stain
on a credit transcript. Fortunately for consumers, these marks
usually don’t carry a significant weight, compared to, say,
a missed mortgage payment.
billing problems] are usually no more than an annoyance on
credit reports,” explains Richard Croak, a local attorney
specializing in bankruptcy and credit counseling services,
“but even if the situation was resolved in your favor, they
can stay on your report for a few years.”
According to Croak, these problems are fairly common on credit
reports, but could be less so if people took the right steps
to get them removed.
need to call the credit reporting agency up and tell them
it was resolved,” adds Croak.
some of the more recognizable names in the fitness center
industry regularly end up on the wrong side of consumer ire,
some independent fitness centers in the region have managed
to continually avoid consumer complaints—and thrive. Many
of these clubs take a remarkably different approach toward
don’t look at things the same way as some of the corporate
facilities,” explains Adam Crotti, part of the management
team at ABC Sports and Fitness, an independently owned fitness
center in Latham. “We’re not trying to create a factory here.”
According to records from the both the state attorney general
and the state Consumer Protection Board, ABC is one of the
only clubs in the region to not have a complaint filed against
it in recent years. Along with keeping all billing operations
in-house rather than out-of-state, ABC also offers up an alternative
to the multiyear standard. The longest contract ABC offers
is a one-year agreement.
Jeff Zalacca, a former employee of ABC, calls the club’s policy
a “more realistic” approach toward the public’s attitude regarding
fitness. “Does anyone really have an idea about what they’re
going to be doing in three years?” asks Zalacca.
And yet, according to Zalacca, who worked for three years
as part of the ABC staff, of the 300-plus members who visit
the club each day, many are on their fifth or sixth year of
membership, despite the short increments of contracts. Something
keeps them coming back.
Another difference between ABC and other health clubs, according
to Crotti, is the absence of automatic membership renewal.
At some other facilities, an oft-overlooked clause on the
contract allows the club to automatically renew a member’s
contract unless the member contacts the club’s billing department
within a specific time period—usually a two- or three-week
period near the expiration date. This controversial policy
has found its way onto numerous complaints in recent years,
but its widespread use has also earned it a place in state
Almost eight years ago, in response to numerous constituent
complaints regarding health-club memberships that had renewed
without members’ consent, Assemblyman Jack McEneny (D-Albany)
first sponsored a bill that would require written consent
for any membership renewal. According to McEneny, he was made
aware of the policy when a constituent who had been out of
the country when his contract expired returned to find himself
saddled with another year of payments.
a lot of health clubs, there’s a very narrow window to stop
renewal,” says McEneny. “If you miss that window—well, you’re
up for another year.”
While the Assembly has passed the bill numerous times since
it was first introduced, it has yet to pass the Senate.
Although the advantage for consumers may initially seem to
lie with membership in small, independent health clubs, the
need to be cautious when shopping around in the independent
market is just as important. According to state consumer protection
agencies, growth in both the number and concentration of health
clubs around many cities has forced many small clubs out of
business—often leaving members to fight for reimbursement
of any prepaid dues.
been a number of issues across the state where [the attorney
general’s office] has had to step in when clubs have closed
unexpectedly,” says Pritchard, who added that consumers should
be wary whenever a fitness center requires advance payments.
In most cases, a club that requires prepayment of membership
dues must also purchase a bond from the state in order to
pay back members in the event of a sudden closure. Notice
of this bond must be included in any contract, as well as
posted publicly at the club. The Web sites for both the attorney
general’s office and the Consumer Protection Board encourage
anyone shopping around for a health club to ask about the
bonds if they aren’t posted publicly.
While sudden closings are becoming a more frequent occurrence
among the small or independently owned clubs, fitness centers
backed by a well-funded corporation have largely avoided this
of the advantages of having corporate assets is that when
you have a couple of bad months, you’re not up the creek,”
explains Higgins. “I’ve seen smaller places become wildly
successful for a few years, then leave a lot of members unhappy
when things took a downturn for one reason or another.”
unhappy members are something there seems to be no shortage
of, no matter what type of fitness center is involved. Many
have found the Internet to be a good forum for consumer advice
and—more often—warnings regarding fitness centers. Web sites
such as that of the New York State Better Business Bureau
(www.newyork.bbb.org) contain reports on the reliability and
reputation of various businesses, and provide general evaluations
of businesses using this information.
On a less official front, former members of both corporate-owned
and independent fitness centers have flocked to Web sites
such as the Complaint Station (www.thecomplaintstation.com)
to air their frustrations and buyer-beware horror stories
to the general public. And more people are using the Internet
to directly target some of the more prominent clubs, as sites
with names like Bally Total Fitness Sucks (www.ballysucks.net)
and Fed Up With Bally Total Fitness (www.mwns.com/ btf/index.htm)
attract hundreds of visitors—and contributors—each month.
The latter site even calls for frustrated consumers to add
their names to a potential class-action suit against Bally.
was a member of Gold’s [Gym] for 2 years, paying monthly,
and was told that my contract ended after the 2 years,” writes
H. Shriver, a contributor to the Complaint Station. “Gold’s
renewed my contract another year without my knowledge. . .
. I’ve contacted Gold’s so many times, and no one there will
speak to me. The salesperson who originally told me I had
no further obligation no longer works there, and the collection
agency will make no deals.”
For those wishing to voice their complaints to a more official
ear, however, state agencies such as the Consumer Protection
Board welcome public input on businesses that engage in questionable
encourage people to give us a call when they feel like there
was something wrong with the way a business treated them,”
says Sorenson. “You have to stand up for yourselves, but we
While Pritchard acknowledges that the attorney general’s office
exists to represent consumers’ interests in situations like
these, she is quick to point out that her office cannot work
on behalf of one consumer, and takes action only after seeing
a “pattern of complaints.”
can’t act as someone’s individual attorney,” says Pritchard.
“But we do our best to resolve the issue on a timely basis
when we’re needed.”
While no fitness center is likely to satisfy everyone, consumer
groups agree that taking certain steps before signing on the
dotted line can reduce the potential for disappointment—or
the contract, weigh things in the long term and don’t take
the word of an employee,” advises Sorenson. “Sure, reading
a contract is never fun, but in this industry, like many others,
it can save you a lot of time, money and energy if you do
it beforehand rather than after.”