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Breaking Up Is Hard To Do—But Is It Time To Dump Your Gym?

By Russ Klettke

It happens to everyone sooner or later: You decide you want, or need, to change gyms. That routine you’ve mastered to perfection—how you get there, where your locker is, people you chat with and, of course, the equipment you use—is about to completely disappear. Poof, gone, like an old sofa set out in the alley. It’s a moment of immense impact on your life, and yet most of us make this change every few years.  

From a fitness standpoint, change can be good. But it involves letting go of something that clearly meant a lot to you for some time. What is it that motivates a switch? Why do we make these moves, sometimes even before our contract with the current health club is done? 

Should You Stay or Should You Go?
Gym industry trade associations, publications and business consultants offer a variety of reasons for member-club breakups, basically under the heading of “it’s not you, it’s them.” Writing in CBI Magazine, the publication for the International Health & Racquet Sports Association (IHRSA), writer/consultant John McCarthy notes that clubs that have better member retention rates also have stronger member-to-member connections. In other words, you're unlikely to stay at a gym that doesn't foster a sense of community. On a related note, McCarthy says that people who use multiple services—classes, climbing walls, personal trainers and the juice bar, as opposed to those who stick with a treadmill or free weights—tend to stay longer with their clubs. He even uses the term “machine members,” referring to individuals who focus strictly on their exercises, not joining classes or otherwise interacting with others. Those people don't stick around as much—why would they, when no one really notices if they leave?

Money is clearly also an issue; IHRSA estimates that 50 percent of all new health club members quit within the first six months of signing up. If your gym isn't attracting regular visits from you, it's likely to be one of the first budget cuts you make, especially in the current economy. IHRSA urges its member clubs to raise customer service levels during recessions as a means to keep those monthly dues rolling in—but if you feel like your club doesn't want your money badly enough, you should consider whether another club will work harder, and offer you more perks, to get your membership fee.

It’s fair to question whether the reasons most people jump gyms also apply to gay gym culture. Certainly, the social component is something that many (not all) can relate to. Speaking for myself, I am the “machine member” referred to above and I do change clubs about every four years. When I do, I regret losing touch with many of those gym friends—but then I may have less strong connections to those friends than some of you who spend more time interacting in classes and training sessions.

Scientific Research, Minus the Science
So, in the interest of knowledge, I decided to ask around for the reasons people quit their gyms. This resulted in a very unscientific survey of my Facebook friends, who provided a wide range of reasons:  

  1. Poor facility design: The acoustics in the main gym (a converted school theatre, from the looks of it) were so bad the instructor sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher—unintelligible. Their solution was to turn the microphone volume up higher. I’d often leave with a pounding headache.

  2. Disappointing group instructors: There were only a couple of good spin teachers and a handful of really good classes at my gym. 

  3. Disappointing group exercise schedules: They only offered classes twice a week. 

  4. Not feeling it: Most people leave health clubs because of lack of energy. 

  5. Too much up-sell: I felt I was being hustled all the time to take personal training when I knew what I was doing. 

  6. Annoying co-members: My gym had a bunch of huge, loud, imposing thug-wannabees that go every day from 5:30 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. They are big guys (two are extremely fit, two are just giant) who are very loud and intimidating. I hated being at the gym then. 

  7. Contract issues: Everything, including all classes, was included when I signed my three-year contract. After a year or so, they started charging additionally for each class. 

  8. Unfriendly co-members: When I've been going there for a year and haven't met anyone with whom I have more than a nodding acquaintance. 

  9. Overly-friendly co-members: I always find that the longer I belong to a club, the more time I waste having to talk to people. A new club gives you a couple of months to be anonymous and more time spent working out, less saying good morning. Eventually you start talking to people and have to move on or use a home gym. 

  10. Unpleasantness I: When the locker room has poor ventilation and some other guy's morning routine includes "dropping the kids off at the pool" a few moments before I arrive. [Hint: It’s a toilet-use reference.]

  11. Unpleasantness II: When the smell is consistently really bad. 

  12. Unpleasantness III: When the water damage on the ceiling tile is so bad, management puts out industrial-sized containers to catch the dripping water when it rains. 

  13. Unpleasantness IV: Dated a guy at my gym. Things didn’t work out and it got awkward. 

  14. Things add up: I'm a gay man who used to run a successful club. The primary reason for my leaving and most people's leaving is poor response from management. In the end we mostly leave because of the accumulated "dings" that are not taken care of.  The broken whatever; the machine that still doesn't work; the crap all over the locker room floor. 
Surprisingly unmentioned were the obvious reasons. For instance, shifts in where we live or work can lead to a switch, simply for logistical reasons. And, when your contract is due for renewal, a better deal might be offered at another location. In my survey, at least, it seems the little things are the final straw. Maybe you'd make that extra drive, or spend that bit more, if the music coming from the aerobics room wasn't so darn loud and bad. So, whether it's new equipment, new classes, new people, new routines (to surprise the muscles), better smelling locker rooms, no old boyfriends—change can be a very good thing. 

About Russ Klettke: Russ Klettke is an ACE (American Council on Exercise) certified fitness trainer and also the author of “A Guy’s Gotta Eat, the regular guy’s guide to eating smart” (Marlowe & Co., 2004, with Deanna Conte, MS RD LD), available where books are sold and in more than 70 public library systems in the U.S., Canada and Europe. For more information, see