YONKERS, NY -- Readers of Consumer Reports gave higher marks to private studios, nonprofit organizations, local community centers and office fitness facilities over most national health-club chains other than Life Time Fitness in Consumer Reports National Research Center’s first health club survey.

YMCAs, Jewish Community Centers (JCCs), university rec centers and private studios for yoga, dance or Pilates all fared better than big chains, according to a report that is published in the February issue of Consumer Reports. Life Time, Eden Prairie, MN, was the highest-rated national chain. Bally Total Fitness, Chicago, received the lowest marks of commercial chains.

More than 10,000 subscribers to www.ConsumerReports.org who used a gym in the past six months reported on staff, equipment, classes, crowds, cleanliness and billing issues. The 3,400 respondents who had canceled a membership at another gym during the past three years reported on why they left and whether or not it was easy to cancel.

As part of its investigation, Consumer Reports sent 12 secret shoppers to major chains in nine states to ask about becoming a member.

“Consumers can pay up to $95 a month to join a health club and get certain extras like personal training sessions and spa services, but Consumer Reports’ survey indicated that they might be happier spending a lot less,” says Jamie Kopf Hirsh, Consumer Reports’ associate editor. “There are some great values to be found at the gyms at Ys, community centers and JCCs.”

Life Time received the second-highest reader score of 79, one point below yoga/dance/Pilates studios, in the survey. Life Time had the best locker rooms, the best equipment variety and received high marks along with yoga/dance/Pilates studios in the categories of cleanliness, best staff and best classes.

Bally was criticized for wait times for machines, problems with contracts or fees, lack of cleanliness and less-than-adequate locker rooms. The survey was conducted shortly before Bally filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on July 31, 2007. Bally emerged from bankruptcy two months later.

Gold’s Gym, Dallas, had a better-than-average variety of equipment but otherwise didn’t stand out, according to the survey. Among the chains that received below-average marks for crowds were Bally; 24 Hour Fitness, San Ramon, CA; Town Sports International, New York; and LA Fitness, Irvine, CA.

Curves International, Waco, TX, received the second-highest reader score among club chains and was eighth overall in the survey. Curves joined yoga/dance/Pilates studios as being less crowded than most gyms and among the cleanest, but Curves also was cited for having limited workout options and substandard locker rooms.

The YMCA was the easiest place to cancel a membership, according to the survey. Ys and JCCs appealed to readers because they offer classes and are most likely tailored to specific groups, including kids, women and seniors, the survey found.

University rec centers provide greater access to large-scale athletic facilities such as basketball courts, running tracks and climbing walls, according to the survey. Thirty-two percent of school gyms in the survey had climbing walls vs. 10 percent of big-chain clubs.

Fitness facilities at work or in apartment buildings received high marks for convenience, with work gyms having more equipment options than apartment buildings. Work gyms also appealed to readers for providing access to a personal trainer or exercise classes.

The survey also found that among respondents with paid memberships, 16 percent had a problem with contracts or fees, such as an unexpected dues hike or inability to freeze a membership temporarily during an expected absence. In the survey, 38 percent of respondents who had canceled a membership to a big-chain club had at least one problem, such as receiving bills after cancellation and excessive time and effort to cancel. Members of Bally (34 percent) and Town Sports International, New York, (28 percent) were most likely to have had these problems, according to the survey.