Selling Health Clubs Short

Cheapest Way to Get Fit: Do It Yourself.

When I saw this headline at drkoop.com, I knew the feature it accompanied was going to upset me. I was right.

The feature examined a recent study that compared the cost-effectiveness of exercising at a health club with the cost-effectiveness of working out on your own. The study's researchers concluded that the latter choice is the best bargain.

Here's how the researchers arrived at this conclusion. They split 235 sedentary people into two groups. The members of the first group followed a "lifestyle approach" for getting in shape; they met occasionally with experts who gave them motivational tips, advice and information about the importance of regular activity. The second group used a "structured approach," which involved regular aerobics training at a health club.

The researchers claimed that both groups achieved similar fitness results. However, the structured group paid $50 a month for their approach, while the lifestyle group only paid $17. Hence the feature's headline. In fact (and here's where I got upset), the feature reported that getting into shape by yourself is "not only...cheaper than a fitness center, it works just as well."

I beg to differ - and not only because I happen to be a big believer in the benefits of health clubs. I disagree because, in my opinion, the study is flawed and unfair.

First off, the study questions the cost-effectiveness of a health club membership, yet the researchers based their findings solely on results obtained through aerobics classes. The study suggests that aerobics and fitness centers are synonymous. They aren't. Aerobics classes are just part of the health club package - and it's a pretty big package.

I have a confession: As a health club member, I have never taken an aerobics class. However, I have taken yoga. I have studied karate. I have used a wide variety of cardio, strength and stretching equipment. I have gotten feedback from qualified (and certified) fitness professionals.

The point I'm making is that a health club gives its members more than aerobics classes. Even if a member never took an aerobics class, he could still get more than get his money's worth. He would certainly have more fitness options in his club than he ever would at home. Unfortunately, the study fails to mention that.

I also had to challenge the figure that the researchers attached to the lifestyle group. The sum of $17 takes into account the cost of the nutritionist, health educator and other experts who coached the lifestyle members. But in the study, the researchers could bring in health professionals for a nominal fee by spreading the prices across a group. I don't see how an individual could meet monthly with a nutritionist, health educator, etc., for $17. On the other hand, a health club membership does provide access to a staff of health and fitness experts.

I believe I understand what the researchers hoped to accomplish with their study. They obviously wanted to show people that they can get results by exercising on their own. Given that a health club membership isn't an affordable option for everyone, this is a worthwhile goal. However, the study could have demonstrated the cost-effectiveness of a home fitness program without acting antagonistically toward health clubs.

By making health clubs seem overpriced, the study puts more pressure on an industry that already cuts costs too often to remain competitive. If anything, most clubs should raise their dues. It's not unusual to get a membership for $40 to $50 a month, as the study pointed out. Considering everything a club membership grants - the use of high-quality commercial equipment, group exercise, fitness services - that's a real bargain.

Despite what this study implies, there is real value in a club membership. Yes, it is cheaper to work out on your own. But you know what? You usually get what you pay for.