NerdWallet: Save money on annual gym memberships with these alternatives

Resolving to get healthier is admirable. Elbowing through the mosh-pit gym crowds in January is impressive, if not pretty. Not using the gym at all by June, even after paying for a yearlong contract, is, well, disappointing.

And it’s a waste of money, even if your intentions were good.

After all, joining a gym seems like the answer to healthy resolutions, and maybe redemption for those fifth and sixth helpings of eggnog. Gyms are ready for this annual jolt of workout motivation — all you have to do is sign an annual contract.

Annual contracts don’t seem so bad, but …

Promotions and marketing aren’t all that make a yearlong financial commitment tempting.

“There’s a weird way where we think if we’re spending money we’re accomplishing our goals,” says Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind.”

“If we do anything, we feel like we’re taking a step toward our goal. And a lot of times, the easiest thing to do is spend money.”

It’s also easy to think spending upfront will motivate you to hit the gym often and get your money’s worth, says Kevin Volpp, director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the University of Pennsylvania. But he says it’s common to get a few months into the contract and “view the money that’s been spent as a sunk cost, which is no longer very motivating.” While you’re deciding whether or not to schlep to the gym on a busy weekday in June, you probably won’t be considering the money you dropped on a membership in January.

Good for gyms, maybe not your lifestyle

Annual contracts (and resolutions) don’t account for how your life may change later in the year, Yarrow says. You lose interest; you shift priorities; you get busy — for whatever reason, you may not be a gym-goer come June.

Read: This is the insane amount millennials are spending on fitness

Gyms don’t mind when you and other members drop off, because you’re already financially hooked for the year. “The business model is based on the fact that most people who sign up and join aren’t going to go,” says Dixie Stanforth, senior lecturer in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin. “If everybody showed up who had a membership, you wouldn’t be able to fit them in the gym.”

In fact, a 2014 episode of the “Planet Money” podcast found that a Planet Fitness in New York had about 6,000 members but the capacity for only 300.

Say you think you’ll be one of the members who is still showing up in June and that an annual contract is your best choice. Before signing, consider your lifestyle. Aim for a gym that’s near your home or workplace, and determine how you’ll fit gym sessions into your schedule, Stanforth says.

Also read the fine print of the contract, Stanforth says, and check if you’ll be automatically charged a higher rate next year.

More cost-effective ways to exercise

“There is nothing magic about a gym — and certainly nothing magic about a gym you don’t go to,” Stanforth says. “Any kind of movement has value.” Here are a few ways to get moving:

Use technology. Need some guidance for exercises you can do anywhere, no membership required? Ask the internet. Google “starting a walking program” or “training for a 5K,” Stanforth says. Or search within YouTube: “yoga for beginners,” “body-weight exercises” or “7-minute workout.”

Try fitness apps, too. Use workout-tracking apps to create incentives, like rewards for exercising a target number of times per week or month. Fitness apps that allow others to see how often you work out can also be helpful. They create “some sanction around how active you are,” Volpp says.

Commit to friends, not contracts. You’ll probably be more motivated to exercise if you’ve promised to do so with a friend, Volpp says. So walk the dog with neighbors; bike to the office with co-workers; join a running group; start a weekly pickup soccer game. You’re not only getting motivation (and fun!) from hanging with friends; you’re also spending next to nothing.

Other social workouts may be worth putting down some money. For example, Stanforth suggests hiring a personal trainer for a small group of friends and splitting the cost. Or sign up for a niche gym or fitness group — cycling, yoga, CrossFit — in which other members will count on you to be there, she adds.

See: 5 reasons to workout with your co-workers

These smaller-group routines may wind up costing more than an annual gym membership. But if you can afford them, Stanforth says their value will be greater, because you’ll be more likely to attend classes and achieve long-term success.

After all, the more expensive membership is the one that’s bought and never used.

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