The Best Fitness Center for your 50+ Body

For someone 50+ a fitness center has to be more than a room or rooms full of machines and weights. It needs to have professionally-trained staff that can start and periodically check your workout, to make sure that you’re not damaging those arthritic knees or exacerbating the problem in your back or neck, and so forth. You need guidance on how to regulate your heart rate so you don’t overdo. While you don’t have to pay a fortune to get this kind of service, you probably won’t find it at the cheapest place in town either. Of course, what you could do is start your workout – say the first six months – at a place that offers personal training, and then move over to the no-frills low-priced gym when you know what you’re doing and no longer need that guidance. If you are seriously overweight, however, keep in mind that somewhere along the way, you’re going to plateau. I found that after a year of working out I had to leave behind the machines and get serious with free weights or I wasn’t going to take off that last 20 pounds. For that I needed a trainer once again.

In Phoenix, there are many many fitness center choices. Smaller towns will have fewer. In some towns, about the only option other than higher-priced small boutique centers,  will be the YMCA.

If you are just starting a workout regimen, or haven’t worked out in a long time, check out Daily Deals sites. (see my former post on Daily Deals sites if you’re not familiar.) Many of the smaller, higher-end personal-training centers offer great deals. I signed up for one that cost me less than $50 for eight half hour lessons whose value was over $300. That trainer taught me some new tricks, and then I moved on to a larger lower-priced center.

Here is what you need to think about:

  • How far is it from my home? Gas is costly, and if you’re still working, time spent traveling can be an issue as well. If a center is $20 a month less than another, but is 10 miles farther from home, it’s not a good deal.
  • What hours is it open? Maybe you don’t care that it’s open 24 hours because you don’t plan on working out at midnight, but the problem I’ve always had with the YMCA is its hours are way too short. Many of the local Y’s are closed on Sundays, or open 1-5pm or some such. That’s ridiculous for folks who are busy during the week.
  • How much does it cost, and what does that provide? While cost is a concern, if one center is $10 more but you can take the Zumba class at no additional charge, while the cheaper one charges you for classes, do you care about taking those classes?
  • How available is the staff if you need help? This isn’t just about personal training. What if you want to try a new machine and you can’t find it, or or you don’t really understand how to use it. Is there someone there who will say, “Sure, let me show you how that works.”
  • Who is the clientele? Some fitness centers are full of 20 somethings who dress in the latest high-end spandex wardrobe, and the atmosphere seems more of a meat rack than a place to get in shape. Perhaps you don’t care, but perhaps you’ll feel out of place when you show up all fat-bodied in your old sweats.
  • Are there enough machines for the number of people who want to use them? Or do you have to wait your turn? You may think you don’t care because after all you’re retired and you have free time, but waiting for a machine changes your heart rate, lowers your metabolism and makes it harder to burn calories in the same amount of time. You get a far better workout if you keep at it, especially when you’re trying to cross train.
  • Are the machines well-maintained? Or do you see several “This machine is out of order” signs. This isn’t just annoying, it can be dangerous as well.
  • Must you sign a contract to use the center? Fewer and fewer fitness centers are requiring a contract, and you shouldn’t have to sign one. Look for a place that lets you cancel with a 30 or 60 day notice.
  • Does membership allow you to work out at any of its locations? And what other locations are there? Perhaps this doesn’t matter to you but if you’re a snowbird who spends winters in Phoenix and summers in Denver,  or if there are days you’d like to head to the gym near the office and other days when you’d like to exercise at the location near your home, it would be nice to join a fitness center that had a facility in both areas. That is one key advantage to the YMCA. Its membership is national, and it is just about everywhere.
  • How much parking is available, and what is the security and lighting like? is there plenty of lighting in the parking lot, and if it’s 24 hours is the place locked up at night, with the only access by way of member keys or key fobs? If not, it’s unsafe. Look elsewhere.
  • What do you have to pay to get personal attention, or is there personal attention? Some places let you schedule an hour here and there with a personal trainer, while others offer an hour with your personal trainer once a month. Some will give you a personal trainer at sign-up, after which you’re on your own. Ask about this. As I mentioned before, when you’re just starting out you need some one-on-one so you don’t get hurt and you get on the most efficient path to good health.
  • Is there a pool? Pools aren’t all that common, but it might be important to you.
  • What is available in the locker room? Must you bring your own lock? Are there hair dryers, clean showers? Are towels provided? I don’t particularly care either way – I typically go to the gym in my workout clothes and drive home in them. But perhaps you want to come after work and change there. If these things are important to you be sure and ask.
  • Is child care available? While most of us in this age bracket don’t have this worry, the presence of child care means the presence of children. And if the center is not vigilant – and you’d be surprised how few are –  inevitably some of the members are going to let their pre-teens and young teens wander out onto the gym floor to play on the machines. It’s scary for the kids, and it’s annoying as you wait for access to the machines. Nor do you need to be dodging a running youngster as you’re puffing your way around the track.
  • Is there an indoor track? This is fairly uncommon, but in places such as Phoenix where it’s just too hot in the summer to use an outdoor track, this could be a nice perk for runners, joggers and power walkers who want to keep in shape.
  • Is there a fitness bar, or some other place to get a snack or smoothie if you feel your blood sugar getting low?
  • How prevalent are the water fountains? And do they offer a way of easily filling up your own water bottle, and is the water cold and tasty? Water is crucial! If you have to walk a few hundred feet to refill your water bottle with flat, tepid water, you might want to consider another center.
  • Are there TVs on the machines or on the walls? Are the TV channels close captioned so that if you don’t want to bring your headphones you can still watch the show?
  • What music is being played, and how loud is it? I love loud rock music when I’m working out but maybe you can’t stand it. If you don’t like what you hear ask, “Who decides about the music? Does the majority rule or does the staff turn it on and it just stays there no matter who complains?” Of course, you can bring your own iPod or similar device too. This doesn’t have to be a deal breaker.
  • What is the temperature in the gym? I workout very hard and sweat profusely. I believe that if you’re not breathing like a steam engine and sweating like a pig, you’re not working out hard enough. And because of that I want to walk into a gym that makes me shiver when I first enter. 15 minutes later I’m sweaty. I simply will not tolerate a gym that is not cold. It elevates my blood pressure and I end up with a hideous headache.
  • What do others say about it? If you can’t strike up a conversation with a couple current members, and even if you can, check out the center on a review site such as Yelp. Just do a keyword search of “fitness center” in your zip code.

