At this time of the year, a lot of us resolve to get more exercise and get in shape. We join health and fitness clubs, believing that the facilities — and the financial commitment of membership — may finally supply the motivations we need to get fit and stay fit.

If you don’t currently exercise on a regular basis, or want to increase your fitness regimen, first formulate a plan. Your plan should include realistic fitness goals, a list of exercises for achieving those goals, an exercise schedule, and a list of reasons to keep you motivated. (If you are over 40, check with a physician first.)

If you are thinking of joining a club, know upfront that the fitness industry thrives on good intentions. Most people who join clubs stop using them after only a few months. Since many clubs charge nonrefundable initiation fees, you can waste a lot of money if you quit.

Be sure to compare the costs of joining a club to the many other fitness options. Most people can save money and meet all their fitness and recreation needs without joining private fitness clubs. You can do pushups, situps, and many other exercises at home for free. Walking, running and biking are very inexpensive. A regular soccer or basketball game at a nearby park is not only inexpensive but probably a lot more fun than lugging weights around a smelly gym. For a one-time investment of a few hundred dollars, you can buy various types of home exercise equipment.

Local governments and YMCAs offer both facilities and programs. At parks, you can find tennis and basketball courts and sports leagues. YMCAs and local governments have recreation centers where you can use cardiovascular fitness equipment, weightlifting rooms, and indoor swimming pools, and take exercise classes — usually for less money than comparably equipped private health clubs.

If you still want to work out at a private gym or take private classes, be prepared to make a number of decisions. There are many clubs in the area from which to choose, each likely to offer several membership options. And because sales staff at some clubs use high-pressure and deceptive sales tactics to close deals, it’s not always easy to make the right choices.

To help you identify the best fitness centers in the area, check ratings from the nonprofit consumer group Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org, which finds large facility-to-facility differences in customer satisfaction. Through a special arrangement, StarTribune readers can access Checkbook’s online ratings of health and fitness clubs for free through Feb. 1 by visiting checkbook.org/startribune/healthclubs.

Among clubs that are conveniently located and get high marks from their customers, be sure to shop for price — membership at many clubs doesn’t come cheap. Checkbook’s ratings of area fitness clubs include sample prices collected by its undercover shoppers. While amenities and services vary from facility to facility, you’ll find that large price differences exist among clubs with roughly the same basic features. If you are just interested in fitness equipment and group exercise classes, you will find annual membership prices ranging from $150 to more than $800. If you want to join a facility with indoor tennis courts and a pool, annual membership prices range from $500 to more than $1,000.

Some quick advice to consider before signing up for a gym membership:

• Because many clubs have several fee plans and discount options — and may offer the best deals only if it’s absolutely necessary to close a sale — make sure the sales staff offers you the best available rates. When discussing costs, mention other clubs you are considering. And check whether you qualify for a discount based on an arrangement between the facility and your employer or health insurance plan. In particular, many Medicare Advantage policyholders have access to programs that offer free or very low-cost memberships at participating fitness centers.

• Ask whether a membership you are considering includes a time commitment. If you have never joined a fitness facility, test both your determination to exercise and the club by taking a short-term or month-to-month option.

• Before signing on the dotted line, find out the rules for canceling and freezing the membership.

• Request a guest pass to try out any club you are considering. While there, check out the cleanliness and condition of equipment. Use your pass at a time when you are most likely to exercise regularly so you can see how crowded it gets and judge how helpful the staff is.

• Have sales staff put promises in writing. If a salesperson has said you can cancel your membership at any time, make sure it says as much in the contract. If the salesperson says the facility is about to break ground on a new lap pool, don’t believe it unless it’s written down. 

Twin Cities Consumers’ Checkbook magazine and Checkbook.org is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers we evaluate. You can access all of Checkbook’s ratings of health and fitness clubs free of charge until Feb. 1 at checkbook.org/startribune/healthclubs.