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How gym memberships — and their prices — differ

How much would you pay to have your clothes not feel like sausage casings? For a firm butt and belly capable of rocking nearly any outfit? For the strength to make everyday tasks easier? For the doctor to say you don’t need your meds anymore? Are those things worth $10 — or $300?

Western New York, a region that had just a handful of gyms not so long ago, now boasts hundreds of fitness options with monthly membership fees that range from the price of a double mocha latte all the way up to the cost of a car payment. So what’s the deal?

Memberships in the $10 to $30/month range are usually found at large facilities with multiple locations and thousands of members. They typically include access to cardio and strength equipment, non-fitness amenities like tanning and juice bars, and at the higher end of the cost spectrum, a schedule of group fitness classes (e.g. spinning, Zumba, bootcamps) and additional facilities like pools and basketball courts.

One of the main reasons costs are kept so low in this model is that members who don’t show up essentially pay for the ones who do. Low-cost gym chains like LA Fitness ($30/mo), Fitness 19 ($19/mo), and Crunch Fitness ($10/mo) rely on the period between December and January when good intentions mean parades of optimistic exercisers are most likely to take advantage of membership deals with 6-month or annual contracts, hit the gym for a month or so, and then lose interest. A 2014 podcast of NPR’s Planet Money found that during one New Year’s resolution season, a Planet Fitness gym (the country’s largest chain) signed up 6,000 members even though it only had capacity in the facility for 300 — because half of the chain’s members rarely go to the gym (but still pay $10 each month on top of an annual $39 membership fee).

Funding Fitness | Buffalo Magazine

Monthly gym fees range tremendously these days, from $10 to $200-plus per month. Catalyst Fitness (far left) is $20 per month; Crossfit Amherst (center) is around $150-$170/month; and specialty studios like Saddle Cycling (right) range from $55-$115 per month, depending on the package.

If a gym costs less, does it mean it’s worth less? Not necessarily. For people who can get themselves to the gym regularly, they’re a good deal. If classes aren’t offered, those who know how to craft a well-rounded workout regimen can still see results. Several locally owned gyms offer big-box pricing with boutique gym attention, like Jada Blitz ($40/mo), which is owned by athletes and has one small-ish albeit well-equipped location whose members say the class variety and close-knit community keeps them coming back. Local chain Catalyst Fitness ($20/mo), with six locations in Western New York, goes out of its way to get members to come in with frequent upgrades to facilities and personal accountability.

“We want to see you in here,” says Jake Levinson, Catalyst Fitness Lancaster club general manager. “For members who haven’t been here in a while, we’ll call you and see what’s up. If someone’s not coming in because they’re not sure what they should be doing, we’ll provide a free personal training session. If they’re not sure how to use the equipment, we’ll give a tour.”

Taking it to the next level

Saddle Cycling | Funding Fitness | Buffalo Magazine

After your class at Saddle Cycling, you’ll get an email with your mileage, high and low rpm, energy spend and number of calories burned.

As price points climb to the $100-200/month range, gym memberships tend toward more focused group coaching in smaller facilities and studios. Many offer a combination of classes including high-intensity interval training (HIIT) sessions, yoga, TRX, and other strength and conditioning offerings. Examples include Grit House ($100/mo; HIIT , spinning, pilates, yoga; single studio), Build-A-Machine Fitness ($75-100/mo; ninja, parkour, Zumba, functional fitness; single studio), and Orangetheory ($159/mo; HITT classes; national chain coincidentally cofounded by a UB grad). Others specialize in a specific movement modality designed to improve cardio and strength, like spinning ($100-115/mo with some, like Saddle Cycling, going as low as $55/mo for longer commitments), gyms that combine martial arts or boxing and general fitness ($60-150), and CrossFit ($150-170/mo).

The draws for these offerings are that a coach or trainer designs workouts to be varied and effective, corrects form and intensity, and often provides tech tools to measure output and progress. And because the same group of people generally attend the same class times, communities of people end up becoming training buddies who will provide a mood boost or a kick in the pants if someone doesn’t show up.

“When you become a member at a CrossFit gym, you are not just paying for access to come in and work out, you are paying for an effective fitness program with individualized attention from knowledgeable, certified coaches that teach, guide, support, and motivate every person within their class,” says CrossFit Amherst owner Wyatt Krueger. He says his gym thrives because members like being there, hold each other accountable, and become friends. That all means members typically come in four or five times a week — which Krueger says leads to measurable improvements in fitness and confidence both in the gym and in real life.

Top of the line

For $250 a month and up, things get personal. Fitness at that price means one-on-one sessions with a trainer, customized workout plans based on an individual’s specific goals and timelines, adjustments as fitness and strength progresses, and often counseling on nutrition, hydration, stress, sleep, and recovery. Personal trainers operate out of small studios with limited membership, or as staff members at larger gyms. This option is often used by athletes competing at collegiate or semi-pro levels, people preparing for specialized events like figure competitions, those with tight timelines (like brides with bigger budgets), and regular people who simply prefer and can afford the individual guidance.

Does paying more mean you’ll get more? No. But you might go more often and get better results, says Saddle Cycling owner Rod Nagy, who previously franchised gym chains in the area and has been in the fitness business for 37 years.

“There’s a monetary and psychological value to membership,” says Nagy. “People come in more when they pay more. It’s all about perceived value; if people feel like they haven’t been in, the clock is ticking, and so they’ll get in more. It’s not so much the money you spend, it’s the money you waste. If you spend and get value, you’re happy. If you spend and don’t use it, you’re pissed. That’s the problem when you get too cheap — it doesn’t have the perceived value; you’re only wasting $20. If it’s $45 a month, and people are getting in there using those dollars, they’re feeling better and it’s worth it. But paying a little more usually also means the equipment is high-end, and that instructors are paid better and like their jobs — and pour a ton of energy into every class, playlist, and rider — so members actually want to be here and see results because of it.”

Regardless of how much you pay for a gym membership each month, if you don’t use it, it’s worthless. To figure out what price point merits payment, take an honest assessment of what factors will make you most likely to use the gym — is it near your house or work? Do the hours and class times fit with your schedule? Do you have fit friends who go regularly, or the ability to meet new ones at that gym? Is something about the workout fun or interesting to you — the movement, music, competition, or people? Does it have the practical considerations you’ll need personally, like showers for a pre-workday sweat session or childcare if you’re juggling workouts and wee ones? To make your money work as hard as you will, decide what you really need, and be willing to pay for it. The results will be worth every penny.

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