Cardio machines. Boxing classes. Yoga sessions. Indoor pool underwater stationary cycling (that's really a thing). There are as many ways to work out as there are excuses for not.

There are lots of options and lots of science telling us that getting enough physical activity leads to healthier, longer, happier lives.

Among those who need a push, many decide the commitment of joining a gym or fitness studio will get them moving. If you are thinking of joining a club, know upfront that the fitness industry thrives on good intentions.

Most people who join gyms 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.

If you don't exercise regularly 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, a schedule and a list of reasons to keep you motivated.

Consider alternatives to gyms. Most people can save money and meet all their fitness and recreation needs without joining private fitness clubs. You can do many types of exercises at home for free. The pandemic forced much of the fitness industry online, where you can find live and recorded classes and training sessions. Most fitness apps cost from $13 to $30 a month; if you're OK with less structure, there are thousands of free online workout videos available.

Walking, running and biking are free or inexpensive. A regular soccer or basketball game at a nearby park is more fun than lugging weights around. 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. If you still want to work out in a private gym or take classes, be prepared to make decisions. There are many local clubs, each likely to offer several membership options.

Among gyms 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. 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.

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

  • Shop around. Our price research found that some clubs charge twice as much as others for about the same facilities and amenities. Because many gyms have several fee plans and discount options, make sure the sales staff offers you the best available rates. When discussing costs, mention other clubs you're considering.
  • Check whether you qualify for a discount based on an arrangement between the facility and your employer or health insurance plan. For example, Medicare Advantage policyholders have access to programs that offer free or very low-cost memberships at participating fitness centers.
  • Many clubs have agreements with employers for "corporate" rates typically 10% to 20% lower than normal rates.
  • Watch out for the nondiscount discount. Many clubs print up membership fee schedules with inflated prices so they can cut the price during the sales pitch. The same nondiscount strategy appears in advertising. While many advertised specials truly offer lower prices, others are confusing or misleading come-ons.
  • Ask whether a membership you're considering includes a time commitment. If you've never joined a fitness facility, test both your determination to exercise and the club by taking a short-term or month-to-month option.
  • 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're 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 so in the contract.
  • Since the financial commitment of a club membership can be substantial, Minnesota laws provide for a cooling-off period of three days after signing a contract to cancel and get a refund. You should cancel in writing by certified or registered mail. If you can persuade the club to give you a longer cooling-off or trial period, do so.

Twin Cities Consumers' Checkbook magazine and is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. See ratings of local fitness centers free of charge until Feb. 5 at