Before you choose your fitness center, visit it at various times of day, and on various days of the week. Make sure you are there on a weekday morning, right after 5pm on a weekday, and on both Saturday and Sunday. See if it is crowded on the days and times you’d typically want to use it. The best way to do that is with a free trial. With the competition in this economy virtually every fitness center will offer a free trial of at least 3 days, and most are 7 days or more. Take full advantage of them, and don’t let anyone pressure you into signing on the dotted line until the free trial is over. Try one gym and then move on to the free trail at the next one. THEN decide on your best choice. Each time you go, attend at different days and times. One time use the machines, another time take a group class. If there is a pool, give that a try at least once.

I’m in the midst of free trials right now. I was at Pure Fitness for 18 months until it was sold. Then I got working too many hours and stopped working out. I’m now starting out again after an absence of 18 months. I made a list of all the gyms within a reasonable distance from my home – there were 6. With all the free trials offered – from 3 to 21 days, I’ll be working out for nearly two months at no charge. THEN I will decide which is my best choice.

Here is what I’ve discovered so far:

  • I signed up for a free 7-day trial at Lifetime Fitness in Glendale. The place is huge, and gorgeous. There is everything you could want and more – not only a huge fitness center with dozens of machines and no waiting, but a cafe with free wifi, masseuses on staff, a hair salon, two outdoor and two indoor pools, and indoor and outdoor jacuzzis, a steam room, gym and racquet ball courts. It’s $52 a month, but certainly worth every penny. Of course, the salon and massage services are additional. The problem? On the fourth day of my visit I was pulled aside by the person at the desk who wanted me to fill out the same information sheet I had filled out on the first day, and again meet with the sales rep. She said I’d have to do it every time I visited during my free trial. I said “No thanks,” and walked out, never to return. A free trial with that kind of pressure and waste of my time was NO free trial.
  • Now I’m on a 14- day free trial with Anytime Fitness in Goodyear. There are folks on Yelp that rave about this place because it’s small and the staff knows them by name. Well, it’s so small that it has few machines, and it’s hot in there. I climbed on the treadmill already feeling warm. The treadmills are placed in the only part of the room where there is no ceiling fan overhead. And then one staff member was running the vacuum while I was working out and ended up getting the cord under my feet.  And there’s one water fountain, in the back near the bathrooms. One of those spray to the side types which are hard to use to fill water bottles. Perhaps it was just a bad day for them and I’ll continue my trial, but these are concerns. The good thing about this 24-hour center is they took my picture and gave me a key fob to get in after hours. It unlocks the door, which stays locked after hours except for members. I don’t know what the night lighting is like – going to check that out this weekend.

In summary…

  1. Start your search for a fitness center (after you get your doctor’s okay) by looking for a Daily Deal discount for a few sessions with a personal trainer.
  2. Sign up for as many free trials at as many fitness centers as are reasonable choices for you, and then visit at various days and times, and using various services.
  3. Don’t sign any contract
  4. Don’t commit to any center until the free trials are over
  5. You’ll need sweat-resistant clothes, good shoes with plenty of traction and support, a sweat band, a towel, and a water bottle. You might want an iPod too. I also take a protein drink that I drink in my car immediately after my workout.