Here’s how gyms trick you into buying memberships you’ll never use

When it comes to exercising and staying in shape, there is so much conflicting information out there.

Cardio in the morning or in the evening? Intermittent fasting or lots of mini-meals throughout the day? Machines vs free weights vs calisthenics?

What is the right routine?

The one thing popular wisdom seems to agree on, however, is that if you want to get in shape, the best place to start is with a gym membership.

Gyms offer classes, trainers, and a whole host of equipment to help you reach your body’s highest potential.

Photo credit: Pixabay

That’s fine…if you actually go there, of course.

I’d bet you can name at least one person in your life (maybe yourself) who got a gym membership and didn’t use it. Sure, you probably started out spending several days in a row, but work got really busy and you had to skip. Then you get sick and jump a few more times. Before you know it, months pass and you’ve been jumping way more often than you have.

Unfortunately, all the while your waistline stays the same, your bank account gets steadily thinner because of all the monthly fees.

Photo Credit Pixabay 2 4 Here's how gyms trick you into buying memberships you'll never use

Photo credit: Pixabay

Imagine a restaurant or department store almost empty of customers. It’s every business owner’s nightmare, unless you own a gym.

It’s about the only company in the world where it’s a good day when hardly anyone shows up.

For example, the director of a Planet Fitness site in Manhattan reported that it has a maximum capacity of about 300 people… but about 6,000 members!

This is a big part of why gyms like Planet Fitness can offer cheap membership fees, sometimes as low as $10.

If all those members showed up diligently, gym costs would skyrocket between the need to rent more space and the wear and tear on equipment.

Gymnasiums need people not to show up in order to make a profit.

Photo Credit Pixabay 4 4 Here's how gyms trick you into buying memberships you'll never use

Photo credit: Pixabay

Still, they have to find a way to get you in and register. This is where they use some clever consumer psychology tricks.

One of those tricks is to create a very inviting design. Compared to the classic old warehouse-style gyms where we first saw guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger get pumped up, modern gyms look more like hotels or bars.

They have chic and cozy lounges (often more than one), juice bars, snack bars, gift shops, and all sorts of other amenities that have absolutely nothing to do with exercise.

All of this helps attract casual fitness enthusiasts, the type of customer who think they will be there every day, but certainly not.

Photo credit Flickr Here's how gyms trick you into buying memberships you'll never use

Photo credit: Flickr

Once they have that customer at the door, it’s time to make the money: the annual contract.

While people tend to hate being locked into something (like cellphone contracts), gym memberships are an example of what behavioral economists call “pre-commitment.” In fact, we tend to prefer being locked into a gym membership because we start imagining the newest, fittest version of ourselves a few months later. We also believe that money will be a financial incentive to keep us consistent with our routines.

Unfortunately, this rarely plays out and the gym keeps your money because these deals are easy to make but incredibly hard to get out.

However, contracts end at some point, so gyms have one last trick to keep you coming back: more amenities.

Planet Fitness, for example, has rows of massage chairs and also hosts various social events and mixers for members. They also host weekly pizza nights and bagel breakfasts, which are – hilariously – the busiest days for the gym.

The idea is that people will have fond memories of these events and sign up for another year (perhaps thinking “THIS year I’m really going to train!”).

Photo creditYelp 1 Here's how gyms trick you into buying memberships you'll never use

Photo credit: Yelp

On the other end of the spectrum are gyms that are actually aimed at serious athletes and fitness enthusiasts.

precision athlete is another Manhattan gym not far from the Planet Fitness location we talked about earlier. It only has about 150 members, but all show up. You can even get kicked out if you don’t come often enough or have your membership application rejected if you don’t seem committed enough.

There are no fancy equipment, no music and no mirrors. This is not a place where your membership is subsidized by slackers who paid and never came. So what is the real cost of a gym where everyone works out? At Precision Athlete, it started around $500/month (and that was in 2014).

Photo creditYelp 2 Here's how gyms trick you into buying memberships you'll never use

Photo credit: Yelp

Now, we’re not saying that going to the gym is for suckers or that gyms are evil scammers for your money. There are plenty of people who go to gyms like Planet Fitness who have no trouble being consistent and getting great results.

It just requires a level of discipline that – based on the number of dropouts and no-shows at most gyms – most people just don’t have one.

You’re better off saving your money and investing it in some basic home fitness equipment like a few free weights, a workout mat, a pull-up bar, and possibly a cardio machine (if you have the space) .

You can probably get most of these things for less than a year at a gym (especially if you’re Craigslist savvy).

Alternatively, you can also just go for walks/runs or join a local recreational sports league to do your cardio and strength training with bodyweight calisthenics.

Photo Credit Pixabay 7 3 Here's how gyms trick you into buying memberships you'll never use

Photo credit: Pixabay

Working out at home also has the added benefit of saving you travel time, which can often hurt your motivation to get to the gym.

Plus, you can wear whatever you want without judgment. Want to sweat jamming your favorite playlist in your underwear at midnight?


Finally, if your biggest concern about not going to the gym is the lack of structure provided by a trainer, you couldn’t have been born at a better time in history.

Between YouTube, Instagram and Facebook, there is innumerable free workouts you can follow along.

You can also join online fitness communities so you have other like-minded people to cheer you on along the way.

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